With one backward look at the bowery suburbs of Damascus, and the street that was peopled only by the long, faint shadows of a crescent moon, Selim dropped from the high wall among the leafing almonds and flowering lilacs of Abdur Au's garden. The night was almost sultry, and the air was steeped with a distilled languor of voluptuous perfume. Even if he had been in some other garden, in another city, Selim could not have breathed that perfume without thinking of Zoraida, the young wife of Abdur Ali. Evening after evening, for the past fortnight, during her lord and master's absence, she had met him among the lilacs, till he had grown to associate the very odor of her hair and the savor of her lips with their fragrance.
The garden was silent, except for a silver-lisping fountain; and no leaf or petal stirred in the balmy stillness. Abdur Ali had gone to Aleppo on urgent business and was not expected back for several more days; so the slightly tepid thrill of anticipation which Selim felt was untinged by any thought of danger. The whole affair, even from the beginning, had been as safe as that sort of thing could possibly be: Zoraida was Abdur Ali's wife, so there were no jealous women who might tattle to their common lord; and the servants and eunuchs of the household, like Zoraida herself, hated the severe and elderly jewel-merchant. It had been unnecessary even to bribe them into complaisance. Everything and everyone had helped to facilitate the amour. In fact, it was all too easy; and Selim was beginning to weary a little of this heavy-scented garden and the oversweet affedion of Zoraida. Perhaps he would not come again after tonight, or tomorrow night. . . . There were other women, no less fair than the jeweler's wife, whom he had not kissed so often . . . or had not kissed at all.
He stepped forward among the flower-burdened bushes. Was there a figure standing in the shadow, near the fountain? The figure was dim, and darkly muffled, but it must be Zoraida. She had never failed to meet him there, she was ever the first at their rendezvous. Sometimes she had taken him into the luxurious harem; and sometimes, on warm evening like this, they had spent their long hours or passion beneath the stars, amid the lilacs and almonds.
As Selim approached, he wondered why she did not rush to meet him, as was her wont. Perhaps she had not yet seen him. He called softly: "Zoraida!"
The waiting figure emerged from the shadow. It was not Zoraida, but Abdur Ali. The faint moon-rays glinted on the dull iron barrel and bright silver frettings of a heavy pistol which the old merchant held in his hand.
"You wish to see Zoraida ?" The tone was harsh, metallically bitter
Selim, to say the least, was taken aback. It was all too plain that his affair with Zoraida had been discovered, and that Abdur Ali had returned from Aleppo before the appointed time to catch him in a trap. The predicament was more than disagreeable, for a young man who had thought to spend the evening with a much-enamoured mistress. And Abdur Ali's direct query was disconcerting. Selim was unable to think of an apt or judicious answer.
"Come, thou shalt see her." Selim felt the jealous fury, but not the savage irony, that underlay the words. He was full of unpleasant prermonitions, most of which concerned himself rather than Zoraida. He knew that he could not look for mercy from this austere and terrible old man; and the probabilities before him were such as to preclude more than a passing thought of what might have befallen, or would befall, Zoraida. Selim was something of an egoist; and he could hardly have claimed (except for the ear of Zoraida) that he was deeply in love. His self-so licitude, under the drcumstances, was perhaps to be expected, even if not wholly to be admired.
Abdur Ali had covered Selim with the pistol. The young man realized uncomfortably that he himself was unarmed, except for his yataghan. Even as he was remembering this, two more figures came forward from amid the lilac-shadows. They were the eunuchs, Cassim and Mustafa, who guarded Abdur Ali's harem, and whom the lovers believed friendly to their intrigue. Each of the giant blacks was armed with a drawn simitar, Mustafa stationed himself at Selim's right hand and Cassim at his left. He could see the whites of their eyes as they watched him with impassable vigilance.
"Now," said Abdur Ali, "you are about to enjoy the singular privilege of being admitted to my harem. This privilege, I believe, you have arrogated to yourself on certain former occasions, and without my knowledge. Tonight I shall grant it myself; though I doubt if there are many who would follow my example. Come: Zoraida is waiting for you, and you must not disappoint her, nor delay any longer. You are later than usual at the rendezvous, as I happen to know."
With the blacks beside him, with Abdur Ali and the levelled pistol in his rear, Selim traversed the dim garden and entered the courtyard of the jewel'merchant's house. It was like a journey in some evil dream' and nothing appeared wholly real to the young man. Even when he stood in the harem interior, by the soft light of Saracenic lamps of wrought brass, and saw the familiar divans with their deep-hued cushions and coverings, the rare Turkoman and Persian rugs, the taborets of Indian ebony freaked with precious metals and mother-of-pearl, he could not dispcl his feeling of strange dubiety.
In his terror and bewilderment, amid the rich furnishings and somber splendor, he did not see Zoraida for a moment. Abdur Ali perceived his confusion and pointed to one of the couches.
"Hast thou no greeting for Zoraida ?" The low tone was indescribably sardonic and ferocious.
Zoraida, wearing the scanty harem costume of bright silks in which she was wont to receive her lover, was lying on the sullen crimson fabrics of the divan. She was very still, and seemed to be asleep. Her face was whiter than usual, though she had always been a little pale; and the soft, child-like features, with their hint of luxurious roundness, wore a vaguely troubled expression, with a touch of bitterness about the mouth. Selim approached her, but she did not stir.
"Speak to her," snarled the old man. His eyes burned like two spots of slowly eating fire in the brown and crumpled parchment of his face.
Selim was unable to utter a word. He had begun to surmise the truth; and the situation overwhelmed him with a horrible despair.
"What ?" thou hast no greeting for one who loved thee so dearly ?" The words were like the dripping mf some corrosive acid.
"What has thou done to her?" said Selim after a while. He could not look at Zoraida any longer; nor could he lift his eyes to niect those of Abdur Ali.
"I have dealt with her very gently. As thou seest, I have not marred in any wife the perfection of her beauty--there is no wound, and not even the mark of a blow, on her white body. Was I not more generous . . .to leave her thus . . . for thee?"
Selim was not a coward, as men go; yet he gave an involuntary shudder.
"But ... thou hast not told me."
"It was a rare and precious poison, which slays immediately and with little pain. A drop of it would have been enough--or even so much as still remains upon her lips. She drank it of her own choice. I was merciful to her--as I shall be to thee."
"I am at thy disposal," said Selim with all the hardihood he could muster.
The jewel-dealer's face became a mask of malignity, like that of some avenging fiend.
"My eunuchs know their master, and they will slice thee limb from limb and member from member if I give the word."
Selim looked at the two negroes. They returned his gaze with impassive eyes that were utterly devoid of all interest, either friendly or unfriendly. The light ran without a quiver along their gleaming muscles and upon their glittering swords.
"What is thy will? Dost thou mean to kill me?"
"I have no intention of slaying thee myself. Thy death will come from another source.
Selim looked again at the armed eunuchs.
"No, it will not be that--unless you prefer it."
"In Allah's name, what doest thou mean, then?" The tawny brown of Selim's face had turned ashen with horror of suspense.
"Thy death will be one which any true lover would envy," said Abdur Ali.
Selim was powerless to ask another question. His nerves were beginning to crumble under the ordeal. The dead woman on the couch, the malevolent old man with his baleful half-hints and his obvious implacability, the muscular negroes who would hew a man into collops at their master's word--all were enough to break down the courage of hardier men than he.
He became aware that Abdur Ali was speaking once more.
"I have brought thee to thy mistress. But it would seem that thou art not a very ardent lover."
"In the name of the Prophet, cease thy mockery."
Abdur Ali did not seem to hear the tortured cry.
"It is true, of course, that she could not reply even if thou shouldst speak to her. But her lips are as fair as ever, even if they are growing a little cold with thy unlover-like delay. Hast thou no kiss to lay upon them, in memory of all the other kisses they have taken--and given ?"
Selim was again speechless. Finally:
"But you said there was a poison which--"
"Yes, and I told thee the truth. Even the touch of thy lips to hers, where a trace of the poison lingers, will be enough to cause thy death." There was an awful gloating in Abdur Ali's voice.
Selim shivered and looked again at Zoraida. Aside from her utter stillness and pallor, and the faintly bitter expression about the mouth, she differed in no apparent wise from the woman who had lain so often in his arms. Yet the very knowledge that she was dead was enough to make her seem unspeakably strange and even repulsive to Selim. It was hard to associate this still, marmoreal being with the affectionate mistress who had always welcomed him with eager smiles and caresses.
"Is there no other way?" Selim's question was little louder than a whisper.
"There is none. And you delay too long." Abdur Ali made a sign to the negroes, who stepped closer to Selim, lifting their swords in the lamplight. "Unless thou dost my bidding, thy hands will be sliced off at the wrists," the jeweler went on. "The next blows will sever a small portion of each forearm. Then a brief attention will be given to other parts, before returning to the arms. I am sure thou wilt prefer the other death." Selim stooped above the couch where Zoraida lay. Terror--the abject terror of death--was his one emotion. He had wholly forgotten his love for Zoraida, had forgotten her kisses and endearments. He feared the strange, pale woman before him as much as he had once desired her. "Make haste." The voice of Abdur Ali was steely as the lifted simtars
Selim bent over and kissed Zoraida on the mouth. Her lips were not entirely cold, but there was a queer, bitter taste. Of course, it must the poison. The thought was hardly formulated when a searing agony seemed to run through all his veins. he could no longer see Zoraida, in the blinding flames that appeared before him and filled the room like ever-widening suns; and he did not know that he had fallen forward on the couch across her body. Then the flames began to shrink with great swiftness and went out in a swirl of soft gloom. Selim felt that he was sinking into a great gulf, and that someone (whose name he could not remember) was sinking beside him. Then, all at once, he was alone, and was losing even the sense of solitude. till there was nothing but darkness and oblivion.