Wagner the Wehr-wolf/Chapter XLIX
THE call to prayer, "God is great," sounded from every minaret in Constantinople, when Solyman the Magnificent raised the renegade Ibrahim to a rank second only to his own imperial station. The newly appointed prime minister received the congratulations of the assembled dignitaries of the empire; and when this ceremony was accomplished, he repaired to the palace of the viziership, which Piri Pasha had vacated during the night.
A numerous escort of slaves, and a guard of honor, composed of an entire company of Janizaries, attended Ibrahim to his new abode, the streets through which he passed being lined with spectators anxious to obtain a glimpse of the new minister.
But calm, almost passionless, was the expression of Ibrahim's countenance: though he had attained to his present high station speedily, yet he had not reached it unexpectedly; and, even in the moment of this, his proud triumph, there was gall mingled with the cup of honey which he quaffed. For, oh! the light of Christianity was not extinguished within his breast; and though it no longer gleamed there to inspire and to cheer, it nevertheless had strength enough to burn with reproachful flame.
The multitudes cheered and prostrated themselves as he passed; but his salutation was cold and indifferent, and he felt at that moment that he would rather have been wandering through the Vale of Arno, hand-in-hand with his sister, than be welcomed in the streets of Constantinople as the Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire!
O crime! thou mayst deck thy brow with flowers, and adorn thy garments with the richest gems—thou mayst elicit the shouts of admiring myriads, and proceed attended by guards ready to hew down those who would treat thee with disrespect—thou mayst quit the palace of a mighty sovereign to repair to a palace of thine own—and in thy hands thou mayst hold the destinies of millions of human beings; but thou canst not subdue the still small voice that whispers reproachfully in thine ear, nor pluck from thy bosom the undying worm.
Though Ibrahim Pasha felt acutely, yet his countenance, as we have before said, expressed nothing—he was still sufficiently master of his emotions to retain them pent up in his own breast; and if he could not appear perfectly happy, he would not allow the world to perceive that his soul harbored secret care. He entered the palace now destined to become his abode, and found himself the lord and master of an establishment such as no Christian monarch in Europe possessed. But as he passed through marble halls and perfumed corridors lined with prostrate slaves—as he contemplated the splendor and magnificence, the wealth and the luxury, by which he was now surrounded—and as he even dwelt upon the hope—nay, the more than hope, the conviction, that he should full soon be blest with the hand of a being whose ravishing beauty was ever present to his mental vision—that still small voice which he could not hush, appeared to ask what avail it was for a man, if he gain the whole world but lose his own soul?
But Ibrahim Pasha was not the man to give way to the influence of even reflections so harrowing as these; and he immediately applied himself to the business of the state, to divert his mind from unpleasurable meditations. Holding a levee that same day, he received and confirmed in their offices all the subordinate ministers; he then dispatched letters to the various governors of provinces to announce to them his elevation to the grand viziership; and he conferred the Pashalic of Egypt upon the fallen minister, Piri Pasha. In the afternoon he granted audiences to the embassadors of the Christian powers; but the Florentine envoy, it should be observed, had quitted Constantinople some weeks previously—indeed, at the time when the sultan undertook his expedition against Rhodes; for the representative of the republic had entirely failed in the mission which had been intrusted to him by his government.
In the evening, when it was quite dusk, Ibrahim retired to his apartment; and hastily disguising himself in a mean attire, he issued forth by a private gate at the back part of the palace. Intent upon putting into execution a scheme which he had hastily planned that very afternoon, he repaired to the quarter inhabited by the Christians. There he entered a house of humble appearance where dwelt a young Greek, with whom he had been on friendly terms at that period when his present greatness was totally unforeseen—indeed, while he was simply the private secretary of the Florentine envoy. He knew that Demetrius was poor, intelligent and trustworthy; and it was precisely an agent of this nature that Ibrahim required for the project which he had in view.
Demetrius—such was the young Greek's name—was seated in a small and meanly furnished apartment, in a desponding manner, and scarcely appearing to notice the efforts which his sister, a beautiful maiden of nineteen, was exerting to console him, when the door opened, and a man dressed as a water-carrier entered the room.
The young Greek started up angrily, for he thought the visitor was one of the numerous petty creditors to whom he was indebted, and whose demands he was unable to liquidate; but the second glance which he cast, by the light of the lamp that burnt feebly on the table, toward the countenance of the meanly dressed individual, convinced him of his mistake.
"His highness the grand vizier!" ejaculated Demetrius, falling on his knees; "Calanthe!" he added, speaking rapidly to his sister, "bow down to the representative of the sultan!"
But Ibrahim hastened to put an end to this ceremony, and assured the brother and sister that he came thither as a friend.
"A friend!" repeated Demetrius, as if doubting whether his ears heard aright; "is it possible that Heaven has indeed sent me a friend in one who has the power to raise me and this poor suffering maiden from the depths of our bitter, bitter poverty?"
"Dost thou suppose that my rapid elevation has rendered me unmindful of former friendships?" demanded Ibrahim; although, had he not his own purposes to serve, he would never have thought of seeking the abode, nor inquiring after the welfare of the humble acquaintance of his obscure days.
The young Greek knew not, however, the thorough selfishness of the renegade's character; and he poured forth his gratitude for the vizier's kindness and condescension with the most sincere and heart-felt fervor: while the beauteous Calanthe's large dark eyes swam in tears of hope and joy, as she surveyed with mingled wonder and admiration the countenance of that high functionary whose rapid rise to power had electrified the Ottoman capital, and whom she now saw for the first time.
"Demetrius," said Ibrahim, "I know your worth—I have appreciated your talents; and I feel deeply for the orphan condition of your sister and yourself. It is in my power to afford you an employment whereby you may render me good service, and which shall be liberally rewarded. You are already acquainted with much of my former history; and you have often heard me speak, in terms of love and affection, of my sister Flora. During my recent sojourn in the island of Rhodes, a Florentine nobleman, the Count of Riverola, became my prisoner. From him I learned that he was attached to my sister, and his language led me to believe that he was loved in return. But alas! some few months ago Flora suddenly disappeared; and the Count of Riverola instituted a vain search to discover her. Too pure-minded was she to fly of her own accord from her native city; too chaste and too deeply imbued with virtuous principles was she to admit the suspicion that she had fled with a vile seducer. No; force or treachery—if not murder," added Ibrahim, in a tone indicative of profound emotion, "must have caused her sudden disappearance. The Count of Riverola has doubtless ere now arrived in Italy; and his researches will most assuredly be renewed. He promised to communicate to me the result, but as he knew not to whom that pledge was given—as he recognized not in me the brother of the Flora whom he loves—I am fearful lest he forget or neglect the promise. It is, therefore, my intention to send a secret agent to Florence—an agent who will convey rich gifts to my aunt, but without revealing the name of him who sends them—an agent, in a word, who may minister to the wants and interests of my family, and report to me whether my beloved sister be yet found, and if so, the causes of her disappearance. It seems to me that you, Demetrius, are well fitted for this mission. Your knowledge of the Italian language, your discreetness, your sound judgment, all render you competent to enact the part of a good genius watching over the interests of those who must not be allowed to learn whence flow the bounties which suddenly pour upon them!"
"Gracious lord," said the young Greek, his countenance radiant with joy. "I will never lose any opportunity of manifesting my devotion to the cause in which your highness condescends to employ me."
"You will proceed alone to Italy," continued Ibrahim; "and on your arrival in Florence, you will adopt a modest and reserved mode of life, so that no unpleasant queries may arise as to your object in visiting the republic."
Demetrius turned a rapidly inquiring glance upon Calanthe, who hastened to observe that she did not fear being left unprotected in the city of Constantinople. Ibrahim placed a heavy purse and a case containing many costly jewels in the hands of Demetrius, saying: "These are as an earnest of my favor and friendship;"—then, producing a second case, tied round with a silken cord, he added, "And this is for my aunt, the Signora Francatelli."
Demetrius promised to attend to all the instructions which he had received; and Ibrahim Pasha took his leave of the brother and the charming sister, the latter of whom conveyed to him the full extent of her gratitude for his kindness and condescension toward them in a few words uttered in a subdued tone, but with all the eloquence of her fine dark eyes.
"Did I not love my unknown protectress," murmured Ibrahim to himself, as he sped rapidly back to his palace, "I feel that Calanthe's eyes would make an impression upon my heart."
Scarcely had he resumed his magnificent garb, on his return home, when a slave announced to him that his imperial majesty, the sultan, required his immediate attendance at the seraglio, whither he was to repair in the most private manner possible. A sudden misgiving darted through Ibrahim's imagination. Could Solyman have repented of the step which he had taken in thus suddenly elevating him to the pinnacle of power? Was his viziership to last but a few short hours? had the secret influence, which had hitherto protected him, ceased?
Considering the times and the country in which he lived, these fears were justifiable; and it was with a rapidly beating heart that the new minister hastened, attended only by a single slave, to the dwelling of his imperial master. But when he was ushered into the presence of the sultan—his own slave remaining in the ante-room—his apprehensions were dissipated by the smiling countenance with which the monarch greeted him.
Having signaled his attendants to retire, Solyman the Magnificent addressed the grand vizier in the following manner:
"Thy great talents, thy zeal in our service, and the salvation which I owed to thee in the breach at Rhodes, have been instrumental, oh, Ibrahim! in raising thee to thy present high state. But the bounties of the sultan are without end, as the mercy of Allah is illimitable! Thou hast doubtless heard that among my numerous sisters, there is one of such unrivaled beauty—such peerless loveliness, that the world hath not seen her equal. Happy may the man deem himself on whom the fair Aischa shall be bestowed; and thou art that happy man, Ibrahim—and Aischa is thine."
The grand vizier threw himself at the feet of his imperial master, and murmured expressions of gratitude—but his heart sank within him—for he knew that in marrying the sultan's sister he should not be allowed the enjoyment of the Mussulman privilege of polygamy, and thus his hopes of possessing the beautiful unknown to whom he owed so much appeared to hover on the verge of annihilation. But might not that unknown lady and the beauteous Aischa be one and the same person? The unknown was evidently the mistress of an influence almost illimitable; and was it not natural to conceive that she, then, must be the sister of the sultan? Again, the sultan had many sisters; and the one who had exerted her interest for Ibrahim, might not be the Princess Aischa, who was now promised to him! All these conjectures and conflicting speculations passed through the mind of Ibrahim in far less time than we have taken to describe their nature; and he was cruelly the prey to mingled hope and alarm, when the sultan exclaimed, "Rise, my Vizier Azem, and follow me."
The apostate obeyed with beating heart, and Solyman the Magnificent conducted him along several passages and corridors to a splendidly furnished room, which Ibrahim immediately recognized as the very one in which he had been admitted, many months previously, to an interview with the beauteous unknown. Yes—that was the apartment in which he had listened to the eloquence of her soft, persuasive voice—it was there that, intoxicated with passion, he had abjured the faith of a Christian and embraced the creed of the false Prophet Mohammed. And, reclining on the very sofa where he had first seen her—but attended by a troop of charming female slaves—was the fair unknown—his secret protectress—more lovely, more bewitching, than she appeared when last they met.
An arch smile played upon her lips, as she rose from the magnificent cushions—a smile which seemed to say, "I have kept my word, I have raised thee to the highest dignity, save one in the Ottoman Empire—and I will now crown thine happiness by giving thee my hand."
And, oh, so beauteous, so ravishingly lovely did she appear, as that smile revealed teeth whiter than the Oriental pearls, which she wore, and as a slight flush on her damask cheek and the bright flashing of her eyes betrayed the joy and triumph which filled her heart—so elegant and graceful was her faultless form, which the gorgeous Ottoman garb so admirably became, that Ibrahim forgot all his recent compunction—lost sight of home and friends—remembered not the awful apostacy of which he had been guilty—but fell upon his knees in adoration of that charming creature, while the sultan with a smile which showed that he was no stranger to the mysteries of the past, exclaimed in a benignant tone. "Vizier Azem! receive the hand of my well-beloved sister Aischa!"