I was born in Constantinople. My father was an interpreter at the Sublime Porte, carrying on at the same time quite a lucrative trade in ottar of roses and silk goods. He gave me a good education, devoting a part of his own time to my instruction, and also employing one of our priests to superintend my studies. At first he designed me to be the successor of his business, but as I developed greater talents than even he had expected, he changed his mind, and, by the advice of his friends, concluded to make a physician of me; inasmuch as a doctor, whose acquirements were greater than those of the quacks on the market-place, was sure of making his way in Constantinople. Many Franks came to our house, and one of them persuaded my father to allow me to go to the city of Paris, in his country, where the best medical education might be had gratuitously. He proposed to take me with him on his return journey, and the trip should cost me nothing. My father, who had traveled widely in his youth, assented to the arrangement, and the Frenchman told me I should have three months in which to get ready.
I was beside myself with joy at the prospect of seeing foreign countries, and waited for the day of our departure with great impatience. At last the Frenchman finished his business, and prepared for the journey. On the evening before we started, my father led me into his bedchamber. There I saw fine apparel and weapons lying on the table. But that which attracted my attention most was a large pile of gold, larger than I had ever before seen. My father embraced me, saying-
"See, my son, I have provided these clothes for your journey. These weapons are also yours; they are the same that your grandfather buckled on me when I went out into the world. I know that you can wield them; but never use them except in self-defense, and then strike hard. My fortune is not large; look, I have divided it into three parts: one is yours, another is for my own support, but the third is a sacred trust, to be well guarded, and meant to serve you in the hour of need."
Thus spake my good old father, while tears stood in his eyes, perhaps from a presentiment that he would never see me again.
Every thing went well on the journey. We soon arrived in the land of the Franks, and six days afterwards we entered the great city of Paris. My friend rented a room for me there, and advised me as to the best disposition to make of my money, which amounted in all to two thousand thalers.
I lived for three years in this city, and learned what a qualified physician should know; but I should be guilty of untruth were I to say that I lived there contentedly, for the customs of this people did not please me. I had but few good friends there, but these few were noble young men. In all this time I had heard nothing from my father. The desire to see my home finally prevailed over all other considerations. I therefore seized a favorable opportunity to return. An embassy from the Franks was bound to the Sublime Porte. I engaged as surgeon in the retinue of the ambassadors, and arrived safely once more in Stamboul.
I found my father's house closed. The neighbors were astonished to see me, and told me that my father had been dead for two months. The priest who had instructed me in my youth, brought me the key, and alone and bereft I entered the desolate house. I found every thing as my father had left it, with the single exception of the gold that he had promised to leave me--that was missing. I asked the priest about it. He made a low bow, and replied:
"Your father died as a holy man, leaving his gold to the church."
This was incomprehensible to me, yet what should I do? I had no witnesses against the priest, and must console myself with the reflection that he had not also regarded the house and goods of my father as a legacy to the church. This was the first misfortune that happened to me, but from this time forth, stroke followed stroke. My reputation as a physician did not spread, because I could not stoop to advertise myself on the market-place; and, above all, I missed my father, whose recommendation would have secured me admittance to the wealthiest and most influential families, which now never gave a thought to the poor Zaleukos. Then, too, my father's goods found no sale, as the old customers disappeared after his death, and to gain new ones would require time.
Once, as I was hopelessly thinking over my situation, it occurred to me that I had often seen countrymen of mine wandering through the land of the Franks, and displaying their wares in the squares of the cities. I remembered that their goods found a ready sale, because they came from a strange country, and that the profits on such merchandise were very large. My resolution was taken at once. I sold the homestead, gave a part of the sale money to a trustworthy friend to keep for me, and with the remainder bought such goods as were not common among the Franks; shawls, silk stuff's, ointments, oils, etc. I then took passage on a ship, and so began my second journey to the land of the Franks.
It seemed as though fortune smiled on me again the moment we left the Dardanelles behind. Our voyage was short and fortunate. I wandered through the cities and towns of the Franks, and every-where found ready purchasers for my wares. My friend in Stamboul kept forwarding me consignments of fresh goods, and day by day my financial condition improved. When I thought I had made money enough to venture on some larger undertaking, I went to Italy with my goods. I have omitted speaking on one thing that brought me in quite a little sum of money; this was my knowledge of medicine. When I entered a town, I scattered notices announcing the arrival of a Greek physician, whose skill had restored many to health; and my balsams and medicines brought me in many a sequin.
At last I reached the city of Florence. It was my intention to remain some time in this place, partly because the city pleased me, and partly for the reason that I wished to recover from the fatigue of my wanderings. I rented a shop in the Santa Croce quarter, and not far from it, in an inn, I found a suite of beautiful rooms that overlooked a terrace. I then distributed notices that advertised me as a merchant and physician. I had no sooner opened my shop than a stream of customers poured in, and although my prices were rather high, I sold more than others, because I was polite and affable with my customers.
I had passed four days pleasantly in Florence, when one evening, after closing my shop, as I was counting over the profits of the day, I came across a note, in a little box, that I could not remember having put there. I opened the note, and found that it contained a request that I would come to the Ponte Vecchio that night punctually at twelve o'clock. I studied for a long time over the matter; but, as I did not know a soul in Florence, I concluded that somebody wished to lead me secretly to a sick person, as had happened more than once before. I therefore resolved to go; but, by way of precaution, I took along the sword that my father had given me.
Shortly before midnight I started, and soon came to the Ponte Vecchio. I found the bridge deserted, and determined to wait until the person who had invited me there should appear. The night was cold; the moon shone bright, and I looked down at the waves of the Arno gleaming in the moonlight. The church clocks struck twelve. I raised my head, and before me stood a tall man, covered with a red mantle, a corner of which he held before his face. I was somewhat startled at first by his sudden appearance, but collecting myself immediately, said to him:
"If you are the person who ordered me here, tell me what it is you desire?"
The man in the red mantle turned about and said slowly: "Follow me!"
I felt somewhat uneasy about accompanying this stranger, and replied: "Not so, dear sir, until you first tell me where I am to follow you; and you might also show me your face, so that I may assure myself that you mean me no harm."
The stranger, however, assumed to be indifferent, and said, "If you won't go, Zaleukos, then don't!"
This aroused my anger. "Do you think," exclaimed I, "that a man like me will allow himself to be made sport of by every fool? And that I should wait here in this cold night for nothing?"
In three leaps I reached him, seized him by the cloak, and shouted still louder, at the same time laying my other hand on my sword; but the stranger had already disappeared around the next corner, leaving the cloak in my hand.
By and by my rage subsided; I still had the cloak, and this should furnish the key to this singular adventure. I put it on and started to go home. But before I had gone a hundred steps from the bridge, somebody brushed by me, and whispered to me in French: "Take care, Count; it can't be done to-night!" But before I could look around, this person was far away, and I saw only a shadow flitting by the houses. I saw at once that these whispered words were meant for the owner of the cloak, and did not in any way concern me; but they shed no light on the mystery.
The next morning I considered what would better be done in the matter. My first thought was to have the mantle cried in the streets, as though I had found it, but in that case the owner could have sent for it by some third party, and I should be no wiser for my pains. While I was thinking of this, I examined the mantle closely. It was of heavy reddish-purple Genoese velvet, with a border of Astrachan fur, and richly embroidered with gold. The splendid appearance of the cloak led me to think of a plan that I resolved to put in execution. I took the cloak to my store, and offered it for sale; but placed such a high price on it that I was sure it would find no purchaser. My purpose in this was to look everybody who asked about the furred cloak directly in the eye. I thought that as I had had a momentary glimpse of the figure of the unknown man after the loss of his cloak, I would know it among a thousand. There were many admirers of the cloak, whose extraordinary beauty attracted all eyes; but none of them resembled the stranger, and not one of them would pay the exorbitant price of two hundred sequins. It struck me as strange that when I asked one and another whether such cloaks were common in Florence, they all answered, "no," and assured me that they had never before seen such a rich and elegant piece of work.
As evening drew near, a young man, who had often been in my shop, and who had already bid high for the cloak, came in, and threw down a purse of sequins, exclaiming:
"Before God, Zaleukos, I must have your cloak, even if it beggars me."
He at once began to count out his gold pieces. I was in quite a dilemma. I had only hung up the mantle in order that it might perhaps catch the eye of its owner; and along came a young fool to pay the monstrous price, but what could I do? I finally consented to the bargain, as from one point of view I should be well compensated for my night's adventure. The youth put on the mantle and left, but turned on the threshold and detached a paper that was fastened to the mantle, which he threw to me, saying: "Here, Zaleukos, is something that evidently does not go with the cloak."
I took the paper unconcernedly, and found the following words were written on it: "Bring the cloak to the Ponte Vecchio to-night, at the appointed time, and you will receive four hundred sequins."
I was thunderstruck. I had forfeited this chance, and, had not even attained my purpose. But not stopping to consider the matter, I gathered up the two hundred sequins, and rushed out after the man who had bought the cloak. "Take back your money my good friend," said I, "and leave me the mantle, as it is impossible for me to part with it."
At first the young man looked on this as a joke; but when he saw that I was really in earnest, he angrily refused to comply with my demand, treated me as a fool, and thus we speedily came to blows. I was so fortunate as to snatch the cloak away from him in the scuffle, and was hastening away with it, when the young man summoned the police, and we were taken to court. The judge was surprised at the accusation against me, and awarded the cloak to my opponent. But I offered the young man twenty, fifty, eighty, yes, one hundred sequins, over and above his two hundred, if he would leave me in possession of the mantle. My gold accomplished what my entreaties could not. He took my sequins, while I carried away the mantle in triumph, contenting myself with the thought that even if all Florence considered me insane, I knew, better than they, that I should clear something by this transaction.
Impatiently I awaited the night. At the same hour as on the previous night, I went to the Ponte Vecchio with the mantle on my arm. At the last stroke of the clock, a form approached out of the darkness. It was undoubtedly the man I had met the night before.
"Have you the mantle?" I was asked.
"Yes," replied I; "but it cost me a hundred sequins cash."
"I know it," was the reply, "look here, there are four hundred."
He walked with me up to the broad balustrade of the bridge, and counted out the gold pieces. They glistened brightly in the moonlight; their gleam rejoiced my heart. Oh, I dreamed not that it was the last joy it would ever experience. I put the money in my pocket, and attempted to get a good look at the stranger; but he wore a mask, through which dark eyes darted a formidable look on me.
"I thank you, sir, for your kindness," said I. "What now do you require from me? But I say to you beforehand that it must not be any thing wrong."
"Your anxiety is needless," replied he, as he placed the mantle on his shoulders. "I need your services as a doctor; still, not for a living patient, but for a dead one."
"How can that be?" cried I, in astonishment.
"I came with my sister from a distant country," began the stranger, beckoning me at the same time to follow him. "I lived with her here at the house of a friend. My sister had been ill, and yesterday she died suddenly. Her relatives will bury her to-morrow. But in accordance with an old custom in our family, all of its members must be buried in the tomb of their ancestors. Many who died in foreign lands were embalmed and brought home. I will permit our relatives here to keep my sister's body, but I must at least take to my father the head of his daughter, that he may see her once more."
This custom of cutting off the heads of beloved relatives seemed horrible to me; still I thought best not to offer any objections, lest the stranger should feel insulted. I therefore told him that I was acquainted with the method of embalming the dead, and requested him to conduct me to the deceased. Still I could not refrain from inquiring why all this was to be conducted so secretly and at night? He answered that his relatives, holding his views on this subject to be wicked, would prevent him from carrying them out by day; but when the head was once removed, they could say little more on the subject. Of course he might have brought me the head himself but a natural feeling held him back from removing it.
In the meantime we had reached a large and magnificent house, which my companion pointed out to me as the end of our night's pilgrimage. We passed by the principal gate, entering by a smaller one, which the stranger closed carefully after him, and ascended a spiral staircase in the darkness. It led into a dimly lighted corridor, from which he gained a room which was lighted by a lamp suspended from the ceiling.
In this room was a bed, on which the body lay. The stranger turned his head away, apparently making an attempt to hide his tears. He pointed to the bed; ordered me to do my work well and quickly, and walked out of the door.
I took out my instruments, which as a physician I always carried with me, and approached the bed. Only the head of the dead girl was visible, but this was so beautiful that I was seized with the deepest pity. The dark hair hung down in long braids; the face was pale; the eyes were closed.
I first made a slight incision in the skin, as is the practice with surgeons when they are about to remove a limb. Then I selected my sharpest knife, and with one stroke cut through the windpipe. But what a tragedy! The girl opened her eyes, closing them again instantly, and with a deep sigh, now, for the first time, breathed out her life, while at the same time a warm stream of blood gushed from the wound. I was sure that I had taken the life of this poor creature; for that she was now dead was beyond question, as there could be no recovery from this wound.
I stood some moments almost stupefied at what had taken place. Had the man in the red mantle betrayed me, or had his sister been lying in a trance? The latter conjecture seemed the most plausible. But I dared not say this to the brother of the girl; therefore I resolved to take the head completely off. But one more groan came from the dying girl, a spasm shook her form, and all was over. Overcome with horror, I rushed out of the room. But the lamp in the corridor had gone out, and there was no trace of my companion. In the darkness, I was compelled to feel my way along the wall to reach the stairway. I finally found it, and descended, slipping and stumbling. Nor was there any one below. I found the door unlocked, and breathed freer when I once more stood upon the street. Urged on by terror, I ran to my rooms, and buried myself in the cushions of my couch.
But sleep fled from me, and the approach of morning warned me to compose myself. It seemed altogether likely to me that the man who had betrayed me into doing this atrocious deed would not inform on me. I resolved to go on as usual with my business, and if possible to assume a cheerful manner. But a new circumstance, that I now noticed for the first time, increased my terror. My cap and girdle, as well as my instruments, were missing, and I was uncertain whether I had left them in the chamber of the murdered girl, or had lost them in my flight. Unfortunately the first supposition seemed the more probable, and thus the murder would be traced to me.
I opened my shop at the usual time. My neighbor, who was a talkative man, came in to see me as usual in the morning.
"What do you say to the horrible tragedy that happened last night?" was his greeting. I acted as if I knew nothing about it. "What, is it possible that you don't know what the whole city is talking about? Not know that the most beautiful flower of Florence, Bianca, the Governor's daughter, was murdered during the night? I saw her yesterday, looking so happy as she rode through the streets with her lover; and to-day was to have been her wedding day."
Every word was a stab in my heart. And how often did I suffer these pangs, as one by one my customers repeated the story, each making it more horrible than the other! And yet none of them could make it as terrible as it had been when presented to my own eyes.
About noon an officer from the court stepped into my shop, and requested me to send the people away.
"Signor Zaleukos," said he, producing the articles I had missed, "are these things yours?"
I hesitated for a moment whether I should deny all knowledge of them; but as I saw through the half open door my landlord and several acquaintances who could have borne witness against me, I determined not to make the matter worse by a lie, and acknowledged the ownership of the articles. The officer bade me follow him, and led me to a large building, which I soon recognized as the prison. There he showed me to a room, telling me that I should occupy it for the present.
My situation seemed desperate when I came to think it over in the solitude of the prison. The thought that I had committed murder, even though it was done accidentally, kept returning to my mind. Neither could I hide from myself the fact that the glitter of the gold had captivated my senses, or I should never have rushed so blindly into this affair.
Two hours after my arrest I was led out of my chamber. Passing down several steps, we entered a large hall. Twelve men, most of them of advanced age, sat at a long table, covered with a black cloth. On the side of the hall were ranged rows of benches, filled with the aristocracy of Florence. High up, in the galleries the spectators were crowded close together. When I was brought before the black-covered table, a man of dark and sad aspect arose. It was the Governor. He told those assembled that he, being the father of the murdered girl, could not preside over this case, and that he would vacate his seat, for the present, in favor of the oldest senator. The oldest senator was a man of at least ninety years. He was bent with age, and his temples were fringed with thin white hairs; but his eyes were still brilliant, and his voice was clear and strong.
He began by asking me if I confessed to the murder. I besought him to give me his attention, and related fearlessly and in distinct tones what I had done. I noticed that as I proceeded, the Governor first turned pale and then red; and when I had finished, he sprang up in a rage. "What, wretch!" he exclaimed to me, "it is your intention, then, to impute this crime, that you committed in a spirit of avarice, to another?"
The presiding senator reproved him for this outburst, and reminded him that he had of his own accord renounced his right to direct the trial; nor did it appear, he said, that I contemplated robbery, as, by his own admission, nothing was stolen from his daughter. The senator declared to the Governor that he must give an account of his daughter's past life, as this was the only means of judging whether I had spoken the truth or not. At the same time he would close the court for that day, in order, as he said, to get some further information from the papers of the deceased, which the Governor should turn over to him. I was led back to my prison, where I passed a miserable day, occupied with the eager wish that some connection might be established between the man in the red mantle and the deceased.
Full of expectation, I entered the hall of justice on the following day. There were several letters on the table. The aged senator asked me whether they were in my hand-writing. I looked at them, and found that they must have been written by the same hand that wrote me the two notes I had received. I expressed this belief to the senators, but they paid no attention to my opinion, and answered that I both could and did write those notes myself, as the signature at the end of the letters was certainly a Z, the initial letter of my name. And then the letters contained threats against the deceased, and warnings against the wedding which was about to take place.
The Governor seemed to have made some strange disclosures about me, as I was on this day treated more sternly and suspiciously. To justify myself, I called for all the papers that were to be found in my room. But I was told that search had already been made there, and nothing found. When the court broke up, my hope had entirely vanished; and when I was led back to the hall on the third day, the verdict was communicated to me. I had been convicted of willful murder, and sentenced to death. To this, then, I had come at last! Deprived of every thing that was still dear to me on earth, far from my home, I should die innocent of crime, and, in the bloom of my youth, under an ax!
I was sitting in my lonely prison on the evening of the day that had decided my fate, with my hopes all dissipated, and my thoughts earnestly turned on death, when my prison door opened, and a man entered, who regarded me long and silently. "And thus I find you once more, Zaleukos?" said he. I had not recognized him by the dull gleam of my lamp, but the tone of his voice awoke old memories in me. It was Valetty, one of the few friends I had made during my studies in Paris. He said that happening to come to Florence, where his father, who was a man of prominence, lived, he heard of my story; he had come to see me, to learn from my own lips how I had come to commit so terrible a crime. I told him the whole story. He seemed very much astonished, and implored me to tell him, my only friend, the whole truth, and not die with a lie on my lips, I swore to him by every thing that was sacred that I had spoken the truth, and that the only burden on my conscience was that, dazed by the glitter of the gold, I had not perceived the improbabilities in the stranger's story. "Then you did not know Bianca?" asked he. I assured him that I had never seen her before. Valetty then told me that a deep secret hung over the deed, that the Governor had passed sentence on me very hastily, and there was a rumor among the people that I had known Bianca for a long time, and had murdered her out of revenge for her approaching marriage with another. I remarked to him that all this might apply to the man in the red mantle, but that I was unable to prove his participation in the deed. Valetty embraced me, weeping, and promised to make every effort to save my life. I had but little hope, yet I knew that Valetty was a wise man and experienced in the laws, and that he would do his best to save me.
For two long days I remained in uncertainty. At last Valetty appeared. "I bring you consolation, even though it be painful," said he. "You will live and be set at liberty; but with the loss of a hand."
Joyfully I thanked my friend for my life. He told me that the Governor was inexorably opposed to opening the case again, but that finally, in order not to appear unjust, he agreed that if a similar case could be found in any books of Florentine history, then my punishment should be regulated by the punishment there recorded. Valetty and his father had thereupon looked through the old books by day and night, and finally found a case the exact counterpart of mine. The punishment there awarded was stated thus: "His left hand shall be amputated, his goods confiscated, and he himself banished forever." This was now to be my punishment; and I had to prepare myself for the painful ordeal that awaited me. But I will not dwell on that terrible hour when I stood on the public square, laid my hand on the block, and felt my own blood stream over me.
Valetty took me to his own house until I had recovered; then he generously provided me with money for my journey; as all that I had acquired in my years of labor was forfeited to the State. I traveled from Florence to Sicily, and there embarked on the first ship for Constantinople. My hopes were turned upon the money I had given into the keeping of my friend; I also asked permission to live with him, but he astounded me with the question, why I did not occupy my own house? He informed me that a strange man had bought a house in my name in the Greek quarter, and had told the neighbors that I would soon be there to take possession of it. I immediately went there with my friend, and was warmly welcomed by all my old acquaintances. An old merchant gave me a letter, left by the man who had bought the house for me.
The letter was as follows: "Zaleukos, two hands will be always ready to provide so tirelessly for you that you will not feel the loss of one. The house that you see, and all it contains, is yours; and every year you will be given enough to place you in the ranks of your wealthiest countrymen. May you forgive him who is more unfortunate than yourself."
I suspected who had written this; and the merchant replied to my question that he had taken the man to be a Frank, and that he wore a red mantle. I knew enough to own to myself that the stranger was not entirely destitute of noble sentiments. I found my new house fitted up in the very best manner, and there was also a shop stocked with wares finer than I had ever owned before.
Ten years have passed since then; yet, more from habit than necessity, I continue to make these commercial journeys. I have never since visited that country where I met with my misfortune. Every year I receive a thousand gold pieces. But though it rejoices me to know that the unfortunate stranger has some noble traits of character, it is impossible for him to cure the sorrow of my soul, which is perpetually haunted by the terrible vision of the murdered Bianca.