The Ambassador's Pigeons by Robert Barr
Haziddin, the ambassador, stood at the door of his tent and gazed down upon the famous city of Baalbek, seeing it now for the first time. The night before, he had encamped on the heights to the south of Baalbek, and had sent forward to that city, messengers to the Prince, carrying greetings and acquainting him with the fact that an embassy from the Governor of Damascus awaited permission to enter the gates. The sun had not yet risen, but the splendour in the East, lighting the sky with wondrous colourings of gold and crimson and green, announced the speedy coming of that god which many of the inhabitants of Baalbek still worshipped. The temples and palaces of the city took their tints from the flaming sky, and Haziddin, the ambassador, thought he had never seen anything so beautiful, notwithstanding the eulogy Mahomet himself had pronounced upon his own metropolis of Damascus.
The great city lay in silence, but the moment the rim of the sun appeared above the horizon the silence was broken by a faint sound of chanting from that ornate temple, seemingly of carven ivory, which had bestowed upon the city its Greek name of Heliopolis. The Temple of the Sun towered overall other buildings in the place, and, as if the day- god claimed his own, the rising sun shot his first rays upon this edifice, striking from it instantly all colour, leaving its rows of pillars a dazzling white as if they were fashioned from the pure snows of distant Lebanon. The sun seemed a mainspring of activity, as well as an object of adoration, for before it had been many minutes above the horizon the ambassador saw emerging from the newly opened gate the mounted convoy that was to act as his escort into the city; so, turning, he gave a quick command which speedily levelled the tents, and brought his retinue; into line to receive their hosts.
The officer, sent by the Prince of Baalbek to welcome the ambassador and conduct him into the city, greeted the visitor with that deferential ceremony so beloved of the Eastern people, and together they journeyed down the hill to the gates, the followers of the one mingling fraternally with the followers of the other. As if the deities of the wonderful temples they were approaching wished to show the futility of man's foresight, a thoughtless remark made by one of the least in the ambassador's retinue to one of the least who followed the Baalbek general, wrought ruin to one empire, and saved another from disaster.
A mule-driver from Baalbek said to one of his lowly a profession from Damascus that the animals of the northern city seemed of superior breed to those of the southern. Then the Damascus man, his civic pride disturbed by the slighting remark, replied haughtily that if the mules of Baalbek had endured such hardships as those of Damascus, journeying for a month without rest through a rugged mountain country, they would perhaps look in no better condition than those the speaker then drove.
"Our mules were as sleek as yours a month ago, when we left Damascus."
As Baalbek is but thirty-one miles north of Damascus, the muleteer of the former place marvelled that so long a time had been spent on the journey, and he asked his fellow why they had wandered among the mountains. The other could but answer that so it was, and he knew no reason for it, and with this the man of Baalbek had to content himself. And so the tale went from mouth to ear of the Baalbek men until it reached the general himself. He thought little of it for the moment, but, turning to the ambassador, said, having nothing else to say:
"How long has it taken you from Damascus to Baalbek?"
Then the ambassador answered:
"We have done the journey in three days; it might have taken us but two, or perhaps it could have been accomplished in one, but there being no necessity for speed we travelled leisurely."
Then the general, remaining silent, said to himself:
"Which has lied, rumour or the ambassador?"
He cast his eyes over the animals the ambassador had brought with him, and saw that they indeed showed signs of fatigue, and perhaps of irregular and improper food.
Prince Ismael himself received Haziddin, ambassador of Omar, Governor of Damascus, at the gates of Baalbek, and the pomp and splendour of that reception was worthy of him who gave it, but the general found opportunity to whisper in the ear of the Prince:
"The ambassador says he was but three days coming, while a follower of his told a follower of mine that they have been a month on the road, wandering among the mountains."
Suspicion is ever latent in the Eastern mind, and the Prince was quick to see a possible meaning for this sojourn among the mountains. It might well be that the party were seeking a route at once easy and unknown by which warriors from Damascus might fall upon Baalbek; yet, if this were the case, why did not the explorers return directly to Damascus rather than venture within the walls of Baalbek? It seemed to Prince Ismael that this would have been the more crafty method to pursue, for, as it was, unless messengers had returned to Damascus to report the result of their mountain excursion, he had the whole party practically prisoners within the walls of his city, and he could easily waylay any envoy sent by the ambassador to his chief in Damascus. The Prince, however, showed nothing in his manner of what was passing through his mind, but at the last moment he changed the programme he had laid out for the reception of the ambassador. Preparation had been made for a great public breakfast, for Haziddin was famed throughout the East, not only as a diplomatist, but also as physician and a man of science. The Prince now gave orders that his officers were to entertain the retinue of the ambassador at the public breakfast, while he bestowed upon the ambassador the exceptional honour of asking him to his private table, thus giving Haziddin of Damascus no opportunity to confer with his followers after they had entered the gates of Baalbek.
It was impossible for Haziddin to demur, so he could but bow low and accept the hospitality which might at that moment be most unwelcome, as indeed it was. The Prince's manner was so genial and friendly that, the physician, Haziddin, soon saw he had an easy man to deal with, and he suspected no sinister motive beneath the cordiality of the Prince.
The red wine of Lebanon is strong, and his Highness, Ismael, pressed it upon his guest, urging that his three days' journey had been fatiguing. The ambassador had asked that his own servant might wait upon him, but the Prince would not hear of it, and said that none should serve him who were not themselves among the first nobles in Baalbek.
"You represent Omar, Governor of Damascus, son of King Ayoub, and as such I receive you on terms of equality with myself."
The ambassador, at first nonplussed with a lavishness that was most unusual, gradually overcame his diffidence, became warm with the wine, and so failed to notice that the Prince himself remained cool, and drank sparingly. At last the head of Haziddin sank on his breast, and he reclined at full length on the couch he occupied, falling into a drunken stupor, for indeed he was deeply fatigued, and had spent the night before sleepless. As his cloak fell away from him it left exposed a small wicker cage attached to his girdle containing four pigeons closely huddled, for the cage was barely large enough to hold them, and here the Prince saw the ambassador's swift messengers to Damascus. Let loose from the walls of Baalbek, and flying direct, the tidings would, in a few hours, be in the hands of the Governor of Damascus. Haziddin then was spy as well as ambassador. The Prince also possessed carrier pigeons, and used them as a means of communication between his armies at Tripoli and at Antioch, so he was not ignorant of their consequence. The fact that the ambassador himself carried this small cage under his cloak attached to his girdle showed the great importance that was attached to these winged messengers, otherwise Haziddin would have entrusted them to one of his subordinates.
"Bring me," whispered the Prince to his general, "four of my own pigeons. Do not disturb the thongs attached to the girdle when you open the cage, but take the ambassador's pigeons out and substitute four of my own. Keep these pigeons of Damascus separate from ours; we may yet have use for them in communicating with the Governor."
The general, quick to see the scheme which was in the Prince's mind, brought four Baalbek pigeons, identical with the others in size and colour. He brought with him also a cage into which the Damascus pigeons were put, and thus the transfer was made without the knowledge of the slumbering ambassador. His cloak was arranged about him so that it concealed the cage attached to the girdle, then the ambassador's own servants were sent for, and he was confided to their care.
When Haziddin awoke he found himself in a sumptuous room of the palace. He had but a hazy remembrance of the latter part of the meal with the Prince, and his first thought went with a thrill of fear towards the cage under his cloak; finding, however, that this was intact, he was much relieved in his mind, and could but hope that in his cups he had not babbled anything of his mission which might arouse suspicion in the mind of the Prince. His first meeting with the ruler of Baalbek after the breakfast they had had together, set all doubts finally at rest, because the Prince received him with a friendship which was unmistakable. The physician apologised for being overcome by the potency of the wine, and pleaded that he had hitherto been unused to liquor of such strength. The Prince waved away all reference to the subject, saying that he himself had succumbed on the same occasion, and had but slight recollection of what had passed between them.
Ismael assigned to the ambassador one of the palaces near the Pantheon, and Haziddin found himself free to come and go as he pleased without espionage or restriction. He speedily learned that one of the armies of Baalbek was at the north, near Antioch, the other to the west at Tripoli, leaving the great city practically unprotected, and this unprecedented state of affairs jumped so coincident with the designs of his master, that he hastened to communicate the intelligence. He wrote:
"If Baalbek is immediately attacked, it cannot be protected. Half of the army is on the shore of the Mediterranean, near Tripoli, the other half is north, at Antioch. The Prince has no suspicion. If you conceal the main body of your army behind the hills to the south of Baalbek, and come on yourself with a small: retinue, sending notice to the Prince of your arrival, he will likely himself come out to the gates to meet you, and having secured his person, while I, with my followers, hold the open gates, you can march into Baalbek unmolested. Once with a force inside the walls of Baalbek, the city is as nearly as possible impregnable, and holding the Prince prisoner, you may make with him your own terms. The city is indescribably rich, and probably never before in the history of the world has there been opportunity of accumulating so much treasure with so little risk."
This writing Haziddin attached to the leg of a pigeon, and throwing the bird aloft from the walls, it promptly disappeared over the housetops, and a few moments later was in the hands of its master, the Prince of Baalbek, who read the treacherous message with amazement. Then, imitating the ambassador's writing, he penned a note, saying that this was not the time to invade Baalbek, but as there were rumours that the armies were about to leave the city, one going to the north and the other to the west, the ambassador would send by another pigeon news of the proper moment to strike.
This communication the Prince attached to the leg of one of the Damascus pigeons, and throwing it into the air, saw with satisfaction that the bird flew straight across the hills towards the south.
Ismael that night sent messengers mounted on swift Arabian horses to Tripoli and to Antioch recalling his armies, directing his generals to avoid Baalbek and to join forces in the mountains to the south of that city and out of sight of it. This done, the Prince attended in state a banquet tendered to him by the ambassador from Damascus, where he charmed all present by his genial urbanity, speaking touchingly on the blessings of peace, and drinking to a thorough understanding between the two great cities of the East, Damascus and Baalbek, sentiments which, were cordially reciprocated by the ambassador.
Next morning the second pigeon came to the palace of the Prince.
"Ismael is still unsuspicious," the document ran. "He will fall an easy prey if action be prompt. In case of a failure to surprise, it would be well to impress upon your generals the necessity of surrounding the city instantly so that messengers cannot be sent to the two armies. It will then be advisable to cut off the water-supply by diverting the course of the small river which flows into Baalbek. The walls of the city are incredibly strong, and a few men can defend them successfully against a host, once the gates are shut. Thirst, however, will soon compel them, to surrender. Strike quickly, and Baalbek is yours."
The Prince sent a note of another tenor to Damascus, and the calm days passed serenely on, the ambassador watching anxiously from his house- top, his eyes turned to the south, while the Prince watched as anxiously from the roof of his palace, his gaze turning now westward now northward.
The third night after the second message had been sent, the ambassador paced the long level promenade of his roof, ever questioning the south. A full moon shone down on the silent city, and in that clear air the plain outside the walls and the nearer hills were as distinctly visible as if it were daylight. There was no sign of an approaching army. Baalbek lay like a city of the dead, the splendid architecture of its countless temples gleaming ghostlike, cold, white and unreal in the pure refulgence of the moon. Occasionally the ambassador paused in his walk and leaned on the parapet. He had become vaguely uneasy, wondering why Damascus delayed, and there crept over him that sensation of dumb fear which comes to a man in the middle of the night and leaves him with the breaking of day. He realised keenly the extreme peril of his own position--imprisoned and at the mercy of his enemy should his treachery be discovered. And now as he leaned over the parapet in the breathless stillness, his alert ear missed an accustomed murmur of the night. Baalbek was lulled to sleep by the ever-present tinkle of running water, the most delicious sound that can soothe an Eastern ear, accustomed as it is to the echoless silence of the arid rainless desert.
The little river which entered Baalbek first flowed past the palace of the Prince, then to the homes of the nobles and the priests, meandering through every street and lane until it came to the baths left by the Romans, whence it flowed through the poorer quarters, and at last disappeared under the outer wall. It might be termed a liquid guide to Baalbek, for the stranger, leaving the palace and following its current, would be led past every temple and residence in the city. It was the limpid thread of life running through the veins of the town, and without it Baalbek could not have existed. As the ambassador leaned over the parapet wondering whether it was his imagination which made this night seem more still than all that had gone before since he came to the city, he suddenly became aware that what he missed was the purling trickle of the water. Peering over the wall of his house, and gazing downward on the moonlit street, he saw no reflecting glitter of the current, and realised, with a leap of the heart, that the stream had run dry.
The ambassador was quick to understand the meaning of this sudden drying of the stream. Notwithstanding his vigilance, the soldiers of Damascus had stolen upon the city unperceived by him, and had already diverted the water-course. Instantly his thoughts turned toward his own escape. In the morning the fact of the invasion would be revealed, and his life would lie at the mercy of an exasperated ruler. To flee from Baalbek in the night he knew to be no easy task; all the gates were closed, and not one of them would be opened before daybreak, except through the intervention of the Prince himself. To spring from even the lowest part of the wall would mean instant death. In this extremity the natural ingenuity of the man came to his rescue. That which gave him warning would also provide an avenue of safety.
The stream, conveyed to the city by a lofty aqueduct, penetrated the thick walls through a tunnel cut in the solid stone, just large enough to receive its volume. The tunnel being thus left dry, a man could crawl on his hands and knees through it, and once outside, walk upright on the top of the viaduct, along the empty bed of the river, until he reached the spot where the water had been diverted, and there find his comrades. Wasting not a thought on the jeopardy in which he left his own followers, thus helplessly imprisoned in Baalbek, but bent only on his own safety, he left his house silently, and hurried, deep in the shadow, along the obscure side of the street. He knew he must avoid the guards of the palace, and that done, his path to the invading army was clear. But before he reached the palace of the Prince there remained for him another stupefying surprise.
Coming to a broad thoroughfare leading to the square in which stood the Temple of Life, he was amazed to see at his feet, flowing rapidly, the full tide of the stream, shattering into dancing discs of light the reflection of the full moon on its surface, gurgling swiftly towards the square. The fugitive stood motionless and panic-stricken at the margin of this transparent flood. He knew that his retreat had been cut off. What had happened? Perhaps the strong current had swept away the impediment placed against it by the invaders, and thus had resumed its course into the city. Perhaps--but there was little use in surmising, and the ambassador, recovering in a measure his self-possession, resolved to see whether or not it would lead him to his own palace.
Crossing the wide thoroughfare into the shadow beyond, he followed it towards the square, keeping his eye on the stream that rippled in the moonlight. The rivulet flowed directly across the square to the Temple of Life; there, sweeping a semicircle half round the huge building, it resumed its straight course. The ambassador hesitated before crossing the moonlit square, but a moment's reflection showed him that no suspicion could possibly attach to his movements in this direction, for the Temple of Life was the only sacred edifice in the city for ever open.
The Temple of Life consisted of a huge dome, which was supported by a double circle of pillars, and beneath this dome had been erected a gigantic marble statue, representing the God of Life, who stood motionless with outstretched arms, as if invoking a blessing upon the city. A circular opening at the top of the dome allowed the rays of the moon to penetrate and illuminate the head of the statue. Against the white polished surface of the broad marble slab, which lay at the foot of the statue, the ambassador saw the dark forms of several prostrate figures, and knew that each was there to beg of the sightless statue, life for some friend, lying at that moment somewhere on a bed of illness. For this reason the Temple of Life was always open, and supplicants prostrated themselves within it at any hour of the night or day. Remembering this, and knowing that it was the resort of high and low alike, for Death respects not rank, Haziddin, with gathering confidence, entered the moonlit square. At the edge of the great circular temple he paused, meeting there his third surprise. He saw that the stream was not deflected round the lower rim of the edifice, but that a stone had been swung at right angles with the lower step, cutting off the flow of the stream to the left, and allowing its waters to pour underneath the temple. Listening, the ambassador heard the low muffled roar of pouring water, and instantly his quick mind jumped at an accurate conclusion. Underneath the Temple was a gigantic tank for the storage of water, and it was being filled during the night. Did the authorities of Baalbek expect a siege, and were they thus preparing for it? Or was the filling of the tank an ordinary function performed periodically to keep the water sweet? The ambassador would have given much for an accurate answer to these questions, but he knew not whom to ask.
Entering the Temple he prostrated himself on the marble slab, and remained there for a few moments, hoping that, if his presence had been observed, this action would provide excuse for his nocturnal wanderings. Rising, he crossed again the broad square, and hurried up the street by which he had entered it. This street led to the northern gate, whose dark arch he saw at the end of it, and just as he was about to turn down a lane which led to his palace, he found himself confronted with a fourth problem. One leaf of the ponderous gate swung inward, and through the opening he caught a glimpse of the moonlit country beyond. Knowing that the gates were never opened at night, except through the direct order of the Prince, he paused for a moment, and then saw a man on horseback enter, fling himself hurriedly from his steed, leaving it in care of those in charge of the gates, and disappear down the street that led directly to the Prince's palace. In a most perturbed state of mind the ambassador sought his own house, and there wrote his final despatch to Damascus. He told of his discovery of the water-tank, and said that his former advice regarding the diverting of the stream was no longer of practical value. He said he would investigate further the reservoir under the Temple of Life, and discover, if possible, how the water was discharged. If he succeeded in his quest he would endeavour, in case of a long siege, to set free Baalbek's store of water; but he reiterated his belief that it was better to attempt the capture of the city by surprise and fierce assault. The message that actually went to Damascus, carried by the third pigeon, was again different in tenor.
"Come at once," it said. "Baalbek is unprotected, and the Prince has gone on a hunting expedition. March through the Pass of El-Zaid, which is unprotected, because it is the longer route. The armies of Baalbek are at Tripoli and at Antioch, and the city is without even a garrison. The southern gate will be open awaiting your coming."
Days passed, and the ambassador paced the roof of his house, looking in vain towards the south. The streamed flowed as usual through the city. Anxiety at the lack of all tidings from Damascus began to plough furrows in his brow. He looked careworn and haggard. To the kindly inquiries of the Prince regarding his health, he replied that there was nothing amiss.
One evening, an urgent message came from the palace requesting his attendance there. The Prince met him with concern on his brow.
"Have you had word from your master, Omar, Governor of Damascus, since you parted with him?" asked Ismael.
"I have had no tidings," replied the ambassador.
"A messenger has just come in from Damascus, who says that Omar is in deadly peril. I thought you should know this speedily, and so I sent for you."
"Of what nature is this peril?" asked the ambassador, turning pale.
"The messenger said something of his falling a prisoner, sorely wounded, in the hands of his enemies."
"Of his enemies," echoed the ambassador. "He has many. Which one has been victorious?"
"I have had no particulars and perhaps the news may not be true," answered the Prince, soothingly.
"May I question your messenger?"
"Assuredly. He has gone to the Temple of Life, to pray for some of his own kin, who are in danger. Let us go there together and find him."
But the messenger had already left the Temple before the arrival of his master, and the two found the great place entirely empty. Standing near the edge of the slab before the mammoth statue, the Prince said:
"Stand upon that slab facing the statue, and it will tell you more faithfully than any messenger whether your master shall live or die, and when."
"I am a Moslem," answered Haziddin, "and pray to none but Allah."
"In Baalbek," said the Prince, carelessly, "all religions are tolerated. Here we have temples for the worship of the Roman and the Greek gods and mosques for the Moslems. Here Christian, or Jew, Sun- worshipper or Pagan implore their several gods unmolested, and thus is Baalbek prosperous. I confess a liking for this Temple of Life, and come here often. I should, however, warn you that it is the general belief of those who frequent this place that he who steps upon the marble slab facing the god courts disaster, unless his heart is as free, from treachery and guile as this stone beneath him is free from flaw. Perhaps you have heard the rumour, and therefore hesitate."
"I have not heard it heretofore, but having heard it, do not hesitate." Saying which, the ambassador stepped upon the stone. Instantly, the marble turned under him, and falling, he clutched its polished surface in vain, dropping helplessly into the reservoir beneath. The air under his cloak bore him up and kept him from sinking. The reservoir into which he had fallen proved to be as large as the Temple itself, circular in form, as was the edifice above it. Steps rose from the water in unbroken rings around it, but even if he could have reached the edge of the huge tank in which he found himself, ascent by the steps was impossible, for upon the first three burned vigorously some chemical substance, which luridly illuminated the surface of this subterranean lake. He was surrounded immediately by water, and beyond that by rising rings of flame, and he rightly surmised that this substance was Greek fire, for where it dripped into the water it still burned, floating on the surface. A moment later the Prince appeared on the upper steps, outside the flaming circumference.
"Ambassador," he cried, "I told you that if you stepped on the marble slab, you would be informed truly of the fate of your master. I now announce to you that he dies to-night, being a prisoner in my hands. His army was annihilated in the Pass of El-Zaid, while he was on his way to capture this city through your treachery. In your last communication to him you said that you would investigate our water storage, and learn how it was discharged. This secret I shall proceed to put you in possession of, but before doing so, I beg to tell you that Damascus has fallen and is in my possession. The reservoir, you will observe, is emptied by pulling this lever, which releases a trap- door at the centre of the bottom of the tank."
The Prince, with both hands on the lever, exerted his strength and depressed it. Instantly the ambassador felt the result. First, a small whirlpool became indented in the placid surface of the water, exactly in the centre of the disc: enlarging its influence, it grew and grew until it reached the outer edges of the reservoir, bringing lines of fire round with it. The ambassador found himself floating with increased rapidity, dizzily round and round. He cried out in a voice that rang against the stone ceiling:
"An ambassador's life is sacred, Prince of Baalbek. It is contrary to the law of nations to do me injury, much less to encompass my death."
"An ambassador is sacred," replied the Prince, "but not a spy. Aside from that, it is the duty of an ambassador to precede his master, and that you are about to do. Tell him, when you meet him, the secret of the reservoir of Baalbek."
This reservoir, now a whirling maelstrom, hurled its shrieking victim into its vortex, and then drowned shriek and man together.