[THE DRAGOMAN of the American Embassy narrates.]
YES, it’s a very decent old gun. The chasing of silver on the stock could n’t be much better. And look at the line of that preposterous old bell mouth. It’s a Cesarini — from Milan, you know; sixteenth century. I know a museum or two that would get it from me if they could. But they never will —while I’m alive, I can’t bear to sell my things, however much people offer for them. One has so much fun in getting them, and they become a part of the place — of one’s self. I would as soon think of selling my children! And one likes them for all the things that must have happened to them. Whom do you suppose Cesarini made that chap for? And what wars did he fight in? And how did he ever happen to end in the Bazaar of Broussa? Not that he has ended yet. He has had one adventure since he came to live with me. And it was quite worthy of him. Shall I really tell you? Beware! I have no mercy, once I get started on my yarns. However — the thing happened during the Bulgarian war. It had nothing to do with the war, and yet it could not have happened if the town had been less upset. What a strange time that was! At the outset everybody was perfectly sure that the business could end only in one way. Then, when the bottom was knocked out of everything, we did n’t know where we were or what would happen next.
For three weeks, between the battles of Lüleh Bourgass and Chatalja, it looked as if the whole empire would go like a house of cards. At first people were stupefied; then they got scared. How scared they got I don’t suppose the Bulgarians ever knew. I regret to say that one or two of the embassies were the worst. One of the dangers of being in the way to get exclusive information is that your information may be a bit too exclusive — of the truth. I have often noticed that diplomats and journalists are the most convinced that the world is going smash, simply because it is their business to be there when it does go smash. However, there was occasion to be cautious. There would be in any capital that was threatened by a conquering host. And I still think that we might have had rather a bad quarter of an hour if a beaten and desperate army had come dashing back from Chatalja. But there was no occasion to increase the general uneasiness, as did the dean of the diplomatic corps, by asking the owners of neighboring houses to let him plant Maxims in their windows, and by ordering his colony on board a steamer in the harbor, one night. Nothing happened — except that one poor old gentleman died of heart-disease in the flurry and was given a first-class funeral to make up for it.
For us foreigners, of course, there were alleviations of the general gloom. Different kinds of people came together a great deal more than they had before, in the common excitement and in their common sympathy for the sick and wounded. And while none of the usual big parties took place, there was a good deal going on unofficially by reason of the presence of the international squadron in the harbor. Half the girls in Pera ended by getting engaged to naval officers. There was n’t much fun for the natives, though, whether Christian or Turk. They were all in a tremendous funk, each side expecting to be cut up by the other, and waiting for the Bulgarians with different kinds of suspense. It must have been rather a new sensation for the Turks. I don’t know how many of them I heard of who begged Europeans to take care of their families or their valuables. As for the Palace people, steam was kept up night and day on the imperial yacht, and it was only some very plain speaking in high quarters that kept them from running away to Broussa. But they were all packed and ready. And it was a long time before the treasures of the Seraglio were put in order again, after that hasty boxing up.
Well, the state of affairs was such that I thought nothing when a man came to me one afternoon at the embassy with a small parcel, and asked me if I would keep it for him till the ‘troubles’ were over. It was a funny little parcel, wrapped up in the Turkish way in a bit of stuff—a figured silk shot with gold thread. As a matter of fact there it is! A pretty bit, is n’t it? The man told me the parcel contained his savings and a few trinkets that belonged to his ‘family’ — otherwise his wife. These people never trust a bank, you know. He was a Turk of thirty or thirty-five, with nothing very distinguishable about him except that he was plainly not an aristocrat. He seemed to be the sort of man who writes in his hand in the anterooms of ministries. He had a pleasant dark face, on the whole, and of course he was very polite.
I warned him that the embassy would be no safer than his own house if anything really happened. He smilingly disagreed. I therefore consented to take his parcel. But I told him that I would accept no responsibility for it. If there was a general bustup, or if the house burned down or was broken into, I could n’t be held for the value of what his parcel might contain. He was perfectly willing to let it be so. He said that God was great: if any house was spared, mine would be. He merely asked me to put the parcel in some safe place, and to give it to no one except himself. And when I proposed giving him a receipt he would n’t have one. He said I did n’t know him but he knew me, and he needed no paper.
I was just beginning to expostulate with him, pointing out that something might happen to one or the other of us, when the ambassador came into my room with a secretary of the English embassy. My man took leave at once, and for the moment I put his parcel in a drawer of my desk. My visitors brought me some new and rather startling rumor, and we talked over plans for the safety of the Anglo-American colony, if — There was question of a boat to take refuge on, you know, and patrols to be landed from the men-ofwar, and I don’t know what. There were a good many details to arrange and sensibilities to consider. We finally walked back with the secretary to his embassy, and then we went on to the Austrian, and the long and the short of it was that I did n’t go back to my office that night.
The first thing they told me there the next morning was that my old gun was gone from its place on the wall. The servants had missed it when they cleaned the room. I was much put about, and called everybody up to investigate. None of the cavasses had seen or heard anything. No lock had been forced either, though there seemed to be a little haziness as to whether all the windows had been fastened. As for the servants themselves, I felt sure that none of them would take the gun. They had all been a long time in the place, like the gun itself. Why should they suddenly walk off with it? Then I thought of my man of the day before. Might he, by any chance, have hung about till he saw me go away and then have managed to get the gun without any one noticing him ? Having remembered the man, I bethought me of his parcel, which I had intended to stow in the safe, but which I had put in my desk and completely forgotten.
I then discovered that the parcel was gone too — or the contents of it. The silk cover was still there in the drawer, neatly folded up. I was disgusted enough with myself for having been so careless. And I could n’t even let the man know. I had no idea what his name was, or his address, or anything about him. The only possible clue to him was that he had said he knew me, and that he looked like a government clerk. He might be an employee of one of the ministries where I was in the habit of going. His valuables were not likely to be very valuable, it was true, but he would probably be just as sorry to lose them as I was to lose my Cesarini. It was rather funny, though, that the thief should have taken those two things and nothing else.
I was inclined to make a fuss about my Cesarini. The police, when they came, inquired very particularly as to my age, and my father’s name, and very carefully wrote down on a large piece of paper my answers to these and other pregnant questions. They also offered to arrest any or all of the servants — several of whom were Montenegrins, and therefore personae non gratæ. But they were too much preoccupied with the more immediate questions of the day to take very much interest in an old gun stolen out of the house of a foreigner.
In the afternoon I had occasion to go over to the Sublime Porte. And incidentally I looked over all the clerks I saw, in the hope of finding my man of the parcel. But there was no sign of him. When I was through with my business I drove on to the Bazaars. A good many of the things stolen in Constantinople end there, in the Bezesten. You know that murky old centre of the Bazaar, which opens later and closes earlier than the rest. I always like to go there— because of the way the light strikes dustily down from the high windows, and the way silks and rugs and brasses and porcelain and old arms and every imaginable kind of junk are piled pellmell in raised stalls, and the way old gentlemen in gown and turban sit among them as if they did n’t care whether you bought or not, but rather preferred to be saved the trouble of bargaining with you. One of them happened to be quite a friend of mine, and is to this day. He makes a specialty of mediæval arms. I told him, over a cup of coffee which I drank sitting crosslegged with him on a rug, that a valuable old Italian gun had been stolen from me and that if he happened to see or hear of any such thing he was to let me know. I also bought an Albanian yataghan from him, which I did n’t pay for, just to keep on good terms.
After taking leave of Hassan Effendi I told my coachman to drive down to the Bridge and wait for me there. I thought I would walk down, to see how Stamboul was taking the war. I began my walk, as I am somewhat prone to do, by sitting down in the mosqueyard of Mahmoud Pasha. The time for that mosque-yard is summer rather than winter. But there was still sun in the air, and there were a few leaves on the trees, and people as usual were lounging on rug-covered benches and smoking hubble-bubbles. I ordered one too. It is an old vice of mine.
As I sat there under the trees, adding the bubble of my water-pipe to the bubble that went on around me, listening to the scraps of talk that one hears in such a place, two soldiers came out of the mosque. They stopped a moment in the high old portico to pull on their boots, and then picked their way between the benches to one farther than mine from the main thoroughfare through the yard. One of them was a tall, thin, sullen-looking fellow with a frowzy red moustache and funny eyes. They looked as if they might be yellow. The other, I presently made out, was none other than my friend of the parcel. I watched them give their order and sit down — my man with his back toward me, the red-haired one facing me. He caught me looking. What is more, as soon as I got up and went toward them he slipped away through the nearest of the arched gates of the yard. I don’t know how surprised my friend may have looked as he stared at the arch, but he certainly looked not a little surprised when he saw me. It did not strike me that he looked too pleased, either; nor was I delighted at the prospect of what I had to tell him. But I was also rather curious about his friend. And, naturally,
I did not forget my gun. However, we exchanged the necessary greetings and I was invited to have a coffee.
‘You will not wish to drink a coffee with me,’ I told him, ‘when you hear that I have lost your parcel.’
I was right. His face changed instantly.
‘Lost! How lost?’ he asked. ‘Was it not in the embassy?’
‘I am very sorry,’ I said, ‘but I was called away yesterday, as you saw. I did not go back till this morning, and then I found it was gone. Some one must have got in during the night.’
I looked at him and he looked at me, each trying to get what he could from the other’s face.
‘Have—have you looked everywhere?’ he stammered at last. ‘The servants — do you know them ?'
‘Better than I know you,’ I permitted myself to answer.
‘And — have you told the police?’
‘Yes. They came, and asked questions, and made a djournal, and — ’ Before I had time to say anything else or tell the man about my own loss, — and see how he would take it, — he was off in turn through the arch by which his friend had vanished. What is more, he neglected to pay his bill, as the coffee-house man reminded me when I started after him. I paid it, and my own too, and felt rather a fool for being so slow. But by that time there was no telling what had become of them, in that tangle of little streets. Besides, I have lived here so long that I have become rather a fatalist myself. If my Cesarini was destined to change hands once more in its long career, I told myself, I could not stop it. And if it was written that the Cesarini should come back, why come back it would — as you see it did! And after all it was rather pleasant to have something to think about besides the eternal politics of the hour.
I don’t know whether my friend found his friend. But I did, no later than that night. There was a dinner on board the Angry Cat — as the English sailors amusingly called the French cruiser Henri Quatre. We had a firstrate dinner of course, and chit-chat afterwards, and it was quite late when the Angry Kitten — otherwise the motor launch of the Angry Cat — started to put us ashore. We had still a good bit to go when shots cracked not far away, in the direction of the Bridge. We veered around to see what was up, for we all felt a certain responsibility. When we arrived on the scene we were hailed rather sternly by a police boat; but they softened down when they saw the French sailors. I spoke to them in Turkish, too, and told them who we were, and asked if we could do anything. The spokesman of the police boat thanked me politely and said no; there was nothing; he would not trouble us to stop. By which he meant he would trouble us to retire as promptly as we might. We accordingly did so. But as we stopped and put about we had time to take in a curious scene.
The patrol boat lay to under the big black stern of a steamer. There was a buoy near by, and a covey of lighters, and the current slapped past them in the stillness. Beside the police boat was another rowboat, one of the sandals that ferry you back and forth across the harbor. In the light of an electric spark we saw a patrolman handcuffing the boatman of the sandal — a big black Laz who evidently did not like it — and the sprawling legs of a passenger at the stern. Then the light traveled up him and we saw he was lying flat, back across the stern thwart, dead. And I recognized him with a jump as the frowzy red soldier I had seen that afternoon at Mahmoud Pasha’s. It gave me something more to think about. I looked for the man of the parcel, but I did n’t see him. What I did see was another parcel, a big one, which the patrolman turned his attention to when he had handed the Laz over to his companions. The bundle was done up in canvas, which the patrolman ripped open with his knife. In the gash appeared something green.
‘Smuggling?’ I asked, as we started back.
‘Eh,’ answered the man who had spoken before, ‘smuggling, deserting. It is nothing.’ And he turned to the man in the sandal. ‘Never mind now what is in the bundle. We can attend to that when we get back.’
‘If you find an old gun,’ I shouted, ‘let me know. We had a robbery last night.’
The Angry Kitten sputtered away toward Top Haneh. There was talk and speculation of course, and one Turkish soldier more or less made no essential difference to us. But I could n’t get the scene out of my head — the stern of the steamer half invisible in the dark, the huddled lighters, the two boats, the stooping figures, and the ghastly soldier with the frowzy red moustache.
The next morning a messenger came to me from the Prefect of the Port and asked if I would be good enough to go to his headquarters. Under ordinary circumstances, of course, the Prefect would give himself the pleasure of coming to me; but the circumstances were not quite ordinary, and if I could find it in me to waive ceremony, — and so on. I was only too willing to go if the expedition would result, as I felt sure it would, in the recovery of my Cesarini. Moreover, I wanted to find out more about the affair, and I thought I might be able to contribute a thread or two. I went down at once to the Prefecture of the Port, where I was received with extreme courtesy, taken into an inner sanctum, put into an uncomfortable red arm-chair, and treated to coffee and a catechism on the latest and most fantastic rumors of the war. You may be sure it was with some impatience that I submitted to it. But I have discovered that it pays a diplomat to bo diplomatic. By conforming to the customs of the country, especially in little matters of etiquette, you arrive at matters more essential sooner than by any Anglo-Saxon brusqueness.
Well, when coffee and politics were disposed of at last and cigarettes were well going, the Prefect excused himself a moment and retired to a small inner cupboard of a room. From it he brought back, not my Cesarini, as I expected, but an old dagger, of which the gold haft was tipped with a stupendous emerald. It was so huge that it looked like green glass; but why should anybody take the trouble to set green glass on such a dagger? The gold of the sheath was beautifully wrought with little arabesques and flowers, and in the curved steel of the blade was a gold marquetry inscription — a Persian distich, as I presently made out.
‘Is that yours?’ inquired the Prefect, politely handing me the dagger.
‘Good heavens, no!’ I replied. ‘I only wish it were! It was a gun I lost. Did n’t you find it?’
‘Ah!’ he said, apparently disappointed. ‘Unfortunately not.’ And he added, ‘ We heard it was a weapon. We thought, possibly — ’
Tableau! It seemed to me delightfully characteristic of police in general and of Turkish police in particular. What they thought, heaven knows. Did they think that anybody connected with an embassy, and an American, was able to lose such treasures as that dagger? I have always thought, at any rate, that I was an ass not to claim it. But after the first instant of surprise I knew what the thing was and where it came from. It stupefied me that they should not know too.
‘ It belongs much more to you than to me,’ I said. ‘It came from the Treasury of the Seraglio.’
‘The Treasury !’ he smiled. ‘Impossible!’
‘Everything is possible in this world, my dear sir,’ I retorted — ‘ even that a Turk should not know the dagger of Sultan Selim the First when he sees it. But if you don’t believe me, send for Saïd Bey.’
Saïd Bey is the curator of the Seraglio, and a charming old boy. My heart warmed to him from the day I saw him superintending the cutting down of a dead cypress near the library of the palace, in such a way that it should not injure the marble of the kiosque or the smallest twig of neighboring cypresses. And he instantly planted another one in exactly the same place.
The Prefect of the Port sent, not for Saïd Bey but for a colleague, with whom he gravely deliberated. Then they produced for my inspection an enormous piece of embroidery — flowers in colors and gold on white satin. It was the sort of thing you see on good Bulgarian towels, but better than anything I ever saw or dreamed of. It was lined, I noticed, with a thick green silk.
‘ Ah! ’ I said. ‘ Is that what the things were wrapped up in?’
‘Yes. Is it from the Treasury, too? ’
That particular piece I did n’t remember, although I had seen other things like it; but I did remember a certain gold Greek coin that I had often envied, with a galloping quadriga on the reverse. There were a dozen or so fine coins. They also produced an aigrette set in rubies and diamonds, such as the sultans used to wear on the front of their turbans, and a robe or two of magnificent old stuff, and some gold filigree zarfs — coffee-cup holders — studded with precious stones, and pieces of porcelain similarly decorated, to say nothing of handfuls of loose jewels. Even if I had not been perfectly sure about the dagger and the coin, the other things would have left me with not the slightest doubt. They could have come only from the Seraglio — though the merest fraction of a fraction of what is lost in that amazing place.
How they got into a sandal in the harbor, however, remained obscure even when the Prefect of the Port and I compared our respective notes on the red-haired man and his dark friend. I only learned that he had been shot by accident, after the police hailed him and he refused to stop. Nor did the Treasury people, when they appeared on the scene, throw much more light on the subject. The red-haired man, whose body they were taken to look at, they knew nothing about. My man sounded like any one of several of their employees who had at different times enlisted or been drafted for the war. They asked me to see if I could identify him among those who remained; but he was not there. The only possible explanation of the robbery was that it had been committed during the hasty packing up of the treasures, against the arrival of General Savoff.
Saïd Bey’s astonishment and chagrin were unbounded when he identified the loot at the Prefecture of the Port; but it was nearly the end of him when he eventually found out that the loss was much greater than could be covered by the bundle of the sandal. And, worst of all, one of the missing objects was one of the glories of the Treasury — the matchless, the priceless pearl-necklace of the Seraglio, the one picturesquely known as the River of the Moon. The like of it, I suppose, does not exist anywhere else in the world. Modern millionaires may have as much money as ancient emperors, but they have, after all, more conscience and less imagination. And certainly few necklaces have had such a history.
The River of the Moon first came to light in Ispahan, where Shah Abbas the Great collected its seventy-seven pearls and hung them around the neck of one of his queens. A hundred years later Sultan Mourad IV brought it in triumph to Constantinople among the spoil of his Persian wars. Sultanas wore it and sighed for it in the Seraglio. In our own time Abd-ül-Hamid, that great lover and connoisseur of jewels, took it to Yildiz — with a good many other things he had no personal right to. When his jewels were sent to Paris to be sold, the River of the Moon went with them, by mistake, and a special embassy was sent to bring it back — to the no small disgust of the people in Paris. And now it was gone — no one knew where.
I believe Said Bey would have preferred that the empire had gone. He begged me to say nothing till the fullest possible investigation could be made. Of course I told him, too, my part of the story, and showed him my bit of figured silk. He said that it was very good, but did n’t come from the Treasury. I could not help wondering, however, if I had been a receiver of stolen goods, and if I had not held in my hand, without knowing it, the River of the Moon.
So I did n’t get my Cesarini back that time. That, to me, was the more important loss, though for the rest of them it was of course forgotten in the greater loss of the Treasury. But I did get it in the end, as you see. It was a long time afterwards, when the war was over, and the international squadron had gone and some of the young ladies in Pera were already married to their officers, and the rest of us settled down to the humdrum treadmill of life. I used to go over to the Bezesten every now and then and interview my friend Hassan Effendi. He never got wind of my gun. He was indefatigable, however, in trying to console me with other antiques, of one kind or another. And I can’t say that I was always strong-minded enough to resist him.
He told me one day about an ‘occasion’ he had heard of. There was a refugee woman over in Scutari somewhere who had a few things to sell. They were quite good, he heard — if any of them were left. The lady’s husband had been a great man in his country, in Macedonia, and they had been ruined by the war. If I liked to go with him and see what there was to see, a man he knew would take us.
I jumped at the chance. Some of my friends who did relief work among the refugees picked up very decent, things —embroideries chiefly — at ridiculous prices. It was a charity to the poor creatures to take them of! their hands! Accordingly I arranged with Hassan Effendi to call his man and take me over on the next Friday, when the Bezesten would be closed.
We had quite a time. The house was at the top of the town, near the big cemetery. Our guide made us leave the carriage before we got to it, saying that the street was too narrow and too badly paved to drive through. When we reached the door we knocked an age before any one answered, and then there was discreet calling to know who we were and what we wanted, and much flipflapping of slippers, and finally the door opened six inches and we squeezed into a little court with a well and half a dozen chrysanthemum pots. We took off our shoes and walked up a clean little pair of stairs into a clean little room where there was a divan and a charcoal brazier and a cat — not an angry one. We sat down on the divan and played with the cat, and presently the door opened far enough to admit a tray and three cups of coffee. In the course of time the tray was passed back and parley exchanged with a preternaturally high voice. Oldfashioned Turkish ladies affect that tone. And after hesitations, and assurances that there was nothing in the house worth looking at, what should I see poked through the crack of the door but my Cesarini!
Hassan Effendi, being nearest the door, took it. As for me, I was so surprised that I had time to remember to hold my tongue. When Hassan Effendi put the gun into my hands I saw that it had been badly used. It was rusty and battered, and there seemed something unfamiliar about it. But there could be no doubt of its being my Cesarini. Before I had finished looking it over, our invisible hostess sidled into the room. She went to the brazier and poked it a bit with those funny little iron tongs they have, and then she flopped down on the floor. If there was to be a bargain I suppose she wanted to have a hand in it. All we saw of her was a pair of rather fine black eyes and a hand with henna’ed nails that held her shabby black charshaf in front of her mouth.
‘This is rather an interesting old piece of yours, Hanum,' I remarked. ‘May I ask where you got it?’
‘It belonged to my husband,’ she answered in her strange high voice. ‘He went to the war.’ And she jerked her charshaf up to her fine eyes, which filled with tears.
They did not soften me too much.
‘This does not seem to be Turkish work,’ I went on.
‘I am a refugee,’ came from behind the charshaf. ‘ We lived in Uskiib. The work there is different. There are many Albanians.’
‘Oh!’ I exclaimed. I knew the thing to do was to buy back the gun and go quietly away and call the police, but an irresistible temptation came to me. I got up as if to examine the gun in a better light. I stayed up, in front of the door. ‘Excuse me, Hanum,’ I began, ‘but did your husband have red hair? I think I knew him a little.’
The charshaf descended far enough to reveal one of the fine eyes.
‘No!’ the owner of it, after a moment, very decidedly replied.
‘ Ah! Then it was your husband who took the parcel to a house in Pera. He did not say he came from Usküb.’
The fine eye regarded me very fixedly, and I regarded the fine eye.
‘Perhaps you did not know,’ I hazarded, ‘ that this gun came from the same house, and was taken from it on the same night as the parcel. Perhaps you thought it came from the — place where the other things came from.’
It seemed to me that the fine eye measured the relative distances of itself and myself from the door. At all events it presently disappeared behind the charshaf for inward consideration.
’But there are one or two things I don’t understand,’ I pursued — ‘such as how your husband got the gun. For he was not in the boat when the redhaired man — died, and neither was the gun.’
Hassan Effendi and the other man began to show such signs of interest in this somewhat one-sided dialogue that I regretted having started it. As for the fine eye, it still remained in seclusion. But the high voice finally vouchsafed, in defense, —
‘That was not the work of my husband. The other man threw it into a lighter just before —’
‘Ah!’ I exclaimed, a light breaking upon me. ‘Then there were two bundles! And that was what happened to the necklace! ’
Both eyes emerged from the charshaf.
‘No, they got that.’
‘No, they did n’t get that,’ I contradicted. ‘They are still looking for it.’
The fine eyes stared so indubitably that I wondered if my light had been a false one. Then another light came into them.
‘So he would have lost it after all, the dog-born dog! It was all his work. My husband never would have thought of it without him. And afterwards he watched my husband go to your house, and he stole that too. And then he tried to run away —’
The light in the fine eyes darkened to sudden tears, and this time sobs shook the charshaf that covered them. I could see well enough now what had happened — though the woman had not told me all that it might be interesting to know about her husband and the red-haired man, and there were details of the history of the gun during its journey from the lighter to my hands that might be filled out in several ways. But I was an idiot to try the third degree myself—and bungle it; for it would be harder now to get the police, or for them to find out just who our guide might be. He sat there quietly enough while the woman cried on the floor and I stood in front of the door and wondered if the River of the Moon were around her neck all the time, or whether the red-haired man had got rid of it, and what I ought to do. I fingered the gun as I wondered, trying not to look as much of a fool as I felt. Incidentally I found out why the gun had seemed unfamiliar. It was heavier than I remembered it. And then I discovered that it was loaded. At least, some kind of wadding had been rammed into the barrel. I started picking at it, as well as I could from the bell mouth. In the end, you know, it was n’t pure nervousness, it was pure inspiration. When I could n’t get my hand in any farther I took the tongs from the brazier. The last of the stuff was jammed in pretty hard. But those blessed little tongs were just the thing for it. And finally out rolled a prodigious pearl, and after it rolled a whole river of them — the River of the Moon!
The sudden patter of the pearls on the floor made the woman look up. And what a look it was, as the poor wretch realized what had been in her hands and what she had lost! To be sure she began grabbing up the pearls as fast as she could. And so did Hassan Effendi and the other man. You should have seen the scramble. Even the cat went for them, and thought it great fun. I stopped the patter as soon as I could, and emptied the rest of the pearls into my handkerchief. Hassan Effendi put his there too.
‘And you,’ I said, turning to our guide.
‘Excuse me, effendim,’ he began, ‘you bought the gun, not the pearls.’
I gave him a look and an answer.
‘I have bought nothing yet. This is my own gun, which was stolen from my house. And these pearls were stolen too — from the Sultan. And the Sultan’s arm is long. And if you say one word, or refuse to give back one pearl, Hassan Effendi has only to clap his hands and fifty men will break into the house.’
I don’t know whether he believed me or not. But he saw that I knew more than he had thought, and Hassan Effendi had the grace not to look astonished. The man put down his pearls. The woman did likewise.
‘Now tell me,’ I said to her, ‘have you anything else?’
‘No,’ she answered.
‘ I suppose you have sold the rest, eh? ’
‘No,vallah!’ she insisted. ‘If there was anything, the lightermen took it. We heard there was talk among them and we went to them. We knew — And then my husband went away,’ she continued hastily, ‘and they brought me only this gun.’
She covered her face again and began to cry.
There was something queer about it. But I had found my Cesarini, and the River of the Moon, and it seemed to me that the woman was punished enough — and for what very likely was not her fault. Neither she nor her husband, at all events, had stolen my gun. Accordingly I offered her a tip, which she would n’t take. So I put it down on the sofa, and patted the cat, and gave our guide a bit of a scare by making him come away with Hassan Effendi and me.
But, really, you know — ! Of course it is a notorious thing that collectors have no consciences, and will rob the fatherless and the widow without turning a hair, if so be they can cheat them over the price — of an old print. I did it myself no later than last week, when I came across some Piranesis at the sale of the goods of a deceased Italian barber, whose family were going home. They were real ones, too, and not the reprints the Italian government has made from Piranesi’s plates. Not many other people thought it worth while to go to a barber’s sale, and the ones that did thought nothing of some black old pictures of an unfamiliar Rome. Our good Perotes, you know, are not very much up on that sort of thing. So I had the courage to march away with the ten of them at five piasters apiece. But until I looked at those pearls by myself at home I never realized how shallowrooted a virtue honesty may be. If I had not taken such a high moral tone about them, and, especially, if three people and a cat had n’t known I had them, I don’t believe I could have given them back.
They were perfectly lovely in themselves, like great drops of crystallized moonlight. And it was so strange to hold them in one’s hand, and wonder what divers first brought them out of the Persian Gulf or the Indian Ocean, and by what extraordinary roads they had come together in Ispahan, and on what soft breasts they had lain, and what splendor and blood and mystery they had seen. Each one of them must have been fatal to some hand that had held it. And each one of them was the equivalent of so much release from struggle and anxiety, the equivalent of so much leisure, so much beauty, so much joy, so much of everything that people really want in this world — each one! While the whole lot of them — It made one’s head turn.
When I came to count them I discovered there was one missing. I could n’t find it in my pocket, I could n’t find it in my gun, I could n’t find it anywhere. I finally concluded that it must have rolled under the sofa in Scutari, and I nearly rushed back to get it. But then I remembered how the woman had looked when she saw the pearls dropping out of the gun. I had a fellow feeling for her. I knew in my heart that it was only an accident if I was any better than she was. I decided to give her and the cat the chance of finding it.
The first thing the next morning, I took the River of the Moon back to Said Bey. It was not safe with me an instant longer. The old boy nearly went silly when he saw the pearls. He knew every one by its size and weight and some invisible individuality. He was so delighted to get the seventysix that he made no bones about the seventy-seventh, or my cock-and-bull story of having promised on his behalf that no questions should be asked. I did drop a discreet hint, though, about the guild of the lightermen.
They made quite an international incident of it — not the lightermen, but the Palace people. They gave me a decoration. But I thought the woman in Scutari had the best of the bargain.