Friday, October 8, 2010

Kanana and the Calilph

GUIDED by the black slave, Kanana passed out again under the arch, and walked the streets of Mecca, caring less and thinking less concerning what transpired about him than any one, before or since, who for the first time stood in the holy city.

He found the narrow streets densely crowded. Soldiers and merchants, Bedouins and city Arabs mingled with an array of every tribe Arabia could furnish. There were venders of all things pertaining to the necessities or luxuries of life; water-carriers with goatskins on their shoulders; fruit-criers with wooden trays upon their heads; donkeys laden with cumbersome baskets, beneath which they were almost lost to sight; camels carrying packs of a thousand pounds weight upon their backs, as though they were bundles of feathers; everything hustling and jostling, men and boys shouting and pushing for the right of way.

They all turned out as best they could, however, for the savage black slave of the great caliph, and by keeping close behind him Kanana always found an open space where he could walk without fighting for room.

It was almost the first experience of the Bedouin boy in real city life, and the very first time that his bare feet had ever touched the beaten sand of the unpaved streets of his most sacred Mecca.

He turned from the arch, however, without once glancing at the black-curtained Caaba, the Beitullah, or House of God, toward which three times a day he had turned his face in reverent devotion, ever since he had learned to pray.

He followed the black slave onward through the streets, without so much as looking at the walls of the houses that crowded close on either hand.

He had fulfilled his vow. The packet he had sacredly guarded through many a hardship and danger and narrow escape was safely delivered. Now he was free to carry on the work for which he left the perch and the birds in the grain-field of the Beni Sad.

Sometimes he thought of the black slave before him, and wondered if, after all, he was quite free. And the thought troubled him.

It seemed as though long years had passed since the day when his father met him with the news of Raschid Airikat's capture of his brother. He had suffered privations enough for a lifetime since then. More than once his life had hung by a slender thread. He could hardly imagine himself again sitting up on the perch, frightening the birds away, his life had so entirely changed; his determination to keep the vow he made his father had grown stronger every day; only he realized more the magnitude of the task he had undertaken; and he appreciated his father's words: "Thou wisp of straw before a fire! Thou reed before a whirlwind!" Still he gathered hope, because he was beginning to understand himself.

The dangers and hardships of one enterprise he had met and overcome, and under the very shadow of the Caaba, the great caliph of Mecca had called him brave.

Now he was eager for the next. There was no vital need of another interview with the caliph, and Kanana thought that if he could only escape from the black slave, by darting into a crowded alley, he could go at once about his own important business.

For the first time Kanana looked about him. At the moment there was no opportunity, and while he watched for one, the slave turned suddenly into a great gate, crossed a court paved with limestone, lifted a reed curtain, entered one of the most substantial stone structures of Mecca, and in-dicated to Kanana the apartment in which he was to wait for the caliph. It was too late to escape. With all the patience and dogged submission to destiny so strongly developed in the Bedouin, Kanana sat down upon a rug. There were luxurious ottomans about the room, and divans taken from the palaces of Persian princes, but the Bedouin boy preferred the desert seat. Much as though he were still upon the perch, he laid his staff beside him and buried his face in his hands. The magnificence in this chamber of Omar's official residence only disturbed his thoughts.

He became so deeply buried in his plans that he had entirely forgotten where he was, when the rattle of the reed curtain roused him and, starting from his dream, he found the great caliph entering.

Reverently touching his forehead to the floor, Kanana remained prostrate until the caliph was seated. Then he rose and stood leaning upon his staff while the old ruler silently surveyed him. It seemed to Kanana that his very heart was being searched by those grave and piercing eyes.

Upon the shoulders of the Caliph Omar, rested the fate of Islam for future ages; his word was law wherever Mohammed was revered. He could have little time to waste upon a shepherd boy; yet he sat for a long while, silently looking at Kanana. When he spoke, it was only to bid him repeat, at greater length, the story of how he came by the letter and how he brought it to Mecca.

"My son," he said, when Kanana had finished, "thou hast done what many brave man would not have ventured to attempt. Ask what reward thou wilt of me."

"I would have the blessing of the Caliph Omar," Kanana replied.

"That thou shall have, my son; and camels, or sheep, or gold. Ask what thou wilt."

"I have no use for anything. I ask thy blessing, my father, and thy word to bid me go."

"Thou art a strange lad," replied the caliph. "Thou art like, and yet unlike the Terror of the Desert. I command thee, my son, say what I can best do for thee."

"Give me thy blessing, then let me go, my father," repeated Kanana, kneeling. "More than that, if I took it, I should leave at thy gate."

Omar smiled gravely at the boy's obstinacy.

"If I can do nothing for thee, there is yet something which thou canst do for me. Kahled is the greatest general who fights for the Prophet. He will soon reach Bashra, with thirty thousand warriors. He will turn to enter Persia, but these letters must reach him, with my orders that he go again to Syria. Bashra is three weeks from here, and a company of soldiers will start to-night to carry the messages, while I send far and wide for the Faithful to join him. It would be well, my son, for thee to go with the soldiers, to give the story to Kahled by word of mouth."

"The way is hard. The sand is deep and dry between Mecca and Bashra," said Kanana. The caliph looked in some surprise upon the hardy Bedouin boy.

"Hardship should not be hard to thee; but thou shall be carried as one whom the caliph would honor."

"The way is dangerous. Robbers and hostile tribes are like the sand about Bashra," added Kanana, who had often heard of the countries along the eastern borders of Arabia.

Surprise became astonishment. The caliph exclaimed:

"Thou! Son of the Terror of the Desert, speaking of danger?"

"My father, I spoke for thy soldiers," replied Kanana, quickly. "Before they reach the sands of Bashra they will be with the five who started with this letter. Dost thou believe that Kanana spoke in fear or cowardice? If so, give him the letters, and with thy blessing and the help of Allah, he will deliver them to thy Kahled, though every river run with fire, and the half of Arabia stand to prevent him!"

"Beardless youth!" cried the caliph. "I am too old for mockery."

"My father, without a beard I brought that letter here, and He who guarded me will guard me still."

"Wouldst thou dare to go without an escort?"

"I would rather have a sword I could not lift than have an escort," replied Kanana.

"By the beard of the Prophet, my son, there is both foolishness and wisdom in thy words. Thou shall take the messages by one route, and by another I will send the soldiers with copies. It may be that Allah guides thy tongue. When wilt thou start?"

"Now," replied Kanana.

"That was well spoken," said the caliph. "What camels and servants shall be provided?"

"My father," said Kanana, "as I came a little way with the caravan which arrived to-day, I noted the white camel that took the lead. I never saw so great power of speed and endurance in a camel of the plain. The man who led him knew him well and was easily obeyed. I would have the two, none other, and the swiftest dromedary in Mecca, with grain for fourteen days."

The caliph shook his head: "It will be twenty days and more."

"My father, the burden must be light that the sand lie loose beneath their feet, and small, that it tempt no envious eye." Then, in the direct simplicity resulting from his lonely life, Kanana added, "If it is a three weeks' journey for others, in: fourteen days thy messages shall be delivered."

The caliph summoned an officer, saying, "Go to the caravan at the Moabede Gate. Say that Omar requires the white camel and the man who leads it; none other. Bid Ebno'l Hassan prepare my black dromedary and food for the two for fourteen days. Have everything at the gate, ready to start, in half an hour." Then to a slave, he added, "Give to the son of the Terror of the Desert the best that the house affords to eat and drink."

Without another word the caliph left the room to prepare the messages. The slave hurried to produce a sumptuous feast. The officer left the house to execute the orders of the man whose word was law.

Alone, Kanana sat down again upon the mat and buried his face in his hands, as though he were quietly preparing himself to sleep.

Only a whisper escaped his lips. The words were the same which he had angrily spoken under the shadow of Mount Hor, but the voice was very different: "This is my great reward for giving a cup of water to the thirsty. La Illaha il Allah!" The slave placed the food beside him, but he did not notice it. Not until the caliph entered again did he suddenly look up, exclaiming, "This shepherd's coat would not be fitting the dignity of the white camel. I must have an abbe to cover it, and a mantle to cover my face, that Mecca may not see a beardless youth going upon a mission for the great caliph."

They were quickly provided. The camel and its driver were at the gate, with the black dromedary. All was ready, and with the mantle drawn over his beardless face, and the abbe covering his sheepskin coat, Kanana knelt and received the blessing of the Caliph Omar.

As he rose from his knees, the caliph handed him, first the letters, which Kanana placed in his bosom, and next a bag of gold which Kanana held in his hand for an instant; then, scornfully, he threw it upon the mat, remarking, "My father, I have already received a richer reward than all the gold of Mecca."

The caliph only smiled: "Let each one dance according to the music which he hears. My son, I see the future opening before thee. This is not thy last mission. I read it in thy destiny that thou wilt succeed, and succeed again, until the name of Kanana be written among the greatest of those who have lifted the lance for Allah and Arabia. Go now, and God go with thee."

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