“I’ll hiss no more,” said Irene, as the soldiers formed up round her, “yet, perchance, Constantine, you may live to find that the snake still has strength to strike and poison in its fangs, you and others. Do you come with me, Martina?”
“Nay, Lady, since here stands one whom God and you together have given me to guard. For his sake I would keep my life in me,” and she touched me on the shoulder.
“That whelp who is called my son spoke truly when he said that the fallen have no friends,” exclaimed Irene. “Well, you should thank me, Martina, who made Olaf blind, since, being without eyes, he cannot see how ugly is your face. In his darkness he may perchance mistake you for the beauteous Egyptian, Heliodore, as I know you who love him madly would have him do.”
With this vile taunt she went.
“I think I’m crazed,” said the Emperor, as the doors swung to behind her. “I should have struck that snake while the stick is in my hand. I tell you I fear her fangs. Why, if she could, she’d make me as that poor man is, blind, or even butcher me. Well, she’s my mother, and I’ve sworn, so there’s an end. Now, you Olaf, you are that same captain, are you not, who dashed the poisoned fig from my lips that this tender mother of mine would have let me eat when I was in liquor; yes, and would have swallowed it yourself to save me from my folly?”
“I am that man, Augustus.”
“Aye, you are that man, and one of whom all the city has been talking. They say, so poor is your taste, that you turned your back upon the favours of an Empress because of some young girl you dared to love. They say also that she paid you back with a dagger in the eyes, she who was ready to set you in my place.”
“Rumour has many tongues, Augustus,” I answered. “At least I fell from the Empress’s favour, and she rewarded me as she held that I deserved.”
“So it seems. Christ! what a dreadful pit is that. Is this another of her gifts? Nay, answer not; I heard the tale. Well, Olaf, you saved my life and your Northmen have set me on the throne, since without them we could scarcely have won the palace. Now, what payment would you have?”
“Leave to go hence, Augustus,” I answered.
“A small boon that you might have taken without asking, if you can find a dog to lead you, like other blind wretches. And you, Captain Jodd, and your men, what do you ask?”
“Such donation as it may please the Augustus to bestow, and after that permission to follow wherever our General Olaf goes, since he is our care. Here we have made so many enemies that we cannot sleep at night.”
“The Empress of the World falls from her throne,” mused Constantine, “and not even a waiting-maid attends her to her prison. But a blinded captain finds a regiment to escort him hence in love and honour, as though he were a new-crowned king. Truly Fortune is a jester. If ever Fate should rob me of my eyes, I wonder, when I had nothing more to give them, if three hundred faithful swords would follow me to ruin and to exile?”