5. "Look While You May!"
MICHAEL was held before the Emir's throne, at the foot of the terrace, his hands
bound behind his back. His mother overcome at last by mental and physical
torture, had sunk to the ground, daring neither to look nor listen.
"Look while you may," exclaimed Feofar-Kahn, stretching his arm towards
Michael in a threatening manner. Doubtless Ivan Ogareff, being well acquainted
with Tartar customs, had taken in the full meaning of these words, for his lips
curled for an instant in a cruel smile; he then took his place by Feofar-Khan.
A trumpet call was heard. This was the signal for the amusements to begin.
"Here comes the ballet," said Alcide to Blount; "but, contrary to our customs,
these barbarians give it before the drama."
Michael had been commanded to look at everything. He looked. A troop of
dancers poured into the open space before the Emir's tent. Different Tartar
instruments, the "doutare," a long-handled guitar, the "kobize," a kind of
violoncello, the "tschibyzga," a long reed flute; wind instruments, tom-toms,
tambourines, united with the deep voices of the singers, formed a strange
harmony. Added to this were the strains of an aerial orchestra, composed of a
dozen kites, which, fastened by strings to their centers, resounded in the breeze
like AEolian harps.
Then the dancers began. The performers were all of Persian origin; they were no
longer slaves, but exercised their profession at liberty. Formerly they figured
officially in the ceremonies at the court of Teheran, but since the accession of the
reigning family, banished or treated with contempt, they had been compelled to
seek their fortune elsewhere. They wore the national costume, and were adorned
with a profusion of jewels. Little triangles of gold, studded with jewels, glittered in
their ears. Circles of silver, marked with black, surrounded their necks and legs.
These performers gracefully executed various dances, sometimes alone,
sometimes in groups. Their faces were uncovered, but from time to time they
threw a light veil over their heads, and a gauze cloud passed over their bright
eyes as smoke over a starry sky. Some of these Persians wore leathern belts
embroidered with pearls, from which hung little triangular bags. From these bags,
embroidered with golden filigree, they drew long narrow bands of scarlet silk, on
which were braided verses of the Koran. These bands, which they held between
them, formed a belt under which the other dancers darted; and, as they passed
each verse, following the precept it contained, they either prostrated themselves
on the earth or lightly bounded upwards, as though to take a place among the
houris of Mohammed's heaven.
But what was remarkable, and what struck Alcide, was that the Persians
appeared rather indolent than fiery. Their passion had deserted them, and, by the
kind of dances as well as by their execution, they recalled rather the calm and
self-possessed nauch girls of India than the impassioned dancers of Egypt.
When this was over, a stern voice was heard saying:
"Look while you may!"