The Last Galley Impressions and Tales
The Red Star
The house of Theodosius, the famous eastern merchant, was in the best part of
Constantinople at the Sea Point which is near the Church of Saint Demetrius. Here he
would entertain in so princely a fashion that even the Emperor Maurice had been known
to come privately from the neighbouring Bucoleon palace in order to join in the revelry.
On the night in question, however, which was the fourth of November in the year of our
Lord 630, his numerous guests had retired early, and there remained only two intimates,
both of them successful merchants like himself, who sat with him over their wine on the
marble verandah of his house, whence on the one side they could see the lights of the
shipping in the Sea of Marmora, and on the other the beacons which marked out the
course of the Bosphorus. Immediately at their feet lay a narrow strait of water, with the
low, dark loom of the Asiatic hills beyond. A thin haze hid the heavens, but away to the
south a single great red star burned sullenly in the darkness.
The night was cool, the light was soothing, and the three men talked freely, letting their
minds drift back into the earlier days when they had staked their capital, and often their
lives, on the ventures which had built up their present fortunes. The host spoke of his
long journeys in North Africa, the land of the Moors; how he had travelled, keeping the
blue sea ever upon his right, until he had passed the ruins of Carthage, and so on and ever
on until a great tidal ocean beat upon a yellow strand before him, while on the right he
could see the high rock across the waves which marked the Pillars of Hercules. His talk
was of dark-skinned bearded men, of lions, and of monstrous serpents. Then Demetrius,
the Cilician, an austere man of sixty, told how he also had built up his mighty wealth. He
spoke of a journey over the Danube and through the country of the fierce Huns, until he
and his friends had found themselves in the mighty forest of Germany, on the shores of
the great river which is called the Elbe. His stories were of huge men, sluggish of mind,
but murderous in their cups, of sudden midnight broils and nocturnal flights, of villages
buried in dense woods, of bloody heathen sacrifices, and of the bears and wolves who
haunted the forest paths. So the two elder men capped each other's stories and awoke
each other's memories, while Manuel Ducas, the young merchant of gold and ostrich
feathers, whose name was already known all over the Levant, sat in silence and listened
to their talk. At last, however, they called upon him also for an anecdote, and leaning his
cheek upon his elbow, with his eyes fixed upon the great red star which burned in the
south, the younger man began to speak.
"It is the sight of that star which brings a story into my mind," said he. "I do not know its
name. Old Lascaris the astronomer would tell me if I asked, but I have no desire to know.
Yet at this time of the year I always look out for it, and I never fail to see it burning in the
same place. But it seems to me that it is redder and larger than it was.
"It was some ten years ago that I made an expedition into Abyssinia, where I traded to
such good effect that I set forth on my return with more than a hundred camel-loads of
skins, ivory, gold, spices, and other African produce. I brought them to the sea-coast at
Arsinoe, and carried them up the Arabian Gulf in five of the small boats of the country.