by Gary Inbinder
Table of Contents
part 1, part 2
appeared in issue 259.
part 3 of 3
The porter led Olivier through the first floor vestibule of the two story house. Swirling patterned blue and white tiles decorated the walls; sunshine filtered through the apertures of intricately carved shuttered wooden grillwork. Shafts of white light streamed through latticed openings, shimmered and danced upon the tiles.
At the end of the vestibule, Olivier entered a chamber opening onto a shaded courtyard where a small reflecting pool glimmered in the sun: a tiny oasis in the desert. Somewhere nearby a pair of songbirds warbled.
The servant directed Olivier to a western style chair on one side of a low rosewood veneered coffee table and gestured for him to sit. The porter bowed and left the room to inform his master that his guest had arrived. Olivier glanced at his surroundings; there were oriental rugs on the floors and more blue and white tiles decorating the walls. A chair identical to the one upon which Olivier sat faced him from across the table. A swooshing ceiling fan worked by an unobtrusive servant circulated a pleasant breeze and Olivier smiled as he enjoyed the relatively cool calmness of the place.
A man quietly entered the chamber and Olivier got up, touched his hand to his heart, nodded his head and exchanged the traditional greeting. Sayyid Ali walked to the waiting chair. Before seating himself he addressed Olivier in impeccable French; “I am Sayyid Ali, and you are my honored guest. Please be seated, Monsieur. A servant will bring refreshments shortly.”
Olivier sat and smiled at his host, waiting for him to speak. Sayyid Ali was a man of about sixty with tan, wrinkled, pock-marked skin, a neatly trimmed white beard and piercing dark brown eyes. He stood an inch or two shorter than Olivier, and the slightness of his form could be discerned from the way the folds of his plain djellaba conformed to his bony contours.
Sayyid Ali returned Olivier’s smile and after a moment he broke the silence. “Rest assured, Monsieur, that I am aware of your unfamiliarity with our language and customs; this place must seem to you like the far side of the moon.”
Olivier was taken aback, and for a moment worried that he might have inadvertently offended his host. “Forgive me Monsieur if I’ve committed some faux pas. I’m afraid that I’m truly ignorant of your customs and manners.”
Sayyid Ali laughed quietly, and shook his head. “No, Monsieur, it is I who must apologize. I fear that I did not express myself well. I meant to say that as my honored guest you must not worry about our ways. I want you to feel comfortable and at home as though we were conducting business in your own country.”
Relieved, Olivier reclined in his chair, took a handkerchief from his pocket and mopped his brow. “I’m most grateful, Monsieur. You have no idea how much your kind words have done to put me at ease.”
“Thank you, Monsieur. There is, however, one custom we must rigorously observe. Before we do business we will first enjoy some coffee and sweets and get to know one another.”
Olivier smiled broadly. “That, sir, is a custom of which I completely approve.”
* * *
Olivier and Sayyid Ali spent some time in the comfort of the small chamber, drinking thick sweet coffee from tiny porcelain cups in brass holders and munching on flaky crusted, chewy, honey and nut-filled pastries.
As if guided by some internal clock of custom and habit, Sayyid Ali signaled a transition by carefully wiping crumbs from his beard, washing his hands in a brass bowl and then turning sideways to emit a surreptitious burp. Olivier politely emulated his host. Then, Sayyid Ali initiated business. “I believe, Monsieur, that you have something for me?”
Olivier reached into the inner breast pocket of his jacket, withdrew a sealed envelope and handed it to Sayyid Ali. “I am delivering this to you, Monsieur, on behalf of the Comte de Malherbe.”
Sayyid Ali glanced down at the count’s unbroken seal, placed the envelope on the table and stared directly at Olivier with penetrating eyes. “Do you know the contents of this envelope, Monsieur?”
Olivier looked into Sayyid Ali’s eyes and calmly replied, “No sir, I do not.”
“What would you say if I told you that he who possesses this envelope would be wealthy beyond imagining?”
“The envelope is none of my concern, Monsieur. This is a matter between you and the count. I am merely a go-between.”
Sayyid Ali’s gaze softened and his mouth turned upward in a satisfied smile. “Well said, Monsieur. The count chose wisely; you are an honorable man.”
Olivier relaxed a bit in response to his host. “Now, Monsieur, I believe you have something for me to convey to the count?”
“Yes, of course. But first, since I now know something of your character I’d like to tell you about the count’s purchase.” Moving his chair closer to the table, Sayyid Ali leaned forward, touched Olivier’s arm gently and whispered, “Surely, Monsieur, you’ll admit you’re a bit curious?”
Disarmed by his host’s unexpected gesture, Olivier confided, “I’ll admit, sir, that I’m curious and perplexed by this entire business.”
Sayyid Ali leaned back in his chair and smiled. “Are you familiar with the term Mysterion?”
The word Mysterion conjured up something in Olivier’s memory, taking him back to a time when he studied theology in preparation for the priesthood. “Yes, Monsieur, I believe the term refers to the mysterious Divine plan for our salvation.”
“So, you are a religious man?” Sayyid Ali smiled benignly in anticipation of Olivier’s response as though he already knew the answer to his question.
Olivier flushed with embarrassment, and for a few seconds he lowered his eyes. Then, he looked up and answered matter-of-factly, “Not of late, Monsieur. When younger, for a short time, I studied to be a priest.”
“Would you confide to me what it was that made you change your mind?”
Olivier looked at his host for awhile, not sure he wanted to continue this line of conversation. It had been several years since Olivier last took communion and his current situation reminded him of confession. Nevertheless, there was something about Sayyid Ali that inspired trust. “There was a young woman.”
“Ah, yes, Monsieur, and so it has been since Eve tempted Adam.” The host paused for a moment and then added in a soft-voiced, fatherly manner, “Yet the envelope did not tempt you?”
Olivier stared at his host, perplexed and lost in the conversation as though he were wandering through Timbuktu’s maze of streets and alleys without a guide. He shook his head. “Pardon me, I do not understand.”
With little change in his expression, and a subtle rising in his tone of voice, Sayyid Ali observed, “Your friend, Captain Oudinot is one of the finest men I know.”
Now completely bewildered by the unanticipated and seemingly irrelevant reference to Oudinot, Olivier merely nodded his head in reply.
“Yes, Monsieur, Captain Oudinot is honorable, loyal to a fault and brave. Among the Tuareg such men are respected most of all. We admire such men, even when they are our enemies.”
Olivier stared at his host. He found the comment disturbing but for the moment thought it prudent to remain silent.
Sayyid Ali noted Olivier’s uneasy silence. “Captain Oudinot reminds me of your hero Roland. I can see him standing alone among his fallen comrades, dying yet still defiant. Once his honor was secured for posterity, he sounded a bugle to call down vengeance on his foes.”
Olivier did not like the reference to Roland’s defeat by the Saracens at the Battle of Roncesvalles. It was too reminiscent of modern local events, such as the massacre of Colonel Bonnier and his men. Now forced to play the diplomat, Olivier chose his words carefully. “You speak of the past, sir. Let us be thankful that we are now at peace.”
“Yes, so it would seem. Yet peace might be an illusion, and behind the veil of appearance may lurk a darker reality; a reflection of our true selves. And it may be that the dark secret we fear to view is the Mysterion.”
Sayyid Ali stopped for a moment and called for one of his servants. Then, he turned back to Olivier. “My servant is bringing the article you will take to the count to complete our transaction. It is an old mirror, reputed to have once belonged to the seer Nostradamus and before him to the Persian poet and mystic Jalal-ud-din Rumi. At least that is what the count believes it to be. My trusted agents have assured me of its authenticity and in reliance the count has paid me a fortune.”
Olivier now had the uncomfortable feeling that Sayyid Ali might be a swindler and the count a fool. Moreover, he had the even more distressing concern that his life would be in danger if he betrayed the slightest hint of what he was thinking.
Presently, a servant entered the room carrying a moderately sized mirror in a carved dark wood frame such as Olivier had seen hanging on the walls of old Loire Valley châteaux. He had also seen such mirrors in antique shops and bazaars. The thing could be genuine, or it could be a fake; he had no way of knowing except for what he was told.
The servant set the mirror on the table, bowed and then exited the chamber. Sayyid Ali looked at Olivier. “Our business is now concluded, Monsieur. A room has been prepared for you and you will stay as my guest for two days, until the steamer returns to Koulikoro. I’ve instructed the servants to see to all your needs and the hall porter speaks a little French should you have questions. Unfortunately, I will be quite busy and I apologize that I will not be able to meet with you after today.”
Olivier smiled. “I understand, Monsieur. You have been gracious and most generous. I could ask for nothing more.”
“Thank you, Monsieur. When you are ready to leave a servant will carry your baggage, including of course the mirror, and a carriage will be waiting at the city’s Main Gate to drive you to the docks.”
Well, then, it’s done, Olivier thought. He didn’t relish the prospect of staying in this place two more days. He would have preferred to join Oudinot and the officers at Fort Bonnier, but he figured the mere suggestion might be taken as an unpardonable insult to his host. Therefore, he politely inclined his head and once again thanked Sayyid Ali for his hospitality.
Before he summoned a servant to escort Olivier to his room, Sayyid Ali gave his guest a quizzical look. “I must admit, Monsieur, that when I first saw the mirror I wondered why the count placed such a high value on it. It must be the legend.”
“Pardon me, sir, but to what legend do you refer?”
Sayyid Ali slapped his forehead, as though he had forgotten something important. “You must forgive me,” he exclaimed. “Age has dulled my mind. The count already possesses antique spectacles. They, like the mirror are reputed to have belonged to Rumi and Nostradamus. According to the Mysterion legend, one who wears the spectacles and looks into the mirror will pierce the veil of illusion and see things reflected as they really are.”
Sayyid Ali took Olivier by the arm and guided him forward so that they were both looking into the mirror. “For example, if I had the count’s spectacles and we both gazed into the mirror, I could see you as only God does and thus know your fate in the next world. Of course, at the same time I’d see my own soul and its destiny as well.” Sayyid Ali turned to Olivier with a peculiar twisted grin.
Olivier replied without hesitation; “If the legend were true, sir, then to a believer — whether Moslem, Christian or Jew — looking into the mirror and relying upon it instead of upon God would be a terrible sin that would bring misfortune to the beholder.”
The host’s unpleasant grin changed to a beneficent smile. “Yes, Monsieur, truly it would.” Sayyid Ali walked to the entrance and called for the hall porter. Upon parting Sayyid Ali and Olivier exchanged the traditional salutation of peace and then went their separate ways, never to meet again.
Copyright © 2007 by Gary Inbinder