Ogareff approached Michael. "You shall die!" he said.
"I can die," answered Michael fiercely; "but your traitor's face, Ivan, will not the less carry forever the infamous brand of the knout."
At this reply Ivan Ogareff became perfectly livid.
"Who is this prisoner?" asked the Emir, in a tone of voice terrible from its very calmness.
"A Russian spy," answered Ogareff. In asserting that Michael was a spy he knew that the sentence pronounced against him would be terrible.
The Emir made a sign at which all the crowd bent low their heads. Then he pointed with his hand to the Koran, which was brought him. He opened the sacred book and placed his finger on one of its pages.
It was chance, or rather, according to the ideas of these Orientals, God Himself who was about to decide the fate of Michael Strogoff. The people of Central Asia give the name of "fal" to this practice. After having interpreted the sense of the verse touched by the judge's finger, they apply the sentence whatever it may be.
The Emir had let his finger rest on the page of the Koran. The chief of the Ulemas then approached, and read in a loud voice a verse which ended with these words, "And he will no more see the things of this earth."
"Russian spy!" exclaimed Feofar-Kahn in a voice trembling with fury, "you have come to see what is going on in the Tartar camp. Then look while you may."
CHAPTER V "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.