Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
Mahomet and Irene
By Richard Knolles (c. 15501610)
From the Generall Historie of the Turkes
NOW amongst many fair virgins taken prisoners by the Turks at the winning of Constantinople, was one Irene, a Greek born, of such incomparable beauty and rare perfection, both of body and mind, as if nature had in her, to the admiration of the world, laboured to have shown her greatest skill; so prodigally she had bestowed upon her, all the graces that might beautify or commend that her so curious a work. This paragon was by him that by chance had taken her, presented unto the great sultan Mahomet himself, as a jewel so fit for no mans wearing as his own: by the beauty and secret virtues whereof, he found himself even upon the first view not a little moved. Nevertheless, having his head as then full of troubles, and above all things careful for the assuring of the imperial city of Constantinople, by him but even then won; he for the present committed her to the charge of his eunuch, and sent her away, so to be in safety kept until his better leisure. But those his troubles overblown, and his new conquests well assured, he then began forthwith to think of the fair Irene: and for his pleasure sending for her, took in her perfections such delight and contentment, as that in short time he had changed state with her, she being become the mistress and commander of him so great a conqueror; and he in nothing more delighted, than in doing her the greatest honour and service he could. All the day he spent with her in discourse, and the night in dalliance: All time spent in her company, seemed unto him short, and without her nothing pleased: his fierce nature was now by her well tamed, and his wonted care of arms quite neglected: Mars slept in Venus lap, and now the soldiers might go play. Yea the very government of his estate and empire seemed to be of him, in comparison of her, little or not at all regarded; the care thereof being by him carelessly committed to others, that so he might himself wholly attend upon her, in whom more than in himself, the people said he delighted. Such is the power of disordered affections, where reason ruleth not the rein. But whilst he thus, forgetful of himself, spendeth in pleasure not some few days or months, but even a whole year or two, to the lightening of his credit, and the great discontentment of his subjects in general: the janizaries and other soldiers of the court (men desirous of employment, and grieved to see him so given over unto his affections, and to make no end thereof) began at first in secret to murmur thereat, and to speak hardly of him; and at length (after their insolent manner) spared not openly to say, That it were well done to deprive him of his government and estate, as unworthy thereof, and to set up one of his sons in his stead. Which speeches were now grown so rife, and the discontentment of the men of war so great, that it was not without cause by some of the great Bassaes feared, whereunto this their so great insolency would grow. But who should tell the tyrant thereof, whose frown was in itself death? or who durst take in hand to cure that his sick mind? which distraught with the sweet but poisoned potions of love, was not like to listen to any good counsel, were it never so wisely given: but as a man metamorphosed, to turn his fury upon him which should presume so wholesomely (but contrary to his good liking) to advise him. Unhappy man, whose great estate and fierce nature was not without danger to be meddled or tempered with, no, not by them who of all others ought in so great a peril to have been thereof most careful; but were now for fear all become silent and dumb. Now amongst other great men in the Court, was one Mustapha Bassa, a man for his good service (for that he was of a child brought up with him) of Mahomet greatly favoured, and by him also highly promoted; and he again by him as his sovereign no less honoured than feared: who no less than the rest, grieved to see so great a change in the great Sultan, of whom they had conceived no small hope of greater matters than were by him as yet performed: and moved also with the danger threatened unto him by the discontented Janizaries and men of war: espying him at convenient leisure to be spoken unto, and presuming of the former credit he had with him, adventured thus to break with him, and to give him warning thereof.
Having thus said, he fell down at his feet, as there to receive the heavy doom of his so free speech, if it should be otherwise than well taken of the angry Sultan: who all this while with great attention and many a stern look had hearkened unto all that the Bassa had said: for well he knew it to be all true; and that in so saying, he had but discharged the part of a trusty and faithful servant, careful of his masters honour. But yet the beauty of the Greek was still so fixed in his heart, and the pleasure he took in her so great, as that to think of the leaving of her bred in him many a troubled thought. He was at war with himself, as in his often changed countenance well appeared; reason calling upon him, for his honour; and his amorous affections still suggesting unto him new delights. Thus tossed to and fro (as a ship with contrary winds) and withal considering the danger threatened to his estate if he should longer follow those his pleasures so much displeasing unto his men of war, he resolved upon a strange point, whereby at once to cut off all those his troubled passions; and withal, to strike a terror even into the stoutest of them that had before condemned him, as unable to govern his own so passionate affections. Whereupon, with countenance well declaring his inward discontentment, he said unto the Bassa, yet prostrate at his feet:
Although thou hast unreverently spoken, as a slave presuming to enter into the greatest secrets of thy sovereign (not without effence to be by thee once thought upon) and therefore deservest well to die; yet for that thou wast of a child brought up together with me, and hast ever been unto me faithful, I for this time pardon thee: and before to-morrow the sun go down, will make it known both to thee, and others of the same opinion with thee, whether I be able to bridle mine affections or not. Take order in the meantime that all the Bassaes, and the chief commanders of my men of war be assembled together tomorrow, there to know my farther pleasure: whereof fail you not.
So the Bassa being departed, he after his wonted manner went in unto the Greek, and solacing himself all that day and the night following with her, made more of her than ever before: and the more to please her, dined with her; commanding, that after dinner she should be attired with more sumptuous apparel than ever she had before worn; and for the further gracing of her, to be deckt with many most precious jewels of inestimable value. Whereunto the poor soul gladly obeyed, little thinking that it was her funeral apparel. Now in the mean while, Mustapha (altogether ignorant of the Sultans mind) had, as he was commanded, caused all the nobility, and commanders of the men of war, to be assembled into the great hall: every man much marvelling, what should be the Emperors meaning therein, who had not of long so publicly shewed himself. But being thus together assembled, and every man according as their minds gave them, talking diversely of the matter: behold, the Sultan entered into the palace leading the fair Greek by the hand; who beside her incomparable beauty and other the greatest graces of nature, adorned also with all that curiosity could devise, seemed not now to the beholders a mortal wight, but some of the stately goddesses, whom the poets in their ecstasies describe. Thus coming together into the midst of the hall, and due reverence unto them done by all them there present; he stood still with the fair lady in his left hand, and so furiously looking round about him, said unto them: I understand of your great discontentment, and that you all murmur and grudge, for that I, overcome with mine affection towards this so fair a paragon, cannot withdraw myself from her presence. But I would fain know which of you there is so temperate that if he had in his possession a thing so rare and precious, so lovely and so fair, would not be thrice advised before he would forego the same? Say what you think: in the word of a Prince I give you free liberty so to do. But they all, rapt with an incredible admiration to see so fair a thing, the like whereof they had never before beheld, said all with one consent, That he had with greater reason so passed the time with her, than any man had to find fault therewith. Whereunto the barbarous Prince answered: Well, but now I will make you to understand how far you have been deceived in me, and that there is no earthly thing that can so much blind my senses, or bereave me of reason, as not to see and understand what beseemeth my high place and calling; yea I would you should all know, that the honour and conquests of the Othoman kings my noble progenitors, is so fixed in my breast, with such a desire in myself to exceed the same, as that nothing but death is able to put it out of my remembrance. And having so said, presently with one of his hands catching the fair Greek by the hair of the head, and drawing his falchion with the other, at one blow struck off her head, to the great terror of them all. And having so done, said unto them: Now by this judge whether your emperor is able to bridle his affections or not.