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The Right Hand of the Grand Master

Prepared by Levan Abramishvili
Thursday, May 2
In the previous issues, we offered to our readers the first two chapters of The Right Hand of the Grand Master, a magnum opus of Konstantine Gamsakhurdia who is considered to be one of the most influential Georgian novelists of the 20th century.

The historical fiction novel is set in the 12th century Georgia. The novel explores the semi-legendary story of building of the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral (Cathedral of the Living Pillar) which was to be built by a dedicated architect, Konstantine Arsakidze, as per orders of the King Giorgi I.

(Continued from previous issue)


For six weeks Turmanidze, the famous surgeon, treated Mamamzeh with the utmost care. On Saturdays either the King or the Catholicos visited him, asked after his health and went away. A monk, in charge of the King’s bed, kept vigil in the sick-room. By the patient’s bedside sat the King’s chaplain and read the Psalter to him.

Mamamzeh listened attentively to the sermons of the priest, willingly committed to memory the verses of the psalms and in his heart laughed at the simplicity of the Jewish God.

On the last Saturday the King and Commander-in-Chief Zviad called on Mamamzeh. This time the visitors stayed long. Stories of battles they had fought and of old-time hunting were the topics broached by Giorgi.

“Just the right time now for a crane-hunt in the underbrush of the Aragvi aits,” remarked Giorgi.

He was unusually affable that evening. And yet Mamamzeh’s pulse was racing with apprehension, for at any moment he expected the King to drop his hunting stories and turn abruptly to the subject of Kolonkelidze’s rebellion.

What then?

Then the King would fix his big brown eyes on him and ask:

“And what have you done, my father’s comrade-in-arms, my most faithful vassal?”

What would Mamamzeh say?

He had his answer ready: a flat denial and then a deathlike silence. He would say that he had been travelling and could not possibly know anything. In any event, he was sure of his will­power, whether they were to throw him into the dungeon, chain him to the pillory or even burn out his eyes.

The King broke the silence, looked straight into his eyes and asked unexpectedly:

“Kursha proved the best dog, didn’t she?”

These words set Mamamzeh’s heart at ease, and made him rejoice. He answered in the affirmative, nodding his head.

Giorgi bent his head, staring at the brick floor as if he had dropped something and was looking for it there.

“Yes, the dog is a very faithful animal. . .” he said.

The word “faithful” pierced Mamamzeh’s heart like a sharp nail. Obviously there was now only one step from a dog’s faithfulness to Mamamzeh’s and his son’s perfidy.

Suddenly he grew short of breath. He made an effort to sit up and say something, but Giorgi forestalled him:

“Miserable beings that we are! In order to save our own life” (the King pronounced these words very slowly) “we are apt to sacrifice without scruples our most devoted friend.”

Then again he fell silent and looked at the floor. In a moment, thought Mamamzeh, Giorgi was certain to mention Mamamzeh, Chiaberi and Kolonkelidze. However, the words which struck the ear of the astonished man were these:

“Do you remember how the Greeks besieged us in the fortress of Phanaskert and cut off water supplies for three months, and when famine sapped our strength we slew my favourite bloodhound Kuda and ate it?”

Mamamzeh drew a deep breath of relief and said: “Do I not? Kuda was indeed a fine dog; better, even, than Kursha.”

The King rose abruptly from his seat and, with a casual “good night,” was about to cut short his visit when Mamamzeh reached from his couch after the King and begged to be allowed to go home.

Giorgi noticed that as he spoke his lower jaw fell and began to quiver.

“Have you caught cold?” asked Giorgi.

“I am unwell, but if it accord with the King’s will riding might do me good.”

“You have been my guest. How could I have told you to depart?” Giorgi turned to the commander-in-chief.

“Tell the master of the horse to have the horses saddled early in the morning. Let them also take a cart with them in case his wounds open and make it impossible far him to ride.”

Left alone the guest rose from his bed, took a turn or two in the hall as if testing out his convalescent limbs, then climbed to the terrace of the tower and looked out over the slumbering town.

The pale-bluish round of the sky was enclosed by the black-toothed battlements.

The churches began to strike their wooden gongs. From the palace church came the sound of chanting, and the courtyards of the monasteries teemed with black hosts of monks and nuns.

The challenge of the night-watch rang out from the tower at the Aragvi Gates.

Night was slowly descending on the hunchbacked mountain of Sarkineh. The wild plum and apple blossom was spread like snowflakes over the garden of the Catholicos. Nightingales were trilling in the bushes.

Eristavi Mamamzeh stood leaning on the railing, the thought of his coming departure bringing joy to his heart.

He looked towards the east. The moon was directly over the Monastery of the Cross.

On the Bridge of the Magi he caught sight of a moving, glittering streak. A company of horsemen in chain mail were passing across the bridge. He remembered that three days earlier troops had been sent to the castle of Kherki. His eyes followed the flashing of the helmets. They vanished behind the hill, then reappeared moving uphill. The riders were silent, all that was

heard was the clatter of hoofs, and occasionally the snorting of the stallions and the neighing of the mares.

Suddenly a longing for battle, for riding and fighting seized Mamamzeh. The troops crossed Samtavro Square and the guard opened the North Gates to let them out.

And then undisturbed quiet settled down. The pointed domes of the churches grew black, the stars began to twinkle in the sky. A feeling of restlessness took possession of Mamamzeh amid the profound silence—only the shriek of an owl came at times from the palace garden.

Mamamzeh had spent many months in Mtskheta and during that time neither the King, nor the Catholicos, nor the commander-in-chief had breathed one word about the uprising of the Pkhovians and Aragvians, nor had they mentioned the destruction of the churches. However, behind that outward show of politeness raged a terrible anger.

The previous month the King with his retinue had stayed in Uplistsikheh, and at night there had been a movement of troops between Kherki and Uplistsikheh. All night long Mamamzeh had heard the tramp of horses’ hoofs. There had been an unusual bustle in the palace.

And now the army was on the move again. Maybe the King expected war with the Byzantine Emperor, or an attack by the Emir of Tbilisi.

Apart from all this, what had they done with Chiaberi? What had been Kolonkelidze’s fate?

It was possible that both had had their eyes gouged out. Who knew, perhaps the castles, and towers of Korsatevela and Kvetari had already been razed to their foundations.

As far him, Mamamzeh, they would probably allow him to recover, he thought. That taciturn monk keeping watch by his bed looked so suspicious! He might be a spy! After mumbling his biblical fairy-tales and psalms he would be quiet and stare at Mamamzeh with his pea-coloured, forbidding eyes.

It was obvious that all along they had been waiting for him to regain strength, and this might possibly be the last night of Eristavi Mamamzeh.

“O night, dark as my soul! Advise me of thy secret counsels!” He wondered whither that company of armoured horsemen who had just crossed the Bridge of the Magi might have been going.

Chiaberi and Kolonkelidze had probably been imprisoned in Mtskheta, and one fine night the three of them would be beheaded.

The petty eristavis of Tskhra Tba had been treated by the King in the same way, hadn’t they? First he had invited the father as his guest and made him swear allegiance. Afterwards he had ordered the son to be brought from the castle of Tskhvilo and had kept them both in the dungeon of Sanatlo. The next Passion Week he had sent his chaplain to the prisoners to administer the sacrament and thereafter both the father and the son had been decapitated and their bodies thrown into the Aragvi.

O, that King’s chaplain! That black-cassocked raven! He had long since been odious to Mamamzeh. He was a real eavesdropper and abomination!

Giorgi had appointed him to spy on the distinguished captive, and his ominous croaking boded imminent death. During the first months when Mamamzeh’s life was hanging by a thread, he had been wont to peep into the sick-room every morning. He would stare at Mamamzeh with his narrow-slitted, watery eyes, as if wondering whether Mamamzeh had already given up the ghost. It was his office to steal fox-like up to convicts sentenced to the pillory, to serve holy eucharist and then tell them how Jesus Christ had transformed water into wine at Cana.

“O night, dark as my soul! Advise me of thy secret counsels!” Mamamzeh roused himself from has brooding with a start. Two riders were careering at breakneck speed from the “fortress of Mukhnari, with flaming swords in their hands. They galloped across the square, past the palace and vanished towards the Bridge of Magi.

What was that? A vision? A revelation of a mystery? “O night, dark as my soul! Advise me of thy secret counsels!” Mamamzeh had heard distinctly the clatter of the horses’ hoofs; why, then, were the sentinels standing motionless on their watchtowers?

Had Mamamzeh’s eye and ear deceived him? Was it a strange dream?

No, they were horsemen, of real flesh and blood, grasping fiery swords.

Mamamzeh had as many battles behind him as years of earthly life, but up till now fear of death had been unknown to him.

For once he was startled. His legs gave way and he caught hold of the stone parapet, cowering despicably.

He pulled himself together, straightened himself up and again looked towards the square. He saw three horsemen galloping away, then three more, and then a whole detachment dashed into sight. They sped on at a tremendous pace, drawn swords gleaming above their heads.

No sound whatever was made by the riders themselves; all that was heard was the incessant drumming of hoofs.

As they came darting past the palace the brilliance of their shining swords against the surrounding gloom enabled Mamamzeh to catch glimpses of their gaunt faces, the flash of their helmets and the glitter of their coats of mail.

“O night, dark as my soul! Advise me of thy secret counsels!” The first two horsemen might have been Chialberi and his foster-brother Tokhaidze, who had fought their way into the town, thought Mamamzeh. They had possibly routed the troops sent from Mtskheta in the evening, and had just broken into the town. That was all there was to it.

And yet why were the sentinels silent, he wondered. Could they have been bribed beforehand?

... But those swords? Those flaming blades? Chiaberi might have brought the secret of shining steel from Constantinople. If that was the case why had he not made his father privy to it? Perchance he wanted first to have it put to the test. That reminded Mamamzeh of what Chiaberi had told him; namely, that the Caesar had put in prison a Turk from Bagdad who must have been a master of iron-cutting blades. Though condemned to death on the pillory he had never disclosed his secret.

...Yet how could the strongholds of Mukhnari and Gartiskari have surrendered to Chiaberi so submissively? Nor would the guard of the King’s palace in Mtskheta have yielded to the enemy so readily if Chiaberi and his foster-brother had actually broken into the town. Had they laid siege to the citadel Mamamzeh would have been seized and put to the sword on the instant.

“O night, dark as my soul! Advise me of thy secret counsels!”

He hurried back to his chamber. The monk was sleeping tranquilly, his head resting upon his arms. The Book of Psalms had dropped .from his hand to the floor.

Mamamzeh hastily encased himself in a cuirass, put on a casque, girded on his sword and by the secret stairs went down to the garden.

The instant he stepped into it he noticed two shadows steal close by him and disappear behind the trees.

He passed across Samtavro Square without meeting anybody. Then three tired-looking lancers passed him, their headpieces glistening in the moonlight. Their horses jogged wearily along.

When he lost sight of the lancers he looked back and slaw a long caravan of camels. He turned aside to avoid them, and having noticed a wayside oratory, stopped there.
(Translated by Vakhtang Eristavi)
(continued in the next issue)