A Strange Story, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Chapter 85.

On the ground a wide circle was traced by a small rod, tipped apparently with sponge saturated with some combustible naphtha-like fluid, so that a pale lambent flame followed the course of the rod as Margrave guided it, burning up the herbage over which it played, and leaving a distinct ring, like that which, in our lovely native fable-talk, we call the “Fairy’s Ring,” but yet more visible because marked in phosphorescent light. On the ring thus formed were placed twelve small lamps, fed with the fluid from the same vessel, and lighted by the same rod. The light emitted by the lamps was more vivid and brilliant than that which circled round the ring.

Within the circumference, and immediately round the woodpile, Margrave traced certain geometrical figures, in which — not without a shudder, that I overcame at once by a strong effort of will in murmuring to myself the name of “Lilian”— I recognized the interlaced triangles which my own hand, in the spell enforced on a sleep-walker, had described on the floor of the wizard’s pavilion. The figures were traced, like the circle, in flame, and at the point of each triangle (four in number) was placed a lamp, brilliant as those on the ring. This task performed, the caldron, based on an iron tripod, was placed on the wood-pile. And then the woman, before inactive and unheeding, slowly advanced, knelt by the pile, and lighted it. The dry wood crackled and the flame burst forth, licking the rims of the caldron with tongues of fire.

Margrave flung into the caldron the particles we had collected, poured over them first a liquid, colourless as water, from the largest of the vessels drawn from his coffer, and then, more sparingly, drops from small crystal phials, like the phials I had seen in the hand of Philip Derval.

Having surmounted my first impulse of awe, I watched these proceedings, curious yet disdainful, as one who watches the mummeries of an enchanter on the stage.

“If,” thought I, “these are but artful devices to inebriate and fool my own imagination, my imagination is on its guard, and reason shall not, this time, sleep at her post!”

“And now,” said Margrave, “I consign to you the easy task by which you are to merit your share of the elixir. It is my task to feed and replenish the caldron; it is Ayesha’s to heed the fire, which must not for a moment relax in its measured and steady heat. Your task is the lightest of all it is but to renew from this vessel the fluid that burns in the lamps, and on the ring. Observe, the contents of the vessel must be thriftily husbanded; there is enough, but not more than enough, to sustain the light in the lamps, on the lines traced round the caldron, and on the farther ring, for six hours. The compounds dissolved in this fluid are scarce — only obtainable in the East, and even in the East months might have passed before I could have increased my supply.

“I had no months to waste. Replenish, then, the light only when it begins to flicker or fade. Take heed, above all, that no part of the outer ring — no, not an inch — and no lamp of the twelve, that are to its zodiac like stars, fade for one moment in darkness.”

I took the crystal vessel from his hand.

“The vessel is small,” said I, “and what is yet left of its contents is but scanty; whether its drops suffice to replenish the lights I cannot guess — I can but obey your instructions. But, more important by far than the light to the lamps and the circle, which in Asia or Africa might scare away the wild beasts unknown to this land — more important than light to a lamp, is the strength to your frame, weak magician! What will support you through six weary hours of night-watch?”

“Hope,” answered Margrave, with a ray of his old dazzling style. “Hope! I shall live — I shall live through the centuries!”

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31