Alroy : The Prince of the Captivity, by Benjamin Disraeli

Chapter ii.

The Slaying of an Ishmaelite

SPEED, fleetly speed, thou courser bold, and track the desert’s trackless way. Beneath thee is the boundless earth, above thee is the boundless heaven, an iron soil and brazen sky. Speed, swiftly speed, thou courser bold, and track the desert’s trackless way. Ah! dost thou deem these salty plains6 lead to thy Yemen’s happy groves, and dost thou scent on the hot breeze the spicy breath of Araby? A sweet delusion, noble steed, for this briny wilderness leads not to the happy groves of Yemen, and the breath thou scentest on the coming breeze is not the spicy breath of Araby.

The day has died, the stars have risen, with all the splendour of a desert sky, and now the Night descending brings solace on her dewy wings to the fainting form and pallid cheek of the youthful Hebrew Prince.

Still the courser onward rushes, still his mighty heart supports him. Season and space, the glowing soil, the burning ray, yield to the tempest of his frame, the thunder of his nerves, and lightning of his veins.

Food or water they have none. No genial fount, no graceful tree, rise with their pleasant company. Never a beast or bird is there, in that hoary desert bare. Nothing breaks the almighty stillness. Even the jackal’s felon cry might seem a soothing melody. A grey wild rat, with snowy whiskers, out of a withered bramble stealing, with a youthful snake in its ivory teeth, in the moonlight grins with glee. This is their sole society.

Morn comes, the fresh and fragrant morn, for which even the guilty sigh. Morn comes, and all is visible. And light falls like a signet on the earth, and its face is turned like wax beneath a seal. Before them and also on their right was the sandy desert; but in the night they had approached much nearer to the mountainous chain, which bounded the desert on the left, and whither Alroy had at first guided the steed.

The mountains were a chain of the mighty Elburz; and, as the sun rose from behind a lofty peak, the horse suddenly stopped and neighed, as if asking for water. But Alroy, himself exhausted, could only soothe him with caresses. And the horse, full of courage, understood his master, and neighed again more cheerfully.

For an hour or two the Prince and his faithful companion proceeded slowly, but, as the day advanced, the heat became so oppressive, and the desire to drink so overwhelming, that Alroy again urged on the steed towards the mountains, where he knew that he should find a well. The courser dashed willingly forward, and seemed to share his master’s desire to quit the arid and exhausting wilderness.

More than once the unhappy fugitive debated whether he should not allow himself to drop from his seat and die; no torture that could await him at Hamadan but seemed preferable to the prolonged and inexpressible anguish which he now endured. As he rushed along, leaning on his bearer’s neck, he perceived a patch of the desert that seemed of a darker colour than the surrounding sand. Here, he believed, might perhaps be found water. He tried to check the steed, but with difficulty he succeeded, and with still greater difficulty dismounted. He knelt down, and feebly raked up the sand with his hands. It was moist. He nearly fainted over his fruitless labour. At length, when he had dug about a foot deep, there bubbled up some water. He dashed in his hand, but it was salt as the ocean. When the horse saw the water his ears rose, but, when he smelt it, he turned away his head, and neighed most piteously.

‘Alas, poor beast!’ exclaimed Alroy, ‘I am the occasion of thy suffering, I, who would be a kind master to thee, if the world would let me. Oh, that we were once more by my own fair fountain! The thought is madness. And Miriam too! I fear I am sadly tender-hearted.’ He leant against his horse’s back, with a feeling of utter exhaustion, and burst into hysteric sobs.

And the steed softly moaned, and turned its head, and gently rubbed its face against his arm, as if to solace him in his suffering. And strange, but Alroy was relieved by having given way to his emotion, and, charmed with the fondness of the faithful horse, he leant down and took water, and threw it over its feet to cool them, and wiped the foam from its face, and washed it, and the horse again neighed.

And now Alroy tried to remount, but his strength failed him, and the horse immediately knelt down and received him. And the moment that the Prince was in his seat, the horse rose, and again proceeded at a rapid pace in their old direction. Towards sunset they were within a few miles of the broken and rocky ground into which the mountains descended; and afar off Alroy recognised the cupola of the long-expected well. With reanimated courage and rallied energies he patted his courser’s neck, and pointed in the direction of the cupola, and the horse pricked up its ears, and increased its pace.

Just us the sun set, they reached the well. Alroy jumped off the horse, and would have led it to the fountain, but the animal would not advance. It stood shivering with a glassy eye, and then with a groan fell down and died.

Night brings rest; night brings solace; rest to the weary, solace to the sad. And to the desperate night brings despair.

The moon has sunk to early rest; but a thousand stars are in the sky. The mighty mountains rise severe in the clear and silent air. In the forest all is still. The tired wind no longer roams, but has lightly dropped on its leafy couch, and sleeps like man. Silent all but the fountain’s drip. And by the fountain’s side a youth is lying.

Suddenly a creature steals through the black and broken rocks. Ha, ha! the jackal smells from afar the rich corruption of the courser’s clay. Suddenly and silently it steals, and stops, and smells. Brave banqueting I ween to-night for all that goodly company. Jackal, and fox, and marten-cat, haste ye now, ere morning’s break shall call the vulture to his feast and rob you of your prey.

The jackal lapped the courser’s blood, and moaned with exquisite delight. And in a moment, a faint bark was heard in the distance. And the jackal peeled the flesh from one of the ribs, and again burst into a shriek of mournful ecstasy.

Hark, their quick tramp! First six, and then three, galloping with ungodly glee. And a marten-cat came rushing down from the woods; but the jackals, fierce in their number, drove her away, and there she stood without the circle, panting, beautiful, and baffled, with her white teeth and glossy skin, and sparkling eyes of rabid rage.7

Suddenly as one of the half-gorged jackals retired from the main corpse, dragging along a stray member by some still palpitating nerves, the marten-cat made a spring at her enemy, carried off his prey, and rushed into the woods.

Her wild scream of triumph woke a lion from his lair. His mighty form, black as ebony, moved on a distant eminence, his tail flowed like a serpent. He roared, and the jackals trembled, and immediately ceased from their banquet, turning their heads in the direction of their sovereign’s voice. He advanced; he stalked towards them. They retired; he bent his head, examined the carcass with condescending curiosity, and instantly quitted it with royal disdain. The jackals again collected around their garbage. The lion advanced to the fountain to drink. He beheld a man. His mane rose, his tail was wildly agitated, he bent over the sleeping Prince, he uttered an awful roar, which awoke Alroy.

He awoke; his gaze met the flaming eyes of the enormous beast fixed upon him with a blended feeling of desire and surprise. He awoke, and from a swoon; but the dreamless trance had refreshed the exhausted energies of the desolate wanderer; in an instant he collected his senses, remembered all that had passed, and comprehended his present situation. He returned the lion a glance as imperious, and fierce, and scrutinsing, as his own. For a moment, their flashing orbs vied in regal rivalry; but at length the spirit of the mere animal yielded to the genius of the man. The lion, cowed, slunk away, stalked with haughty timidity through the rocks, and then sprang into the forest.

Morn breaks; a silver light is shed over the blue and starry sky. Pleasant to feel is the breath of dawn. Night brings repose, but day brings joy.

The carol of a lonely bird singing in the wilderness! A lonely bird that sings with glee! Sunny and sweet, and light and clear, its airy notes float through the sky, and trill with innocent revelry.

The lonely youth on the lonely bird upgazes from the fountain’s side. High in the air it proudly floats, balancing its crimson wings, and its snowy tail, long, delicate, and thin, shines like a sparkling meteor in the sun.

The carol of a lonely bird singing in the wilderness! Suddenly it downward dashes, and thrice with circling grace it flies around the head of the Hebrew Prince. Then by his side it gently drops a bunch of fresh and fragrant dates.

’Tis gone, ’tis gone! that cheerful stranger, gone to the palmy land it loves; gone like a bright and pleasant dream. A moment since and it was there, glancing in the sunny air, and now the sky is without a guest. Alas, alas! no more is heard the carol of that lonely bird singing in the wilderness.

‘As thou didst feed Elijah, so also hast thou fed me, God of my fathers!’ And Alroy arose, and he took his turban and unfolded it, and knelt and prayed. And then he ate of the dates, and drank of the fountain, and, full of confidence in the God of Israel, the descendant of David pursued his flight.

He now commenced the ascent of the mountainous chain, a wearisome and painful toil. Two hours past noon he reached the summit of the first ridge, and looked over a wild and chaotic waste full of precipices and ravines, and dark unfathomable gorges. The surrounding hills were ploughed in all directions by the courses of dried-up cataracts, and here and there a few savage goats browsed on an occasional patch of lean and sour pasture. This waste extended for many miles; the distance formed by a more elevated range of mountains, and beyond these, high in the blue sky, rose the loftiest peaks of Elburz,8 shining with sharp glaciers of eternal snow.

It was apparent that Alroy was no stranger in the scene of his flight. He had never hesitated as to his course, and now, after having rested for a short time on the summit, he descended towards the left by a natural but intricate path, until his progress was arrested by a black ravine. Scarcely half a dozen yards divided him from the opposite precipice by which it was formed, but the gulf beneath, no one could shoot a glance at its invisible termination without drawing back with a cold shudder.

The Prince knelt down and examined the surrounding ground with great care. At length he raised a small square stone which covered a metallic plate, and, taking from his vest a carnelian talisman covered with strange characters, he knocked thrice upon the plate with the signet. A low solemn murmur sounded around. Presently the plate flew off, and Alroy pulled forth several yards of an iron chain, which he threw over to the opposite precipice. The chain fastened without difficulty to the rock, and was evidently constrained by some magnetic influence. The Prince, seizing the chain with both his hands, now swung across the ravine. As he landed, the chain parted from the rock, swiftly disappeared down the opposite aperture, and its covering closed with the same low, solemn murmur as before.

Alroy proceeded for about a hundred paces through a natural cloister of basalt until he arrived at a large uncovered court of the same formation, which a stranger might easily have been excused for believing to have been formed and smoothed by art. In its centre bubbled up a perpetual spring, icy cold; the stream had worn a channel through the pavement, and might be traced for some time wandering among the rocks, until at length it leaped from a precipice into a gorge below, in a gauzy shower of variegated spray. Crossing the court, Alroy now entered a vast cavern.

The cavern was nearly circular in form, lighted from a large aperture in the top. Yet a burning lamp, in a distant and murky corner, indicated that its inhabitant did not trust merely to this natural source of the great blessing of existence. In the centre of the cave was a circular and brazen table, sculptured with strange characters and mysterious figures: near it was a couch, on which lay several volumes.9 Suspended from the walls were a shield, some bows and arrows, and other arms.

As the Prince of the Captivity knelt down and kissed the vacant couch, a figure advanced from the extremity of the cavern into the light. He was a man of middle age, considerably above the common height, with a remarkably athletic frame, and a strongly-marked but majestic countenance. His black beard descended to his waist, over a dark red robe, encircled by a black girdle embroidered with yellow characters, like those sculptured on the brazen table. Black also was his turban, and black his large and luminous eye.

The stranger advanced so softly, that Alroy did not perceive him, until the Prince again rose.

‘Jabaster!’ exclaimed the Prince.

‘Sacred seed of David,’ answered the Cabalist,10 ‘thou art expected. I read of thee in the stars last night. They spoke of trouble.’

‘Trouble or triumph, Time must prove which it is, great master. At present I am a fugitive and exhausted. The bloodhounds track me, but methinks I have baffled them now. I have slain an Ishmaelite.’

6— I describe the salty deserts of Persia, a locality which my tale required; but I have ventured to introduce here, and in the subsequent pages, the principal characteristics of the great Arabian deserts: the mirage, the simoom, the gazelle, the oasis.]

7Jackals and marten-cat. At nightfall, especially in Asia Minor, the lonely horseman will often meet the jackals on their evening prowl. Their moaning is often heard during the night. I remember, when becalmed off Troy, the most singular screams were heard at intervals throughout the night, from a forest on the opposite shore, which a Greek sailor assured me proceeded from a marten-cat, which had probably found the carcass of some horse.]

8 Elburz, or Elborus, the highest range of the Caucasus.]

9A circular and brazen table, sculptured with strange characters and mysterious figures; near it was a couch on which lay several volumes. A cabalistic table, perhaps a zodiac. The books were doubtless Sepher Happeliah, the Book of Wonders; Sepher Hakkaneh, the Book of the Pen; and Sepher Habbahir, the Book of Light. This last unfolds the most sublime mysteries.]

10Answered the Cabalist. ‘Simeon ben Jochai, who flourished in the second century, and was a disciple of Akibha, is called by the Jews the Prince of the Cabalists. After the suppression of the sedition in which his master had been so unsuccessful, he concealed himself in a cave, where, according to the Jewish historians, he received revelations, which he after-wards delivered to his disciples, and which they carefully preserved in the book called Sohar. His master, Akibha, who lived soon after the destruction of Jerusalem, was the author of the famous book Jezirah, quoted by the Jews as of Divine authority. When Akibha was far advanced in life, appeared the famous impostor Barchochebas, who, under the character of the Messiah, promised to deliver his countrymen from the power of the Emperor Adrian. Akibha espoused his cause, and afforded him the protection and support of his name, and an army of two hundred thousand men repaired to his standard. The Romans at first slighted the insurrection; but when they found the insurgents spread slaughter and rapine wherever they came, they sent out a military force against them. At. first, the issue of the contest was doubtful. The Messiah himself was not taken until the end of four years.’— Enfield, Philosophy of the Jews, vol. ii.

‘Two methods of instruction were in use among the Jews; the one public, or exoteric; the other secret, or esoteric. The exoteric doctrine was that which was openly taught the people from the law of Moses and the traditions of the fathers. The esoteric was that which treated of the mysteries of the Divine nature, and other sublime subjects, and was known by the name of the Cabala. The latter was, after the manner of the Pythagorean and Egyptian mysteries, taught only to certain persons, who were bound, under the most solemn anathema, not to divulge it. Concerning the miraculous origin and preservation of the Cabala, the Jews relate many marvellous tales. They derive these mysteries from Adam, and assert that, while the first man was in Paradise, the angel Rasiel brought him a book from heaven, which contained the doctrines of heavenly wisdom, and that, when Adam received this book, angels came down to him to learn its contents, but that he refused to admit them to the knowledge of sacred things entrusted to him alone; that, after the Fall, this book was taken back into heaven; that, after many prayers and tears, God restored it to Adam, from whom it passed to Seth. In the degenerate age before the flood this book was lost, and the mysteries it contained almost forgotten; but they were restored by special revelation to Abraham, who committed them to writing in the book Jezirah.’— Vide Enfield, vol. ii. p. 219.

‘The Hebrew word Cabala,‘ says Dom Calmet, ‘signifies tradition, and the Rabbins, who are named Cabalists, apply themselves principally to the combination of certain words, numbers, and letters, by the means of which they boasted they could reveal the future, and penetrate the sense of the most difficult passages of Scripture. This science does not appear to have any fixed principles, but depends upon certain ancient traditions, whence its name Cabala. The Cabalists have a great number of names which they style sacred, by means of which they raise spirits, and affect to obtain supernatural intelligence.’— See Calmet, Art. Cabala.

‘We spake before,’ says Lightfoot, ‘of the commonness of Magick among them, one singular means whereby they kept their own in delusion, and whereby they affronted ours. The general expectation of the nation of Messias coming when he did had this double and contrary effect, that it forwarded those that belonged to God to believe and receive the Gospel; and those that did not, it gave encouragement to some to take upon them they were Christ or some great prophet, and to others it gave some persuasion to be deluded by them. These deceivers dealt most of them with Magick, and that cheat ended not when Jerusalem ended, though one would have thought that had been a fair term of not further expecting Messias; but since the people were willing to be deceived by such expectation, there rose up deluders still that were willing to deceive them.’— Lightfoot, vol. ii. p. 371.

For many curious details of the Cabalistic Magic, Vide Basnage, vol. v. p. 384, &c.]

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:19