Alroy : The Prince of the Captivity, by Benjamin Disraeli

Chapter iv.

Alroy Falls Among Thieves

TRADITION taught that the sceptre of Solomon could be found only in the unknown sepulchres of the ancient Hebrew monarchs, and that none might dare to touch it but one of their descendants. Armed with the cabalistic talisman, which was to guide him in his awful and difficult researches, Alroy commenced his pilgrimage to the Holy City. At this time, the love of these sacred wanderings was a reigning passion among the Jews as well as the Christians.

The Prince of the Captivity was to direct his course into the heart of those great deserts which, in his flight from Hamadan, he had only skirted. Following the track of the caravan, he was to make his way to Babylon, or Bagdad. From the capital of the caliphs, his journey to Jerusalem was one comparatively easy; but to reach Bagdad he must encounter hardship and danger, the prospect of which would have divested any one of hope, who did not conceive himself the object of an omnipotent and particular Providence.

Clothed only in a coarse black frock, common among the Kourds, girded round his waist by a cord which held his dagger, his head shaven, and covered with a large white turban, which screened him from the heat, his feet protected only by slippers, supported by his staff, and bearing on his shoulders a bag of dried meat and parched corn, and a leathern skin of water, behold, toiling over the glowing sands of Persia, a youth whose life had hitherto been a long unbroken dream of domestic luxury and innocent indulgence.

He travelled during the warm night or the early starlit morn. During the day he rested: happy if he could recline by the side of some charitable well, shaded by a palm-tree, or frighten a gazelle from its resting-place among the rough bushes of some wild rocks. Were these resources wanting, he threw himself upon the sand, and made an awning with his staff and turban.

Three weeks had elapsed since he quitted the cavern of the Cabalist. Hitherto he had met with no human being. The desert became less arid. A scanty vegetation sprang up from a more genial soil; the ground broke into gentle undulations; his senses were invigorated with the odour of wild plants, and his sight refreshed by the glancing form of some wandering bird, a pilgrim like himself, but more at ease.

Soon sprang up a grove of graceful palm-trees, with their tall thin stems, and bending feathery crowns, languid and beautiful. Around, the verdant sod gleamed like an emerald: silver streams, flowing from a bubbling parent spring, wound their white forms within the bright green turf. From the grove arose the softening song of doves, and showers of gay and sparkling butterflies, borne on their tinted wings of shifting light, danced without danger in the liquid air. A fair and fresh Oasis!

Alroy reposed in this delicious retreat for two days, feeding on the living dates, and drinking of the fresh water. Fain would he have lingered, nor indeed, until he rested, had he been sufficiently conscious of his previous exertion. But the remembrance of his great mission made him restless, and steeled him to the sufferings which yet awaited him.

At the dawn of the second day of his journey from the Oasis he beheld to his astonishment, faintly but distinctly traced on the far horizon, the walls and turrets of an extensive city.13 Animated by this unexpected prospect, he continued his progress for several hours after sunrise. At length, utterly exhausted, he sought refuge from the overpowering heat beneath the cupola of the ruined tomb of some Moslem saint. At sunset he continued his journey, and in the morning found himself within a few miles of the city. He halted, and watched with anxiety for some evidence of its inhabitants. None was visible. No crowds or cavalcades issued from the gates. Not a single human being, not a solitary camel, moved in the vicinity.

The day was too advanced for the pilgrim to proceed, but so great was his anxiety to reach this unknown settlement, and penetrate the mystery of its silence, that ere sunset Alroy entered the gates.

A magnificent city, of an architecture with which he was unacquainted, offered to his entranced vision its gorgeous ruins and deserted splendour; long streets of palaces, with their rich line of lessening pillars, here and there broken by some fallen shaft, vast courts surrounded by ornate and solemn temples, and luxurious baths adorned with rare mosaics, and yet bright with antique gilding; now an arch of triumph, still haughty with its broken friezes; now a granite obelisk covered with strange characters, and proudly towering over a prostrate companion; sometimes a void and crumbling theatre, sometimes a long and elegant aqueduct, sometimes a porphyry column, once breathing with the heroic statue that now lies shivered at its base, all suffused with the warm twilight of an eastern eve.

He gazed with wonder and admiration upon the strange and fascinating scene. The more he beheld, the more his curiosity was excited. He breathed with difficulty; he advanced with a blended feeling of eagerness and hesitation. Fresh wonders successively unfolded themselves. Each turn developed a new scene of still and solemn splendour. The echo of his step filled him with awe. He looked around him with an amazed air, a fluttering heart, and a changing countenance. All was silent: alone the Hebrew Prince stood amid the regal creation of the Macedonian captains. Empires and dynasties flourish and pass away; the proud metropolis becomes a solitude, the conquering kingdom even a desert; but Israel still remains, still a descendant of the most ancient kings breathed amid these royal ruins, and still the eternal sun could never rise without gilding the towers of living Jerusalem. A word, a deed, a single day, a single man, and we might be a nation.

A shout! he turns, he is seized; four ferocious Kourdish bandits grapple and bind him.

The bandits hurried their captive through a street which appeared to have been the principal way of the city. Nearly at its termination, they turned by a small Ionian temple, and, clambering over some fallen pillars, entered a quarter of the city of a more ruinous aspect than that which Alroy had hitherto visited. The path was narrow, often obstructed, and around were signs of devastation for which the exterior of the city had not prepared him.

The brilliant but brief twilight of the Orient was fast fading away; a sombre purple tint succeeded to the rosy flush; the distant towers rose black, although defined, in the clear and shadowy air; and the moon, which, when he first entered, had studded the heavens like a small white cloud, now glittered with deceptive light.

Suddenly, before them rose a huge pile. Oval in shape, and formed by tiers of arches, it was evidently much dilapidated, and one enormous, irregular, and undulating rent, extending from the top nearly to the foundation, almost separated the side to which Alroy and his companions advanced.

Clambering up the remainder of this massive wall, the robbers and their prisoner descended into an immense amphitheatre, which seemed vaster in the shadowy and streaming moonlight. In it were groups of men, horses, and camels. In the extreme distance, reclining or squatting on mats and carpets, was a large assembly, engaged in a rough but merry banquet. A fire blazed at their side, its red and uncertain flame mingling with the white and steady moonbeam, and throwing a flickering light over their ferocious countenances, their glistening armour, ample drapery, and shawled heads.

‘A spy,’ exclaimed the captors, as they dragged Alroy before the leader of the band.

‘Hang him, then,’ said the chieftain, without even looking up.

‘This wine, great Scherirah, is excellent, or I am no true Moslem,’ said a principal robber; ‘but you are too cruel; I hate this summary punishment. Let us torture him a little, and extract some useful information.’

‘As you like, Kisloch,’ said Scherirah; ‘it may amuse us. Fellow, where do you come from? He cannot answer. Decidedly a spy. Hang him up.’

The captors half untied the rope that bound Alroy, that it might serve him for a further purpose, when another of the gentle companions of Scherirah interfered.

‘Spies always answer, captain. He is more probably a merchant in disguise.’

‘And carries hidden treasure,’ added Kisloch; ‘these rough coats often cover jewels. We had better search him.’

‘Ah! search him,’ said Scherirah, with his rough brutal voice; ‘do what you like, only give me the bottle. This Greek wine is choice booty. Feed the fire, men. Are you asleep? And then Kisloch, who hates cruelty, can roast him if he likes.’

The robbers prepared to strip their captive. ‘Friends, friends!’ exclaimed Alroy, ‘for there is no reason why you should not be friends, spare me, spare me. I am poor, I am young, I am innocent. I am neither a spy nor a merchant. I have no plots, no wealth. I am a pilgrim.’

‘A decided spy,’ exclaimed Scherirah; ‘they are ever pilgrims.’

‘He speaks too well to speak truth,’ exclaimed Kisloch.

‘All talkers are liars,’ exclaimed Scherirah.

‘That is why Kisloch is the most eloquent of the band.’

‘A jest at the banquet may prove a curse in the field,’ replied Kisloch.

‘Pooh!’ exclaimed Scherirah. ‘Fellows, why do you hesitate? Search the prisoner, I say!’

They advanced, they seized him. In vain he struggled.

‘Captain,’ exclaimed one of the band, ‘he wears upon his breast a jewel!’

‘I told you so,’ said the third robber.

‘Give it me,’ said Scherirah.

But Alroy, in despair at the thought of losing the talisman, remembering the injunctions of Jabaster, and animated by supernatural courage, burst from his searchers, and, seizing a brand from the fire, held them at bay.

‘The fellow has spirit,’ said Scherirah, calmly. ”Tis pity it will cost him his life.’

‘Bold man,’ exclaimed Alroy, ‘for a moment hear me! I am a pilgrim, poorer than a beggar. The jewel they talk of is a holy emblem, worthless to you, to me invaluable, and to be forfeited only with my life. You may be careless of that. Beware of your own. The first man who advances dies. I pray you humbly, chieftain, let me go.’

‘Kill him,’ said Scherirah.

‘Stab him!’ exclaimed Kisloch.

‘Give me the jewel,’ said the third robber.

‘The God of David be my refuge, then!’ exclaimed Alroy.

‘He is a Hebrew, he is a Hebrew,’ exclaimed Scherirah, jumping up. ‘Spare him, my mother was a Jewess.’

The assailants lowered their arms, and withdrew a few paces. Alroy still remained upon his guard.

‘Valiant pilgrim,’ said Scherirah, advancing, with a softened voice, ‘are you for the holy city?’

‘The city of my fathers.’

‘A perilous journey. And whence from?’

‘Hamadan.’

‘A dreary way. You need repose. Your name?’

‘David.’

‘David, you are among friends. Rest, and repose in safety. You hesitate. Fear not! The memory of my mother is a charm that always changes me!’ Scherirah unsheathed his dagger, punctured his arm,14 and, throwing away the weapon, offered the bleeding member to Alroy. The Prince of the Captivity touched the open vein with his lips.

‘My troth is pledged,’ said the bandit; ‘I can never betray him in whose veins my own blood is flowing.’ So saying, he led Alroy to his carpet.

‘Eat,’ David,’ said Scherirah.

‘I will eat bread,’ answered Alroy.

‘What! have you had so much meat lately that you will refuse this delicate gazelle that I brought down this morning with my own lance? ’Tis food for a caliph.’

‘I pray you give me bread.’

‘Oh! bread if you like. But that a man should prefer bread to meat, and such meat as this, ’tis miraculous.’

‘A thousand thanks, good Scherirah; but with our people the flesh of the gazelle is forbidden. It is unclean. Its foot is cloven.’

‘I have heard of these things,’ replied Scherirah, with a thoughtful air. ‘My mother was a Jewess, and my father was a Kourd. Whichever be right, I hope to be saved.’

‘There is but one God, and Mahomed is his prophet!’ exclaimed Kisloch; ‘though I drink wine. Your health, Hebrew.’

‘I will join you,’ said to the third robber. ‘My father was a Guebre, and sacrificed his property to his faith; and the consequence is, his son has got neither.’

‘As for me,’ said a fourth robber, of very dark complexion and singularly small bright eyes, ‘I am an Indian, and I believe in the great golden figure with carbuncle eyes, in the temple of Delhi.’

‘I have no religion,’ said a tall negro in a red turban, grinning with his white teeth; ‘they have none in my country; but if I had heard of your God before, Calidas, I would have believed in him.’

‘I almost wish I had been a Jew,’ exclaimed Scherirah, musing. ‘My mother was a good woman.’ ‘The Jews are very rich,’ said the third robber. ‘When you get to Jerusalem, David, you will see the Christians,’ continued Scherirah.

‘The accursed Giaours,’ exclaimed Kisloch, ‘we are all against them.’

‘With their white faces,’ exclaimed the negro. ‘And their blue eyes,’ said the Indian. ‘What can you expect of men who live in a country without a sun?’ observed the Guebre.

Alroy awoke about two hours after midnight. His companions were in deep slumber. The moon had set, the fire had died away, a few red embers alone remaining; dark masses of shadow hung about the amphitheatre. He arose and cautiously stepped over the sleeping bandits. He was not in strictness a prisoner; but who could trust to the caprice of these lawless men? To-morrow might find him their slave, or their companion in some marauding expedition, which might make him almost retrace his steps to the Caucasus, or to Hamadan. The temptation to ensure his freedom was irresistible. He clambered up the ruined wall, descended into the intricate windings that led to the Ionic fane, that served him as a beacon, hurried through the silent and starry streets, gained the great portal, and rushed once more into the desert.

A vague fear of pursuit made him continue his course many hours without resting. The desert again became sandy, the heat increased. The breeze that plays about the wilderness, and in early spring is often scented with the wild fragrance of aromatic plants, sank away. A lurid brightness suffused the heavens. An appalling stillness pervaded nature; even the insects were silent. For the first time in his pilgrimage, a feeling of deep despondency fell over the soul of Alroy. His energy appeared suddenly to have deserted him. A low hot wind began to rise, and fan his cheek with pestiferous kisses, and enervate his frame with its poisonous embrace. His head and limbs ached with a dull sensation, more terrible than pain; his sight was dizzy, his tongue swollen. Vainly he looked around for aid; vainly he extended his forlorn arms, and wrung them to the remorseless heaven, almost frantic with thirst. The boundless horizon of the desert disappeared, and the unhappy victim, in the midst of his torture, found himself apparently surrounded by bright and running streams, the fleeting waters of the false mirage!

The sun became blood-red, the sky darker, the sand rose in fierce eddies, the moaning wind burst into shrieks and exhaled more ardent and still more malignant breath. The pilgrim could no longer sustain himself.15 Faith, courage, devotion deserted him with his failing energies. He strove no longer with his destiny, he delivered himself up to despair and death. He fell upon one knee with drooping head, supporting himself by one quivering hand, and then, full of the anguish of baffled purposes and lost affections, raising his face and arm to heaven, thus to the elements he poured his passionate farewell.

‘O life! once vainly deemed a gloomy toil, I feel thy sweetness now! Farewell, O life, farewell my high resolves and proud conviction of almighty fame. My days, my short unprofitable days, melt into the past; and death, with which I struggle, horrible death, arrests me in this wilderness. O my sister, could thy voice but murmur in my ear one single sigh of love; could thine eye with its soft radiance but an instant blend with my dim fading vision, the pang were nothing. Farewell, Miriam! my heart is with thee by thy fountain’s side. Fatal blast, bear her my dying words, my blessing. And ye too, friends, whose too neglected love I think of now, farewell! Farewell, my uncle; farewell, pleasant home, and Hamadan’s serene and shadowy bowers! Farewell, Jabaster, and the mighty lore of which thou wert the priest and I the pupil! Thy talisman throbs on my faithful heart. Green earth and golden sun, and all the beautiful and glorious sights ye fondly lavish on unthinking man, farewell, farewell! I die in the desert: ’tis bitter. No more, oh! never more for me the hopeful day shall break, and the fresh breeze rise on its cheering wings of health and joy. Heaven and earth, water and air, my chosen country and my antique creed, farewell, farewell! And thou, too, city of my soul, I cannot name thee, unseen Jerusalem ——’

Amid the roar of the wind, the bosom of the earth heaved and opened, swift columns of sand sprang up to the lurid sky, and hurried towards their victim. With the clang of universal chaos, impenetrable darkness descended on the desert.

13The walls and turrets of an extensive city. In Persia, and the countries of the Tigris and Euphrates, the traveller sometimes arrives at deserted cities of great magnificence and antiquity. Such, for instance, is the city of Anneh. I suppose Alroy to have entered one of the deserted capitals of the Seleucidae. They are in general the haunt of bandits.]

14Punctured his arm. From a story told by an Arab.]

15The pilgrim could no longer sustain himself. An endeavor to paint the simoom.]

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