The Shaving of Shagpat, by George Meredith

The Sword of Aklis

Now, when they had made the passage of many halls, built of different woods, filled with divers wonders, they descended a sloping vault, and came to a narrow way in the earth, hung with black, at the end of it a stedfast blaze like a sun, that grew larger as they advanced, and they heard the sea above them. The noise of it, and its plunging and weltering and its pitilessness, struck on the heart of Shibli Bagarag as with a blow, and he cried, ‘Haste, haste, O Princess! perchance she is even now calling to me with her tongue, and I not aiding her; delayed by the temptation of this crown and the guile of the Brides.’

She checked him, and said, ‘In Aklis no haste!’ Then she said, ‘Look!’ And lo, fronting them the single blaze became two fires; and drawing nigh, Shibli Bagarag beheld them what they were, angry eyes in the head of a great lion, a model of majesty, and passion was in his mane and power was in his forepaws; so while he lashed his tail as a tempest whippeth the tawny billows at night, and was lifting himself for a roar, she said, ‘A hair of Garraveen, and touch him with it!’

Shibli Bagarag pushed up his sleeve and broke one of the three sapphire hairs and stepped forward to the lion, holding in his right hand the hair of vivid light. The lion crouched, and was in the vigour of the spring when that hair touched him, and he trembled, tumbling on his knees and letting the twain pass. So they advanced beyond him, and lo! the Cave of Chrysolites irradiate with beams, breaks of brilliance, confluences of lively hues, restless rays, meeting, vanishing, flooding splendours, now scattered in dazzling joints and spars, now uniting in momentary disks of radiance. In the centre of the cave glowed a furnace, and round it he distinguished the seven youths, swarthier and sterner than before, dark sweat standing on the brows of each. Their words were brief, and they wore each a terrible frown, saying to him, without further salutation, ‘Thrust in the flame of this furnace thy right wrist.’

At the same moment, the Antelope said in his ear, ‘Do thou their bidding, and be not backward! In Aklis fear is ruin, and hesitation a destroyer.’

He fixed his mind on the devotedness of Noorna, and held his nether lip tightly between his teeth, and thrust his right wrist in the flame of the furnace. The wrist reddened, and became transparent with heat, but he felt no pain, only that his whole arm was thrice its natural weight. Then the flame of the furnace fell, and the seven youths made him kneel by a brook of golden waters and dip his forehead up to his eyes in the waters. Then they took him to the other side of the cave, and his sight was strengthened to mark the glory of the Sword, where it hung in slings, a little way from the wall, outshining the lights of the cave, and throwing them back with its superior force and stedfastness of lustre. Lo! the length of it was as the length of crimson across the sea when the sun is sideways on the wave, and it seemed full a mile long, the whole blade sheening like an arrested lightning from the end to the hilt; the hilt two large live serpents twined together, with eyes like sombre jewels, and sparkling spotted skins, points of fire in their folds, and reflections of the emerald and topaz and ruby stones, studded in the blood-stained haft. Then the seven young men, sons of Aklis, said to Shibli Bagarag, ‘Surrender the Lily!’ And when he had given into their hands the Lily, they said, ‘Grasp the handle of the Sword!’

Now, he beheld the Sword and the ripples of violet heat that were breathing down it, and those two venomous serpents twined together, and the size of it, its ponderousness; and to essay lifting it appeared to him a madness, but he concealed his thought, and, setting his soul on the safety of Noorna, went forward to it boldly, and piercing his right arm between the twists of the serpents, grasped the jewelled haft. Surely, the Sword moved from the slings as if a giant had swayed it! But what amazed him was the marvel of the blade, for its sharpness was such that nothing stood in its way, and it slipped through everything as we pass through still water, the stone columns, blocks of granite by the walls, the walls of earth, and the thick solidity of the ground beneath his feet. They bade him say to the Sword, ‘Sleep!’ and it was no longer than a knife in the girdle. Likewise, they bade him hiss on the heads of the serpents, and say, ‘Wake!’ and while he held it lengthwise it shot lengthening out. Then they bade him hold in one hand the sapphire hair that conquered the lion, and with the edge of the Sword touch one point of it. So he did that, and it split in half, and the two halves he also split; and he split those four, and those eight, till the hairs were thin as light and not distinguishable from it. When Shibli Bagarag saw the power of the Sword, he exulted and cried, ‘Praise be to the science of them that forecast events and the haps of life!’ Now, in the meantime he marked the youths take those hairs of Garraveen that he had split, and tie them round the neck of the Antelope, and empty the contents of the phial down her throat; and they put the bulb of the Lily, that was a heart, in her mouth, and she swallowed it till the flower covered her face. Then they took each a handful of the golden waters of the brook flowing through the cave, and flung the waters over her, exclaiming, ‘By the three spells that have power in Aklis, and by which these waters are a blessing!’

In the passing of a flash she took her shape, and was a damsel taller than the tallest of them that descend from the mountains, a vision of loveliness, with queenly brows, closed red lips, and large full black eyes; her hair black, and on it a net of amber strung with pearls. To look upon her was to feel the tyranny of love, love’s pangs of alarm and hope and anguish; and she was dressed in a dress of white silk, threaded with gold and sapphire, showing in shadowy beams her rounded figure and the stateliness that was hers. So she ran to her brothers and embraced them, calling them by their names, catching their hands, caressing them as one that had been long parted from them. Then, seeing Shibli Bagarag as he stood transfixed with the javelins of loveliness that flew from her on all sides, she cried: ‘What, O Master of the Event! halt thou nought for the Sword but to gaze before thee in silliness?’

Then he said, ‘O rare in beauty! marvel of Aklis and the world! surely the paradise of eyes is thy figure and the glory of thy face!’

But she shouted, ‘To work with the Sword! Shame on thee! is there not one, a bright one, a miracle in faithfulness, that awaiteth thy rescue on the pillar?’

And she repeated the praises he had spoken of Noorna bin Noorka, his betrothed. Then he grasped the Sword firmly, remembering the love of Noorna, and crying, ‘Lead me from this, O ye sons of Aklis, and thou, Princess Gulrevaz, lead me, that I may come to her.’

So they said, ‘Follow us!’ and he sheathed the Sword in his girdle with the word ‘Sleep!’ and followed them, his heart beating violently.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/m/meredith/george/shaving-of-shagpat/chapter15.html

Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 23:09