’TWAS midnight, and the storm still raged; ‘mid the roar of the thunder and the shrieks of the wind, the floods of forky lightning each instant revealed the broad and billowy breast of the troubled Tigris. Jabaster stood gazing upon the wild scene from the gallery of his palace. His countenance was solemn, but disquieted.
‘I would that he were here!’ exclaimed the high priest. ‘Yet why should I desire his presence, who heralds only gloom? Yet in his absence am I gay? I am nothing. This Bagdad weighs upon me like a cloak of lead: my spirit is dull and broken.’
‘They say Alroy gives a grand banquet in the serail to-night, and toasts his harlot ‘mid the thunderbolts. Is there no hand to write upon the wall? He is found wanting, he is weighed, and is indeed found wanting. The parting of his kingdom soon will come, and then, I could weep, oh! I could weep, and down these stern and seldom yielding cheeks pour the wild anguish of my desperate woe. So young, so great, so favoured! But one more step a God, and now a foul Belshazzar!
‘Was it for this his gentle youth was passed in musing solitude and mystic studies? Was it for this the holy messenger summoned his most religious spirit? Was it for this he crossed the fiery desert, and communed with his fathers in their tombs? Is this the end of all his victories and all his vast achievements? To banquet with a wanton!
‘A year ago, this very night, it was the eve of battle, I stood within his tent to wait his final word. He mused awhile, and then he said, “Good night, Jabaster!” I believed myself the nearest to his heart, as he has ever been nearest to mine, but that’s all over. He never says, “Good night, Jabaster,” now. Why, what’s all this? Methinks I am a child.
‘The Lord’s anointed is a prisoner now in the light grating of a bright kiosk, and never gazes on the world he conquered. Egypt and Syria, even farthest Ind, send forth their messengers to greet Alroy, the great, the proud, the invincible. And where is he? In a soft Paradise of girls and eunuchs, crowned with flowers, listening to melting lays, and the wild trilling of the amorous lute. He spares no hours to council; all is left to his prime favourites, of whom the leader is that juggling fiend I sometime called my brother.
‘Why rest I here? Whither should I fly? Methinks my presence is still a link to decency. Should I tear off the ephod, I scarcely fancy ‘twould blaze upon another’s breast. He goes not to the sacrifice; they say he keeps no fast, observes no ritual, and that their festive fantasies will not be balked, even by the Sabbath. I have not seen him thrice since the marriage. Honain has told her I did oppose it, and she bears to me a hatred that only women feel. Our strong passions break into a thousand purposes: women have one. Their love is dangerous, but their hate is fatal.
‘See! a boat bounding on the waters. On such a night, but one would dare to venture.’
Now visible, now in darkness, a single lantern at the prow, Jabaster watched with some anxiety the slight bark buffeting the waves. A flash of lightning illumined the whole river, and tipped with a spectral light even the distant piles of building. The boat and the toiling figure of the single rower were distinctly perceptible. Now all again was darkness; the wind suddenly subsided; in a few minutes the plash of the oars was audible, and the boat apparently stopped beneath the palace.
There was a knocking at the private portal.
‘Who knocks?’ enquired Jabaster.
‘A friend to Israel.’
‘Abidan, by his voice. Art thou alone?’
‘The prophetess is with me; only she.’
‘A moment. I’ll open the gate. Draw the boat within the arch.’
Jabaster descended from the gallery, and in a few moments returned with two visitors: the youthful prophetess Esther, and her companion, a man short in stature, but with a powerful and well-knit frame. His countenance was melancholy, and, with harshness in the lower part, not without a degree of pensive beauty in the broad clear brow and sunken eyes, unusual in Oriental visages.
‘A rough night,’ said Jabaster.
‘To those who fear it,’ replied Abidan. ‘The sun has brought so little joy to me, I care not for the storm.’
‘Woe! woe! woe!’
‘Thy usual note, my sister. Will the day never come when we may change it?’
‘Woe! woe! woe! unutterable woe!’
‘Abidan, how fares it?’
‘As it may turn out.’
‘You are brief.’
‘Have you been to court, that you have learnt to be so wary in your words, my friend?’
‘I know not what may happen. In time we may all become courtiers, though I fear, Jabaster, we have done too much to be rewarded. I gave him my blood, and you something more, and now we are at Bagdad. ’Tis a fine city. I wish to Heaven the shower of Sodom would rain upon its terraces.’
‘I know thou hast something terrible to tell. I know it by that gloomy brow of thine, that lowers like the tempest. Speak out, man, I can bear the worst, for which I am prepared.’
‘Take it, then. Alroy has proclaimed himself Caliph. Abner is made Sultan of Persia; Asriel, Ithamar, Medad, and the chief captains, Vizirs, Honain their chief. Four Moslem nobles are sworn into the council. The Princess goes to mosque in state next Friday; ’tis said thy pupil doth accompany her.’
‘I’ll not believe it! By the God of Sinai, I’ll not believe it! Were my own eye the accursed witness of the deed, I’d not believe it. Go to mosque! They play with thee, my good Abidan, they play with thee.’
‘As it may be. Tis a rumour, but rumours herald deeds. The rest of my intelligence is true. I had it from my kinsman, stout Zalmunna. He left the banquet.’
‘Shall I go to him? Methinks one single word, To mosque! only a rumour and a false one. I’ll never believe it; no, no, no, never, never! Is he not the Lord’s anointed? The ineffable curse upon this daughter ot the Moabite! No marvel that it thunders! By heavens, I’ll go and beard him in his orgies!’
‘You know your power better than Abidan. You bearded him before his marriage, yet ——’
‘He married. Tis true. Honain, their chief. And I kept his ring! Honain is my brother. Have I ne’er a dagger to cut the bond of brotherhood?’
‘We have all daggers, Jabaster, if we knew but how to use them.’
”Tis strange, we met after twenty years of severance. You were not in the chamber, Abidan. ’Twas at council. We met after twenty years of severance. He is my brother. ’Tis strange, I say: I felt that man shrink from my embrace.’
‘Honain is a philosopher, and believes in sympathy. ‘Twould appear there was none between you. His system, then, absolves you from all ties.’
‘You are sure the rest of the intelligence is true? I’ll not believe the mosque, the rest is bad enough.’
‘Zalmunna left the banquet. Hassan Subah’s brother sat above him.’
‘Subah’s brother! ’Tis all over, then. Is he of the council?’
‘Ay, and others.’
‘Where now is Israel?’
‘She should be in her tents.’
‘Woe! woe! unutterable woe!’ exclaimed the prophetess, who, standing motionless at the back of the chamber, seemed inattentive to their conversation.
Jabaster paced the gallery with agitated steps. Suddenly he stopped, and, walking up to Abidan, seized his arm, and looked him sternly in the face. ‘I know thy thoughts, Abidan,’ exclaimed the priest; ‘but it cannot be. I have dismissed, henceforth and for ever I have dismissed all feeling from my mind; now I have no brother, no friend, no pupil, and, I fear, no Saviour. Israel is all in all to me. I have no other life. ’Tis not compunction, then, that stays my arm. My heart’s as hard as thine.’
‘Why stays it then?’
‘Because with him we fall. He is the last of all his sacred line. There is no other hand to grasp our sceptre.’
‘Our sceptre! what sceptre?’
‘The sceptre of our kings.’
‘Ay, why dost thou look so dark?’
‘How looked the prophet when the stiff-necked populace forsooth must have a king! Did he smile? Did he shout, and clap his hands, and cry, God save his Majesty! O, Jabaster! honoured, rare Jabaster! thou second Samuel of our lightheaded people! there was a time when Israel had no king except their God. Were we viler then? Did kings conquer Canaan? Who was Moses, who was Aaron, who was mighty Joshua? Was the sword of Gideon a kingly sword? Did the locks of Samson shade royal temples? Would a king have kept his awful covenant like solemn Jephtha? Royal words are light as air, when, to maintain them, you injure any other than a subject.
‘Kings! why, what’s a king? Why should one man break the equal sanctity of our chosen race? Is their blood purer than our own? We are all the seed of Abraham. Who was Saul, and who was David? I never heard that they were a different breed from our fathers. Grant them devout, which they were not; and brave and wise, which other men were; have their posterity a patent for all virtues? No, Jabaster! thou ne’er didst err, but when thou placedst a crown upon this haughty stripling. What he did, a thousand might have done. ’Twas thy mind inspired the deed. And now he is a king; and now Jabaster, the very soul of Israel, who should be our Judge and leader, Jabaster trembles in disgrace, while our unhallowed Sanhedrim is filled with Ammonites!’
‘Abidan, thou hast touched me to the quick; thou hast stirred up thoughts that ever and anon, like strong and fatal vapours, have risen from the dark abyss of thought, and I have quelled them.’
‘Let them rise, I say; let them drown the beams of that all-scorching sun we suffer under, that drinks all vegetation up, and makes us languish with a dull exhaustion!’
‘Joy! joy! unutterable joy!’
‘Hark! the prophetess has changed her note; and yet she hears us not. The spirit of the Lord is truly with her. Come, Jabaster, I see thy heart is opening to thy people’s sufferings; thy people, my Jabaster, for art not thou our Judge? At least, thou shalt be.’
‘Can we call back the Theocracy? Is’t possible?’
‘But say the word, and it is done, Jabaster. Nay, stare not. Dost thou think there are no true hearts in Israel? Dost thou suppose thy children have beheld, without a thought, the foul insults poured on thee; thee, their priest, their adored high priest, one who recalls the best days of the past, the days of their great Judges? But one word, one single movement of that mitred head, and —— But I speak unto a mind that feels more than I can express. Be silent, tongue, thou art a babbling counsellor. Jabaster’s patriot soul needs not the idle schooling of a child. If he be silent, ’tis that his wisdom deems that the hour is not ripe, but when her leader speaks, Israel will not be slack.’
‘The Moslemin in council! We know what must come next. Our national existence is in its last agony. Methinks the time is very ripe, Abidan.’
‘Why, so we think, great sir; and say the word, and twenty thousand spears will guard the Ark. I’ll answer for my men. Stout Scherirah looks grimly on the Moabites. A word from thee, and the whole Syrian army will join our banner, the Lion of Judah, that shall be our flag. The tyrant and his satraps, let them die, and then the rest must join us. We’ll proclaim the covenant, and, leaving Babylon to a bloody fate, march on to Zion!’
‘Zion, his youthful dream, Zion!’
‘King or no king, he is the Lord’s anointed. Shall this hand, that poured the oil on his hallowed head, wash out the balmy signet with his blood? Must I slay him? Shall this kid be seethed even in its mother’s milk?’
‘His voice is low, and yet his face is troubled. How now, sir?’
‘What art thou? Ah! Abidan, trusty, stanch Abidan! You see, Abidan, I was thinking, my good Abidan, all this may be the frenzy of a revel. Tomorrow’s dawn may summon cooler counsels. The tattle of the table, it is sacred. Let us forget it; let us pass it over. The Lord may turn his heart. Who knows, who knows, Abidan!’
‘Noble sir, a moment since your mind was like your faith, firm and resolved, and now ——’
‘School me not, school me not, good Abidan. There is that within my mind you cannot fathom; some secret sorrows which are all my own. Leave me, good friend, leave me awhile. When Israel calls me I shall not be wanting. Be sure of that, Abidan, be sure of that. Nay, do not go; the night is very rough, and the fair prophetess should not again stem the swelling river. I’ll to my closet, and will soon return.’
Jabaster quitted the gallery, and entered a small apartment. Several large volumes, unclasped and open, were lying on various parts of the divan. Before them stood his brazen cabalistic table. He closed the chamber with a cautious air. He advanced into the centre of the apartment. He lifted up his hands to heaven, and clasped them with an expression almost of agony.
‘Is it come to this?’ he muttered in a tone of deep oppression. ‘Is it come to this? What is’t I have heard? what done? Down, tempting devil, down! O life! O glory! O my country, my chosen people, and my sacred creed! why do we live, why act? Why have we feeling for aught that’s famous, or for aught that’s holy? Let me die! let, let me die! The torture of existence is too great.’
He flung himself upon the couch; he buried his awful countenance in his robes. His mighty heart was convulsed with passion. There did he lie, that great and solemn man, prostrate and woe-begone.
‘The noisy banquet lingers in my ear; I love to be alone.’
‘Thou art myself; I have no other life.’
‘Sweet bird! It is now a caliph.’
‘I am what thou wiliest, soul of my sweet existence! Pomp and dominion, fame and victory, seem now but flawed and dimly-shaded gems compared with thy bright smile!’
‘My plaintive nightingale, shall we hunt today?’
‘Alas! my rose, I would rather lie upon this lazy couch, and gaze upon thy beauty!’
‘Or sail upon the cool and azure lake, in some bright barque, like to a sea-nymph’s shell, and followed by the swans?’
‘There is no lake so blue as thy deep eye; there is no swan so white as thy round arm!’
‘Or shall we launch our falcons in the air, and bring the golden pheasant to our feet?’
‘I am the golden pheasant at thy feet; why wouldst thou richer prey?’
‘Rememberest thou thy earliest visit to this dear kiosk, my gentle mute? There thou stoodst with folded arms and looks demure as day, and ever and anon with those dark eyes stealing a glance which made my cheek quite pale. Methinks I see thee even yet, shy bird. Dost know, I was so foolish when it quitted me, dost know I cried?’
‘Ah, no! thou didst not cry?’
‘Indeed, I think I did.’
‘Tell me again, my own Schirene, indeed didst cry?’
‘Indeed I did, my soul!’
‘I would those tears were in some crystal vase, I’d give a province for the costly urn.’
She threw her arms around his neck and covered his face with kisses.
Sunset sounded from the minarets. They arose and wandered together in the surrounding paradise. The sky was tinted with a pale violet flush, a single star floating by the side of the white moon, that beamed with a dim lustre, soft and shapely as a pearl.
‘Beautiful!’ exclaimed the pensive Schirene, as she gazed upon the star. ‘O, my Alroy, why cannot we ever live alone, and ever in a paradise?’
‘I am wearied of empire,’ replied Alroy with a smile, ‘let us fly!’
‘Is there no island, with all that can make life charming, and yet impervious to man? How little do we require! Ah! if these gardens, instead of being surrounded by hateful Bagdad, were only encompassed by some beautiful ocean!’
‘My heart, we live in a paradise, and are seldom disturbed, thanks to Honain!’
‘But the very consciousness that there are any other persons existing besides ourselves is to me painful. Every one who even thinks of you seems to rob me of a part of your being. Besides, I am weary of pomp and palaces. I should like to live in a sparry grot, and sleep upon a couch of sweet leaves!’
This interesting discussion was disturbed by a dwarf, who, in addition to being very small and very ugly, was dumb. He bowed before the Princess; and then had recourse to a great deal of pantomimic action, by which she discovered that it was dinnertime. No other person could have ventured to disturb the royal pair, but this little being was a privileged favourite.
So Alroy and Schirene entered the serail. An immense cresset-lamp, fed with perfumed oil, threw a soft light round the sumptuous chamber. At the end stood a row of eunuchs in scarlet dresses, and each holding a tall silver staff. The Caliph and the Sultana threw themselves upon a couch covered with a hundred cushions; on one side stood a group consisting of the captain of the guard and other officers of the household, on the other, of beautiful female slaves magnificently attired.
The line of domestics at the end of the apartment opened, and a body of slaves advanced, carrying trays of ivory and gold, and ebony and silver, covered with the choicest dainties, curiously prepared. These were in turn offered to the Caliph and the Sultana by their surrounding attendants. The Princess accepted a spoon made of a single pearl, the long, thin golden handle of which was studded with rubies, and condescended to partake of some saffron soup, of which she was fond. Afterwards she regaled herself with the breast of a cygnet, stuffed with almonds, and stewed with violets and cream. Having now a little satisfied her appetite, and wishing to show a mark of her favour to a particular individual, she ordered the captain of the guard instantly to send him the whole of the next course74 with her compliments. Her attention was then engaged with a dish of those delicate ortolans that feed upon the vine-leaves of Schiraz, and with which the Governor of Nishapur took especial care that she should be well provided. Tearing the delicate birds to pieces with her still more delicate fingers, she insisted upon feeding Alroy, who of course yielded to her solicitations. In the meantime, they refreshed themselves with their favourite sherbet of pomegranates, and the golden wine of Mount Lebanon.75 The Caliph, who could eat no more ortolans, although fed by such delicate fingers, was at length obliged to call for ‘rice,’ which was synonymous to commanding the banquet to disappear. The attendants now brought to each basins of gold, and ewers of rock crystal filled with rose water, with towels of that rare Egyptian linen which can be made only of the cotton that grows upon the banks of the Nile. While they amused themselves with eating sugar-plums, and drinking coffee flavoured with cinnamon, the female slaves danced before them in the most graceful attitudes to the melody of invisible musicians.
‘My enchanting Schirene,’ said the Caliph, ‘I have dined, thanks to your attention, very well. These slaves of yours dance admirably, and are exceedingly beautiful. Your music, too, is beyond all praise; but, for my own part, I would rather be quite alone, and listening to one of your songs.’
‘I have written a new one today. You shall hear it.’ So saying, she clapped her little white hands, and all the attendants immediately withdrew.
‘The stars are stealing forth, and so will I. Sorry sight! to view Jabaster, with a stealthy step, skulk like a thing dishonoured! Oh! may the purpose consecrate the deed! the die is cast.’
So saying, the High Priest, muffled up in his robe, emerged from his palace into the busy streets. It is at night that the vitality of Oriental life is most impressive. The narrow winding streets, crowded with a population breathing the now sufferable air, the illuminated coffee-houses, the groups of gay yet sober revellers, the music, and the dancing, and the animated recitals of the poet and the story-teller, all combine to invest the starry hours with a beguiling and even fascinating character of enjoyment and adventure.
It was the night after the visit of Abidan and the prophetess. Jabaster had agreed to meet Abidan in the square of the great mosque two hours after sunset, and thither he now repaired.
‘I am somewhat before my time,’ he said, as he entered the great square, over which the rising moon threw a full flood of light. A few dark shadows of human beings alone moved in the distance. The world was in the streets and coffee-houses. ‘I am somewhat before my time,’ said Jabaster. ‘Conspirators are watchful. I am anxious for the meeting, and yet I dread it. Since he broke this business, I have never slept. My mind is a chaos. I will not think. If ’tis to be done, let it be done at once. I am more tempted to sheathe this dagger in Jabaster’s breast than in Alroy’s. If life or empire were the paltry stake, I would end a life that now can bring no joy, and yield authority that hath no charm; but Israel, Israel, thou for whom I have endured so much, let me forget Jabaster had a mother!
‘But for this thought that links me with my God, and leads my temper to a higher state, how vain and sad, how wearisome and void, were this said world they think of! But for this thought, I could sit down and die. Yea! my great heart could crack, worn out, worn out; my mighty passions, with their fierce but flickering flame, sink down and die; and the strong brain that ever hath urged my course, and pricked me onward with perpetual thought, desert the rudder it so long hath held, like some baffled pilot in blank discomfiture, in the far centre of an unknown sea.
‘Study and toil, anxiety and sorrow, mighty action, perchance Time, and disappointment, which is worse than all, have done their work, and not in vain. I am no longer the same Jabaster that gazed upon the stars of Caucasus. Methinks even they look dimmer than of yore. The glory of my life is fading. My leaves are sear, tinged, but not tainted. I am still the same in one respect; I have not left my God, in deed or thought. Ah! who art thou?’
‘A friend to Israel.’
‘I am glad that Israel hath a friend. Noble Abi-dan, I have well considered all that hath passed between us. Sooth to say, you touched upon a string I’ve played before, but kept it for my loneliness; a jarring tune, indeed a jarring tune, but so it is, and being so, let me at once unto your friends, Abi-dan.’
‘Noble Jabaster, thou art what I deemed thee.’
‘Abidan, they say the consciousness of doing justly is the best basis of a happy mind.’
‘And thou believest it?’
‘We are doing very justly?’
”Tis a weak word for such a holy purpose.’
‘I am most wretched!’
The High Priest and his companion entered the house of Abidan. Jabaster addressed the already assembled guests.
‘Brave Scherirah, it joys me to find thee here. In Israel’s cause when was Scherirah wanting? Stout Zalmunna, we have not seen enough of each other: the blame is mine. Gentle prophetess, thy blessing!
‘Good friends, why we meet here is known to all. Little did we dream of such a meeting when we crossed the Tigris. But that is nothing. We come to act, and not to argue. Our great minds, they are resolved: our solemn purpose requires no demonstration. If there be one among us who would have Israel a slave to Ishmael, who would lose all we have prayed for, all we have fought for, all we have won, and all for which we are prepared to die, if there be one among us who would have the Ark polluted, and Jehovah’s altar stained with a Gentile sacrifice, if there be one among us who does not sigh for Zion, who would not yield his breath to build the Temple and gain the heritage his fathers lost, why, let him go! There is none such among us: then stay, and free your country!’
‘We are prepared, great Jabaster; we are prepared, all, all!’
‘I know it; you are like myself. Necessity hath taught decision. Now for our plans. Speak, Zalmunna.’
‘Noble Jabaster, I see much difficulty. Alroy no longer quits his palace. Our entrance unwatched is, you well know, impossible. What say you, Scherirah?’
‘I doubt not of my men, but war against Alroy is, to say nought of danger, of doubtful issue.’
‘I am prepared to die, but not to fail,’ said Abidan. ‘We must be certain. Open war I fear. The mass of the army will side with their leaders, and they are with the tyrant. Let us do the deed, and they must join us.’
‘Is it impossible to gain his presence to some sacrifice in honour of some by-gone victory; what think ye?’
‘I doubt much, Jabaster. At this moment he little wishes to sanction our national ceremonies with his royal person. The woman assuredly will stay him. And, even if he come, success is difficult, and therefore doubtful.’
‘Noble warriors, list to a woman’s voice,’ exclaimed the prophetess, coming forward. ”Tis weak, but with such instruments, even the aspirations of a child, the Lord will commune with his chosen people. There is a secret way by which I can gain the gardens of the palace. To-morrow night, just as the moon is in her midnight bower, behold the accursed pile shall blaze. Let Abidan’s troops be all prepared, and at the moment when the flames first ascend, march to the Seraglio gate as if with aid. The affrighted guard will offer no opposition. While the troops secure the portals, you yourselves, Zalmunna, Abidan, and Jabaster, rush to the royal chamber and do the deed. In the meantime, let brave Scherirah, with his whole division, surround the palace, as if unconscious of the mighty work. Then come you forward, show, if it need, with tears, the fated body to the soldiery, and announce the Theocracy.’
‘It is the Lord who speaks,’ said Abidan, who was doubtless prepared for the proposition. ‘He has delivered them into our hands.’
‘A bold plan,’ said Jabaster, musing, ‘and yet I like it. ’Tis quick, and that is something. I think ’tis sure.’
‘It cannot fail,’ exclaimed Zalmunna, ‘for if the flame ascend not, still we are but where we were.’
‘I am for it,’ said Scherirah.
‘Well, then,’ said Jabaster, ‘so let it be. Tomorrow’s eve will see us here again prepared. Good night.’
‘Good night, holy Priest. How seem the stars, Jabaster?’
‘Very troubled; so have they been some days. What they portend I know not.’
‘Health to Israel.’
‘Let us hope so. Good night, sweet friends.’
‘Good night, holy Jabaster. Thou art our cornerstone.’
‘Israel hath no other hope but in Jabaster.’
‘My Lord,’ said Abidan, ‘remain, I pray, one moment.’
‘What is’t? I fain would go.’
‘Alroy must die, my Lord, but dost thou think a single death will seal the covenant?’
‘Ay! the woman! I was not thinking of the woman. Asriel, Ithamar, Medad?’
‘Valiant soldiers! doubt not we shall find them useful instruments. I do not fear such loose companions. They follow their leaders, like other things born to obey. Having no head themselves, they must follow us who have.’
‘I think so too. There is no other man who might be dangerous?’
Zalmunna and Scherirah cast their eyes upon the ground. There was a dead silence, broken by the prophetess.
‘A judgment hath gone forth against Honain!’ ‘Nay! he is Lord Jabaster’s brother,’ said Abidan.
‘It is enough to save a more inveterate foe to Israel, if such there be.’
‘I have no brother, Sir. The man you speak of I will not slay, since there are others who may do that deed. And so again, good night.’
It was the dead of night, a single lamp burned in the chamber, which opened into an arched gallery that descended by a flight of steps into the gardens of the Serail.
A female figure ascended the flight with slow and cautious steps. She paused on the gallery, she looked around, one foot was in the chamber.
She entered. She entered a chamber of small dimensions, but richly adorned. In the farthest corner was a couch of ivory, hung with a gauzy curtain of silver tissue, which, without impeding respiration, protected the slumberer from the fell insects of an Oriental night. Leaning against an ottoman was a large brazen shield of ancient fashion, and near it some helmets and curious weapons.
‘An irresistible impulse hath carried me into this chamber!’ exclaimed the prophetess. ‘The light haunted me like a spectre; and wheresoever I moved, it seemed to summon me.
‘A couch and a slumberer!’
She approached the object, she softly withdrew the curtain. Pale and panting, she rushed back, yet with a light step. She beheld Alroy!
For a moment she leant against the wall, overpowered by her emotions. Again she advanced, and gazed on her unconscious victim.
‘Can the guilty sleep like the innocent? Who would deem this gentle slumberer had betrayed the highest trust that ever Heaven vouchsafed to favoured man? He looks not like a tyrant and a traitor: calm his brow, and mild his placid breath! His long dark hair, dark as the raven’s wing, hath broken from its fillet, and courses, like a wild and stormy night, over his pale and moon-lit brow. His cheek is delicate, and yet repose hath brought a flush; and on his lip there seems some word of love, that will not quit it. It is the same Alroy that blessed our vision when, like the fresh and glittering star of morn, he rose up in the desert, and bringing joy to others, brought to me only ——
‘Oh! hush my heart, and let thy secret lie hid in the charnel-house of crushed affections. Hard is the lot of woman: to love and to conceal is our sharp doom! O bitter life! O most unnatural lot! Man made society, and made us slaves. And so we droop and die, or else take refuge in idle fantasies, to which we bring the fervour that is meant for nobler ends.
‘Beauteous hero! whether I bear thee most hatred or most love I cannot tell. Die thou must; yet I feel I should die with thee. Oh! that to-night could lead at the same time unto our marriage bed and funeral pyre. Must that white bosom bleed? and must those delicate limbs be hacked and handled by these bloody butchers? Is that justice? They lie, the traitors, when they call thee false to our God. Thou art thyself a god, and I could worship thee! See those beauteous lips; they move. Hark to the music!’
‘There wanted but that word to summon back my senses. Fool! whither is thy fancy wandering? I will not wait for tardy justice. I will do the deed myself. Shall I not kill my Sisera?’ She seized a dagger from the ottoman, a rare and highly-tempered blade. Up she raised it in the air, and dashed it to his heart with superhuman force. It struck against the talisman which Jabaster had given to Alroy, and which, from a lingering superstition, he still wore; it struck, and shivered into a thousand pieces. The Caliph sprang from his couch; his eyes met the prophetess, standing over him in black despair, with the hilt of the dagger in her hand.
‘What is all this? Schirene! Who art thou? Esther!’ He jumped from the couch, called to Pharez, and seized her by both hands. ‘Speak!’ he continued. ‘Art thou Esther? What dost thou here?’
She broke into a wild laugh; she wrestled with his grasp, and pulled him towards the gallery. He beheld the chief tower of the Serail in flames. Joining her hands together, grasping them both in one of his, and dragging her towards the ottoman, he seized a helmet and flung it upon the mighty shield. It sounded like a gong. Pharez started from his slumbers, and rushed into the chamber.
‘Pharez! Treason! treason! Send instant orders that the palace gates be opened on no pretence whatever. Go, fly! See the captain himself. Summon the household. Order all to arms. Speed, for our lives!’
The whole palace was now roused. Alroy delivered Esther, exhausted, and apparently senseless, to a guard of eunuchs. Slaves and attendants poured in from all directions. Soon arrived Schirene, with dishevelled hair and hurried robes, attended by a hundred maidens, each bearing a torch.
‘My soul, what ails thee?’
‘Nothing, sweetest; all will soon be well,’ replied Alroy, picking up, and examining the fragments of the shivered dagger, which he had just discovered.
‘My life has been attempted; the palace is in flames; I suspect the city is in insurrection. Look to your mistress, maidens!’ Schirene fell into their arms. ‘I will soon be back.’ So saying, he hurried to the grand court.
Several thousand persons, for the population of the Serail and its liberties was very considerable, were assembled in the grand court; eunuchs, women, pages, slaves, and servants, and a few soldiers; all in confusion and alarm, fire raging within, and mysterious and terrible outcries without. A cry of ‘The Caliph! the Caliph!’ announced the arrival of Alroy, and produced a degree of comparative silence.
‘Where is the captain of the guard?’ he exclaimed. ‘That’s well. Open the gates to none. Who will leap the wall and bear a message to Asriel? You? That’s well too. To-morrow you shall yourself command. Where’s Mesrour? Take the eunuch guard and the company of gardeners,76 and suppress the flames at all cost. Pull down the intervening buildings. Abidan’s troop arrived with succour, eh! I doubt it not. I expected them. Open to none. They force an entrance, eh! I thought so. So that javelin has killed a traitor. Feed me with arms. I’ll keep the gate. Send again to Asriel. Where’s Pharez?’
‘By your side, my lord.’
‘Run to the Queen, my faithful Pharez, and tell her that all’s well. I wish it were! Didst ever hear a din so awful? Methinks all the tambours and cymbals of the city are in full chorus. Foul play, I guess. Oh! for Asriel! Has Pharez returned?’
‘I am by your side, my lord.’
‘How’s the Queen?’
‘She would gladly join your side.’
‘No, no! Keep the gates there. Who says they are making fires before them? Tis true. We must sally, if the worst come to the worst, and die at least like soldiers. O Asriel! Asriel!’
‘May it please your Highness, the troops are pouring in from all quarters.’
‘No, your Highness, ’tis not the guard. Methinks they are Scherirah’s men.’
‘Hum! What it all is, I know not; but very foul play I do not doubt. Where’s Honain?’
‘With the Queen, Sire.’
”Tis well. What’s that shout?’
‘Here’s the messenger from Asriel. Make way! way!’
‘Well! how is’t, Sir?’
‘Please your Highness, I could not reach the guard.’
‘Could not reach the guard! God of my fathers! who should let thee?’
‘Sire, I was taken prisoner.’
‘Prisoner! By the thunder of Sinai, are we at war? Who made thee prisoner?’
‘Sire, they have proclaimed thy death.’
‘The council of the Elders. So I heard. Abidan, Zalmunna ——’
‘Rebels and dogs! Who else?’
‘The High Priest.’
‘Hah! Is it there? Pharez, fetch me some drink. Is it true Scherirah has joined them?’
‘His force surrounds the Serail. No aid can reach us without cutting through his ranks.’
‘Oh! that I were there with my good guard! Are we to die here like rats, fairly murdered? Cowardly knaves! Hold out, hold out, my men! ’Tis sharp work, but some of us will smile at this hereafter. Who stands by Alroy to-night bravely and truly, shall have his heart’s content tomorrow. Fear not: I was not born to die in a civic broil. I bear a charmed life. So to it.’
‘Go to the Caliph, good Honain, I pray thee, go. I can support myself, he needs thy counsel. Bid him not expose his precious life. The wicked men! Asriel must soon be here. What sayest thou?’
‘There is no fear. Their plans are ill-devised. I have long expected this stormy night, and feel even now more anxious than alarmed.’
”Tis at me they aim; it is I whom they hate. The High Priest, too! Ay, ay! Thy proud brother, good Honain, I have ever felt he would not rest until he drove me from this throne, my right; or washed my hated name from out our annals in my life’s blood. Wicked, wicked Jabaster! He frowned upon me from the first, Honain. Is he indeed thy brother?’
‘I care not to remember. He aims at something further than thy life; but Time will teach us more than all our thoughts.’
The fortifications of the Serail resisted all the efforts of the rebels. Scherirah remained in his quarters, with his troops under arms, and recalled the small force that he had originally sent out as much to watch the course of events as to assist Abidan. Asriel and Ithamar poured down their columns in the rear of that chieftain, and by dawn a division of the guard had crossed the river, the care of which had been entrusted to Scherirah, and had thrown themselves into the palace. Alroy sallied forth at the head of these fresh troops. His presence decided a result which was perhaps never doubtful. The division of Abidan fought with the desperation that became their fortunes. The carnage was dreadful, but their discomfiture complete. They no longer acted in masses, or with any general system. They thought only of self-preservation, or of selling their lives at the dearest cost. Some dispersed, some escaped. Others entrenched themselves in houses, others fortified the bazaar. All the horrors of war in the streets were now experienced. The houses were in flames, the thoroughfares flowed with blood.
At the head of a band of faithful followers, Abidan proved himself, by his courage and resources, worthy of success. At length, he was alone, or surrounded only by his enemies. With his back against a building in a narrow street, where the number of his opponents only embarrassed them, the three foremost of his foes fell before his irresistible scimitar. The barricaded door yielded to the pressure of the multitude. Abidan rushed up the narrow stairs, and, gaining a landing-place, turned suddenly round, and cleaved the skull of his nearest pursuer. He hurled the mighty body at his followers, and, retarding their advance, himself dashed onward, and gained the terrace of the mansion. Three soldiers of the guard followed him as he bounded from terrace to terrace. One, armed with a javelin, hurled it at the chieftain. The weapon slightly wounded Abidan, who, drawing it from his arm, sent it back to the heart of its owner. The two other soldiers, armed only with swords, gained upon him. He arrived at the last terrace in the cluster of buildings. He stood at bay on the brink of the precipice. He regained his breath. They approached him. He dodged them in their course. Suddenly, with admirable skill, he flung his scimitar edgewise at the legs of his farthest foe, who stopped short, roaring with pain. The chieftain sprang at the foremost, and hurled him down into the street below, where he was dashed to atoms. A trap-door offered itself to the despairing eye of the rebel. He descended and found himself in a room filled with women. They screamed, he rushed through them, and descending a Staircase, entered a chamber tenanted by a bed-ridden old man. The ancient invalid enquired the cause of the uproar, and died of fright before he could receive an answer, at the sight of the awful being before him, covered with streaming blood. Abidan secured the door, washed his blood-stained face, and disguising himself in the dusty robes of the deceased Armenian, sallied forth to watch the fray. The obscure street was silent. The chieftain proceeded unmolested. At the corner he found a soldier holding a charger for his captain. Abidan, unarmed, seized a poniard from the soldier’s belt, stabbed him to the heart, and vaulting on the steed, galloped towards the river. No boat was to be found; he breasted the stream upon the stout courser. He reached the opposite bank. A company of camels were reposing by the side of a fountain. Alarm had dispersed their drivers. He mounted the fleetest in appearance; he dashed to the nearest gate of the city. The guard at the gate refused him a passage. He concealed his agitation. A marriage procession, returning from the country, arrived. He rushed into the centre of it, and overset the bride in her gilded wagon. In the midst of the confusion, the shrieks, the oaths, and the scuffle, he forced his way through the gate, scoured over the country, and never stopped until he had gained the desert.
The uproar died away. The shouts of warriors, the shrieks of women, the wild clang of warfare, all were silent. The flames were extinguished, the carnage ceased. The insurrection was suppressed, and order restored. The city, all the houses of which were closed, was patrolled by the conquering troops, and by sunset the conqueror himself, in his hall of state, received the reports and the congratulations of his chieftains. The escape of Abidan seemed counterbalanced by the capture of Jabaster. After performing prodigies of valour, the High Priest had been overpowered, and was now a prisoner in the Serail. The conduct of Scherirah was not too curiously criticised; a commission was appointed to enquire into the mysterious affair; and Alroy retired to the bath77 to refresh himself after the fatigues of the victory which he could not consider a triumph.
As he reposed upon his couch, melancholy and exhausted, Schirene was announced. The Princess threw herself upon his neck and covered him with embraces. His heart yielded to her fondness, his spirit became lighter, his depression melted away.
‘My ruby!’ said Schirene, and she spoke in a low smothered voice, her face hidden and nestled in his breast. ‘My ruby! dost thou love me?’
He smiled in fondness as he pressed her to his heart.
‘My ruby, thy pearl is so frightened, it dare not look upon thee. Wicked men! ’tis I whom they hate, ’tis I whom they would destroy.’
‘There is no danger, sweet. ’Tis over now. Speak not, nay, do not think of it.’
‘Ah! wicked men! There is no joy on earth while such things live. Slay Alroy, their mighty master, who, from vile slaves, hath made them princes! Ungrateful churls! I am so alarmed, I ne’er shall sleep again. What! slay my innocent bird, my pretty bird, my very heart! I’ll not believe it. It is I whom they hate. I am sure they will kill me. You shall never leave me, no, no, no, no! You shall not leave me, love, never, never! Didst hear a noise? Methinks they are even here, ready to plunge their daggers in our hearts, our soft, soft hearts! I think you love me, child; indeed, I think you do!’
‘Take courage, heart! There is no fear, my soul; I cannot love thee more, or else I would.’
‘All joy is gone! I ne’er shall sleep again. O my soul! art thou indeed alive? Do I indeed embrace my own Alroy, or is it all a wild and troubled dream, and are my arms clasped round a shadowy ghost, myself a spectre in a sepulchre? Wicked, wicked men! Can it indeed be true? What, slay Alroy! my joy, my only life! Ah! woe is me; our bright felicity hath fled for ever!’
‘Not so, sweet child; we are but as we were. A few quick hours, and all will be as bright as if no storm had crossed our sunny days.’
‘Hast seen Asriel? He says such fearful things!’
‘Ah me! I am desolate. I have no friend.’
‘They will have my blood. I know they will have my blood.’
‘Indeed, an idle fancy.’
‘Idle! Ask Asriel, question Ithamar. Idle! ’tis written in their tablets, their bloody scroll of rapine and of murder. Thy death led only to mine, and, had they hoped my bird would but have yielded his gentle mate, they would have spared him. Ay! ay! ’tis I whom they hate, ’tis I whom they would destroy. This form, I fear it has lost its lustre, but still ’tis thine, and once thou saidst thou lovedst it; this form was to have been hacked and mangled; this ivory bosom was to have been ripped up and tortured, and this warm blood, that flows alone for thee, that fell Jabaster was to pour its tide upon the altar of his ancient vengeance. He ever hated me!’
‘Jabaster! Schirene! Where are we, and what are we? Life, life, they lie, that call thee Nature! Nature never sent these gusts of agony. Oh! my heart will break. I drove him from my thought, and now she calls him up, and now must I remember he is my-prisoner! God of heaven, God of my fathers, is it come to this? Why did he not escape? Why must Abidan, a common cut-throat, save his graceless life, and this great soul, this stern and mighty being —— Ah me! I have lived long enough. Would they had not failed, would ——’
‘Stop, stop, Alroy! I pray thee, love, be calm. I came to soothe thee, not to raise thy passions. I did not say Jabaster willed thy death, though Asriel says so; ’tis me he wars against; and if indeed Jabaster be a man so near thy heart, if he indeed be one so necessary to thy prosperity, and cannot live in decent order with thy slave that’s here, I know my duty, Sir. I would not have thy fortunes farred to save my single heart, although I think ’twill break. I will go, I will die, and deem the hardest accident of life but sheer prosperity if it profit thee.’
‘O Schirene! what wouldst thou? This, this is torture.’
‘To see thee safe and happy; nothing more.’
‘I am both, if thou art.’
‘Care not for me, I am nothing.’
‘Thou art all to me.’
‘Calm thyself, my soul. It grieves me much that when I came to soothe I have only galled thee. All’s well, all’s well. Say that Jabaster lives. What then? He lives, and may he prove more duteous than before; that’s all.’
‘He lives, he is my prisoner, he awaits his doom. It must be given.’
‘Shall we pardon?’
‘My lord will do that which it pleases him.’
‘Nay, nay, Schirene, I pray thee be more kind. I am most wretched. Speak, what wouldst thou?’
‘If I must speak, I say at once, his life.’
‘If our past loves have any charm, if the hope ot future joy, not less supreme, be that which binds thee to this shadowy world, as it does me, and does alone, I say his life, his very carnal life. He stands between us and our loves, Alroy, and ever has done. There is no happiness if Jabaster breathe; nor can I be the same Schirene to thee as I have been, if this proud rebel live to spy my conduct.’
‘Banish him, banish him!’
‘To herd with rebels. Is this thy policy?’
‘O Schirene! I love not this man, although me-thinks I should: yet didst thou know but all!’
‘I know too much, Alroy. From the first he has been to me a hateful thought. Come, come, sweet bird, a boon, a boon unto thy own Schirene, who was so frightened by these wicked men! I fear it has done more mischief than thou deemest. Ay! robbed us of our hopes. It may be so. A boon, a boon! It is not much I ask: a traitor’s head. Come, give me thy signet ring. It will not; nay, then, I’ll take it. What, resist! I know thou oft hast told me a kiss could vanquish all denial. There it is. Is’t sweet? Shalt have another, and another too. I’ve got the ring! Farewell, my lovely bird, I’ll soon return to pillow in thy nest.’
‘She has got the ring! What’s this? what’s this? Schirene! art gone? Nay, surely not. She jests. Jabaster! A traitor’s head! What ho! there. Pharez, Pharez!’
‘Passed the Queen that way?’
‘She did, my lord.’
‘Nay! very joyful!’
‘Call Honain, quick as my thought. Honain! Honain! He waits without. I have seen the best of life, that’s very sure. My heart is cracking. She surely jests! Hah! Honain. Pardon these distracted looks. Fly to the Armoury! fly, fly!’
‘For what, my lord?’
‘Ay! for what, for what! My brain it wanders. Thy brother, thy great brother, the Queen, the Queen has stolen my signet ring, that is, I gave it her. Fly, fly! or in a word, Jabaster is no more. He is gone. Pharez! your arm; I swoon!’
‘His Highness is sorely indisposed today.’
‘They say he swooned this morn.’
‘Ay, in the bath.’
‘No, not in the bath. ’Twas when he heard of Jabaster’s death.’
‘How died he, Sir?’
‘Self-strangled. His mighty heart could not endure disgrace, and thus he ended all his glorious deeds.’
‘A great man!’
‘We shall not soon see his match. The Queen had gained his pardon, and herself flew to the Armoury to bear the news; alas! too late.’
‘These are strange times. Jabaster dead!’
‘A very great event.’
‘Who will be High Priest?’
‘I doubt if the appointment will be filled up.’
‘Sup you with the Lord Ithamar to-night?’
‘I also. We’ll go together. The Queen had gained his pardon. Hum! ’tis strange.’
‘Passing so. They say Abidan has escaped?’
‘I hear it. Shall we meet Medad to-night?’
74—To send him the whole of the next course. These compliments from the tables of the great are not uncommon in the East. When at the head-quarters of the Grand Vizir at Yanina, his Highness sent to myself and my travelling companions a course from his table, singers and dancing girls.]
75—The golden wine of Mount Lebanon. A most delicious wine, from its colour, brilliancy, and rare flavour, justly meriting this title, is made on Lebanon; but it will not, unfortunately, bear exportation, and even materially suffers in the voyage from the coast to Alexandria.]
76—And the company of gardeners. These gardeners of the Serail form a very efficient body of police.]
77—Alroy retired to the bath. The bath is a principal scene of Oriental life. Here the Asiatics pass a great portion of their day. The bath consists of a long suite of chambers of various temperatures, in which the different processes of the elaborate ceremony are performed.]
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:07