Zadig, by Voltaire

Chapter XV.

The Basilisk.

As Zadig was traversing a verdant Meadow, he perceiv’d several young Female Syrians, intent on searching for something very curious, that lay conceal’d, as they imagin’d, in the Grass. He took the Freedom to approach one of them, and ask her, in the most courteous Manner, if he might have the Honour to assist her in her Researches. Have a care, said she. What we are hunting after, Sir, is an Animal, that will not suffer itself to be touch’d by a Man. ’Tis somewhat surprizing, said Zadig. May I be so bold, pray, as to ask you what you are in Pursuit after, that shuns the Touch of any Thing but the Hands of the Fair Sex. ’Tis, Sir, said she, the Basilisk: A Basilisk, Madam, said he! And pray, if you will be so good as to inform me, with what View, are you searching after a Creature so very difficult to be met with? ’Tis, Sir, said she, for our Lord and Master Ogul, whose Castle, you see, situate on the River-side, at the Bottom of the Meadow. We are all his Vassals. Ogul, you must know, is in a very bad State of Health, and his first Physician has order’d him, as a Specific, to eat a Basilisk, boil’d in Rose water: And as that Animal is very hard to be catch’d, and will suffer nothing to approach it, but one of our Sex, our dying Sovereign Ogul has promis’d to honour her, that shall be so happy as to catch it for him, so far as to make her his Consort. The Case, being thus circumstantiated, Sir, I hope you will not interrupt me any longer, lest my Rivals here in the Field should happen to circumvent me.

Zadig withdrew, and left the Syrian Ladies in Quest of their imaginary Booty, in order to pursue his intended Journey. But as he came to the Banks of a Rivulet, at the remotest part of the Meadow, he perceiv’d another young Lady, reclin’d on the Grass, and entirely disengag’d. Her Stature seem’d majestic, but her Face was cover’d with a Vail; and her Eyes were fixt, as one at her Looking-glass, on the River. Every now and then a Sigh burst out, as if her Heart were breaking. In her Hand she held a little Wand or Rod, with which she was tracing out some Characters on the dry Sand, that lay between the flow’ry Bank she sat on, and the purling Current. Zadig’s Curiosity induc’d him, unperceiv’d, to observe her Operations at some Distance. But approaching nearer, and perceiving very distinctly the first Character to be an Z. the next an A. and the third a D. he started; but when he saw the additional Capitals of I and G. his Astonishment was too great for Words to express. He stood for some Time perfectly thunder-struck, and as motionless as a Statue; At last, in a soft, faultring Tone, he broke Silence: O generous Lady, said he, forgive a Stranger, one overwhelm’d with Sorrows like yourself, if he asks you, by what amazing Accident he finds the Name of Zadig delineated by so angelick a Hand. Thus unexpectedly interrupted, and at the Sound of those Words, she turn’d her Head; and with a trembling Hand, lifting up her Vail, she espy’d Zadig himself. Upon which, she shriek’d; and as her Heart was flutter’d between the two Extreams of Transport and Surprize, she fainted away, and gently dropp’d into his Arms. ’Twas, it seems Astarte her self; ’twas the Queen of Babylon; ’twas the very Goddess whom Zadig ador’d; ’twas, in short, the very identical Lady, whose hard Fate he had so long deplor’d; and for whose sake he had felt so many agonizing Pains. For a few Minutes he stood speechless, and depriv’d, as it were, of all his senses, whilst his Eyes were fixt on his Astarte, who began to revive; and cast a wishful Glance at him, attended with some Confusion. O ye immortal Powers, cried he, who preside over the Destiny of us frail Mortals! Ye have restor’d me my Astarte; but alas! at what a Conjuncture, in what a Place, and in what a State and Condition do I view her? He threw himself prostrate on the Ground, and kiss’d the Dust of her Feet. The Queen of Babylon rais’d him up, and oblig’d him to sit by her on the flow’ry Bank whereon she was repos’d. Every now and then she wip’d her Eyes, as the Tears trickl’d down afresh her lovely Cheeks. Twenty times she endeavour’d to renew her Discourse; but was interrupted by her Sighs; she ask’d him over and over to relate to her the Hardships he had ran thro’ since their parting, and by what Chance he came to traverse that solitary Meadow; but prevented him at the same Time from returning any Answer, by repeating Question upon Question. At last, she gave him a particular Detail of her own Misfortunes, and again requested to know his. Both of them, in short, having, in some Measure, appeas’d the Tumult of their Souls; Zadig, in a few Words, inform’d her of the Motives that brought him thither.

But tell me, O unfortunate, tho’ ever-venerable Queen, how I came to find you out, reclining on this verdant Bank, dress’d in this servile Habit, accompanied by other Female Slaves, who, I find, have been all Day long in Quest after a Basilisk, which, as I understand, is by Order of a celebrated Physician, to be dissolv’d in Rose-water, as a specific Medicine for his dying Patient.

Whilst they busy in their fruitless Search, said the beauteous Astarte, I’ll tell you the whole Series of Sorrows which I have undergone since last we parted; and since Heav’n has thus unexpectedly blest my Eyes once more with the Sight of my dear Zadig, I’ll no longer exclaim against my impropitious Stars.

You are not insensible, that the jealous King my Spouse, was disgusted to find you the most amiable of all Mortals, and that for no other Reason he determin’d to strangle you, and poison me. You know very well too, that indulgent Heav’n inspir’d, as it were, my little Dwarf, with artful Means to give me timely Notice of the rash Resolutions of the King, my cruel Husband.

No sooner had the faithful Cador oblig’d you to obey my Orders, and to fly the Court, but he ventur’d to enter my Apartment in the Dead of Night thro’ a private Door. He snatch’d me up, and convey’d me directly into the Temple of Orosmades, where the holy Magus, who was his Brother, lock’d me up in that august and awful Statue, that stands erect upon the Pavement of the Temple, and Colossus-like, touches the lofty Ceiling with his Head. There I lay conceal’d, or rather buried for some Time; tho’ taken all imaginable Care of, and furnish’d with all the Necessaries of Life by that venerable, and loyal Priest. In the mean Time, his Apothecary enter’d at Break of Day into my Apartment, with a Potion in his Hand, compos’d of Opium, black Hellebore, Aconite, and other Ingredients still more baneful. Whilst this mercenary Officer of the King’s Vengeance was thus employ’d, another as inhuman as himself, went to your Lodgings with the silken Cord. Both, however, were disappointed, as both of us were fled. Cador, very officious, flew to the King, in order the more artfully to blind him; and in a feign’d Passion, rail’d at us both, and charg’d us both as perfidious Traitors. As for that Villain Zadig, said he, he has taken his Flight towards India; and your false, ungrateful Consort, Sire, said he, is fled to Memphis. The Guards were order’d that Moment to pursue us both.

The Couriers, who flew after me, knew nothing of me. I had never expos’d my Face unveil’d to any one but your self, and that too in the Presence, and by the express Order of my Royal Master. As they had no other Marks to distinguish me from others but my Stature, as it had been describ’d, a young Lady, just of my Size, but in all Probability much more handsome, presented herself to their View, on the Frontiers of Egypt. She was found alone, and in a very disconsolate Condition. This Lady must, doubtless, said they to themselves, be the Queen of Babylon: And without listning to her Complaints, convey’d her instantly to my Husband Moabdar. Their gross Blunder at first incens’d his Majesty to the last Degree; but after he had view’d the Lady with an attentive Eye, he found she was extremely pretty, and was soon pacify’d. Her Name was Missouf. I have been since inform’d, that her Name in the Egyptian Language signifies the Fair Coquet. And in Effect, she was so: She had as much Art, however, as Caprice. For she pleas’d the King of Kings: In short, she had such an Ascendancy over him, that he didn’t scruple in publick to own her as his Wife. When she had secur’d him thus far in her Toils, she never conceal’d her Power, but play’d the Part of a perfect Humourist. She indulg’d herself in every Whim that came in her Head, without Fear of being brow-beat. In the first Place, She insisted that the Chief Magus, who was old and gouty, should dance a Saraband before her; and upon his modest Refusal to comply with so preposterous a Request, she persecuted him without Mercy: Nothing would serve her Turn, in the next Place, but his Majesty’s grand Master of the Horse must make her a Minc’d-pye. The Gentleman took the Liberty to let her know, that he was no profess’d Cook; a Tart, however, he must make for her, and she got him turn’d out of his Place for being so monstrously careless, as to burn one Corner of the Crust. Whereupon she gave his Post to her favourite Dwarf, and made her Fop of a Page the Keeper of his Majesty’s great Seal, and Confidence. Thus she reign’d arbitrary, and was the Female Tyrant of Babylon. All the World deplor’d the Loss of me their former Queen. The King, who never acted the Part of a Tyrant, till the Moment he would have imprison’d me, and strangled you, seem’d to have drown’d all his good Qualities in his Dotage on that capricious Enchantress. He came to the Temple on the solemn Festival of the sacred Fire. I saw him prostrate on the Pavement before the Statue, wherein I was enclos’d, imploring the Gods to show’r down their choicest Blessings on his beauteous Missouf. I, with an audible and distinct, but hollow Tone, address’d my self thus, like an Oracle, to the King of Kings. The Gods reject the Vows of a Monarch, that acts the Tyrant o’er his Subjects; One, who could think of murdering an innocent Wife; and admit of a worthless Beauty to supply her Place. Moabdar was so startled at this unexpected Answer from the God he ador’d, that he was just at the Point of Distraction. The Oracle that I had deliver’d, and the tyrannical Proceedings of his new Spouse Missouf, were enough to deprive him of his Senses. In short, in a few Days he became a perfect Mad-man. Her Caprice, which seem’d a Judgement from above, portended a sudden Revolution. His Subjects accordingly revolted, and were instantly up in Arms. Babylon, that had so long indulg’d herself in Indolence and Ease, became the Seat, or Theatre of a bloody Civil War. Whereupon I was taken from my magnificent Prison, the Bowels of his God, and set up at the Head of a very powerful Party. Your Friend Cador flew to Memphis in hopes to find you there, and bring you back to Babylon. The Prince of Hyrcania, hearing of these intestine Broils, return’d with a powerful Army, in order to form a third Party, among the Babylonians. He attack’d the King, who fled with his fair, but fickle Egyptian before him. Moabdar, however, was so closely pursu’d, that he dy’d of the Wounds he receiv’d in his Retreat. Missouf became the fair Victim of the Conqueror. As for my own Part, I had the Misfortune to be over-power’d likewise, and taken Prisoner by an Hyrcanian Party, who brought me into the Presence of the young Prince, at the very Juncture when Missouf stood before him. You’ll smile, doubtless, when I tell you the Prince look’d upon me as the most amiable Captive of the two; but then, I presume you will be sorry to hear, that my hard Fate doom’d me to be a Vassal in his Seraglio. He told me, in direct Terms, that as soon as he had put an happy Issue to one Military Expedition, which would not, he flatter’d himself, be long unexecuted, he would honour me with a Visit. Judge the dreadful Apprehensions I was under, upon his making such a peremptory Declaration. My Obligations to Moabdar were all cancell’d, and I was free to be the Bride of Zadig; but instead of that, I fell into the Toils of a Barbarian. I answer’d him with all the Resentment becoming one of my high Character and unspotted Virtue. I had always heard say, that Heav’n bestow’d on Persons of my Rank, such a peculiar Mark of Majesty and Grandeur, that with a bare Word, or the Glance of an angry Eye, they could bring down, and abase the Pride of those audacious Creatures that durst to thwart their Inclinations. I talk’d as big as a Queen; but I was treated like the most servile Domestic. The saucy Hyrcanian, without so much as vouchsafing me one Single Word, turn’d to his black Eunuch, and told him that I was very impertinent; but yet he could not help thinking I was very pretty. He gave him therefore particular Orders to take care of me, and put me under the same Regimen, with respect to my Diet, as one of his Favourites, in order that I might recover my Colour, which was somewhat too languid; in a Word, that I might become worthy in a little Time of his Royal Favours, and be duely qualified to receive him, when he should honour me so far as to fix the Day. I told him, I would die first: He replied, with a Sneer, that young Ladies, like me, seldom kill’d themselves, and that they were made for Enjoyment; and then turn’d upon his Heel, with as careless an Air, as a Man would part with his Paroquet, when he had shut her up close in her gilded Cage. What a shocking State was I in for the first Queen of the Universe! Nay, I’ll say more, for a Heart that was wholly devoted to her Zadig!

At these endearing Words, Zadig threw himself at her Feet, and bath’d them with his Tears. Astarte immediately rais’d him in the most courteous and engaging Manner, and thus continu’d her Narration. — I too plainly perceiv’d, that I was subject to the Tyranny of a Barbarian, and the Rival of a Coquet, that was a Slave like myself. She related to me all her past Adventures in Egypt. From the Description she gave of her Gallant, the Time and Place, the Dromedary he was mounted on, and from every other minute Circumstance, I imagin’d it was your self that play’d the Hero in her Favour. As I made no Doubt but that you resided somewhere in Memphis, I determin’d to go thither my self, but in Disguise. Beauteous Missouf, said I, you are of a much sprightlier Disposition than I am; you will be able to amuse the gay young Prince of Hyrcania a thousand Times better than I shall. Find out some Way therefore for my Escape; by which you will be sole Lady Regent. You will oblige me to the last Degree, by your friendly Assistance, and at the same Time get rid of a Rival. Missouf, (cajol’d with the Hint) came into my Measures directly. She took care to send me packing forthwith, with no other Attendant than an old Egyptian Slave.

No sooner had I reach’d the Borders of Arabia, but a notorious Free-booter, (one Arbogad by Name) pick’d me up, as I was strolling along, and sold me to some Merchants, who convey’d me to yonder Castle, the magnificent Residence of the Emir Ogul. He purchas’d me at all Adventures, without enquiring what, or who I was. He is a perfect Debauchee; his sole Delight lies in good Eating, Wine, and Women; and is one, who imagines, that the Almighty sent him into the World for no other Purpose but to gratify his unruly Appetites. He is excessively fat, and puffs and blows every Moment, like one half choak’d. When he has gorg’d himself so unmercifully that he is ready to burst, his chief Physician can persuade him to take any Thing for his Relief; tho’ he laughs at him, and despises his Advice when he’s well and sober. He has intimated to him, that at present his Life’s in Danger, and nothing will restore him but a Basilisk, boil’d in Rose–Water. Whereupon the grand Ogul has promis’d his last Favours to that Slave, whoever she be, that shall be so fortunate as to catch a Basilisk, for him, since it seems they are so seldom to be met with. You see I have others to struggle for the Honour propos’d, and I never had a less Inclination to find out this Basilisk than at present, since I have once more met with my dearest Zadig.

After this Declaration, Astarte and Zadig renew’d with Warmth the virtuous Affection which they had long conceiv’d for each other; and reciprocally utter’d all the tenderest Expressions that Love in Distress could possibly devise. And the Genii, who preside over all the soft Passions, wafted their mutual Vows of eternal Constancy and Truth to the Sphere of Venus.

The whole Train of Slaves, after a long fruitless Search, attended on Ogul, to inform him that all their strictest Search was fruitless. Zadig desired that he might have the Honour to be introduc’d into his Presence. Accordingly he was, and his Address was to this or the like Effect. May immortal Health descend from Heaven to preserve a Life, Sir, so precious as yours is. I am a Physician by Profession. I flew to your Palace, on the first News of the dangerous Situation you were in, and have brought a Basilisk with me, distill’d in Rose–Water. I can have no Hopes of the Honour of your Bed, in Case I succeed in my Application: All the Favour I request, is, the Release of one of your Babylonish Slaves, who has been in your Highness’s Retinue for some Time. And I am willing to be your Bond-slave in her Stead, if I fail of restoring the most illustrious and magnificent Ogul to his pristine State of Health.

The Proposition was readily embrac’d. Astarte was instantly discharg’d, and set out for Babylon, with a proper Attendant, according to Zadig’s Direction; assuring her that she should hear every Day, by a special Courier, of his Proceedings with his new Patient. The Farewel which they took of each other, was very affectionate and tender, expressive of the strongest Obligations to each other. The Moments of Meeting, and those of Parting, are (as it is written in the sacred Book of Zend) the two most remarkable Epochas of a Lover’s Life. Zadig’s repeated Protestations of Affection for the Queen were perfectly sincere, and the pure Dictates of his Heart; and the Queen’s Love for Zadig had made a deeper Impression on hers, than she thought proper to discover.

In the mean Time, Zadig, again addressing himself to Ogul, said; my Basilisk, Sir, as others are, is not to be drest or eaten; but all its Virtues must penetrate your whole Fabrick, thro’ your Pores; I have inclos’d my never-failing Sudorific in a Bladder, full-blown and carefully cover’d with the softest Leather. You must kick this Bladder, Sir, once a Day about your Hall for a whole Hour together, with all the Vigour and Activity you possibly can. This Medicine must be repeated every Morning, and I’ll attend the Operation: Upon your due Observance of the Regimen I shall put you under, I doubt not, but with the Blessing of Heav’n on my honest Endeavours, I shall give you ample Demonstration of my being an Adept in Physick. Ogul, upon making the first Experiment, was ready to expire for want of Breath, and thought he should die with the Fatigue. The second Day did not prove altogether so irksome, and he slept much better at Night than he had done before. In short, our Doctor in about eight Days Time, perform’d an absolute Cure. His Patient was as brisk, active and gay, as One in the Bloom of his Youth.

Now, Sir, said Zadig, I’ll be ingenuous with you, and disclose to you the important Secret. You have play’d at Foot-ball these eight Days successively; and you have liv’d all that Time, within the Bounds of Sobriety and Moderation. Know, Sir, that there is no such Animal in Nature as a Basilisk; that Health is to be secur’d by Temperance and Exercise; and that the Art of making Health consistent with Luxury, is altogether as impracticable, and an Art, in all Respects, as idle and chimerical, as those of the Philosopher’s Stone, judicial Astrology, or any other Reveries of the like airy and fantastic Nature.

Ogul’s Head–Physician, apprehensive that this unexpected Cure, thus wrought by a Stranger, through such an Anti-medicinal Preparation, might possibly not only render himself the Object of Contempt in the Eye of his great Master, but cast a Kind of Slur in general on his whole Fraternity, conven’d a Set of petty Doctors and Apothecaries, who were his Vassals, and entirely devoted to his Interest, to find out some sure Ways and Means to cut off in private his dreadful Rival; but whilst their wicked Plot was hatching, Zadig receiv’d a Courier from the Queen Astarte.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01