ARASMANES or THE SEEKER

by E.BULWER LYTTON

London 1905


 

CHAPTER 1

In the broad plains of Chaldea, and not the least illustrious of those shepherd-sages, from whom came our first learning of the lights of heaven, the venerable Chosphor saw his age decline into the grave. Upon his death-bed he thus addressed his only son, the young Arasmanes, in whose piety he recognised, even in that gloomy hour, a consolation and blessing; and for those growing renown [Page 2] for wisdom and for valour, the faint pulses of expiring life yet beat with paternal pride.

“Arasmanes”, said he, “ I am about to impart to you the only secret which, after devoting eighty years to unravel the many mysteries of knowledge, I consider worthy of transmitting to my child. Thou knowest that I have wandered over the distant regions of the world, and have experienced, with all the vicissitudes, some of the triumphs, and many of the pleasures, of life. Learn, from my experience, that earth possesses nothing which can reward the pursuit, or satisfy the desire. When you see the stars shining down upon the waters you behold an image of the visionary splendours of hope; the light sparkles on the wave; but it neither warms while it glitters,nor can it, for a single instant, arrest the progress of the stream from the dark gulf into which it hastens to merge itself and be lost. It was not till my old age that this conviction grew upon my [Page 3] mind; and about that time, I discovered, from one of the sacred books to which my studies were then applied, the secret I am now about to confide to thy ear. Know, my son, that in the extremities of Asia there is a garden in which the God of the Universe placed the first parents of mankind. In that garden the sun never sets; nor does the beauty of the seasons wane. There, is neither Ambition, nor Avarice, nor false Hope, nor its child, Regret. There, is neither age nor deformity; diseases are banished from the air; eternal youth, and the serenity of an unbroken happiness, are the prerogative of all things that breathe therein. For a mystic and unknown sin our first parents were banished from this happy clime, and their children scattered over the earth. Superhuman beings are placed at its portals, and clouds and darkness veil it from the eyes of ordinary men. But, to the virtuous and to the bold, there is no banishment from the presence of God; and by them the [Page 4] darkness may be penetrated, the dread guardians softened, and the portals of the divine land be passed. Thither, then, my son — early persuaded that the rest of earth is paved with sorrow and with care — thither, then, bend thy adventurous way. Fain could I have wished that, in my stronger manhood,when my limbs could have served my will, I had learned this holy secret, and repaired in search of the ancestral clime. Avail thyself of my knowledge; and, in the hope of thy happiness, I shall die contented”. The pious son pressed the hand of his sire, and promised obedience to his last command.

“But, oh, my father!” said he, “how shall I know in what direction to steer my course? To this land who shall be my guide, or what my clue? Can ship, built by mortal hands, anchor at its coast; or can we say to the camel-driver, 'Thou art approaching to the goal?'

The old man pointed to the east.

“From the east', said he, “dawns the [Page 5] sun — type of the progress of the mind's light; from the east comes all of science that we know. Born in its sultry regions, seek only to pierce to its extreme; and, guiding thyself by the stars of heaven ever in one course, reach at last the Aden that shall reward thy toils”.

And Chosphor died, and was buried with his fathers.

After a short interval of mourning, Arasmanes took leave of his friends; and, turning his footsteps to the east, sought the gates of Paradise.

He travelled far, and alone, for several weeks; and the starts were his only guides. By degrees, as he progressed, he found that the existence of Aden was more and more acknowledged. Accustomed from his boyhood to the companionship of sages, it was their abodes that he sought in each town or encampment through which the wanderer passed. By them his ardour was confirmed; for they all agreed in the dim and remote tradition to some [Page 6] beautiful region in the farthest east, from which the existing races of the earth were banished, and which was jealously guarded from profane approach by the wings of the spirits of God. But, if he communicated to any one his daring design, he had the mortification to meet only the smile of derision, or the incredulous gaze of wonder; by some he was thought a madman, and by others an impostor. So that, at last, he prudently refrained from revealing his intentions, and contented himself with seeking the knowledge and listening to the conjectures of others.

CHAPTER 2

At length the traveller emerged from a mighty forest, through which, for several days,he had threaded his weary way; and beautiful beyond thought was the landscape that broke upon his view. A plain covered with the richest verdure lay before him; through the trees that, here [Page 7] and there, darkened over the emerald ground, were cut alleys, above which arched festoons of many coloured flowers, whose hues sparked amidst the glossy foliage, and whose sweets steeped the air as with a bath. A stream, clear as crystal, flowed over golden sands, and, wherever the sward was greenest, gathered itself into delicious fountains, and sent upward its dazzling spray, as if to catch the embraces of the sun, whose beams kissed it in delight.

The wanderer paused in ecstasy; a sense of luxurious rapture, which he had never before experienced, crept into his soul. “Behold!” murmured he, “my task is already done; and Aden, the land of happiness and of youth, lies before me!”

While he thus spake, a sweet voice answered — “Yes, O happy stranger! — thy task is done: this is the land of happiness and of youth!”

He turned and a maiden of dazzling beauty was by his side. “Enjoy the [Page 8] present”, said she, “and so wilt thou defy the future. Ere yet the world was, Love brooded over the unformed shell, till from beneath the shadow of his wings burst forth the life of the young creation. Love, then, is the true God, and whoso serveth him he admits into the mysteries of a temple erected before the stars. Behold! thou enterest now upon the threshold of the temple; thou art in the land of happiness and youth!”

Enchanted with these words, Arasmanes gave himself up to the sweet intoxication they produced upon his soul. He suffered the nymph to lead him deeper into the valley; and now, from a thousand vistas in the wood, trooped forth beings, some of fantastic, some of the most harmonious shapes. There, were the satyr and the faun, and the youthful Bacchus — mixed with the multiform deities of India, and the wild objects of Egyptian worship; but more numerous than all were the choral nymphs, that spiritualised the reality, by [Page 9] incorporating the dreams of beauty; and, wherever he looked, one laughing Face seemed to peer forth from the glossy leaves, and to shed, as from its own joyous yet tender aspect, a tenderness and a joy over all things; and he asked how this Being, that seemed to have the power of multiplying itself everywhere, was called? — And its name was Eros.

For a time the length of which he knew not — for in that land no measurement of time was kept — Arasmanes was fully persuaded that it was Aden to which he had attained. He felt his youth as if it were something palpable; everything was new to him — even in the shape of the leaves, and the whisper of the odorous airs, he found wherewithal to marvel at and admire. Enamoured of the maiden that had first addressed him, at her slightest wish ( and she was full of all beautiful caprices), he was ready to explore even the obscurest recess in the valley which now appeared to him unbounded. He never wearied of [Page 10] a single hour. He felt as if weariness were impossible; and, with every instant, he repeated to himself, “In the land of happiness and youth I am a dweller”.

One day, as he was conversing with his beloved, and gazing upon her face, he was amazed to behold that, since the last time he had gazed upon it, a wrinkled had planted itself upon the ivory surface of her brown; and, even while half doubting the evidence of his eyes, new wrinkles seemed slowly to form over the forehead, and the transparent roses of her cheek to wane and fade! He concealed, as well as he could, the mortification and wonder that he experienced at this strange phenomenon; and, and, no longer daring to gaze upon a face from which before, he had drunk delight as from a fountain, he sought excuses to separate himself from her, and wandered, confused and bewildered with his own thoughts, into the wood. The fauns, and the dryads, and the youthful face of Bacchus, and the laughing aspect of Eros, came athwart him [Page 11] from time to time; yet the wonder that had clothed them with fascination was dulled within his breast. Nay, he thought the poor wine-god had a certain vulgarity in his air, and he almost yawned audibly in the face of Eros

And now, whenever he met his favourite nymph — who was as the queen of the valley — he had the chagrin to perceive that the wrinkles deepened with every time; youth seemed rapidly to desert her; and instead of a maiden scarcely escaped from childhood, it was an old coquette that he had been so desperately in love with.

One day he could not resist saying to her, though with some embarrassment —

“Pray, dearest, is it many years since you have inhabited this valley?”

“Oh, indeed, many!” said she, smiling.

“Your are not, then, very young?” rejoined Arasmanes, ungallantly.

“What!” cried the nymph, changing colour — “do you begin to discover age [Page 12] in my countenance? Has any wrinkle yet appeared upon my brow? You are silent. Oh, cruel Fate! will you not spare even this lover?” And the poor nymph burst into tears.

“My dear love”, said Arasmanes, painfully, “it is true that time begins to creep upon you; but my friendship shall be eternal”.

Scarcely had he uttered these words, when the nymph, rising, fixed upon him a long, sorrowful look, and then, with a loud cry, vanished from his sight. Thick darkness, as a veil, fell over the plains; the NOVELTY of life, with its attendant, POETRY, was gone from the wanderer's path for ever.

A sudden sleep crept over his senses. He awake confused and unrefreshed, and a long and gradual ascent, but over mountains green indeed, and watered by many streams gushing from the heights, stretched before him. Of the valley he had mistaken for Aden not a vestige remained. [Page 13] He was once more on the real and solid earth.

CHAPTER 3

For several days, discontented and unhappy, the young adventurer pursued his course, still seeking only the east, and still endeavouring to console himself for the sweet delusions of the past by hoping an Aden in the future.

The evening was still and clear; the twilight star broke forth over those giant plains — free from the culture and the homes of men, which yet make the character of the eastern and early world; a narrow stream, emerging from a fissure in a small rock covered with moss, sparkled forth under the light of the solemn heavens, and flowed far away, till lost among the gloom of a forest of palms. By the source of this stream sat an aged man and a young female. And the old man was pouring into his daughter's ear — for Azraaph held to Ochtor that holy relationship — the first doctrines [Page 14] of the world's wisdom; those wild but lofty conjectures by which philosophy penetrated into the nature and attributes of God; and reverently the young maiden listened, and meekly shone down the star of eve upon the dark yet lustrous beauty of her earnest countenance.

It was at this moment that a stranger was seen descending from the hills that bordered the mighty plains; and he, too, worn and tired with long travel, came to the stream to refresh his burning thirst, and lave the dust from his brow.

He was not at first aware of the presence of the old man and the maiden; for they were half concealed beneath the shadow of the rock from which the stream flowed. But the old man, who was one of those early hermits with whom wisdom was the child of solitude, and who, weary with a warring and savage world, had long since retired to a cavern not far from the source of that stream, and dwelt apart with Nature — the memories of a troubled Past, [Page 15] and the contemplation of a mysterious Future, — the old man, I say, accustomed to proffer to the few wanderers that from time to time descended the hills (seeking the cities of the east) the hospitalities of food and shelter, was the first to break the silence.

Arasmanes accepted with thankfulness the offers of the hermit, and that night he became Ochtor's guest. There were many chambers in the cavern, hollowed either by the hand of Nature, or by some early hunters on the hill; and into one of these the old man, after the Chaldean had refreshed himself with the simple viands of the hermitage, conducted the wanderer: it was covered with dried and fragrant mosses; and the sleep of Arasmanes was long, and he dreamed many cheerful dreams.

When he rose the next morning, he found his entertainers were not within the cavern. He looked forth, and beheld them once more by the source of the stream, on which [Page 16] the morning sun shone, and round which fluttered the happy wings of the desert birds. The wanderer sought his hosts in a spot on which they were accustomed, morning and eve, to address the Deity. “Thou doest not purpose to leave us soon”, said the hermit; “for he who descends from yon mountains must have traverses a toilsome way, and his limbs will require rest”.

Arasmanes, gazing on the beauty of Azraaph, answered, “In truth, did I not fear that I should disturb thy reverent meditations, the cool of the plains and the quiet of thy cavern, and, more than all, thy converse and kind looks, would persuade me, my father, to remain with thee many days.

“Behold how the wandering birds give life and merriment to the silent stream!” said the sage; “and so to the solitary man are the footsteps of his kind”. And Arasmanes sojourned with Ochtor the old man. [Page 17]

CHAPTER 4

“This, then, is thy tale”, said Ochtor; “and thou still believest in the visionary Aden of thy father's dreams. Doubtless such a land existed once for our happier sires; or why does tradition preserve it to the race that behold it not? But the shadow wraps it, and the angel guards. Waste not thy life in a pursuit, without a clue, for a goal that thou never mayest attain. Lose not the charm of earth in seeking after the joys of Aden. Tarry with us, my son, in these still retreats. This is the real Aden of which thy father spake; for here comes neither passion nor care. The mortifications and the disappointments of earth fall not upon the recluse. Behold, my daughter hath found favour in thine eyes — she loveth thee — she is beautiful and tender of heart. Tarry with us, my son, and forget the lessons that thy sire, weary with a world which he yet never had the courage to quit, gave [Page 18] thee the false wisdom of Discontent”.

“Thou art right, venerable Ochtor”, cried Arasmanes with enthusiasm; “give me but thy daughter, and I will ask for no other Aden than these plains”.

CHAPTER 5

The sun had six times renewed his course, and Arasmanes still dwelt in the cave of Ochtor. In the fair face of Azraaph he discovered no wrinkles — her innocent love did not pall upon him; the majestic calm of Nature breathed its own tranquillity into his soul, and in the lessons of Ochtor he took a holy delight. He found in his wisdom that which at once stilled the passions and inspired the thoughts. At times, however, and of late more frequently than ever, strong yearnings after the Aden he had so vainly pursued were yet felt. He felt that curse of monotony which is the invariable offspring of quiet. [Page 19]

At the end of the sixth year, as one morning they stood without the door of the cavern, and their herds fed tranquilly around them, a band of men from the western hills came suddenly in view: they were discovered before they had time consider whether they should conceal themselves; they had no cause,however, for fear — the strangers were desirous only of food an rest.

Foremost of this band was an aged man of majestic mien, and clothed in the richest garments of the east. Loose flowed his purple robe, and bright shone the jewels on the girdle that clasped his sword. As he advanced to accost Ochtor, upon the countenance of each of the old men grew doubt, astonishment, recognition, and joy. “My brother!' burst from the lips of both, and the old chief fell upon Octhor's bosom and wept aloud. The brothers remained alone the whole day, and at nightfall they parted with many tears; and Zamielides, the son of the chief (who was with the [Page 20] band), knelt to Ochtor,and Ochtor blessed him.

Now,when all were gone, and Silence once more slept upon the plains, Octhor went forth alone, and Azraaph said unto her husband, “My father's mind seems disquieted and sad; go forth, I pray thee, my beloved, and comfort him; the dews lie thick upon the grass, and my father is very old”.

By the banks of the stream stood Ochtor, and his arms were folded on his breast; the river horses were heard snorting in the distance, and the wild zebras came to drink at the wave; and the presence of the beast made more impressive the solitude of the old man.

“Why art thou disquieted, my father?” said Arasmanes.

“Have I not parted with my near of kin?”

“But thou didst never hope to meet them; and are not thy children left thee?” [Page 21]

Ochtor waved his hand with an unwonted impatience.

“Listen to me, Arasmanes. Know that Zamiel and I were brothers. Young and ardent, each of us aspired to rule our kind, and each of us imagined he had the qualities that secure command; but mark, my arm was the stronger in the field, and my brain the subtler in the council. We toiled and schemed, and rose into repute among our tribe, but Envy was busy with our names. Our herds were seized — we were stripped of our rank — we were degraded to the level of our slaves.Then, disgusted with my race, I left their cities, and in these vast solitudes I forgot ambition in content. But my brother was of more hopeful heart; with a patient brow he veiled the anger he endured. Lo, he hath been rewarded! His hour came — he gathered together his friends in secret — he smote our enemies in the dead of night; and at morning, behold, he was hailed chieftain of the tribe. This night he rides [Page 22] with his son to the king of the City of Golden Palaces, whose daughter that son is about to wed. Had I not weakly renounced my tribe — had I not fled hither, that glorious destiny would have been mine; I should have been the monarch of my race, and my daughter have matched with kings. Marvellest thou, now, that I am disquieted, or that my heart is sore within me?”

And Arasmanes saw that the sage had been superior to the world only he was sickened of the world.

And Ochtor nourished the discontent he had formed to his dying day; and, within three months from that night, Arasmanes buried him by the source of the solitary stream.

CHAPTER 6

The death of Ochtor, and his previous confession, deeply affected Arasmanes. He woke as from a long sleep. Solitude had lost its spell, and he perceived that [Page 23] inactivity itself may be the parent of remorse. “If”, thought he, “so wise, so profound a mind as that of Ochtor was thus sensible to the memories of ambition — if on the verge of death, he thus regretted the solitude in which he had buried his years, an felt, upon the first tidings from the great world, that he had wasted the promise and powers of life,how much more accessible should I be to such feelings, in the vigour of manhood, and with the one great object which I swore to my father to pursue, unattained, and even unattempted? Surely it becomes me to lose no longer time in these houseless wastes, but to rise and gird up my loins, and seek with Azraaph,my wife, for that Aden which we wil enter together!”

These thoughts soon ripened in to resolve; and not the less so in that, Ochtor being dead, Arasmanes had now no companion for his loftier and more earnest thoughts. Azraaph was beautiful an gentle; but the moment he began to talk about the stars, [Page 24] she unaffectedly yawned in his face. She was quite contented with the solitude, for she knew of no other world; and the herds, and the streamlet, and every old bush around the cavern, were society to her; but her content, as Arasmanes began to discover, was that of ignorance, and not of wisdom.

Azraaph wept bitterly on leaving the cavern; but by degrees, as they travelled slowly on, the novelty of what they saw reconciled her to change; and, except at night, when she was weary of spirit, she ceased to utter her regrets for the stream and the quiet cave. They travelled eastward for several weeks, and met with no living thing by the way, save a few serpents, and a troop of wild horses. At length, one evening, they found themselves in the suburbs of a splendid city. As they approached the gates they drew back, dazzled with the lustre, for the gates were of burnished gold, which shone bright and glittering as they caught a sunny light from [Page 25] the lamps of naphtha that hung, frequent, from the mighty walls.

They inquired, as they passed the gates, the name of the city; and they heard, with some surprise, and more joy, that it was termed “The City of Golden Palaces”.

“Here, then”, cried Azraaph, “we shall be well received; for the son of my father's brother is wedded to the daughter of king”.

“And here, then, will be many sages”, though Arasmanes, “who will, doubtless, have some knowledge of the true situation of Aden”.

They were much struck, as they proceeded though the streets, with the bustle, and life, and animation that reigned around, even at that late hour. With the simplicity natural to persons who had lived so long in a desert, they asked at once for the king's palace. The first time Arasmanes asked, it was of a young lord, who, very sumptuously dressed, was [Page 26] treading the streets with great care, lest he should soil the hem of his robe. The young lord looked at him with grave surprise, and passed on. ?The next he asked was rude boor, who was carrying a bundle of wood on his shoulders. The boor laughed in his face; and Arasmanes, indignant at the insult, struck him to the ground There then came by a judge, and Arasmanes asked him the same question.

“The king's place!”, said the judge; “and what want ye with the king's palace?”

“Behold, the daughter of the king is married to my wife's cousin”.

“Thy wife's cousin! Thou art made to say it; yet stay, thou lookest poor, friend” (here the judge frowned terribly). “Thy garments are scanty and worn. I fancy thou has neither silver nor gold”.

“Thou sayest right”, replied Arasmanes; “I have neither”.

“Ho, ho !' quoth the judge; “he confesses his guilt; he owns that he has [Page 27] neither silver nor gold. Here, soldiers, seize this man and woman. Away with them to prison; and let them be brought up for sentence of death tomorrow. We will then decide whether they shall be hanged or starved. The wretches have, positively, neither silver nor gold; and, what is worse, they own it!”

“Is it possible!” cried the crowd; and a shudder of horror crept through the bystanders. “Away with them! — away with them! Long life to Judge Kaly, whose eyes never sleeps, and who preserves us for ever from the poor”.

The judge walked on, shedding tears of virtuous delight at the reputation he had acquired.

Arasmanes and Azraaph were hurried off to prison, where Azraaph cried herself to sleep, and Arasmanes, with folded arms and downcast head, indulged his meditations on the very extraordinary notions of crime that seemed common to the sons of the City of Golden Palaces. They were [Page 28] disturbed the next morning by loud shouts beneath the windows of the prison. Nothing could equal the clamour that they heard; but it seemed the clamour of joy. In fact, that morning the princess who had married Azraaph's cousin had been safely brought to bed of her first child; and great was the joy and the noise throughout the city. Now, it was the custom in that country, whenever any one of the royal family was pleased to augment the population of the world, for the father of the child to go round to all the prisons in the city and release the prisoners. What good fortune for Arasmanes and Azraaph, that the princess had been brought to bed before they were hanged!

And, by-and-by, amidst cymbal and psalter, with banners above him and spears around, came the young father to the jail, in which our unfortunate couple were confined.

“Have you any extraordinary criminals in your prison?” asked the prince, of the [Page 29] head jailor, for he was studying, at that time. to be affable.

“Only one man, my lord, who was committed last night; and who absolutely confessed in cold blood, and without torture, that he had neither silver nor gold. It is a thousand pities that such a miscreant should be suffered to go free! ”

“You are right”, said the prince; “and what impudence to confess the crime! I should like to see so remarkable a criminal”.

So saying, the prince dismounted, and followed the jailor to the cell in which Arasmanes and his wife were confined.They recognised their relation at once; for, in that early age of the world, people in trouble had a wonderfully quick memory in recollecting relatives in power. Azraaph ran to throw herself on the prince's neck (which the guards quickly prevented), and the stately Arasmanes began to utter his manly thanks for the visit.

“These people are mad” cried the prince, hastily. “Release them; but let [Page 30] me escape first”. So saying, he ran downstairs so fast that he nearly broke his neck; and then, mounting his horse, pursued his way to the other prisons, amidst the shouts of the people.

Arasmanes and Azraaph were now turned out into the streets. They were exceedingly hungry; and they went into the first baker's shop they saw, and asked the rites of hospitality.

“Certainly; but your money first”, said the baker.

Arasmanes, made wise by experience took care not to reply that he had no money; “But”, said he, “ I have left it behind me at my lodging. Give me the bread now,and lo, I will repay thee tomorrow”.

“Very well', said the baker; “but that sword of yours has a handsome hilt: leave it with me till your return with the monies”.

So Arasmanes took the bread, and left the sword. [Page 31]

They were now refreshed, and resolved to leave so dangerous a city as soon as they possibly could, when, just as they turned into a narrow street, they were suddenly seized by six soldiers, blindfold, gagged, and hurried away, whither they knew not. At last they found themselves ascending a flight of stairs. A few moments more, and the bandages were removed from their mouths and eyes, and they saw themselves in a gorgeous chamber, and alone in the presence of the prince, their cousin.

He embraced them tenderly. “Forgive me”, said he,“ for appearing to forget you; but it was as much as my reputation was worth in this city to acknowledge relations who confessed to have neither silver nor gold. By the beard of my grandfather,how could you be so imprudent? Do you not know that you are in a country in which the people worship only one deity, the god of the precious metals? Not to have the precious metals [Page 32] is not to have virtue; to confess it, is to be an atheist. No power could have saved you from death, either by hanging or starvation, if the princess, my wife, had not been luckily brought to bed today”.

“What a strange — what a barbarous country!” cried Arasmanes.

“Barbarous!” echoed the prince: “this is the most civilised people in the whole world, — nay, the whole world acknowledges it. In no country are the people so rich, and, therefore, so happy. For those who have no money it is, indeed, a bad place of residence; for those who have, it is the land of happiness itself. Yes, is the true Aden”.

“Aden! What then, you, too, have heard of Aden?"

"Surely! and this is it — the land of freedom — of happiness — of gold ! ” cried the prince, with enthusiasm: “remain with us and see”.

“Without doubt”, thought Arasmanes, “this country lies in the far east: it has [Page 33] received me inhospitably at first; but perhaps the danger I escaped was but the type and allegorical truth of the sworded angel of which tradition hath spoken”. “But”, said he aloud, “I have no gold, and no silver, O my prince!”

“Heed not that', answered the kind Zamielides: “ I have enough for all. You shall be provided for this very day”.

“But will not the people recognise me as the poor stranger”.

The prince laughed for several minutes so loudly that they feared he was going into fits.

“What manner of man art thou, Arasmanes?” said he, when he was composed enough to answer. “Knowest thou not that the people of this city never know what a man has been when he is once rich? Appear tomorrow in purple, and they will never dream that they saw thee yesterday in rags”. [Page 34]

CHAPTER 7

The kind Zamielides, then, conducting his cousins into his own chamber, left them to attire themselves in splendid garments, which he had ordered to be prepared for them. He gave them a palace and large warehouses of merchandise.

“Behold”, said he, taking Arasmanes to the top of a mighty tower which overlooked the sea: “behold yonder ships that rise like a forest of masts, from that spacious harbour; the six vessels with the green flags are thine. I will teach thee the mysteries of Trade, and thou wilt soon be as wealthy as myself”.

“And what is Trade, my lord” said Arasmanes.

“It is the worship that the people of this country pay to their god”, answered the prince [Page 35]

CHAPTER 8

Arasmanes was universally courted; so wise, so charming a person had never appeared in the City of Golden Palaces, and as for the beauty of Azraaph, it was declared the very masterpiece of nature. Intoxicated with the homage they received, and the splendour in which they lived, their days glided on in a round of luxurious delight.

“Right art thou, O Zamielides! ” cried Arasmanes, as his ships returned with new treasure; “the City of Golden Palaces is the true Aden”.

CHAPTER 9

Arasmanes has now been three years in the city; and you might perceive that a great change had come over his person: the hues of health had faded from his cheeks: his brow was care-worn — his step slow — his lips compressed. He no longer thought that he lived in the true Aden; [Page 36] and yet for Aden itself he would scarcely have quitted the City of Golden Palaces. Occupied solely with the task of making and spending money, he was consumed with the perpetual fear of losing, and the perpetual anxiety to increase his stock. He trembled at every darker cloud that swept over the heavens; he turned pale at every ruder billow that agitated the sea. He lived a life of splendid care; and the pleasures which relieved it were wearisome because of their sameness. He saw but little of his once idolised Azraaph. Her pursuits divided her from him. In so civilised a country they could not be always together. If he spoke of his ships he wearied her to death; if she spoke of the festivals she had adorned, he was equally tired of the account.

CHAPTER 10

The court was plunged in grief. Zamielides was seized with a fever. All the [Page 37] wise men attended him; but he turned his face to the wall and died. Arasmanes mourned for him more sincerely than any one; for, besides that Arasmanes had great cause to be grateful to him, he knew, also, that if any accident happened to his vessels he had now no friend willing to supply the loss. This made him more anxious than ever about the safety of his wealth. A year after this event, the king of the City of Golden Palaces thought fit to go to war. The war lasted four years; and two millions of men were killed on all sides. The second year Arasmanes was at a splendid banquet given at the court. A messenger arrived, panting and breathless. A great battle at sea had been fought. Ten thousand of the king's subjects had been killed.

“But who won the battle?” cried the king.

“Your majesty”.

The air was rent with shouts of joy.

“One little accident only”, continued [Page 38] the herald, “happened the next day. Three of the scattered warships of the enemy fell in with the vessels of some of our merchants returning from Ophir, laden with treasure, and, in revenge, they burnt and sunk them”.

“Were my ships of the number?” asked Arasmanes, with faltering tongue.

It was of thy ships that I spoke”, answered the messenger.

But nobody thought of Arasmanes, or of the ten thousand subjects that were killed. The city was out of its wits with joy that his majesty had won the victory.

“Alas! I am a ruined man!” said Arasmanes, as he sat with ashes on his head.

“And we can give no more banquets”, sighed his wife.

“And everybody will trample upon us”, said Arasmanes.

“And we must give up our palace”, groaned the tender Azraaph.

“But one ship remains to me!” cried Arasmanes, starting up; “it is now in port. [Page 39] I will be its captain. I will sail myself with it to Ophir. It will save my fortunes, or perish in the attempt”.

“And I will accompany three, my beloved”, exclaimed Azraaph, flinging herself on his neck; “ for I cannot bear the pity of the wives whom I have outshone!”

The sea was calm and the wind favourable when the unfortunate pair entered their last ship; and, for a whole week, the gossip at court was of the folly of Arasmanes and the devotion of his wife.

CHAPTER 11

They had not been many weeks at sea before an adverse wind set in, which drove them entirely out of their destined course. They were beaten eastward, and, at length, even the oldest and most experienced of the mariners confessed they had entered seas utterly unknown to them. Worn and wearied, when their water was just out, and their provisions exhausted, they espied [Page 40] land, and, at nightfall, the ship anchored on a green and pleasant shore. The inhabitants, half naked, and scarce escaped from the first savage state of nature, ran forth to meet and succour them: by mighty fires the seamen dried their wet garments, and forgot the hardships they had endured. They remained several days with the hospitable savages, repaired their vessel, and replenished its stores. But what especially attracted the notice of Arasmanes, was the sight of some precious diamonds which, in a rude crown, the chief of the savages wore on his head. He learned from signs easy of interpretation that these diamonds abounded in a certain island in the farthest east; and that from time to time large fragments of rock in which they were imbedded were cast upon the shore. But when Arasmanes signified his intention to seek this island, the savages, by gestures of horror and dismay, endeavoured to denote the dangers that attended the enterprise, and to dissuade [Page 41] him from attempting it. Naturally bold, and consumed with his thirst for wealth, these signs made but little impression upon the Chaldean; and one fair morning he renewed his voyage. Steering perpetually towards the east, and with favouring winds, they came, on the tenth day, in sight of an enormous rock, which shone far down over the waters with so resplendent a glory as to dazzle the eyes of the seaman. Diamond and ruby, emerald and carbuncle, glittered from the dark; soil of the rock, and promised to heart of the humblest mariner the assurance of illimitable wealth. Never was human joy more ecstatic than that of the crew as the ship neared the coast. The sea was in this place narrow and confined, the opposite shore was also in view — black, rugged, and herbless, with pointed rocks, round which the waves sent their white foam on high, guarding its drear approach: little recked they, however, of the opposite shore, as their eyes strained towards “the Island of Precious [Page 42] Stones”. They were in the middle of the straight when suddenly the waters became agitated and convulsed; the vessel rocked to and fro; something glittering appeared beneath the surface; and, at length, they distinctly perceived the scales and tail of an enormous serpent.

Thereupon a sudden horror seized the whole crew; they recognised the truth of that tradition, known to all seamen, that in the farthest east lived the vast Snake of the Ocean, whose home no vessel ever approached without destruction. All thought of the diamond rock faded from their souls. They fell at once upon their knees and poured forth unconscious prayers. But high above all rose the tall form of Arasmanes: little cared he for serpent or tradition. Fame and fortune, and life, were set upon one cast. “Rouse thee!” said he, spurning the pilot, “or we drive upon the opposite shore. Behold, the island of inexhaustible wealth glows upon us!” [Page 43]

Scare had the worlds left his lips when, with a slow and fearful hiss, the serpent of the east seas reared his head from the ocean. Dark and huge as the vastest cavern in which ghoul or Afrite ever dwelt was the abyss of his jaws, and the lurid and terrible eyes outshone even the lustre of the diamond rock.

“I defy thee”, cried Arasmanes, waving his sword above his head; when suddenly the ship whirled round and round; the bold Chaldean was thrown with violence on the deck; he felt the waters whirl and blacken over him; and then all sense of life deserted him.

When he came to himself, Arasmanes was lying on the hot sands of the shore opposite to the Diamond Isle; wrecks of the vessel were strewn around him, and here and there the dead bodies of his seamen. But at his feet lay, swollen and distorted, the shape of his beautiful Azraaph, the see weeds twisted round her limbs, and the deformed shell fish crawling over [Page 44] her long hair. And tears crept into the eyes of the Chaldean, and all his old love for Azraaph returned, and he threw himself down beside her mangled remains, and tore his hair; the schemes of the later years were swept away from his memory like visions, and he remembered only the lone cavern and his adoring bride.

Time rolled on, and Azraaph was buried in the sands; and Arasmanes tore himself from the solitary grave, and, striking into the interior of the coast, sought once more to discover the abodes of men. He travelled far and beneath burning suns, and at night he surrounded his resting places with a circle of fire, for the wild beasts an the mighty serpents were abroad: scant and unwholesome was the food he gleaned from the berries and rank roots that now and then were visible in the drear wastes through which he passed; and in this course of hardship and travail he held commune with his own heart. He felt as if cured for ever of the evil [Page 45] passions. Avarice seemed gone from his breast, and he dreamt that no unholy desire could succeed to its shattered throne.

One day, afar of in the desert, he descried a glittering cavalcade — glittering it was, indeed, for the horsemen were clad in armour of brass and steel, and the hot sun reflected the array like the march of a river of light. Arasmanes paused, and his heart swelled high within him as he heard through the wide plains the martial notes of the trumpet and the gong, and recognised the glory and pomp of war.

The cavalcade swept on; and the chief who rode at the head of the band paused as he surveyed with admiration the noble limbs, and proud stature, and dauntless eye of the Chaldean. The chief summoned his interpreters; and in that age the language of the east were but slightly dissimilar; so that the chief of the warriors conversed easily with the adventurer. “Know', said he, “that we are bent upon the most enterprise ever conceived [Page 46] by the sons of men. In the farthest east there is a land of which thy fathers may have informed thee — a land of perpetual happiness and youth, and its name is Aden”. Arasmanes started; he could scarce believe his ears. The warrior continued—“ We are of that tribe which lies to the extremities of the east, and this land is therefore a heritage which we of all the earth have the right to claim. Several of our youth have at various times attempted to visit it, but supernatural agents have repelled the attempt. Now, therefore, that I have succeeded to the throne of my sires, I have resolved to invade and to conquer it by force of arms. Survey my band. Sawest thou ever,O Chaldean, men of such limbs and stature, of such weapons of offence and shields of proof? Canst thou conceive men more worthy of such a triumph, or more certain to attain it? Thou, too, art of proportions beyond the ordinary strength of men — thou art deserving to be one of us. Come, say the word, and [Page 47] the armourers shall clothe thee in steel, and thou shalt ride at my right hand”.

The neighing of the steeds, and the clangour of the music, and the proud voice of the chieftain, all inspired the blood of Arasmanes. He thought not of the impiety of the attempt — he thought only of the glory: the object of his whole life seemed placed within his reach. He grasped at the offer of the warrior; and the armourer clad him in steel, and the ostrich plume waved over his brow, and he rode at the right hand of the warrior-king.

CHAPTER 12

The armament was not without a guide; for, living so near unto the rising of the sun, what with others was tradition with them was knowledge; and many amongst them had travelled to the site of Aden, and looked upon the black cloud that veiled it, and trembled at the sound of the rushing but invisible wings that hovered over. [Page 48]

Arasmanes confided to the warrior his whole history; they swore eternal friendship; and the army looked upon the Chaldean as a man whom God had sent to their assistance. For, what was most strange, not one of the army ever seemed to imagine there was aught unholy or profane in the daring enterprise in which they had enlisted; accustomed to consider bloodshed a virtue, what was the crime of winning the gardens of Paradise by force?

Through wastes and deserts they held their way; and, though their numbers thinned daily by fatigue, and the lack of food, and the fiery breath of the burning winds, they seemed not to relax in their ardour, nor to repine at the calamities they endured.

CHAPTER 13

Darkness gloomed like a wall! From heaven to earth stretched the palpable and solid Night that was the barrier to the [Page 49] land of Aden. No object gleamed through the impenetrable blackness; from those summitless walls hung no banner; no human champion frowned before the drear approach: all would have been silence, save that, at times, they heard the solemn rush as of some mighty sea; and they knew that it was the rush of the guardian wings.

The army halted before the darkness, mute and awed; they eyes recoiled from the gloom, and rested upon the towering crest and snowy plumage of their chief. And he bad them light the torches of naphtha that they had brought with them, and unsheath their swords; and, at the given sound, horseman and horse dashed in through the walls of night. For one instant, the torches gleamed and sparkled amidst the darkness, and were then suddenly extinguished; but through the gloom came one gigantic hand wielding a sword of flame; and, wherever it turned, man smote the nearest man — father perished by his son — and brother fell gasping by the [Page 50] death-stroke of his brother; shrieks and cries, and the trample of affrighted steeds, rang through the riven shade — riven only by that might sword as it waved from rank to rank, and the gloom receded from its rays.

CHAPTER 14

At eve the work was done; a small remnant of the warriors, alone escaped from the general slaughter, lay exhausted upon the ground before the veil of Aden. Arasmanes was the last who lingered in the warring gloom; for, as he lay struggling beneath the press of dying and dead, the darkness had seemed to roll away, and, far into its depths, he caught one glimpse of the wonderful loveliness of Aden. There, over valleys covered with the greenest verdure, and watered by rivers without a wave, basked a purpling and loving sunlight, that was peaceful and cloudless, for it was the smile of God. And there, were groups of happy being scattered [Page 51] around, in whose faces was the serenity of unutterable joy; even at the mere aspect of their happiness — happiness itself was reflected upon the soul of the Chaldean, despite the dread, the horror, and the desolation of the hour. He stretched out his arms imploringly, and the vision faded for ever from his sight.

CHAPTER 15

The king and all the principal chiefs of the army were no more; and, with one consent, Arasmanes was proclaimed their leader. Sorrowful and dejected, he conducted the humbled remnant of the troop back through the deserts to the land they had so rashly left. Thrice on their return they were attacked by hostile tribes, but by the valour and prudence of Arasmanes they escaped the peril. They arrived at their native city to find that the brother of their chief had seized the reins of government. The army, who hated him, declared [Page 52] for the stranger-chief who had led them home, And Arasmanes, hurried away by the prospect of power, consented to their will. A battle ensued; the usurper was slain; and Arasmanes, a new usurper, ascended the throne in his stead.

CHAPTER 16

The Chaldean was no longer young; the hardships he had undergone in the desert had combined with the anxieties that had preyed upon him during his residence in the City of Golden Palaces to plant upon his brow, and in his heart, the furrows of untimely age. He was in the possession of all the sources of enjoyment at that period when we can no longer enjoy. Howbeit, he endeavoured to amuse himself by his divan of justice, from which everybody went away dissatisfied, and his banquets, at which the courtiers complained of his want of magnificence, and the people of his profligate expense. Grown wise [Page 53] by experience, he maintained his crown by flattering his army; and, surrounded by luxury, felt himself supported by power.

There came to the court of Arasmanes a strange traveller; he was a little old man, of plain appearance, but great wisdom; in fact, he was one of the most noted sages of the east. His conversation, though melancholy, had the greatest attraction for Arasmanes, who loved to complain to him of the cares of royalty, and the tediousness of his life.

“Ah, how much happier are those in a humbler station!” said the king; “how much happier was I in the desert-cave, tending my herds, and listening to the sweet voice of Azraaph! — Would that I could recall those days!”

“I can enable you to do so, great king!” said the sage; “behold this mirror; gaze on it whenever you desire to recall the past; and whatever portion of the past you wish to summon to your eyes shall appear before you”. [Page 54]

CHAPTER 17

The sage did not deceive Arasmanes. The mirror reflected all the scenes through which the Chaldean had passed; now he was at the feet of Chosphor, a happy boy — now with elastic hopes entering into the enchanted valley of the Nymph ere yet he learned how her youth could fade — now he was at the source of the little stream, and gazing on the face of Azraaph by the light of the earliest star; whichever of these scenes he wished to live over again reflected itself vividly in the magic mirror. Surrounded by pomp and luxury in the present, his only solace was in the past.

“You see that I was right”, said he to the sage: “I was much happier in those days; else why so anxious to renew them?”

“Because, O great king”, said the sage, with a bitter smile, “you seem them without recalling the feelings you then experience as well as the scenes; you gaze on on the [Page 55] past with the feelings you now possess, and all that then made the prospect clouded is softened away by time. Judge for yourself if I speak true”. So saying, the sage breathed over the mirror, an bade Arasmanes look into it one more. He did so. He beheld the same scenes, but the illusion was gone from them. He was a boy once more; but restlessness, and anxiety, and a thousand petty cares at his heart: he was again in the cave with Azraaph, but secretly pining at the wearisome monotony of his life: in all those scenes he now imagined the happiest he perceived that he had not enjoyed the present; he had been looking forward to the future, and the dream of unattainable Aden was at his heart. “Alas!” said he, dashing the mirror into pieces, “I was deceived; and thou has destroyed for me, O sage, even the pleasure of the past!” [Page 56]

CHAPTER 18

Arasmanes never forgot the brief glimpse of Aden that he had obtained in his impious warfare: and, now that the charm was gone from Memory, the wish yet to reach the unconquered land returned more powerfully than ever to his mind. He consulted the sage as to its possibility.

“Thou canst make but one more attempt”, answered the wise man; “and in that I cannot assist thee; but one who, when I am gone hence, will visit thee shall lend thee her aid”.

“Cannot the visitor come till thou art gone?” said Arasmanes.

“No, nor until my death”, answered the sage.

This reply three the mind of Arasmanes into great confusion. It was true that he nowhere found so much pleasure as in the company of his friend — it was his only solace; but then, if he could never visit Aden (the object of his whole life) until [Page 57] that friend were dead! — the thought was full of affliction to him. He began to look upon the sage as an enemy, as an obstacle between himself and the possession of his wishes. He inquired every morning into the health of the sage; he seemed most provokingly strong. At length, from wishes for his death, dark thoughts came upon the Chaldean; and he resolved to expedite it. One night the sage was found dead in his bed; he had been strangled by the order of the king.

CHAPTER 19

The very next day, as the king sat in his divan, a great noise was heard without the doors; and, presently, a hag, dressed in white garments of a foreign fashion, an of a hideous and revolting countenance, broke away from the crowd, and made up to the king. “They would not let me come to thee, because I am homely and aged”, said she in a shrill and discordant [Page 58] voice; “but I have been in a king's court before now —”

“What wantest thou, woman?” said Arasmanes; and he felt, as he spake, a chill creep to his heart.

“I am that visitor of which the wise man spake”, said she; “and I would talk to thee alone”.

Arasmanes felt impelled as by some might power which he could not withstand; he rose from his throne, the assembly broke up in surprise, and the hag was admitted alone to the royal presence.

“Thou wouldst re-seek Aden, the land of Happiness and Truth?” said she, with a ghastly smile.

“Ay”, said the king, and his knees knocked together.

“I will take thee thither”.

“And when?”

“Tomorrow, if thou wilt!” and the hag laughed aloud.

There was something in the manner, the voice, and the appearance of his creature [Page 59] so disgusting to Arasmanes that he could brook it no longer. Aden itself seemed not desirable with such a companion and guide.

Without vouchsafing a reply he hastened from the apartment, and bade his guards to admit the hag no more to the royal presence.

The sleep of Arasmanes that night was unusually profound, nor did he awaken on the following day till late at noon. From that hour the felt as if some strange revolution had taken place in his thoughts. He was no longer desirous of seeking Aden: whether or not the apparition of the hag had given him a distaste of Aden itself, certain it was that he felt the desire of his whole life had vanished entirely from his breast; and his only wish now was to enjoy, as long and as heartily as he was able, the pleasures that were within his reach.

“What a fool have I been”, said he aloud, “to waste so many years in wishing [Page 60] to leave the earth! It is only in my old age that I begin to find how much that is agreeable earth can possess?”

“Come, come come!” cried a shrill voice; and Arasmanes, startled, turned round to behold the terrible face of the hag.

“Come!' said she, stamping her foot; “I am ready to conduct thee to Aden”.

“Wretch! said the king, with quivering lips, “how didst thou baffle my guards? But I will strangle everyone of them”.

“Thou has had enough of strangling”, answered the crone, with a malignant glare. “Hast thou not strangled thy dearest friends?”

“What! tauntest thou me?” cried the king; and he rushed at the hag with his lifted sabre: the blade cut the air: the hag had shunned the blow; and, at the same moment coming behind the king, she clasped him round the body, and fixed her long talons in his breast; through the purple robe, through the jewelled vest, [Page 61] pierced those vulture-fangs, and Arasmanes shrieked aloud with the terror and the pain. The guards rushed in at the sound of his cry.

“Villain!” said he, as the cold drops broke from his brow, “would ye leave me here to be murdered? Hew down you hell-hag; her death only can preserve life to you.

“We saw her enter not, O king”, said the chief of the guards, amazed; “but she shall now die the death”. The soldiers wit one accord made at the crone, who stood glaring at them like a hunted tigress.

“Fools!” said she, “know that I laugh alike at stone walls and armed men”.

They heard the voice — they saw not whence it came — the hag had vanished.

CHAPTER 20

The wound which the talons of this horrible visitor had made in the breast of the king refused to heal; it gave [Page 62] excruciating anguish. The physicians tended him in vain; in vain, too, did the wise men preach patience and hope to him. What incensed him even more than the pain was the insult he had suffered — that such a loathsome and obscene wretch should dare to maim the person of a king! — the thought was not to be borne. But, what was most strange, the more pain the king suffered, the more did he endeavour to court pleasure: life never seemed so charming to him as at the moment when it became an agony. His favourite courtiers, who had been accustomed to flatter his former weakness, and to converse with him about the happiness of Aden, and the possibility of entering it, found that even to broach the subject threw their royal master into a paroxysm of rage. He foamed at the mouth at the name of Aden — he wished, nay, he endeavoured to believe, that there was no such place in the universe. [Page 63]

CHAPTER 21

At length one physician, more sanguine than the rest, assured the king that he was able to cure the wound and relive the pain.

“Know, O king”, said he, “that in the stream of Athron, which runneth through the valley of Mythra, there is a mystic virtue which can cure all the diseases of kings. Thou hast only to enter thy gilded bark, and glide down the stream for the space of twenty roods, scattering thine offering of myrrh and frankincense on the waters, in order to be well once more. Let the king live for ever!”

CHAPTER 22

It was a dark, deep, and almost waveless stream; and the courtiers, and the women, and the guards, and the wise men,gathered round the banks; and the king, leaning on the physician, ascended his gilded bark; [Page 64] and the physician alone entered the vessel with him. “For”, said he, “the god of the stream loves it not to be profaned by the vulgar crowd; it is for kings only that it possesses its healing virtue”.

So the king reclined in the middle of the vessel, and the physician took the censer of precious odours; and the bark drifted down the stream, as the crowd wept and prayed upon the shore.

“Either my eyes deceive me”, said the king, faintly, “or the stream seems to expand supernaturally, as into a great sea, and the shores on either side fade into distance”.

“It is so”, answered the physician — “And sees thou yon arch of black rocks flung over the tide?”

“Ay”, answered the king.

“It is the approach to the land thou has so often desired to reach: it is the entrance into Aden”.

“Dog!” cried the king, passionately, “name not to me that hateful word”. [Page 65]

As he spoke, the figure of the false physician shrunk in size; his robes fell from him, — and the king beheld in his stead the dwarfish shape of the accursed hag.

On drifted the vessel; and the crowd on the banks now beheld the hag seize the king in a close embrace: his shriek was wafted over the water, while the gorgeous vessel, with its silken streamers and gilded sides,sped rapidly through the black arch of rocks: as the bark vanished, the chasm of the arch closed in, and the rocks uniting, presented a solid barrier to their gaze. But, piercing through the barrier, they shudderingly heard the ghastly laugh of the hag, as she uttered the one word — NEVER!” And from that hour the king was seen no more.

And this is the true history of Arasmanes, the Chaldean.

 

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