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Alroy, Edited by Sheila A. Spector


Part X

Chapter 17

A SUBTERRANEAN DUNGEON of the citadel of Bagdad held in its gloomy limits the late lord of Asia. The captive did not sigh, or weep, or wail. He did not speak. He did not even think. For several days he remained in a state of stupor. On the morning of the fourth day, he almost unconsciously partook of the wretched provision which his gaolers brought him. Their torches, round which the bats whirled and flapped their wings, and twinkled their small eyes, threw a ghastly glare over the nearer walls of the dungeon, the extremity of which defied the vision of the prisoner; and, when the gaolers retired, Alroy was in complete darkness.

The image of the past came back to him. He tried in vain to penetrate the surrounding gloom. His hands were manacled, his legs also were loaded with chains. The notion that his life might perhaps have been cruelly spared in order that he might linger on in this horrible state of conscious annihilation filled him with frenzy. He would have dashed his fetters against his brow, but the chain restrained him. He flung himself upon the damp and rugged ground. His fall disturbed a thousand obscene things. He heard the quick glide of a serpent, the creeping retreat of the clustering scorpions, and the swift escape of the dashing rats. His mighty calamities seemed slight when compared with these petty miseries. His great soul could not support him under these noisome and degrading incidents. He sprang, in disgust, upon his feet, and stood fearful of moving, lest every step should introduce him to some new abomination. At length, exhausted nature was unable any longer to sustain him. He groped his way to the rude seat, cut in the rocky wall, which was his only accommodation. He put forth his hand. It touched the slimy fur of some wild animal, that instantly sprang away, its fiery eyes sparkling in the dark. Alroy recoiled with a sensation of woe-begone dismay. His shaken nerves could not sustain him under this base danger, and these foul and novel trials. He could not refrain from an exclamation of despair; and, when he remembered that he was now far beyond the reach of all human solace and sympathy, even all human aid, for a moment his mind seemed to desert him; and he wrung his hands in forlorn and almost idiotic woe.

An awful thing it is, the failure of the energies of a master-mind. He who places implicit confidence in his genius will find himself some day utterly defeated and deserted. ’Tis bitter! Every paltry hind seems but to breathe to mock you. Slow, indeed, is such a mind to credit that the never-failing resource can at least be wanting. But so it is. Like a dried-up fountain, the perennial flow and bright fertility have ceased, and ceased for ever. Then comes the madness of retrospection.

Draw a curtain! draw a curtain! and fling it over this agonizing anatomy.

The days of childhood, his sweet sister’s voice and smiling love, their innocent pastimes, and the kind solicitude of faithful servants, all the soft details of mild domestic life: these were the sights and memories that flitted in wild play before the burning vision of Alroy, and rose upon his tortured mind. Empire and glory, his sacred nation, his imperial bride; these, these were nothing. Their worth had vanished with the creative soul that called them into action. The pure sympathies of nature alone remained, and all his thought and grief, all his intelligence, all his emotion, were centred in his sister.

It was the seventh morning. A guard entered at an unaccustomed hour, and, sticking a torch into a niche in the wall, announced that a person was without who had permission to speak to the prisoner. They were the first human accents that had met the ear of Alroy during his captivity, which seemed to him an age, a long dark period, that cancelled all things. He shuddered at the harsh tones. He tried to answer, but his unaccustomed lips refused their office. He raised his heavy arms, and endeavoured to signify his consciousness of what had been uttered. Yet, indeed, he had not listened to the message without emotion. He looked forward to the grate with strange curiosity; and, as he looked, he trembled. The visitor entered, muffled in a dark caftan. The guard disappeared; and the caftan falling to the ground, revealed Honain.

‘My beloved Alroy,’ said the brother of Jabaster; and he advanced, and pressed him to his bosom. Had it been Miriam, Alroy might have at once expired; but the presence of this worldly man called back his worldliness. The revulsion of his feelings was wonderful. Pride, perhaps even hope, came to his aid; all the associations seemed to counsel exertion; for a moment he seemed the same Alroy.

‘I rejoice to find at least thee safe, Honain.’

‘I also, if my security may lead to thine.’

‘Still whispering hope!’

‘Despair is the conclusion of fools.’

‘O Honain! ’tis a great trial. I can play my part, and yet methinks ’twere better we had not again met. How is Schirene?’

‘Thinking of thee.’

‘’Tis something that she can think. My mind has gone. Where’s Miriam?’

‘Free.’

‘That’s something. Thou hast done that. Good, good Honain, be kind to that sweet child, if only for my sake. Thou art all she has left.’

‘She hath thee.’

‘Her desolation.’

‘Live and be her refuge.’

‘How’s that? These walls! Escape? No, no; it is impossible.’

‘I do not deem it so.’

‘Indeed! I’ll do anything. Speak! Can we bribe? can we cleave their skulls? can we—’

‘Calm thyself, my friend. There is no need of bribes, no need of bloodshed. We must make terms.’

‘Terms! We might have made them on the plains of Nehauend. Terms! Terms with a captive victim?’

‘Why victim?’

‘Is Arslan then so generous?’

‘He is a beast, more savage than the boar that grinds its tusks within his country’s forests.’

‘Why speakest thou then of hope?’

‘I spoke of certainty. I did not mention hope.’

‘Dear Honain, my brain is weak; but I can bear strange things, or else I should not be here. I feel thy thoughtful friendship; but indeed there need no winding words to tell my fate. Pr’ythee speak out.’

‘In a word, thy life is safe.’

‘What! spared?’

‘If it please thee.’

‘Please me? Life is sweet. I feel its sweetness. I want but little. Freedom and solitude are all I ask. My life spared! I’ll not believe it. Thou hast done this deed, thou mighty man, that masterest all souls. Thou hast not forgotten me; thou hast not forgotten the days gone by, thou hast not forgotten thine own Alroy! Who calls thee worldly is a slanderer. O Honain! thou art too faithful!’

‘I have no thought but for thy service, Prince.’

‘Call me not Prince, call me thine own Alroy. My life spared! ’Tis wonderful! When may I go? Let no one see me. Manage that, Honain. Thou canst manage all things. I am for Egypt. Thou hast been to Egypt, hast thou not, Honain?’

‘A very wondrous land, ’twill please thee much.’

‘When may I go? Tell me when I may go. When may I quit this dark and noisome cell? ’Tis worse than all their tortures, dear Honain. Air and light, and I really think my spirit never would break, but this horrible dungeon—I scarce can look upon thy face, sweet friend. ’Tis serious.’

‘Wouldst thou have me gay?’

‘Yes! if we are free.’

‘Alroy! thou art a great spirit, the greatest that I e’er knew, have ever read of. I never knew thy like, and never shall.’

‘Tush, tush, sweet friend, I am a broken reed, but still I am free. This is no time for courtly phrases. Let’s go, and go at once.’

‘A moment, dear Alroy. I am no flatterer. What I said came from my heart, and doth concern us much and instantly. I was saying thou hast no common mind, Alroy; indeed thou hast a mind unlike all others. Listen, my Prince. Thou hast read mankind deeply and truly. Few have seen more than thyself, and none have so rare a spring of that intuitive knowledge of thy race, which is a gem to which experience is but a jeweller, and without which no action can befriend us.’

‘Well, well!’

‘A moment’s calmness. Thou hast entered Bagdad in triumph, and thou hast entered the same city with every contumely which the base spirit of our race could cast upon its victim. ’Twas a great lesson.’

‘I feel it so.’

‘And teaches us how vile and valueless is the opinion of our fellow-men.’

‘Alas! ’tis true.’

‘I am glad to see thee in this wholesome temper. ’Tis full of wisdom.’

‘The miserable are often wise.’

‘But to believe is nothing unless we act. Speculation should only sharpen practice. The time hath come to prove thy lusty faith in this philosophy. I told thee we could make terms. I have made them. To-morrow it was doomed Alroy should die—and what a death! A death of infinite torture! Hast ever seen a man impaled?’81

‘Hah!’

‘To view it is alone a doom.’

‘God of Heaven!’

‘It is so horrible, that ’tis ever marked, that when this direful ceremony occurs, the average deaths in cities greatly increase. ’Tis from the turning of the blood in the spectators, who yet from some ungovernable madness cannot refrain from hurrying to the scene. I speak with some authority. I speak as a physician.’

‘Speak no more, I cannot endure it.’

‘To-morrow this doom awaited thee. As for Schirene—’

‘Not for her, oh! surely not for her?’

‘No, they were merciful. She is a Caliph’s daughter. ’Tis not forgotten. The axe would close her life. Her fair neck would give slight trouble to the headsman’s art. But for thy sister, but for Miriam, she is a witch, a Jewish witch! They would have burnt her alive!’

‘I’ll not believe it, no, no, I’ll not believe it: damnable, bloody demons! When I had power I spared all, all but—ah, me! ah, me! why did I live?’

‘Thou dost forget thyself; I speak of that which was to have been, not of that which is to be. I have stepped in and communed with the conqueror. I have made terms.’

‘What are they, what can they be?’

‘Easy. To a philosopher like Alroy an idle ceremony.’

‘Be brief, be brief.’

‘Thou seest thy career is a great scandal to the Moslemin. I mark their weakness, and I have worked upon it. Thy mere defeat or death will not blot out the stain upon their standard and their faith. The public mind is wild with fantasies since Alroy rose. Men’s opinions flit to and fro with that fearful change that bodes no stable settlement of states. None know what to cling to, or where to place their trust. Creeds are doubted, authority disputed. They would gladly account for thy success by other than human means, yet must deny thy mission. There also is the fame of a fair and mighty Princess, a daughter of their Caliphs, which they would gladly clear. I mark all this, observe and work upon it. So, could we devise some means by which thy lingering followers could be for ever silenced, this great scandal fairly erased, and the public frame brought to a sounder and more tranquil pulse, why, they would concede much, much, very much.’

‘Thy meaning, not thy means, are evident.’

‘They are in thy power.’

‘In mine? ’Tis a deep riddle. Pr’ythee solve it.’

‘Thou wilt be summoned at to-morrow’s noon before this Arslan. There, in the presence of the assembled people who are now with him as much as they were with thee, thou wilt be accused of magic, and of intercourse with the infernal powers. Plead guilty.’

‘Well! is there more?’

‘Some trifle. They will then examine thee about the Princess. It is not difficult to confess that Alroy won the Caliph’s daughter by an irresistible spell, and now ’tis broken.’

‘So, so. Is that all?’

‘The chief. Thou canst then address some phrases to the Hebrew prisoners, denying thy Divine mission, and so forth, to settle the public mind, observe, upon this point for ever.’

‘Ay, ay, and then—?’

‘No more, except for form. (Upon the completion of the conditions, mind, you will be conveyed to what land you please, with such amount of treasure as you choose.) There is no more, except, I say, for form, I would, if I were you (’twill be expected), I would just publicly affect to renounce our faith, and bow before their Prophet.’

‘Hah! Art thou there? Is this thy freedom? Get thee behind me, tempter!* Never, never, never! Not a jot, not a jot: I’ll not yield a jot. Were my doom one everlasting torture, I’d spurn thy terms! Is this thy high contempt of our poor kind, to outrage my God! to prove myself the vilest of the vile, and baser than the basest? Rare philosophy! O Honain! would we had never met!’

‘Or never parted. True. Had my word been taken, Alroy would ne’er have been betrayed.’

‘No more; I pray thee, sir, no more. Leave me.’

‘Were this a palace, I would. Harsh words are softened by a friendly ear, when spoken in affliction.’

‘Say what they will, I am the Lord's anointed. As such I should have lived, as such at least I’ll die.’

‘And Miriam?’

‘'The Lord will not desert her: she ne’er deserted Him.’

‘Schirene?’

‘Schirene! why! for her sake alone I will die a hero. Shall it be said she loved a craven slave, a base impostor, a vile renegade, a villainous dealer in drugs and charms? Oh! no, no, no! if only for her sake, her sweet, sweet sake, my end shall be like my great life. As the sun I rose, like him I set. Still the world is warm with my bright fame, and my last hour shall not disgrace my noon, stormy indeed, but glorious!’

Honain took the torch from the niche, and advanced to the grate. It was not fastened: he drew it gently open, and led forward a veiled and female figure. The veiled and female figure threw herself at the feet of Alroy, who seemed lost to what was passing. A soft lip pressed his hand. He started, his chains clanked.

‘Alroy!’ softly murmured the kneeling female.

‘What voice is that?’ wildly exclaimed the Prince of the Captivity. ‘It falls upon my ear like long-forgotten music. I’ll not believe it. No! I’ll not believe it. Art thou Schirene?’

‘I am that wretched thing they called thy bride.’

‘Oh! this indeed is torture! What impalement can equal this sharp moment? Look not on me, let not our eyes meet! They have met before, like to the confluence of two shining rivers blending in one great stream of rushing light. Bear off that torch, sir. Let impenetrable darkness cover our darker fortunes.’

‘Alroy.’

‘She speaks again. Is she mad, as I am, that thus she plays with agony?’

‘Sire,’ said Honain advancing, and laying his hand gently on the arm of the captive, ‘I pray thee moderate this passion. Thou hast some faithful friends here, who would fain commune in calmness for thy lasting welfare.’

‘Welfare! He mocks me.’

‘I beseech thee, Sire, be calm. If, indeed, I speak unto that great Alroy whom all men fear and still may fear, I pray remember, ’tis not in palaces or in the battle-field alone that the heroic soul can conquer and command. Scenes like these are the great proof of a superior soul. While we live, our body is a temple where our genius pours forth its godlike inspiration, and while the altar is not overthrown, the deity may still work marvels. Then rouse thyself, great Sire; bethink thee that, a Caliph or a captive, there is no man within this breathing world like to Alroy. Shall such a being fall without a struggle, like some poor felon, who has nought to trust to but the dull shuffling accident of Chance? I, too, am a prophet, and I feel thou still wilt conquer.’

‘Give me my sceptre then, give me the sceptre! I speak to the wrong brother! It was not thou, it was not thou that gavest it me.’

‘Gain it once more. The Lord deserted David for a time; still he pardoned him, and still he died a king.’

‘A woman worked his fall.’*

‘But thee a woman raises. This great Princess, has she not suffered too? Yet her spirit is still unbroken. List to her counsel: it is deep and fond.’

‘So was our love.’

‘And is, my Alroy!’ exclaimed the Princess. ‘Be calm, I pray thee! For my sake be calm; I am calm for thine. Thou hast listened to all Honain has told thee, that wise man, my Alroy, who never erred. ’Tis but a word he counsels, an empty word, a most unmeaning form. But speak it, and thou art free, and Alroy and Schirene may blend again their glorious careers and lives of sweet fruition. Dost thou not remember when, walking in the garden of our joy, and palled with empire, how often hast thou sighed for some sweet isle unknown to man, where thou mightst pass thy days with no companion but my faithful self, and no adventures but our constant loves? 0! my beloved, that life may still be thine! And dost thou falter? Dost call thyself forlorn with such fidelity, and deem thyself a wretch, when Paradise with all its beauteous gates but wooes thy entrance? Oh! no, no, no, no! thou hast forgot Schirene: I fear me much, thy over-fond Schirene, who doats upon thy image in thy chains more than she did when those sweet hands of thine were bound with gems and played with her bright locks!’

‘She speaks of another world. I do remember something. Who has sent this music to a dungeon? My spirit softens with her melting words. My eyes are moist. I weep! ’Tis pleasant. Sorrow is joy compared with my despair. I never thought to shed a tear again. My brain is cooler.’

‘Weep, weep, I pray thee weep; but let me kiss away thy tears, my soul! Didst think thy Schirene had deserted thee? Ah! that was it that made my bird so sad. It shall be free, and fly in a sweet sky, and feed on flowers with its faithful mate. Ah me! I am once more happy with my boy. There was no misery but thy absence, sweet! Methinks this dungeon is our bright kiosk! Is that the sunbeam, or thy smile, my love, that makes the walls so joyful?’

‘Did I smile? I’ll not believe it.’

‘Indeed you did. Ah! see he smiles again. Why this is freedom! There is no such thing as sorrow. ’Tis a lie to frighten fools!’

‘Why, Honain, what’s this? ’Twould seem I am really joyful. There’s inspiration in her very breath. I am another being. Nay! waste not kisses on those ugly fetters.’

‘Methinks they are gold.’

They were silent. Schirene drew Alroy to his rough seat, and gently placing herself on his knees, threw her arms round his neck, and buried her face in his breast. After a few minutes she raised her head, and whispered in his ear, in irresistible accents of sweet exultation, ‘We shall be free to-morrow!’

‘To-morrow! is the trial so near?’ exclaimed the captive, with an agitated voice and changing countenance. ‘To-morrow!’ He threw Schirene aside somewhat hastily, and sprang from his seat. ‘To-morrow! would it were over! To-morrow! Methinks there is within that single word the fate of ages! Shall it be said to-morrow that Alroy—Hah! what art thou that risest now before me? Dread, mighty spirit, thou hast come in time to save me from perdition. Take me to thy bosom, ’tis not stabbed. They did not stab thee. Thou seest me here communing with thy murderers. What then? I am innocent. Ask them, dread ghost, and call upon their fiendish souls to say I am pure. They would make me dark as themselves, but shall not.’

‘Honain, Honain!’ exclaimed the Princess in a terrible whisper as she flew to the Physician. ‘He is wild again. Calm him, calm him. Mark! how he stands with his extended arms, and fixed vacant eyes, muttering most awful words! My spirit fails me. It is too fearful.’

The Physician advanced and stood by the side of Alroy, but in vain attempted to catch his attention. He ventured to touch his arm. The Prince started, turned round, and recognising him, exclaimed in a shrieking voice, ‘Off, fratricide!’

Honain recoiled, pale and quivering. Schirene sprang to his arm. ‘What said he, Honain? Thou dost not speak. I never saw thee pale before. Art thou, too, mad?’

‘Would I were!’

‘All men are growing wild. I am sure he said something. I pray thee tell me what was it?’

‘Ask him.’

‘I dare not. Tell me, tell me, Honain!’

‘That I dare not.’

‘Was it a word?’

‘Ay! a word to wake the dead. Let us begone.’

‘Without our end? Coward! I'll speak to him. My own Alroy,’ sweetly whispered the Princess, as she advanced before him.

‘What, has the fox left the tigress! Is’t so, eh? Are there no judgments? Are the innocent only haunted? I am innocent! I did not strangle thee! He said rightly, “Beware, beware! they who did this may do even feller deeds.” And here they are quick at their damned work. Thy body suffered, great Jabaster, but me they would strangle body and soul!’

The Princess shrieked, and fell into the arms of the advancing Honain, who bore her out of the dungeon.

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Published @ RC

January 2005

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