Chapter 1

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Alroy, Edited by Sheila A. Spector


Part I

Chapter 1

THE CORNETS sounded a final flourish as the Prince of the Captivity dismounted from his white mule; his train shouted as if they were once more a people; and, had it not been for the contemptuous leer which played upon the countenances of the Moslem bystanders, it might have been taken for a day of triumph rather than of tribute.

‘The glory has not departed!’ exclaimed the venerable Bostenay,* as he entered the hall of his mansion. ‘It is not as the visit of Sheba unto Solomon;* nevertheless the glory has not yet departed. You have done well, faithful Caleb.’* The old man’s courage waxed more vigorous, as each step within his own walls the more assured him against the recent causes of his fear, the audible curses and the threatened missiles of the unbelieving mob.

‘It shall be a day of rejoicing and thanksgiving!’ continued the Prince; ‘and look, my faithful Caleb, that the trumpeters be well served. That last flourish was bravely done. It was not as the blast before Jericho;* nevertheless, it told that the Lord of Hosts was for us. How the accursed Ishmaelites started! Did you mark, Caleb, that tall Turk in green upon my left? By the sceptre of Jacob, he turned pale! Oh! it shall be a day of rejoicing and thanksgiving! And spare not the wine, nor the flesh-pots for the people. Look you to this, my child, for the people shouted bravely and with a stout voice. It was not as the great shout in the camp when the ark returned;* nevertheless, it was boldly done, and showed that the glory had not yet departed. So spare not the wine, my son, and drink to the desolation of Ishmael in the juice which he dare not quaff.’

‘It has indeed been a great day for Israel!’ exclaimed Caleb, echoing his master's exaltation.

‘Had the procession been forbidden,’ continued Bostenay, ‘had it been reserved for me of all the princes to have dragged the accursed tribute upon foot, without trumpets and without guards, by this sceptre, my good Caleb, I really think that, sluggishly as this old blood now runs, I would—But it is needless now to talk; the God of our fathers hath been our refuge.’

‘Verily, my lord, we were as David in the wilderness of Ziph;* but now we are as the Lord’s anointed in the stronghold of Engedi!’*

‘The glory truly has not yet utterly departed,’ resumed the Prince in a more subdued tone; ‘yet if—I tell you what, Caleb; praise the Lord that you are young.’

‘My Prince too may yet live to see the good day.’

‘Nay, my child, you misinterpret me. Your Prince has lived to see the evil day. ’Twas not of the coming that I thought when I bid you praise the Lord because you were young, the more my sin. I was thinking, Caleb, that if your hair was as mine, if you could recollect, like me, the days that are gone by, the days when it needed no bribe to prove we were princes, the glorious days when we led captivity captive; I was thinking, I say, my son, what a gainful heritage it is to be born after the joys that have passed away.’

‘My father lived at Babylon,’ said Caleb.

‘Oh! name it not! name it not!’ exclaimed the old chieftain. ‘Dark was the day that we lost that second Sion! We were then also slaves to the Egyptian; but verily we ruled over the realm of Pharaoh. Why Caleb, Caleb, you who know all, the days of toil, the nights restless as a love-sick boy’s, which it has cost your Prince to gain permission to grace our tribute-day with the paltry presence of half-a-dozen guards; you who know all my difficulties, who have witnessed all my mortifications, what would you say to the purse of dirhems,* surrounded by seven thousand scimetars?’

‘Seven thousand scimitars!’

‘Not one less; my father flourished one.’

‘It was indeed a great day for Israel!’

‘Nay, that is nothing. When old Alroy was prince, old David Alroy, for thirty years, good Caleb, thirty long years we paid no tribute to the Caliph.’

‘No tribute! no tribute for thirty years! What marvel then, my Prince, that the Philistines have of late exacted interest?’

‘Nay, that is nothing,’ continued old Bostenay, unmindful of his servant’s ejaculations. ‘When Moctador* was Caliph, he sent to the same Prince David, to know why the dirhems were not brought up, and David immediately called to horse, and, attended by all the chief people, rode to the palace, and told the Caliph that tribute was an acknowledgment made from the weak to the strong to insure protection and support; and, inasmuch as he and his people had garrisoned the city for ten years against the Seljuks, he held the Caliph in arrear.’

‘We shall yet see an ass mount a ladder,’1 exclaimed Caleb, with uplifted eyes of wonder.

‘It is true, though,’ continued the Prince; ‘often have I heard my father tell the tale. He was then a child, and his mother held him up to see the procession return, and all the people shouted "The sceptre has not gone out of Jacob.”’

‘It was indeed a great day for Israel.’

‘Nay, that is nothing. I could tell you such things! But we prattle; our business is not yet done. You to the people; the widow and the orphan are waiting. Give freely, good Caleb, give freely; the spoils of the Canaanite are no longer ours, nevertheless the Lord is still our God, and, after all, even this is a great day for Israel. And, Caleb, Caleb, bid my nephew, David, know that I would speak with him.’

‘I will do all promptly, good master! We wondered that our honoured lord, your nephew, went not up with the donation this day.’

‘Who bade you wonder? Begone, sir! How long are you to idle here? Away!’

‘They wonder he went not up with the tribute to-day. Ay! surely, a common talk. This boy will be our ruin, a prudent hand to wield our shattered sceptre. I have observed him from his infancy; he should have lived in Babylon. The old Alroy blood flows in his veins, a stiff-necked race.* When I was a youth, his grandsire was my friend; I had some fancies then myself. Dreams, dreams! we have fallen on evil days, and yet we prosper. I have lived long enough to feel that a rich caravan, laden with the shawls of India and the stuffs of Samarcand,* if not exactly like dancing before the ark, is still a goodly sight. And our hard-hearted rulers, with all their pride, can they subsist without us? Still we wax rich. I have lived to see the haughty Caliph sink into a slave viler far than Israel. And the victorious and voluptuous Seljuks, even now they tremble at the dim mention of the distant name of Arslan. Yet I, Bostenay, and the frail remnant of our scattered tribes, still we exist, and still, thanks to our God! we prosper. But the age of power has passed; it is by prudence now that we must flourish. The gibe and jest, the curse, perchance the blow, Israel now must bear, and with a calm or even smiling visage. What then? For every gibe and jest, for every curse, I'll have a dirhem; and for every blow, let him look to it who is my debtor, or wills to be so. But see, he comes, my nephew! His grandsire was my friend. Methinks I look upon him now: the same Alroy that was the partner of my boyish hours. And yet that fragile form and girlish face but ill consort with the dark passions and the dangerous fancies, which, I fear, lie hidden in that tender breast. Well, sir?’

‘You want me, uncle?’

‘What then? Uncles often want what nephews seldom offer.’

‘I at least can refuse nothing; for I have nought to give.’

‘You have a jewel which I greatly covet.’

‘A jewel! See my chaplet! You gave it me, my uncle; it is yours.’

‘I thank you. Many a blazing ruby, many a soft and shadowy pearl, and many an emerald glowing like a star in the far desert, I behold, my child. They are choice stones, and yet I miss a jewel far more precious, which, when I gave you this rich chaplet, David, I deemed you did possess.’

‘How do you call it, sir?’

‘Obedience.’

‘A word of doubtful import; for to obey, when duty is disgrace, is not a virtue.’

‘I see you read my thought. In a word, I sent for you to know, wherefore you joined me not to-day in offering our, our—’

‘Tribute.’

‘Be it so: tribute. Why were you absent?’

‘Because it was a tribute; I pay none.’

‘But that the dreary course of seventy winters has not eased the memory of my boyish follies, David, I should esteem you mad. Think you, because I am old, I am enamoured of disgrace, and love a house of bondage? If life were a mere question between freedom and slavery, glory and dishonour, all could decide. Trust me, there needs but little spirit to be a moody patriot in a sullen home, and vent your heroic spleen upon your fellow-sufferers, whose sufferings you cannot remedy. But of such stuff your race were ever made. Such deliverers ever abounded in the house of Alroy. And what has been the result? I found you and your sister orphan infants, your sceptre broken, and your tribes dispersed. The tribute, which now at least we pay like princes, was then exacted with the scourge and offered in chains. I collected our scattered people, I re-established our ancient throne, and this day, which you look upon as a day of humiliation and of mourning, is rightly considered by all a day of triumph and of feasting; for, has it not proved, in the very teeth of the Ishmaelites, that the sceptre has not yet departed from Jacob?’

‘I pray you, uncle, speak not of these things. I would not willingly forget you are my kinsman, and a kind one. Let there not be strife between us. What my feelings are is nothing. They are my own: I cannot change them. And for my ancestors, if they pondered much, and achieved little, why then ’twould seem our pedigree is pure, and I am their true son. At least one was a hero.’

‘Ah! the great Alroy; you may well be proud of such an ancestor.’

‘I am ashamed, uncle, ashamed, ashamed.’

‘His sceptre still exists. At least, I have not betrayed him. And this brings me to the real purport of our interview. That sceptre I would return.’

‘To whom?’

‘To its right owner, to yourself.’

‘Oh! no, no, no; I pray you, I pray you not. I do entreat you, sir, forget that I have a right as utterly as I disclaim it. That sceptre, you have wielded it wisely and well; I beseech you keep it. Indeed, good uncle, I have no sort of talent for all the busy duties of this post.’

‘You sigh for glory, yet you fly from toil.’

‘Toil without glory is a menial’s lot.’

‘You are a boy; you may yet live to learn that the sweetest lot of life consists in tranquil duties and well-earned repose.’

‘If my lot be repose, I'll find it in a lair.’

‘Ah! David, David, there is a wildness in your temper, boy, that makes me often tremble. You are already too much alone, child. And for this, as well as weightier reasons, I am desirous that you should at length assume the office you inherit. What my poor experience can afford to aid you, as your counsellor, I shall ever proffer; and, for the rest, our God will not desert you, an orphan child, and born of royal blood.’

‘Pr’ythee, no more, kind uncle. I have but little heart to mount a throne, which only ranks me as the first of slaves.’

‘Pooh, pooh, you are young. Live we like slaves? Is this hall a servile chamber? These costly carpets, and these rich divans, in what proud harem shall we find their match? I feel not like a slave. My coffers are full of dirhems. Is that slavish? The wealthiest company of the caravan is ever Bostenay’s. Is that to be a slave? Walk the bazaar of Bagdad, and you will find my name more potent than the Caliph’s. Is that a badge of slavery?’

‘Uncle, you toil for others.’

‘So do we all, so does the bee, yet he is free and happy.’

‘At least he has a sting.’

‘Which he can use but once, and when he stings — ’

‘He dies, and like a hero. Such a death is sweeter than his honey.’

‘Well, well, you are young, you are young. I once, too, had fancies. Dreams all, dreams all. I willingly would see you happy, child. Come, let that face brighten; after all, to-day is a great day. If you had seen what I have seen, David, you too would feel grateful. Come, let us feast. The Ishmaelite, the accursed child of Hagar,* he does confess to-day that you are a prince; this day also you complete your eighteenth year. The custom of our people now requires that you should assume the attributes of manhood. To-day, then, your reign commences; and at our festival I will present the elders to their prince. For a while farewell, my child. Array that face in smiles. I shall most anxiously await your presence.’

‘Farewell, sir.’

He turned his head and watched his uncle as he departed: the bitter expression of his countenance gradually melted away as Bostenay disappeared: dejection succeeded to sarcasm; he sighed, he threw himself upon a couch and buried his face in his hands.

Suddenly he arose and paced the chamber with an irregular and moody step. He stopped, and leant against a column. He spoke in a tremulous and smothered voice.

‘Oh! my heart is full of care, and my soul is dark with sorrow! What am I? What is all this? A cloud hangs heavy o’er my life. God of my fathers, let it burst!

‘I know not what I feel, yet what I feel is madness. Thus to be is not to live, if life be what I sometimes dream, and dare to think it might be. To breathe, to feed, to sleep, to wake and breathe again, again to feel existence without hope; if this be life, why then these brooding thoughts that whisper death were better?

‘Away! The demon tempts me. But to what? What nameless deed shall desecrate this hand? It must not be: the royal blood of twice two thousand years, it must not die, die like a dream. Oh! my heart is full of care, and my soul is dark with sorrow!

‘Hark! the trumpets that sound our dishonour. Oh, that they but sounded to battle! Lord of Hosts, let me conquer or die! Let me conquer like David; or die, Lord, like Saul!

‘Why do I live? Ah! could the thought that lurks within my secret heart but answer, not that trumpet’s blast could speak as loud or clear. The votary of a false idea, I linger in this shadowy life, and feed on silent images which no eye but mine can gaze upon, till at length they are invested with all the terrible circumstance of life, and breathe, and act, and form a stirring world of fate and beauty, time, and death, and glory. And then, from out this dazzling wilderness of deeds, I wander forth and wake, and find myself in this dull house of bondage, even as I do now. Horrible! horrible!

‘God of my fathers! for indeed I dare not style thee God of their wretched sons; yet, by the memory of Sinai, let me tell thee that some of the antique blood yet beats within these pulses, and there yet is one who fain would commune with thee face to face, commune and conquer.

‘And if the promise unto which we cling be not a cheat, why, let him come, come, and come quickly, for thy servant Israel, Lord, is now a slave so infamous, so woe-begone, and so contemned, that even when our fathers hung their harps by the sad waters of the Babylonian stream, why, it was paradise compared with what we suffer.

‘Alas! they do not suffer; they endure and do not feel. Or by this time our shadowy cherubim would guard again the ark.* It is the will that is the father to the deed, and he who broods over some long idea, however wild, will find his dream was but the prophecy of coming fate.

‘And even now a vivid flash darts through the darkness of my mind. Methinks, methinks: ah! worst of woes to dream of glory in despair. No, no; I live and die a most ignoble thing; beauty and love, and fame and mighty deeds, the smile of women and the gaze of men, and the ennobling consciousness of worth, and all the fiery course of the creative passions, these are not for me, and I, Alroy, the descendant of sacred kings, and with a soul that pants for empire, I stand here extending my vain arm for my lost sceptre, a most dishonoured slave! And do I still exist? Exist! ay, merrily. Hark! Festivity holds her fair revel in these light-hearted walls. We are gay to-day; and yet, ere yon proud sun, whose mighty course was stayed before our swords that now he even does not deign to shine upon; ere yon proud sun shall, like a hero from a glorious field, enter the bright pavilion of his rest, there shall a deed be done.

‘My fathers, my heroic fathers, if this feeble arm cannot redeem your heritage; if the foul boar must still wallow in thy sweet vineyard, Israel, at least I will not disgrace you. No! let me perish. The house of David is no more; no more our sacred seed shall lurk and linger, like a blighted thing, in this degenerate earth. If we cannot flourish, why then we will die!’

‘Oh! say not so, my brother!’

He turns, he gazes on a face beauteous as a starry night; his heart is full, his voice is low.

‘Ah, Miriam!* thou queller of dark spirits! is it thou? Why art thou here?’

‘Why am I here? Are you not here? and need I urge a stronger plea? Oh! brother dear, I pray you come, and mingle in our festival! Our walls are hung with flowers you love;2 I culled them by the fountain’s side; the holy lamps are trimmed and set, and you must raise their earliest flame. Without the gate, my maidens wait, to offer you a robe of state. Then, brother dear, I pray you come and mingle in our Festival.’

‘Why should we feast?’

‘Ah! is it not in thy dear name the lamps are lit, these garlands hung? To-day to us a prince is given, to-day—’

‘A prince without a kingdom.’

‘But not without that which makes kingdoms precious, and which full many a royal heart has sighed for, willing subjects, David.’

‘Slaves, Miriam, fellow-slaves.’

‘What we are, my brother, our God has willed; and let us bow and tremble.’

‘I will not bow, I cannot tremble.’

‘Hush, David, hush! It was this haughty spirit that called the vengeance of the Lord upon us.’

‘It was this haughty spirit that conquered Canaan.’

‘Oh, my brother, my dear brother! they told me the dark spirit had fallen on thee, and I came, and hoped that Miriam might have charmed it. What we have been, Alroy, is a bright dream; and what we may be, at least as bright a hope; and for what we are, thou art my brother. In thy love I find present felicity, and value more thy chance embraces and thy scanty smiles than all the vanished splendour of our race, our gorgeous gardens, and our glittering halls.’

‘Who waits without there?’

‘Caleb.’

‘My Lord.’

‘Go tell my uncle that I will presently join the banquet. Leave me a moment, Miriam. Nay, dry those tears.’

‘Oh, Alroy! they are not tears of sorrow.’

‘God be with thee! Thou art the charm and consolation of my life. Farewell! farewell!’

‘I do observe the influence of women very potent over me. ’Tis not of such stuff that they make heroes. I know not love, save that pure affection which doth subsist between me and this girl, an orphan and my sister. We are so alike, that when, last Passover,* in mimicry she twined my turban round her head, our uncle called her David.

‘The daughters of my tribe, they please me not, though they are passing fair. Were our sons as brave as they are beautiful, we still might dance on Sion. Yet have I often thought that, could I pillow this moody brow upon some snowy bosom that were my own, and dwell in the wilderness, far from the sight and ken of man, and all the care and toil and wretchedness that groan and sweat and sigh about me, I might haply lose this deep sensation of overwhelming woe that broods upon by being. No matter! Life is but a dream, and mine must be a dull one.’

Published @ RC

January 2005

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