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Alroy, Edited by Sheila A. Spector


Part V

Chapter 5

SOME few days after this conversation on the terrace, as Alroy was reclining in a bower, in the beautiful garden of his host, meditating on the future, some one touched him on the back. He looked up. It was Honain.

‘Follow me,’ said the brother of Jabaster.

The Prince rose, and followed him in silence. They entered the house, and, passing through the saloon already described, they proceeded down a long gallery, which terminated in an arched flight of broad steps leading to the river. A boat was fastened to the end of the stairs, floating on the blue line of the Tigris, bright in the sun.

Honain now gave to Alroy a velvet bag, which he requested him to carry, and then they descended the steps and entered the covered boat; and, without any directions to the rower, they were soon skimming over the water. By the sound of passing vessels, and the occasional shouts of the boatmen, Alroy, although he could observe nothing, was conscious that for some time their course lay through a principal thoroughfare of the city; but by degrees the sounds became less frequent, and in time entirely died away, and all that caught his ear was the regular and monotonous stroke of their own oar.

At length, after the lapse of nearly an hour from their entrance, the boat stopped, and was moored against a quay. The curtains were withdrawn, and Honain and his companion disembarked.

A low but extensive building, painted in white and gold arabesque, and irregular but picturesque in form, with many small domes, and tall thin towers, rose amid groves of cypress on the bank of the broad and silent river. The rapid stream had carried them far from the city, which was visible but distant. Around was no habitation, no human being. The opposite bank was occupied by enclosed gardens. Not even a boat passed.

Honain, beckoning to Alroy to accompany him, but still silent, advanced to a small portal, and knocked. It was instantly opened by a single Nubian, who bowed reverently as the visitors passed him. They proceeded along a low and gloomy passage, covered with arches of fretwork, until they arrived at a door of tortoiseshell and mother of pearl.22 Here Honain, who was in advance, turned round to Alroy, and said, ‘Whatever happen, and whoever may address you, as you value your life and mine, do not speak.’

The door opened, and they found themselves in a vast and gorgeous hall. Pillars of many-coloured marbles rose from a red and blue pavement of the same material, and supported a vaulted, circular, and highly-embossed roof of purple, scarlet, and gold.23 Around a fountain, which rose fifty feet in height from an immense basin of lapis-lazuli, and reclining on small yellow Barbary mats, was a group of Nubian eunuchs, dressed in rich habits of scarlet and gold,24 and armed with ivory battle-axes, the white handles worked in precious arabesque finely contrasting with the blue and brilliant blades.

The commander of the eunuch-guard rose on seeing Honain, and, pressing his hand to his head, mouth, and heart, saluted him. The physician of the Caliph, motioning Alroy to remain, advanced some paces in front of him, and entered into a whispering conversation with the eunuch. After a few minutes, this officer resumed his seat, and Honain, beckoning to Alroy to rejoin him, crossed the hall.

Passing through an open arch, they entered a quadrangular court of roses,25 each bed of flowers surrounded by a stream of sparkling water, and floating like an enchanted islet upon a fairy ocean. The sound of the water and the sweetness of the flowers blended together, and produced a lulling sensation, which nothing but his strong and strange curiosity might have enabled Alroy to resist. Proceeding along a cloister of light airy workmanship which connected the hall with the remainder of the buildings, they stood before a lofty and sumptuous portal.

It was a monolith gate, thirty feet in height, formed of one block of green and red jasper, and cut into the fanciful undulating arch of the Saracens. The consummate artist had seized the advantage afforded to him by the ruddy veins of the precious stone, and had formed them in bold relief into two vast and sinuous serpents, which shot forth their crested heads and glittering eyes at Honain and his companion.

The physician of the Caliph, taking his dagger from his girdle, struck the head of one of the serpents thrice. The massy portal opened with a whirl and a roar, and before them stood an Abyssinian giant,26 holding in his leash a roaring lion.

‘Hush, Haroun!’* said Honain to the animal, raising at the same time his arm; and the beast crouched in silence. ‘Worthy Morgargon,* I bring you a remembrance.’ The Abyssinian showed his tusks, larger and whiter than the lion’s, as he grinningly received the tribute of the courtly Honain; and he uttered a few uncouth sounds, but he could not speak, for he was a mute.

The jasper portal introduced the companions to a long and lofty and arched chamber, lighted by high windows of stained glass, hung with tapestry of silk and silver, covered with prodigious carpets, and surrounded by immense couches. And thus through similar chambers they proceeded, in some of which were signs of recent habitation, until they arrived at another quadrangle nearly filled by a most singular fountain which rose from a basin of gold encrusted with pearls, and which was surrounded by figures of every rare quadruped27 in the most costly materials. Here a golden tiger, with flaming eyes of ruby and flowing stripes of opal, stole, after some bloody banquet, to the refreshing brink; a cameleopard* raised its slender neck of silver from the centre of a group of every inhabitant of the forest; and brilliant bands of monkeys, glittering with precious stones, rested, in every variety of fantastic posture, on the margin of the basin.

The fountain itself was a tree of gold and silver28 spreading into innumerable branches, covered with every variety of curious birds, their plumage appropriately imitated by the corresponding tints of precious stones, and which warbled in beautiful melody as they poured forth from their bills the musical and refreshing element.

It was with difficulty that Alroy could refrain from an admiring exclamation, but Honain, ever quick, turned to him, with his finger pressed on his mouth, and quitting the quadrangle, they entered the gardens.

Lofty terraces, dark masses of cypress, winding walks of acacia, in the distance an interminable paradise, and here and there a glittering pavilion and bright kiosk! Its appearance on the river had not prepared Alroy for the extent of the palace itself. It seemed infinite, and it was evident that he had only viewed a small portion of it. While they were moving on, there suddenly arose a sound of trumpets. The sound grew nearer and nearer, louder and louder: soon was heard the tramp of an approaching troop. Honain drew Alroy aside. A procession appeared advancing from a dark grove of cypress. Four hundred men led as many white bloodhounds with collars of gold and rubies.29 Then came one hundred men, each with a hooded hawk; then six horsemen in rich dresses; after them a single horseman, mounted on a steed, marked on its forehead with a star.30 The rider was middle-aged, handsome, and dignified. He was plainly dressed, but the staff of his hunting-spear was entirely of diamonds and the blade of gold. He was followed by a company of Nubian eunuchs, with their scarlet dresses and ivory battle-axes, and the procession closed.

‘The Caliph,’ whispered Honain, when they had passed, placing at the same time his finger on his lip to prevent any inquiry. This was the first intimation that had reached Alroy of what he had already suspected, that he was a visitor to the palace of the Commander of the Faithful.

The companions turned down a wild and winding walk, which, after some time, brought them to a small and gently sloping lawn, surrounded by cedar-trees of great size. Upon the lawn was a kiosk, a long and many-windowed building, covered with blinds, and further screened by an overhanging roof. The kiosk was built of white and green marble, the ascent to it was by a flight of steps the length of the building, alternately of white and green marble, and nearly covered with rose-trees. Honain went up these steps alone, and entered the kiosk. After a few minutes he looked out from the blinds and beckoned to Alroy. David advanced, but Honain, fearful of some indiscretion, met him, and said to him in a low whisper between his teeth, ‘Remember you are deaf, a mute, and a eunuch.’ Alroy could scarcely refrain from smiling, and the Prince of the Captivity and the physician of the Caliph entered the kiosk together. Two women, veiled, and two eunuchs of the guard, received them in an antechamber. And then they passed into a room which ran nearly the whole length of the kiosk, opening on one side to the gardens, and on the other supported by an ivory wall, with niches painted in green fresco, and in each niche a rose-tree. Each niche, also, was covered with an almost invisible golden grate, which confined a nightingale, and made him constant to the rose he loved. At the foot of each niche was a fountain, but, instead of water, each basin was replenished with the purest quicksilver.31 The roof of the kiosk was of mother-of-pearl inlaid with tortoise-shell; the pavement, a mosaic of rare marbles and precious stones, representing the most delicious fruits and the most beautiful flowers. Over this pavement, a Georgian page flung at intervals refreshing perfumes. At the end of this elegant chamber was a divan of light green silk, embroidered with pearls, and covered with cushions of white satin and gold. Upon one of these cushions, in the middle of the divan, sat a lady, her eyes fixed in abstraction upon a volume of Persian poetry lying on her knees, one hand playing with a rosary of pearls and emeralds,32 and the other holding a long gold chain, which imprisoned a white gazelle.

The lady looked up as Honain and his companion entered. She was very young, as youthful as Alroy. Her long light brown hair, drawn off a high white forehead covered with blue veins, fell braided with pearls over each shoulder. Her eyes were large and deeply blue; her nose small, but high and aquiline. The fairness of her face was dazzling, and, when she looked up and greeted Honain, her lustrous cheeks broke into dimples, the more fascinating from their contrast with the general expression of her countenance, which was haughty and derisive. The lady was dressed in a robe of crimson silk girded round her waist by a green shawl, from which peeped forth the diamond hilt of a small poniard.33 Her round white arms looked infinitely small, as they occasionally flashed forth from their large loose hanging sleeves. One was covered with jewels, and the right arm was quite bare.

Honain advanced, and, bending, kissed the lady’s proffered hand. Alroy fell into the background.

‘They told me that the Rose of the World drooped this morning,’ said the Physician, bending again as he smiled, ‘and her slave hastened at her command to tend her.’

‘It was a south wind. The wind has changed, and the Rose of the World is better,’ replied the lady laughing.

Honain touched her pulse.

‘Irregular,’ said the Physician.

‘Like myself,’ said the lady. ‘Is that a new slave?’

‘A recent purchase, and a great bargain. He is good-looking, has the advantage of being deaf and dumb, and is harmless in every respect.’

‘’Tis a pity,’ replied the lady; ‘it seems that all good-looking people are born to be useless. I, for instance.’

‘Yet rumour whispers the reverse,’ remarked the Physician.

‘How so?’ inquired the lady.

‘The young King of Karasmé.’

‘Poh! I have made up my mind to detest him. A barbarian!’

‘A hero!’

‘Did you ever see him?’

‘I have.’

‘Handsome?’

‘An archangel.’

‘And sumptuous?’

‘Is he not a conqueror? All the plunder of the world will be yours.’

‘I am tired of magnificence. I built this kiosk to forget it.’

‘It is not in the least degree splendid,’ said Honain, looking round with a smile.

‘No,’ answered the lady, with a self-satisfied air: ‘here, at least, one can forget one has the misfortune to be a princess.’

‘It is certainly a great misfortune,’ said the Physician.

‘And yet it must be the only tolerable lot,’ replied the lady.

‘Assuredly,’ replied Honain.

‘For our unhappy sex at least.’

‘Very unhappy.’

‘If I were only a man!’

‘What a hero you would be!’

‘I should like to live in endless confusion.’

‘I have not the least doubt of it.’

‘Have you got me the books?’ eagerly inquired the Princess.

‘My slave bears them,’ replied Honain.

‘Let me see them directly.’

Honain took the bag from Alroy, and unfolded its contents; the very volumes of Greek romances which Ali, the merchant, had obtained for him.

‘I am tired of poetry,’ said the Princess, glancing over the costly volumes, and tossing them away; ‘I long to see the world.’

‘You would soon be tired of that,’ replied the Physician.

‘I suppose common people are never tired,’ said the Princess.

‘Except with labour,’ said the Physician; ‘care keeps them alive.’

‘What is care?’ asked the Princess, with a smile.

‘It is a god,’ replied the Physician, ‘invisible, but omnipotent. It steals the bloom from the cheek and lightness from the pulse; it takes away the appetite, and turns the hair grey.’

‘It is no true divinity, then,’ replied the Princess, ‘but an idol we make ourselves. I am a sincere Moslem, and will not worship it. Tell me some news, Honain.’

‘The young King of Karasmé—’

‘Again! the barbarian! You are in his pay. I’ll none of him. To leave one prison, and to be shut up in another, why do you remind me of it? No, my dear Hakim, if I marry at all, I will marry to be free.’

‘An impossibility,’ said Honain.

‘My mother was free till she was a queen and a slave. I intend to end as she began. You know what she was.’

Honain knew well, but he was too politic not to affect ignorance.

‘The daughter of a bandit,’ continued the Princess, ‘who fought by the side of her father. That is existence! I must be a robber. ’Tis in the blood. I want my fate foretold, Honain. You are an astrologer; do it.’

‘I have already cast your nativity. Your star is a comet.’

‘That augurs well; brilliant confusion and erratic splendour. I wish I were a star,’ added the Princess in a deep rich voice, and with a pensive air; ‘a star in the clear blue sky, beautiful and free. Honain, Honain, the gazelle has broken her chain, and is eating my roses.’

Alroy rushed forward and seized the graceful truant. Honain shot him an anxious look; the Princess received the chain from the hand of Alroy, and cast at him a scrutinising glance.

‘What splendid eyes the poor beast has got!’ exclaimed the Princess.

‘The gazelle?’ inquired the Physician.

‘No, your slave,’ replied the Princess.

‘Why, he blushes. Were he not deaf as well as dumb, I could almost believe he understood me.’

‘He is modest,’ replied Honain, rather alarmed; ‘and is frightened at the liberty he has taken.’

‘I like modesty,’ said the Princess; ‘it is interesting. I am modest; you think so?’

‘Certainly,’ said Honain.

‘And interesting?’

‘Very.’

‘I detest an interesting person. After all, there is nothing like plain dulness.’

‘Nothing,’ said Honain.

‘The day flows on so serenely in such society.’

‘It does,’ said Honain.

‘No confusion; no scenes.’

‘None.’

‘I make it a rule only to have ugly slaves.’

‘You are quite right.’

‘Honain, will you ever contradict me? You know very well I have the handsomest slaves in the world.’

‘Every one knows it.’

‘And do you know, I have taken a great fancy to your new purchase, who, according to your account, is eminently qualified for the post. Why, do you not agree with me?’

‘Why, yes; I doubt not your Highness would find him eminently qualified, and certainly few things would give me greater pleasure than offering him for your acceptance; but I got into such disgrace by that late affair of the Circassian, that—’

‘Oh! leave it to me,’ said the Princess.

‘Certainly,’ said the Physician, turning the conversation; ‘and when the young King of Karasmé arrives at Bagdad, you can offer him to his majesty as a present.’

‘Delightful! and the king is really handsome and young as well as brave; but has he any taste?’

‘You have enough for both.’

‘If he would but make war against the Greeks!’

‘Why so violent against the poor Greeks?’

‘You know they are Giaours. Besides, they might beat him, and then I should have the pleasure of being taken prisoner.’

‘Delightful!’

‘Charming! to see Constantinople, and marry the Emperor.’

‘Marry the Emperor!’

‘To be sure. Of course he would fall in love with me.’

‘Of course.’

‘And then, and then, I might conquer Paris!’

‘Paris!’

‘You have been at Paris!’34

‘Yes.’

‘The men are shut up there,’ said the Princess with a smile, ‘are they not? and the women do what they like?’

‘You will always do what you like,’ said Honain, rising.

‘You are going?’

‘My visits must not be too long.’

‘Farewell, dear Honain!’ said the Princess, with a melancholy air. ‘You are the only person who has an idea in all Bagdad, and you leave me. A miserable lot is mine, to feel everything, and be nothing. These books and flowers, these sweet birds, and this fair gazelle: ah! poets may feign as they please, but how cheerfully would I resign all these elegant consolations of a captive life for one hour of freedom! I wrote some verses on myself yesterday; take them, and get them blazoned for me by the finest scribe in the city; letters of silver on a violet ground with a fine flowing border; I leave the design to you. Adieu! Come hither, mute.’ Alroy advanced to her beckon, and knelt. ‘There, take that rosary for thy master’s sake, and those dark eyes of thine.’

The companions withdrew, and reached their boat in silence. It was sunset. The musical and sonorous voice of the Muezzin* resounded from the innumerable minarets of the splendid city. Honain threw back the curtains of the barque. Bagdad rose before them in huge masses of sumptuous dwellings, seated amid groves and gardens. An infinite population, summoned by the invigorating twilight, poured forth in all directions. The glowing river was covered with sparkling caiques,* the glittering terraces with showy groups. Splendour, and power, and luxury, and beauty were arrayed before them in their most captivating forms, and the heart of Alroy responded to their magnificence. ‘A glorious vision!’ said the Prince of the Captivity.

‘Very different from Hamadan,’ said the physician of the Caliph.

‘To-day I have seen wonders,’ said Alroy.

‘The world is opening to you,’ said Honain.

Alroy did not reply; but after some minutes he said, in a hesitating voice, ‘Who was that lady?’

‘The Princess Schirene,’* replied Honain, ‘the favourite daughter of the Caliph. Her mother was a Georgian and a Giaour.’

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Published @ RC

January 2005

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