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Alroy, Edited by Sheila A. Spector


Part IX

Chapter 1

’TWAS midnight, and the storm still raged; ’mid the roar of the thunder and the shrieks of the wind, the floods of forky lightning each instant revealed the broad and billowy breast of the troubled Tigris.

Jabaster stood gazing upon the wild scene from the gallery of his palace. His countenance was solemn, but disquieted.

‘I would that he were here!’ exclaimed the high priest. ‘Yet why should I desire his presence, who heralds only gloom? Yet in his absence am I gay? I am nothing. This Bagdad weighs upon me like a cloak of lead: my spirit is dull and broken.’

‘They say Alroy gives a grand banquet in the serail tonight, and toasts his harlot ’mid the thunderbolts. Is there no hand to write upon the wall? He is found wanting, he is weighed, and is indeed found wanting. The parting of his kingdom soon will come, and then, I could weep, oh! I could weep, and down these stern and seldom yielding cheeks pour the wild anguish of my desperate woe. So young, so great, so favoured! But one more step a God, and now a foul Belshazzar!

‘Was it for this his gentle youth was passed in musing solitude and mystic studies? Was it for this the holy messenger summoned his most religious spirit? Was it for this he crossed the fiery desert, and communed with his fathers in their tombs? Is this the end of all his victories and all his vast achievements? To banquet with a wanton!

‘A year ago, this very night, it was the eve of battle, I stood within his tent to wait his final word. He mused a while, and then he said, “Good night, Jabaster!” I believed myself the nearest to his heart, as he has ever been nearest to mine, but that’s all over. He never says, “Good night, Jabaster,” now. Why, what’s all this? Methinks I am a child.

‘The Lord’s anointed is a prisoner now in the light grating of a bright kiosk, and never gazes on the world he conquered. Egypt and Syria, even farthest Ind, send forth their messengers to greet Alroy, the great, the proud, the invincible. And where is he? In a soft Paradise of girls and eunuchs, crowned with flowers, listening to melting lays, and the wild trilling of the amorous lute. He spares no hours to council; all is left to his prime favourites, of whom the leader is that juggling fiend I sometime called my brother.

‘Why rest I here? Whither should I fly? Methinks my presence is still a link to decency. Should I tear off the ephod, I scarcely fancy ’twould blaze upon another’s breast. He goes not to the sacrifice; they say he keeps no fast, observes no ritual, and that their festive fantasies will not be balked, even by the Sabbath. I have not seen him thrice since the marriage. Honain has told her I did oppose it, and she bears to me a hatred that only women feel. Our strong passions break into a thousand purposes: women have one. Their love is dangerous, but their hate is fatal.

‘See! a boat bounding on the waters. On such a night, but one would dare to venture.’

Now visible, now in darkness, a single lantern at the prow, Jabaster watched with some anxiety the slight bark buffeting the waves. A flash of lightning illumined the whole river, and tipped with a spectral light even the distant piles of building. The boat and the toiling figure of the single rower were distinctly perceptible. Now all again was darkness; the wind suddenly subsided; in a few minutes the plash of the oars was audible, and the boat apparently stopped beneath the palace. There was a knocking at the private portal.

‘Who knocks?’ enquired Jabaster.

‘A friend to Israel.’

‘Abidan, by his voice. Art thou alone?’

‘The prophetess is with me; only she.’

‘A moment. I'll open the gate. Draw the boat within the arch.’

Jabaster descended from the gallery, and in a moments returned with two visitors: the youthful prophetess Esther, and her companion, a man short in stature, but with a powerful and well-knit frame. His countenance was melancholy, and, with harshness in the lower part, not without a degree of pensive beauty in the broad clear brow and sunken eyes, unusual in Oriental visages.

‘A rough night,’ said Jabaster.

‘To those who fear it,’ replied Abidan. ‘The sun has brought so little joy to me, I care not for the storm.’

‘What news?’

‘Woe!  woe! woe!’

‘Thy usual note, my sister. Will the day never come when we may change it?’

‘Woe! woe! woe! unutterable woe!’

‘Abidan, how fares it?’

‘Very well.’

‘Indeed!’

‘As it may turn out.’

‘You are brief.’

‘Bitter.’

‘Have you been to court, that you have learnt to be so wary in your words, my friend?’

‘I know not what may happen. In time we may all become courtiers, though I fear, Jabaster, we have done too much to be rewarded. I gave him my blood, and you something more, and now we are at Bagdad. ’Tis a fine city. I wish to Heaven the shower of Sodom* would rain upon its terraces.’

‘I know thou hast something terrible to tell. I know it by that gloomy brow of thine, that lowers like the tempest. Speak out, man, I can bear the worst, for which I am prepared.’

‘Take it, then. Alroy has proclaimed himself Caliph. Abner is made Sultan of Persia; Asriel, Ithamar, Medad, and the chief captains, Vizirs, Honain their chief. Four Moslem nobles are sworn into the council. The Princess goes to mosque in state next Friday; ’tis said thy pupil doth accompany her.’

‘I’ll not believe it! By the God of Sinai, I’ll not believe it! Were my own eye the accursed witness of the deed, I’d not believe it. Go to mosque! They play with thee, my good Abidan, they play with thee.’

‘As it may be. ’Tis a rumour, but rumours herald deeds. The rest of my intelligence is true. I had it from my kinsman, stout Zalmunna.* He left the banquet.’

‘Shall I go to him? Methinks one single word, To mosque! only a rumour and a false one. I’ll never believe it; no, no, no, never, never! Is he not the Lord’s anointed? The ineffable curse upon this daughter of the Moabite! No marvel that it thunders! By heavens, I’ll go and beard him in his orgies!’

‘You know your power better than Abidan. You bearded him before his marriage, yet—’

‘He married. ’Tis true. Honain, their chief. And I kept his ring! Honain is my brother. Have I ne’er a dagger to cut the bond of brotherhood?’

‘We have all daggers, Jabaster, if we knew but how to use them.’

‘’Tis strange, we met after twenty years of severance. You were not in the chamber, Abidan. ’Twas at council. We met after twenty years of severance. He is my brother. ’Tis strange, I say: I felt that man shrink from my embrace.’

‘Honain is a philosopher, and believes in sympathy. ’Twould appear there was none between you. His system, then, absolves you from all ties.’

‘You are sure the rest of the intelligence is true? I’ll not believe the mosque, the rest is bad enough.’

‘Zalmunna left the banquet. Hassan Subah’s brother sat above him.’

‘Subah's brother! ’Tis all over, then. Is he of the council?’

‘Ay, and others.’

‘Where now is Israel?’

‘She should be in her tents.’

‘Woe! woe! unutterable woe!’ exclaimed the prophetess, who, standing motionless at the back of the chamber, seemed inattentive to their conversation.

‘Jabaster paced the gallery with agitated steps. Suddenly he stopped, and, walking up to Abidan, seized his arm, and looked him sternly in the face. ‘I know thy thoughts, Abidan,’ exclaimed the priest; ‘but it cannot be. I have dismissed, henceforth and for ever I have dismissed all feeling from my mind; now I have no brother, no friend, no pupil, and, I fear, no Saviour. Israel is all in all to me. I have no other life. ’Tis not compunction, then, that stays my arm. My heart’s as hard as thine.’

‘Why stays it, then?’

‘Because with him we fall. He is the last of all his sacred line. There is no other hand to grasp our sceptre.’

‘Our sceptre! what sceptre?’

‘The sceptre of our kings.’

‘Kings!’

‘Ay, why dost thou look so dark?’

‘How looked the prophet when the stiff-necked populace forsooth must have a king!* Did he smile? Did he shout, and clap his hands, and cry, God save his Majesty! 0, Jabaster! honoured, rare Jabaster! thou second Samuel of our lightheaded people! there was a time when Israel had no king except their God. Were we viler then? Did kings conquer Canaan? Who was Moses, who was Aaron, who was mighty Joshua? Was the sword of Gideon* a kingly sword? Did the locks of Samson shade royal temples? Would a king have kept his awful covenant like solemn Jephtha?* Royal words are light as air, when, to maintain them, you injure any other than a subject.

‘Kings! why what’s a king? Why should one man break the equal sanctity of our chosen race? Is their blood purer than our own? We are all the seed of Abraham. Who was Saul, and who was David? I never heard that they were a different breed from our fathers. Grant them devout, which they were not; and brave and wise, which other men were; have their posterity a patent for all virtues? No, Jabaster! thou ne’er didst err, but when thou placedst a crown upon this haughty stripling. What he did, a thousand might have done. ’Twas thy mind inspired the deed. And now he is a king; and now Jabaster, the very soul of Israel, who should be our Judge and leader, Jabaster trembles in disgrace, while our unhallowed Sanhedrim* is filled with Ammonites!’

‘Abidan, thou hast touched me to the quick; thou hast stirred up thoughts that ever and anon, like strong and fatal vapours, have risen from the dark abyss of thought, and I have quelled them.’

‘Let them rise, I say; let them drown the beams of that all-scorching sun we suffer under, that drinks all vegetation up, and makes us languish with a dull exhaustion!’

‘Joy! joy! unutterable joy!’

‘Hark! the prophetess has changed her note; and yet she hears us not. The spirit of the Lord is truly with her. Come, Jabaster, I see thy heart is opening to thy people’s sufferings; thy people, my Jabaster, for art not thou our Judge? at least, thou shalt be.’

‘Can we call back the Theocracy? Is’t possible?’

‘But say the word, and it is done, Jabaster. Nay, stare not. Dost thou think there are no true hearts in Israel? Dost thou suppose thy children have beheld, without a thought, the foul insults poured on thee; thee, their priest, their adored high priest, one who recalls the best days of the past, the days of their great Judges? But one word, one single movement of that mitred head, and—But I speak unto a mind that feels more than I can express. Be silent, tongue, thou art a babbling counsellor. Jabaster’s patriot soul needs not the idle schooling of a child. If he be silent, ’tis that his wisdom deems that the hour is not ripe; but, when her leader speaks, Israel will not be slack.’

‘The Moslemin in council! We know what must come next. Our national existence is in its last agony. Methinks the time is very ripe, Abidan.’

‘Why, so we think, great sir; and say the word, and twenty thousand spears will guard the ark. I’ll answer for my men. Stout Scherirah looks grimly on the Moabites. A word from thee, and the whole Syrian army will join our banner, the Lion of Judah, that shall be our flag. The tyrant and his satraps,* let them die, and then the rest must join us. We’ll proclaim the covenant, and, leaving Babylon to a bloody fate, march on to Sion!’

‘Sion, his youthful dream, Sion!’

‘You muse!’

‘King or no king, he is the Lord’s anointed. Shall this hand, that poured the oil on his hallowed head, wash out the balmy signet with his blood? Must I slay him? Shall this kid be seethed even in its mother’s milk?’*

‘His voice is low, and yet his face is troubled. How now, sir?’

‘What art thou? Ah! Abidan, trusty, stanch Abidan! You see, Abidan, I was thinking, my good Abidan, all this may be the frenzy of a revel. To-morrow’s dawn may summon cooler counsels. The tattle of the table, it is sacred. Let us forget it; let us pass it over. The Lord may turn his heart. Who knows, who knows, Abidan!’

‘Noble sir, a moment since your mind was like your faith, firm and resolved, and now—’

‘School me not, school me not, good Abidan. There is that within my mind you cannot fathom; some secret sorrows which are all my own. Leave me, good friend, leave me awhile. When Israel calls me I shall not be wanting. Be sure of that, Abidan, be sure of that. Nay, do not go; the night is very rough, and the fair prophetess should not again stem the swelling river. I’ll to my closet, and will soon return.’

Jabaster quitted the gallery, and entered a small apartment. Several large volumes, unclasped and open, were lying on various parts of the divan. Before them stood his brazen cabalistic table. He closed the chamber with a cautious air. He advanced into the centre of the apartment. He lifted up his hands to heaven, and clasped them with an expression almost of agony.

‘Is it come to this?’ he muttered in a tone of deep oppression. ‘Is it come to this? What is’t I have heard? what done? Down, tempting devil, down! O life! O glory! O my country, my chosen people, and my sacred creed! why do we live, why act? Why have we feeling for aught that’s famous, or for aught that’s holy? Let me die! let, let me die! The torture of existence is too great.’

He flung himself upon the couch; he buried his awful countenance in his robes. His mighty heart was convulsed with passion. There did he lie, that great and solemn man, prostrate and woe-begone.

Published @ RC

January 2005

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