Stories of the Magicians - Alfred J. Church
The old traveller wrapped his cloak round him, and lay down to sleep. Thalaba also laid himself down. For a while he watech the moon shining through the leaves of the acacia; then fell asleep. As for his companion, he only seemed to sleep, for indeed he was the Magician Lobaba, who had come from the Domdaniel caverns to slay, if it might be possible, the Destroyer. When he knew from the youth's long and regular breathing that he slept, he rose stealthily from his place, and bending over him looked closely at him. Deeply in his heart he cursed Abdaldar's ring that kept him safe. It was to be seen on Thalaba's finger as he lay with his head on his arm, and the light of the moon was reflected from the gem. Lobaba put out his hand, trying to take it, but could not; he called the fiends that served him, and bade them rob the sleeping youth. But they were powerless, on and all. And at last the Sorcerer, baffled and full of rage, lay down again. Force could not help him, but he might prevail by temptation.
The morning sunshine fell upon Thalaba's eyes, and woke him. He rose, and folded his mantle round him, and after ablutions duly made and prayers duly said, girded his loins for the day's journey. So did the Magician also, insulting God with the vain show of worship. Then they filled their water-skins at the spring, and gave the camel a full draught, and went on their way.
"Is it true," said Thalaba, "that magicians go to learn the secrets of their wicked art from the angels at Babylon?"
"It is true and it is false."
"What do you mean?"
"All things have a double use. The fire that warms us on the hearth may burn the house; the sun ripens the harvest and darts fever into our veins; and the iron that the hunter uses may arm the hand of a murderer."
"Nothing is good or evil in itself, but only in its use. All men hold the physician in honour, but there are some who use their skill to poison the cup which a friend drinks; but is his knowledge therefore evil?"
"It were folly to think so."
"O what a noble creature were man, if he knew his own powers and gave them room to grow and spread! The Horse obeys his will; the Camel carries him across the deserts; the Pigeon bears his messages. He is content with these conquests, when he might have myriads of Spirits obey him."
"But how? only surely by making that covenant with Hell which binds the soul to death."
"Was Solomon then accursed of God? Did not the birds make a canopy over him with their wings when he bade them? Did not the Genii build the Temple for him?"
"God gave him his wisdom as a special reward for his goodness."
"Aye, and God will always give wisdom as the reward of study. 'Tis a well of which all might drink; but few dig deep enough. Whatever powers God has made it possible for man to reach, it is lawful for him to attain, if he can. The knowledge that it does not befit him to have, has been placed beyond his reach. Those who go to Babylon, and learn mysterious wisdom from the angels, do no wrong."
"Do you know any of their secrets?"
"Alas! my son, I know but enough to see how great is my ignorance. My age has been given to study, but I can only regret in vain the careless indolence of my youth. Yet something I know of the properties of herbs, and have often brought comfort to the afflicted by my art, blessed by Him without whose blessing nothing avails. Also of gems I know something."
"Can you interpret what is written round this ring?"
"My sight is weak, let me see it closer."
The unsuspecting Thalaba was about to draw the ring from his finger, when a wasp settled on the joint above the ring, and stung it. The flesh rose hot and purple round the ring; and the Magician, baffled again, knew the hand of Heaven, and blasphemed in his heart. Then he devised another scheme. At noon there rose a mist. For a time the Sun guided them on their way, and it was pleasant to travel without the heat. But this guidance soon failed them. An impenetrable mass of cloud hung over the wilderness.
"Do you know the track?" said Thalaba, "or shall we wait till the wind scatters this fog?"
"Let us hold on," said the Magician. "If we go astray, the Sun will set us right to-morrow."
So they went deeper and deeper into the wilderness. That night they lay down to sleep in the darkness, and the next morning when Thalaba awoke he did not know which way to turn for his prayers.
"Shall we go on," said Lobaba, "or shall we wait? If we go, we may lose ourselves yet worse; if we wait, food and drink may fail us."
"Let us go," answered Thalaba; "we may find, it may be, some tent or grove of palms. To wait were to wait for death."
And willingly the Magician led the youth still deeper into the desert. The mist hung over it still; it was there at night when they lay down to sleep; it was there as thick as ever when they awoke in the morning. And now the water-skin was light, though they used its precious contents with prudence. During the third night, as Thalaba lay in a broken sleep, he heard in his dreams the sound of rushing winds; but when he awoke, there was still the same deadly calm. So another day passed, and now the water-skin was empty.
Then the travellers heard a hopeful sound, the sound of the wind. In a few minutes the mist was scattered, and they saw again the face of heaven. But what a scene it was on which they opened their eyes! No well was near, no palm grove, no tent. The skin lay flat on the camel, and the poor beast could scarcely drag his weary feet across the sand.
At the height of their despair there burst upon their eyes a beautiful sight, a green meadow spangled with flowers. Surely a stream must flow through it. The Camel saw it, and hurried on with fresh spirit. But when they reached the place, they found that the flowers were nothing better than the bitter herbs of gentian and senna. Lobaba said, "Son, we must slay the camel, or we shall perish. Your young hand is strong and firm; draw forth your knife and pierce him."
No one who saw the old man with suffering face, dry lips, and feverish eyes, would have dreamt that in truth he felt no pain or distress, such was the strength of his magic. Thalaba paused for a moment; but when he saw his companion's distress, and saw the poor beast lie at his feet worn out with want, he did not hesitate any more, but taking the knife from his girdle drew it across the camel's throat. "Little will your death profit us," he thought, as he poured into their water-skin the scanty portion that was hoarded in the camel's stomach. For a day it lasted them. Then it was exhausted, and still there was no cloud nor hope of rain.
Lobaba said, "Let me look at the Ring." So he took the youth's hand and viewed the writing close. "Joy!" he cried, "whosoever bears this stone may command the Genii. Call them, my son; bid them save us."
"No," said Thalaba, "shall I distrust my God? If He will not save us, the Genii cannot help."
Whilst he was speaking, Lobaba's eyes were fixed on the distance with such terror in them that Thalaba looked to see what it might mean. He saw columns of sand burning red with the sun upon them, rushing before the wind and coming towards them. As they looked the foremost of them burst, scattering the burning sand about it.
"Save us!" cried the Magician, "save us by the Ring!"
Thalaba made no answer, but gazed wondering and awestruck on the sight.
"Why do you wait?" cried the old man. "If God will not save, call on the Powers that will."
"Ah!" said Thalaba, "now I know you, accursed sorcerer; you have led me hither, hoping that for fear of death I should sell my soul to sin."
"Fool! call on him whose name is written on the Ring or die!"
"Die thou." And as he spoke he put an arrow on the bowstring, and drew the bow to the full, and let fly. The arrow sped true to its aim, smiting the Sorcerer full upon the breast, but the astonished Thalaba saw the point recoil blunted.
Lobaba smiled bitterly. "Try again your earthly arms. The Power I serve does not desert his votaries as He does whom you worship."
As he spoke, he called by his magic art a chariot of the air, that moved of its own power. On this he climbed, and cried to Thalaba, "Come hither; you have been my fellow-traveller, and I am yet willing to save you. Mount this chariot and you are safe."
Thalaba did not deign to answer him. But as he looked, another of the great columns of sand came eddying across the desert. It struck Lobaba as he sat in his chariot, and laid him a corpse upon the ground; but over Thalaba, who had thrown himself with his face to the earth, it passed harmless.