Stories of the Magicians - Alfred J. Church
Thalaba retraced his steps to the outer air. The giant Zohak lay stretched on the ground. He was awake indeed, but he did not reach out his hand to bar the way, fearing to rouse the snakes, which were still lingering over their meal. Gladly Thalaba found himself at last again in the outer air, and gladly he lay down to sleep in the shelter of a ruin of which the roof was yet left.
The next morning when he awoke, he found a horse standing by his side. Never had he seen one of more faultless shape and brighter eye; no not even among those that are said to come from King Solomon's own stud. He was adorned with rich trappings of crimson, but had neither bit nor bridle in his mouth.
"Surely," said Thalaba to himself, "he is sent by Heaven, and will go as Heaven bids him. It is not the rider who is to guide him." Meanwhile the creature threw up his head, and pawed the ground as if impatient to start. So Thalaba leapt lightly on his back, and in a moment the horse bounded away. Over the plain he sped, and did not halt till the sun was low in the sky. Then he paused; Thalaba lay down to sleep, and the horse rested by his side. So they travelled on day after day, till one evening, when they halted, the horse sprang away. He had done his errand. The evening was dark, the clouds hiding the moon; nor could Thalaba hear any sound but of running water; guiding his way by this, he came to a little stream, one of many with which the ground was intersected. The first from which he stooped to drink was boiling hot; but the steam rising from his hand warned him in time not to try it. The next was intensely cold. Of this he drank deeply, and thus refreshed lay down to sleep.
The next day, following the rills, he came to a river into which they flowed. There looking about him he saw in the distance a high range of mountains, and, leading up to them, a wide stony valley. Something seemed to tell him that this was the path which he must follow. As he went on, still mounting higher and higher, the valley grew narrower, and the rocks steeper on either side, till at last he came to a place where they met, barring all further passage; in the barrier indeed there had been hewn an opening, but this was closed by massive gates of iron. A horn with ivory tip and mouth of brass hung by the gates. This Thalaba took, and breathed into the mouth. The blast rang like thunder among the rocks; and the gates rolled back without any one to move them. He entered, and they closed behind him with a clap like thunder. It was a narrow winding way in which he found himself, lighted by dim lamps that hung from the roof, and descended continually. At last Thalaba found his way barred again by gates of iron, but by these latter also hung a horn of brass and ivory. Thalaba took it and breathed into it. This time the answer came not in thunder, but in the sweetest music that can be imagined. And again the gates rolled back of their own accord. For a moment Thalaba thought he must be in the very garden of Eden. But Eden had no marble terraces, nor tents of cloth of gold, such as could be seen among the perfumed groves and shrubberies of this wonderful place. And then he thought that he must be dreaming, and shut his eyes, but when he opened them again everything was there, palaces and glittering courts and perfumed groves. As he looked and wondered, an old man of a very gracious and reverend look came forward and greeted him. "Happy youth, go and taste the joys of Paradise. The reinless horse that ranges over the world brings hither only those that are marked out for great deeds. Here they have a foretaste of happiness; hence they go out bound on great enterprises; hither they return to an endless felicity. Go then and taste the joys of Paradise."
He turned away and left the youth silent with wonder. Wherever his eyes could reach he saw new marvels of delight. Through openings in the woods he saw rich pavilions curtained with gold. Streams clear as crystal wandered through the shrubbery and lawn. The broad-leaved planes arched over in long colonnades, while round their trunks the vines climbed up, clothing them with a yet fresher green and with clusters of purple and gold. And the ground was carpeted with flowers, tulips streaked with the sky at sunset, and the lily with her snowy head and the red-bosomed rose. The air, too, was full of music, while the nightingale sang from his bower of roses more sweetly than he ever sang on earth, and from far away came the cries of the waterfowls, and now and then, mellowed by the distance, came the voice of merriment. Thalaba wandered on, till at length, at the bidding of hunger, he entered a banqueting-room. There on the brink of a fountain, on carpets of silk, sat a company of guests. The air was cooled by the water as it rose and fell; the very light came cooled through panes of pearly shell, or was tinged saffron or ruby as it fell through vases of wine that filled the openings in the ceiling.
In that delicious coolness the revellers reclined at ease, and drank from goblets of gold the amber juice of the grapes of Shiraz. Thalaba would have none of the wine, knowing it to be forbidden, and indeed the mother of sins; nor did the guests offer it a second time, for they saw that this youth was not one who could be turned from his purpose. But he drank the water, water that seemed clearer and purer than when it came from the spring; and partook of the fruits, for there were fruits of all kinds, water-melons with rough rinds that melted on the lips, and pistachio nuts, and amber grapes from Persia that had been dried in the sun till they were all sweetness, and apricots cased in ice, like topazes set in crystal, and oranges on plates of snow. And as he ate, the rich smoke from aloes and sandalwood burning in censers of gold filled the room with perfume. Then came in a troop of dancers, with bells upon their ankles, and danced before the guests, making music as they moved. But Thalaba rose displeased, thinking that it did not become the lover of Oneiza to be in such company, and leaving the banqueting-room wandered forth into the garden. As he looked, he could not but remember that he was a lonely man, wandering about the world, and shut out from the joys of home, and for a moment he murmured against the will of Heaven.
Hurrying away from those scenes of revelry, he sought the shade and silence of the wood, and there throwing himself on the ground thought of the desert and of Moath's tent and of Oneiza. As he dreamed he was roused by a cry of distress. It came louder and nearer, and he started up, strung his bow, and plucked an arrow from the quiver. He heard the cry again, and now it was close at hand; and it was a woman's shriek. In another moment he saw a woman rush through the trees, her veil half torn from her face, and her pursuer close behind. "Help me," she cried, turning to Thalaba. At the word the arrow flew, and did its errand of death. Then he turned to the woman and saw—Oneiza.
When she could breathe again she cried, "O my father! my father!" Thalaba lost in wonder and fearing to ask could but wait with her. "They seized me, Thalaba," she said, "they seized me in my sleep at night. My father could not help me; he is an old man, and they were many and strong. To think that they could have heard his prayer and yet leave him childless!
"We will seek him; we will go back to the desert."
"Alas! we should not find him. Our tent is desolate. The wind has heaped the sand within the door. My father wanders about the world seeking me. O Thalaba, this is a wicked place; let us be gone."
"But how? How shall we pass the iron gates? They moved at a breath to let me in, but armies could not stir them for my return."
"We will climb the mountains that shut in this hateful garden."
"Are you strong enough to climb?"
"Strong enough surely for anything, partly from fear, and partly, dear Thalaba, that you are with me."
As she spoke she took his hand, and drew him gently towards the mountains. But when they came to the foot of them, they found no slopes gradually leading upward, but steep cliffs, rising sheer from the ground. There was no way by which the most skilful and bold of mountaineers could climb.
"There is no way," said Thalaba, and Oneiza grew pale and her steps flagged. "But stay," said the youth, "I passed a river, a full stream; the waters cannot be kept in, and where they find a way it may be that we can follow. This way the river runs."
They followed the course of the stream, as it rolled along full and silent; but as they advanced they heard a sound as of a waterfall louder and louder, and so came to a place where the whole plunged at one leap down a precipice of rock.
"God save us!" cried Oneiza; "there is no way from this accursed place," and her heart sank with fear.
"Cheer up," Thalaba said; "if we cannot escape the dangers of this place, yet we can conquer them. But tell me who has prepared this garden of delights and for what?"
"When I was brought here," answered Oneiza, "the women told me that it was the abode of the magician Aloaddin. He intoxicates men with the delights of this place, till they are ready to commit all manner of crimes at his bidding. And what will you do against all these?"
Thalaba's face grew dark as he heard. "Woe to him," he said, with a stern smile, "woe to him! he laid a net for an Antelope, but a Lion has come in."
She shook her head. "Ah! but he is a sorcerer, and guarded by many; and you, Thalaba, are but one."
"Ay, but there is a God, Oneiza, and I have a Talisman that protects from all the powers of Earth and Hell whoever bears it. Remember, too, that Destiny has marked me from mankind. But now lie down and rest, fearing no evil. I will watch by you."
So Oneiza lay down on a bank of flowers; and after she had calmed her spirit with prayer, sank peacefully to sleep. And Thalaba sat and watched her, and as he watched his spirit rose, and he waited in good hope for the day.