Artabanzanus/Chapter 11

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1412479Artabanzanus — Chapter XIWilliam Moore Ferrar



We now left the large rooms, and entered a series of dark and narrow passages which had evidently been cut through the solid rock, and they brought us, after many turnings and windings, to the foot of a steep staircase. My mysterious leader began to descend, telling me to be careful, and not fall back again. His caution was not unnecessary, for I found the ascent very difficult and dangerous, and in the poor light afforded by his single lamp I stumbled and fell forward several times. The steps were rugged and unequal in height, and seemed to wind round in a large circle. At last they came to an end, and a solid wall barred our further progress.

'How is this?' he said; 'have we come up the wrong stairs? What will happen to us if the lamp should go out? Here, hold it; you are trembling. Oh, you are a brave soldier! A thousand recruits like you under Bonaparte would conquer the universe. Take the lamp, and take care!' I took it accordingly, trying with all my might to be brave; and I had scarcely done so when it went out. Oh, darkness, blackness of the horrible pit! ye are bright moon light, compared to this.

'What have you done?' roared the Doctor in a terrible voice.

'I do not know; the lamp went out of itself; perhaps my hand shook; perhaps, sir, Astoragus has followed us.'

'May all the devils——' he said; 'but I beg pardon—let us be brave. Misfortunes will happen. But how, in the name of all that is frightful—how shall we find our way back again? How shall we get down these rugged steps?'

'In the name of all that is bright, noble, and true,' I answered, 'we shall get down safely; but my pockets are empty of matches, and I do not know what we shall do. Doctor Julius—if that is your name—have I offended you? Have you resolved on my destruction?'

'Hush, you foolish boy; why should I destroy you? Have I not saved you? You do not know my power. Mind what you say. We are about to enter a glorious presence. We are going to see Helen! Be brave and fear nothing.' I could now hear him breathing in a short and peculiar manner, as if he himself were affrighted. 'Come nearer,' he said; 'give me your hand; take care of that lamp!' My heart was beating with a wild fear. I heard a click, and then a harsh grating sound as if a heavy door were being turned on rusty hinges, and then my guide trying the ground with his feet.

'There is a step here. Stop that shaking; come forward, bend low, now up with you!'

I obeyed without doubting him; it would not have served me had I doubted and mistrusted him. I was in his power. I found myself now standing on a soft carpet, and heard the heavy door shutting again, with another great pang of terror. All was of a pitchy blackness, and dreadful silence reigned around, which my friend did not disturb for some minutes.

'Shut your eyes,' said he at last.

'There is no need, sir,' I was foolish enough to reply; 'there is nothing here to dazzle them.'

'Shut your eyes, I tell you,' he repeated more severely; 'how long will it be before you learn to obey my commands?'

I did as he required. He now began to speak, as if to himself, in a language which was quite strange to me. After uttering a few sentences, he addressed me again:

'Are your eyes shut?'

'They cannot be faster or closer, Doctor.'

Then he stamped energetically on the floor, and, behold! a flood of brilliant light, splendid to me even through my closed eyelids, illuminated the place.

'Open them now cautiously,' he whispered; and immediately added in a loud voice, 'These be thy gods, oh Israel!'

Completely dazzled by the unexpected glare which now assailed me, I was obliged to put my hand over my face. The fixed and unmistakable evidence of sight is before me still, and never will it be effaced. My conductor and I stood side by side in a very large cave or hall, furnished like a magnificent drawing-room, with a number of handsome lamps burning on tables, giving forth brilliant light of a pale red colour. Around the walls, and in deep recesses, were seated several figures of ladies and gentlemen, in various life-like attitudes, and under a lofty canopy at one end were enthroned four ladies and two gentlemen, and at their feet sat two lovely children—a boy and a girl.

'Father, mother, Agnes, Mr. St. Clair—Helen! let me introduce Mr. Oliver Ubertus, a stranger from the surface of the earth, and an esteemed friend of mine. Bid him welcome!' said the Doctor with becoming gravity. And when I bowed low, and fully expected them to return my salutation, not one of them spoke a word or moved.

After a few moments spent in silently contemplating the lovely group, he turned to me and said: 'This is my private retreat, my oratory, drawing-room, treasure-house, exhibition, or what you please. I have done my duty; I have introduced you to my friends, and they take no notice of you. Father, mother, Helen, this is Oliver Ubertus, come from the upper world to see and hear you, and you will not speak to him!'

Under the canopy of lofty state, adorned with countless barbaric gems, silver, gold, and pearls, they sat motionless statues, yet so real and life-like that I believed they were flesh and blood of the most refined and delicate description. They had no appearance of being ordinary waxen figures got up as a catch-penny show to charm the taste of the curious crowd. A globe of pale pearly light hung above their heads, and smaller globes surrounded the canopy, so that the bright rays as it were of three or four full moons played upon their features. The scene was enchanting. The ladies were elegantly attired in flowing robes of the purest white, with scarlet and blue sashes around their waists, and ornamented mantles folded round their bosoms. She on the right represented a fine woman, handsome and robust, and of mature years. Next to her sat a gentleman whose appearance was stern, yet honest and manly, dressed in the ordinary civilian's costume of the Cromwellian period. On his left hand was seated a young lady with plain features, and by her side another lady, whose pale and delicate countenance told the sad tale of a deeply-seated inward grief, and next to her—could I trust the evidence of my senses?—the charming girl of my dream! I felt, as before, that her exquisite beauty could not be described in words. She had long, silken, golden hair flowing over her shoulders; her eyes were of the brightest blue, sparkling with the rays of immortality; her whole figure was that of an angel of light. I thought of Helen of Troy, but my soul revolted from the thought; then of Helena, the mother of Constantine, and then of that Helena who said:

'But now he's gone, and my idolatrous fancy
Must sanctify his relics——'

But I could not find a parallel to the Helen now before me.

'Ubertus,' said the Doctor, 'this gentleman represents my honoured father, who was a merchant of some note in the city of London, in the days of King Charles the First. This lady of mature age is the likeness of one of the best and sweetest of mothers; this is my only sister Agnes, and this girl—see how fresh, how fair, how beautiful she is!—is the image of my Helen. This gentleman represents her father, and this melancholy lady her mother. These children are effigies of my twin brother Charles, and of Helen's twin sister Clara, who died when they were children. They will not greet you now, nor will this Helen say, "Welcome, thou who hast seen the Star of Victory!" I can do a great many things, and can command the services of artists who are cunning workmen in marble and alabaster, and silver and gold. These figures are as perfect likenesses as I could make them, and I have given them all I had to give—beauty and riches, society and a splendid dwelling-place; but I cannot give them life. I would not give it to them if I could, unless I were sure of being able to take them away into the light of heaven. Can you help me to leave this place? All the wealth which you see here—and it has been valued at twenty millions sterling—I will give you if you can help me to see the glorious light of the sun once more.'

My tears fell. 'My friend and preserver,' I exclaimed, 'I would to God, solemnly and fervently, that I could help you to leave this place, not for the wealth contained in this bill, but for the gratitude and love I bear to you, and the pain I feel at seeing you detained here for ages, a prisoner against your will. If it is the will and pleasure of the Almighty that you shall leave it, you certainly shall when the time comes. If it is not His will my help would be in vain. I have thought upon this until my brain became on fire, and I cannot devise any scheme, or hit upon any plan. If an opportunity should occur, we, like skilful generals, must take advantage of our adversary's stupidity or default, and if we catch him tripping, you may depend upon my very best and warmest assistance.'

'Enough, Ubertus,' he replied, pressing my band. 'Now I will show you round the room; but first would you like to hear a few simple verses which I wrote for Helen one evening, after I had vexed my darling with my cursed jealousy—yes, jealousy of a fiendish villain, the sight of whom she could hardly bear? I wrote but little then or since, either poetry or prose, never having had the ambition of becoming an author. But the sight of Helen always reminds me of my weakness and my cruelty, as much as it does of her sweetness and gentleness. How little do the jealous know what poisoned daggers they plunge into the hearts of those who have vowed to be faithful! Shall I repeat them ? Her angelic spirit may be here to listen.'

'Certainly, Doctor; I am very anxious to hear them.'

Then he recited the following stanzas in a loud and clear voice, whose echoes through the vaulted chamber penetrated my startled brain like wizards' bells:

'Oh, Helen! Helen! thou art weeping, have I made thee sad?
Yet ask me not, my dearest love, what darkens on my mind;
The lamb that wantons on the hill, that seems so sweet and glad,
May ofttimes feel the ills of life, and quarrel with its kind.

'I cannot tell—all reckless fly the busy changing hours,
And thoughts that are not happy will wander through the brain;
Our lips emwreathed in smiles may be, our dreams in summer flowers,
But cheerless lies the doubting heart, and galling is its chain.

'Oh Helen! be but true to me, as I my love have given
To thee, my life, my soul, my heart—a heart that knows no guile;
The sun, the moon, the stars, the glorious orbs of heaven
Are dark as winter's night, my darling, if thou dost not smile.

'And this believe, my only love—we cannot perfect be,
Our wish is pure and true, yet sorrow still must reign;
But when we meet to part no more, from care and anguish free,
Let Heaven seal up its charms from me when I shall give thee pain.

'Oh blessed hope! for thee alone how gladly would I die,
For thee I spurn the mocking world, and all my wealth I give;
When shall I, as on eagle's wing, soar through the radiant sky,
And be encircled in thine arms, and near thee ever live?

'A perfect light—a burning light—shines brightly on my soul.
The love that conquers years of pain shall never hence depart;
My Helen speak! thy words shall live while heavenly ages roll,
And death can come to me no more with thee within my heart!'

'I like your verses very well, Doctor,' said I, after a short pause, 'that is, if I may presume to judge. I think there is good poetry in them, but there is also a good deal of idolatry.'

'I know there is,' he answered, 'but I could not help it. You however, with your knowledge and experience, can apply them to whom you please. They need not be devoted exclusively to any Helen or Mary in existence. Substitute for a woman's name that which you most reverence, even that of the very highest, and the idolatry will disappear.

'It is true I can do so; still the name of a woman, and the leading idea it conveys of worshipping a woman, makes it sound idolatrous.'

'My dear boy,' he answered, with animation, 'what would you have? I was never born to be a Milton or a Shakespeare. Men must have idols; they must either worship God, whom they cannot see, or one or more of the beings or things He has created, which they can see and feel, either men or women, or land or gold. Do you not know that the heart of man is as full of follies and iniquities as the rock of adamant is of the hardest substance to its very centre? Do not say of a woman, "When thou tookest upon thee to deliver man thou didst not abhor the virgin's womb"?'

'But you must not worship the virgin.'

I had listened with awe to the utterances of the singular personage in whose presence I was standing; and now to my intense astonishment and pity, he turned abruptly to the image of his idolized Helen, threw his arms around it, kissed its lips passionately, fell on his knees before it, and addressed it thus: 'Helen, my adored Helen! if you could speak now what would you say? Would you not say again what you said with your last earthly breath? "Julius, I love you—we shall meet again—I am dying, but I am not lost, and you shall not be if—if——": and you said no more. You died in my mother's arms, as if, in the indignation of some mighty spirit, you were torn out of my very heart. Oh Helen! I love you still. I am faithful to you—I adore you—I worship you! For two hundred years I have been your slave. I created this chamber to be your dwelling-place, and yet not so, for you dwell with your loving Father, your God, in a home of joy and brightness, while I, miserable being! live in darkness, in the hatred of hell, and in the shadow of death. What shall I do, Helen? Shall I curse my Maker, and die for ever? Is it possible for me to die? I have died the First Death: the Second Death is utter annihilation, or eternal wrath and fire. If you are in existence—if you have the power—oh Helen, visit me! Advise with me! Pity me! Do you not remember how I told you that were I in heaven itself I could not live without you? No, were I with angels and just men made perfect! Did I not tell you, that to the Supreme Being Himself I would not bow, if you were denied me?'

When I heard this open blasphemy, I felt a spirit of indignation taking possession of me, and I interrupted the speaker sternly, but calmly, regardless of the consequences.

'Sir, sir, this is not well! rise from your knees, or still kneel—but turn away from your idol, and pray to the all-powerful Being who created you, and gave you life—who gave your Helen life and beauty. Are you bereft of sense, gratitude, and prudence? Why will you trust to an arm of flesh? Has the Demon, the prince of destruction, blinded your eyes? Have the treasures you have created here for yourself hardened your heart, and darkened your understanding? If Helen could speak I am sure she would now say: "My beloved husband, be not foolish, worship not me!" She is beautiful, but she is dust; her spirit is, I know, divine. These riches cannot redeem you from the wrath of your offended Maker. Worship Him! Worship the Son who died to save you, without whom you cannot inherit eternal life! If you persist in your own way, believe me, you will never see your Helen again; you will never see the light of the sun again, or the grass, or the trees, or the splendid lakes and mountains. The beauty of your person will be changed into the revolting similitude of a demon—perhaps going, like him, up and down on the earth, seeking whom you may devour! Love your Helen wisely, but not too well. Turn and seek, as you well know how to do, a happy and glorious immortality!'

He had risen from his knees while I was speaking, and now stood facing me with an offended air; but when I had finished, and expected nothing less than a great outburst of passion, he quietly said:

'You are right, and I am wrong; let us go!'

He led the way round the vast apartment. There was nothing in it except what might be supposed to give pleasure to its male and female occupants, had they been capable of enjoying them. Nothing revolting or horrible met my view. The walls were adorned with beautiful pictures. The tables, of which there were two long rows, were loaded with vases of artificial flowers, baskets and boxes full of precious stones, statuettes, and ornaments of gold and silver. There were exquisite models of mansions and castles, surrounded by beautiful parks and stately woods, similar to those I had previously seen in my Day Dream at Lake Sorell. There were musical instruments of strange construction, on some of which he played with considerable skill. There were books which I did not venture to look into; models of ships of the time of Henry the Eighth. The fleets of Spain were represented hovering on the coast of England. Nor did my clever friend forget to portray some of the most charming scenes of antiquity, as they have been brought before us by the poets and historians of bygone ages.

Seated on massive antique chairs, and arranged in various and picturesque groups here and there, were a number of finely dressed ladies and gentlemen, represented as drinking wine and chocolate, and talking and laughing with each other. Their apparent thoughts could be traced in their faces in a most astonishing way: the young gentlemen with that self-satisfied smile which always follows a witty compliment to their fair auditors; the young ladies silently applauding with their bright eyes, ogling from behind their fans, and showing their pearly teeth. They had the startling appearance of being veritable tableaux vivants, without a trace of the tinselled impersonations of a wax-work exhibition. My guide brought me before a stately and severe-looking man, and formally introduced me to King Charles the First; then to a very different kind of person—Oliver Cromwell. I found myself suddenly brought by name under the notice of William Shakespeare. John Milton, John Hampden, Admiral Blake, Queen Elizabeth, and a number of other great personages whose names are written elsewhere in letters of gold. Finally he led me to the contemplation of a magnificent equestrian statue, nearly the size of life, of his beautiful Helen, formed of semi-pellucid alabaster. It was placed in a recess or grotto, adorned with a countless number of shells of wonderful grandeur. We now stood gazing through the centre of the hall from one end to the other. It was a scene of perfect enchantment. Opposite to us Helen and her companions presented a splendid picture under their glittering canopy—a fitting termination to a vista of indescribable loveliness.

From the examination of these objects we turned to one of a totally different aspect, and one which I was not prepared to see. A curtain had been silently drawn up behind us, displaying what appeared to be a mirror of gigantic proportions. It reflected at first the scene winch we had just witnessed, the whole length of the hall, the Doctor and I standing together in the foreground. We were very much alike, but he was apparently much the younger and larger man of the two. His light fair hair and juvenile ruddy countenance contrasted favourably with my grizzly locks, and weather-beaten features. By degrees the scene in the mirror changed. A cloud came between us and the brightness, and when it cleared away I saw depicted a picture of a dark and dismal country, with rugged mountains far away, and wild rocks and fantastic trees abounding in the foreground. A river that looked like one of molten lead appeared to flow sluggishly through the land. The atmosphere was grim in the extreme, and the obscurity was rendered still more palpable by the reflections of fierce fires in the distance.

The Doctor now prepared to leave the apartment. We passed along the side which I had not previously seen, and I beheld new wonders. He led me again up to the group under the canopy, and stood before them for some moments in silence. Then he kissed them all, and bade them farewell.

We returned to the secret door, and relit our lamp, The weird lights of the enchanted hall were suddenly extinguished. We descended the rugged steps in safety, and I hastened to my bed, where I was soon buried in profound slumber.