Artabanzanus/Chapter 4

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The alarming shadow, which each moment seemed to become broader and darker over the lake, was caused by an enormous balloon which I saw floating over our heads. It made a great blowing and hissing noise as it came near that was almost deafening. Settling down gradually until the car touched the ground close beside the place where we stood, the swollen monster came at last to rest. Then the demon addressed me again:

'Get in there!'

'No, sir,' I answered. 'I hope you will excuse me. I never was in a balloon, and it would not agree with my nerves. I prefer to remain here if it is all the same to you, sir.'

'Get in there!' he again shouted in a commanding tone.

'I will not.' I replied. My blood was rising, and even cowards may be brave sometimes.

The fiend in the car, the engine-driver, burst into a loud and derisive laugh. Then a peal of thunder from a neighbouring black cloud suddenly burst on my ears, and rain began to fall in torrents. The Demon scowled and, quick as thought, untwisted his tail from his arm, and seizing me with it round the waist, roughly hurled me into the car. I was horribly bruised, and half-stunned. Then he sprang in himself, and, with a dreadful explosive scream, the huge machine shot up into the air like lightning. A most villainous-looking fiend drove the engine by turning a small wheel, which set a larger one in motion. This moved a crank, which caused a complicated pendulum to oscillate, and finally drove the whole machine by setting outside fans in motion. The fans were assisted by a current of electricity, which was generated from the atmosphere in some way that I did not get to understand. The driver amused himself by mocking, and making horrible grimaces at me, when his master was looking another way. We flew at least ten thousand feet above the lake, and over an immense tract of snow-clad mountains, forests, seas, rivers, sandy deserts, and fertile valleys, through dense choking clouds, crossing several enormous ranges of mountains in our course. Away the balloon plunged with the speed of a hurricane over a howling wilderness of arid wastes, and at last, whistling like hundreds of steam pipes, hung suspended above a vast chasm in the earth which seemed about ten miles in diameter, and as black as Erebus. Into this dreadful hole the balloon descended swiftly, and I was politely commanded to get out as soon as the car touched the black charcoal floor.

Overwhelmed with astonishment and terror, I was for a time unable to make calm and accurate observations. I asked myself, in my despair, had I died beside the Great Lake, and was I really in the power of the fearful, sleepless dragon, the great enemy of mankind?

The height of the walls of this awful chasm it was impossible for me to estimate, but I knew it must be something tremedous from the appearance of the opening, which, from the spot where I stood, looked like a round hole, about as large as our full moon. The pit would have been the blackness of darkness itself had not a number of huge incandescent lights been placed at intervals around the vast chamber, hung on the perpendicular walls like gigantic shields of dull red fire. By this light I saw the shadowy entrances to a number of caverns which were situated at great distances from each other. The interiors of these were lighted so that they presented the appearance of long arcades, illuminated by regular lines of gas lamps; and the cavern that was nearest to me seemed crowded with inhabitants.

I was now alarmed by a loud, rushing, rumbling sound, and the heavy trampling of horses. A large and strange-looking coach, drawn by six black horses of great size, stopped where the Demon and I stood. The Demon opened the door himself, and ordered me to take my seat. Seeing further resistance useless, and indeed impossible, I obeyed, and after giving an order to the fiend on the box, he jumped in himself, and we drove on.

As we rolled on, at a steady pace, towards the entrance of one of the great caverns, he entered into familiar conversation with me, asking a variety of questions about my occupation, rank in life, and family. These I answered very cautiously. He even condescended to tell me his name, and to explain his condition in the following speech:

'I am Artabanzanus, the Demon of the Great Lake of Tasmania, and the Emperor of the World. You will learn my history gradually, and it will excite your wonder and admiration. It is my duty and pleasure to show you some wonderful things, but you need not be alarmed. You can never be in pain like some of these people here. You are to be my new private secretary, and, not to flatter you too grossly, I think I shall be very proud of you. You are under my protection here, and you shall see greater wonders than all these, and be an emperor yourself of mighty power, under me only: think of that! You will for ever bless the day when you came over to my side. I make my servants happy, jolly, and light-hearted; and they have their fill of pleasure—theatre-going, boxing, horse-racing, gambling, drinking. I give them unbounded prosperity, riches, unimagined joys, and all kinds of grandeur; and I watch over them with the care and affection of a fond father. Ever since the world was created, I have looked well after my children and servants. To you I promise power unlimited, and unbounded wealth—castles, gardens, parks, forests, cringing slaves, and everything yon can wish for—but you must come of your own free will; I do not use compulsion, although I might if I pleased. Take the other side, and you are poor and miserable for your whole life, despised by men, abhorred by my followers, in constant fear of ruin, and dread of offending a hard and exacting Master, who very probably will throw you over at last.'

Here the Demon laughed with a low, diabolical chuckle, and gave me a familiar poke in the ribs.

The lumbering vehicle entered one of the largest of the caverns, under a gigantic arch of marvellous construction, and I shuddered as I looked around me. If the Demon thought to bind me to his service by bringing me to a place like this, he was mistaken. We have often observed that those who give themselves up to wanton excesses are not deterred from pursuing that course by the sudden fall of others, or by the fear of the hopeless ruin, or the terrible and disgrace, which are sure to overtake them. What infatuated gambler is frightened from his fascinating game by the sight of the miserable wretch who, mad with disappointment, and cursing his existence, has laid down his life at the shrine of Mammon? What drunkard is reclaimed in the society of other drunkards, who are rushing headlong to destruction? What liar, or slanderer, or heartless miser, recovers from the errors of his ways by witnessing the pity and contempt bestowed by honourable men on his brethren of the same trade?

The carriage pursued its way through several long streets, and at last entered a most brilliantly lighted court-yard, and stopped at the gate of a large palace. The Demon alighted, motioning to me to follow him. He was received by several dark-looking officials, who bowed, and scraped, and grinned, and pressed their hands to their hearts. Into the interior of the palace, through a number of large halls and dimly-lighted passages, the Demon strutted with stately steps, as if conscious of great dignity. We emerged into a chamber, whose high arched roof was supported by a number of pillars made of a metal resembling lead. Two leaden thrones occupied one end of the chamber, and these were surrounded by a number of vacant seats. There was a long table in the centre of the apartment, and a highly ornamented leaden chair stood at one end of it. I did not require a magician to tell me that this was the Demon's council chamber. He told me that his duties now compelled him to leave me for a while to the guidance of one of his attendants, who would show me into my office. He called aloud: 'Astoragus!'

A young man with a villainous, hang-dog scowl on his face came forth from behind one of the thrones, where he had been lurking. His head was entirely destitute of hair, and he had black flashing eyes, which he tried to hide under a hideous pair of frowning eyebrows. His countenance showed nothing but malevolence, but this he endeavoured to conceal under a smirking smile. I was not, however, so easily deceived, His dress consisted of a long black cloak which reached to his feet, and covered every part of his lanky person. He approached quickly, and bowed low before his august sovereign.

'Astoragus, take this gentleman—your name, sir, I have been given to understand, is Ubertus?'

I bowed an affirmative, inwardly cursing both of them. 'Take Mr. Ubertus to my private secretary's office, and see that he has refreshment and amusement. By the way, you two must be better acquainted with each other. General Astoragus, sir, is the commander of my brave brigade of Larrikins. Mr. Ubertus, General, is a new arrival from the upper world, about to be appointed my private secretary. You will work well together, I am sure.'

The General grinned like an ape, with an excruciating attempt at a smile, and held forth a dusky paw, which I did not touch, or pretend to notice.

'I shall call for you in the course of the evening, Ubertus, and take you out for a look round,' said the Demon with a bland, rabbit-trap smile, as he stalked away.

Astoragus (I shall drop the 'General' while speaking of this execrable villain) motioned to me to follow him. He did not use words, but his malignant glance spoke volumes. It told me that he was my bitter enemy for ever, and, oh horror of horrors! I was in his power.

He led me through two or three adjacent rooms, up a long flight of stairs, and then into an apartment more brilliantly lighted than the rest. As he entered he turned suddenly upon me, with his hideous, gorilla face within a couple of inches of mine, and croaked out: ' This is your office, be happy and comfortable!' Then he closed the door, leaving me to myself.

It was a large room, of vault-like appearance, sombre enough, notwithstanding the light, and in the centre, on the floor, a strange, mysterious-looking fire burned brightly, apparently without smoke, or the need of being fed with fresh fuel. A round table and an easy chair were placed near the fire. A high lamp, and sundry articles necessary for a secretary's office, were on the table. There were also a few more chairs, two or three couches of bronze, and several presses ranged round the walls. On the floor, in the vicinity of the fire, I was astonished to see crouching a number of large black dogs. They rose up, and glared at me savagely as I approached, but just as I expected to be torn to pieces, they lay down again quietly.

I walked up and down before that extraordinary fire, eyeing those dogs suspiciously. My reflections were indescribably painful. At last, tired of walking, I sat down in the easy chair, and remained contemplating both fire and dogs for, I suppose, an hour. For the time being I could think of nothing else. From a deep reverie I was aroused by the deafening sound of a bell—one stroke only, but its echoes resounded through the whole palace like the knell of doom. What was going to happen now? I became conscious that over my head there was an increasing light, far brighter than that of the lamp on the table. I looked up and saw descending another table, from which the light darted all round in rays of glory. That on which the writing materials were sunk into the ground at my feet, and the one from above became fixed in its place. On it were arranged a number of dishes of polished lead (evidently the precious metal of this wonderful city), containing tempting viands, and transparent vessels of wine of splendid colour. I gazed on these things with the greatest astonishment, but inwardly resolved to die sooner than touch any thing upon that table.

In a few moments I heard the sound of a distant opening door, and saw a procession approaching that sent all the blood in my heart up to my brain in a tumultuous flood. A number of beautiful women advanced towards me, bearing on their shoulders a throne, over which was an orange canopy. Upon that throne there reclined a young girl, whose dark eyes bent themselves enquiringly upon me as I sat spell-bound. It is not necessary to describe her minutely. She was a lovely, dark, unearthly looking creature, who might indeed command the admiration of an unprincipled libertine, but could not win the love, or attract the respect, of an honourable man. Her beauty was of that dazzling and eminently dangerous kind which so frequently leads even good men to their eternal ruin. I trembled as her bearers lowered her from their shoulders carefully, and placed her beside the table within a short distance of my chair, and arranged themselves to wait upon us.

It might have been difficult, even for a practical judge in such matters, to say which were the more attractive, the mistress or her maids. They were all dressed in gaudy and fantastic robes, which hung on their graceful shoulders in bewitching folds. They smiled most sweetly as they mutely me, one after another, to partake of the fragrant delicacies before us, but they pressed me in vain; food or wine I would not touch. The Princess, for such I presumed she was, was not affected by my reluctance, but ate her dinner with a very good appetite. At a sign from her one of her maids filled up a goblet with blood-red wine, and then placed another beside me. The girl, taking the cup, turned to me, and said in languishing tones:

'Sir Stranger, do me the honour to pledge me in a cup of wine!'

I stood up and bowed, and intimated that I was obliged to decline the honour. She then pettishly waved her hand to her attendants, and they all submissively retired.

A movement among the dogs now attracted my attention. One ater they furtively arose, and for some reason, known only to themselves, stole round to the other side of the fire; but I noticed that they regarded us with lightning-glancing eyes.

This strange girl, so wonderfully and yet repulsively lovely, looked upon me for some time with evident interest and curiosity. I shall refrain from giving very minute descriptions, and shall merely say that she seemed to cherish and take care of herself, and appeared to be about eighteen years of age. With airs of despotism she tossed her head now and again from side to side, picked her teeth with her little finger-nail, and made eyes at me.

At length she condescended to speak again. The sound of her voice had nothing unpleasant in it, with the exception of a tendency to affectation; it was soothing, soft, and musical. This is the speech to which she gave utterance, and to which I listened with surprise, believing all the time that I was only dreaming.

'I have been given to understand that our worthy and revered emperor hath procured you, Sir Stranger, to be his new private secretary. I am truly pleased, and I rejoice most immensely to be the first to congratulate you on your acceptance of such an honourable and lucrative post, which, if you do not foolishly resign it through some petty pique, will surely lead you to much greater and higher honour. If I have found favour already in your eyes—which indeed I do not doubt, seeing that—forgive me if I speak too boldly, or seem to be forgetful of that maidenly modesty on which I pride myself—I will do my very utmost to make you as happy as you deserve to be. While you reside in this palace please to regard me as the very best of your friends. My beloved and anxious parent—ahem!—I mean the powerful sovereign of this great empire—has informed me of your arrival. I saw you myself through a grated window, as you were driven past in his carriage. Stranger, be not alarmed! I am the princess of these realms; I am accustomed to speak my mind freely, and to be obeyed. I need not conceal from you, dear youth, that I love you— that I loved you almost before I saw you. I am plain and straightforward, prompt and decided; it is my nature; I hate dissimulation, and what you might call beating about the bush; fair and honourable dealing for me all the world over; and now I have told you all, and you are mine for ever, and I am yours.'

'Madam,' I replied, as soon as I had recovered from my astonishment and confusion, 'you are a stranger to me as I am to you. Is this possible? Have I heard you aright? To speak thus to a strange man in the world I come from would cover you with the greatest disgrace, unless, indeed, you were a reigning queen, and even then under circumstances far different from our present respective positions.'

'Disgraced!' she screamed; 'did you say disgraced? And for what? For speaking my mind plainly and truthfully; for being honest and good, and—and—you speak of your world! Yours is a world of lies, hypocrisy and deceit, and roguery, and bitterness, and malice, and wrath, and revenge, and everything vile—there!'

She rose from her seat as she spoke, and stamped her foot on the hard floor, while indignation and defiance flashed from her eyes.

'Think,' said I in a tone of humility and commiseration, 'of your reputation, of your maidenly modesty and self-respect. It is the business of the man to propose marriage first to the woman whom he wishes to have for his wife. Besides, madam, I beg to inform you with all due respect that I have a wife now living, and she is very much alive, too, I beg to assure you.'

The Princess laughed. 'And do you think,' she answered, 'that a mere childish trifle like your marriage above ground will me in my determination to make you my husband? I am older than I look; I am absolute here; no one dare disobey me. I am subject only to my honoured father. I can turn your gray hair into splendid curly locks of whatever colour you like. I can make you happy far beyond your golden dreams of eternal bliss, and I will, I will! You are mine! you cannot—you dare not refuse me.' And before I could prevent her, she advanced to me suddenly, and threw her arms round my neck.

I sprang from my chair in the greatest horror and indignation, and pushed her away, but not ungently, saying: 'Woman or lady, whoever you are, remember that your sudden assumption or pretence of love is not the way to inspire with love the man whom you are pleased to honour with your regard. May I humbly beg that you will now, having had your dinner, retire from this office? You say you are the daughter of the emperor of this place. He has offered me the proud position of his private secretary, but to be his actual son-in-law is a relation of which I may or may not deem myself to be totally unworthy. Whatever may be my private thoughts I beg to decline that distinguished honour; I belong to another. Your father—if he is your father—told me I was under his protection, and unless you retire and leave me alone, I shall certainly appeal to him for it'

'Do you reject my suit?' she cried, with her face scarlet, and her eyes on fire.

'I do,' I replied firmly. 'Your conduct is unfair and ungenerous, as well as unwomanly and unmaidenly, You would make me an unprincipled adulterer. I may be as weak as water to resist temptation, but how can you expect me to become your husband in this sudden manner, when I do not even know what shall become of me hereafter? I, for good or evil, look a long way into futurity. Lives of pleasure soon come to an end; satiety is swallowed up by agony. Because you choose to indulge a blind and unholy passion, am I to be bereft of prudence and robbed of peace? If my connection with the earth where I was born is really severed for ever, I have come to a place which I fondly hoped and prayed my greatest enemy might never see. How can I tell that I am not, by complying with your insane desire, riveting a chain which will bind me here, or consign me to a worse place to all eternity?'

'You reject my suit!' she answered passionately. 'Well I will give you time. Continue to reject it for twelve short hours—for twelve strokes of the bell you heard, and your day of grace shall be past. I will be terribly revenged! Your moral and religious arguments have less than a feather's weight with me. You may trust in the King of heaven to save you. Fool! fool! He does not know you, or of your existence, or trouble Himself about you. If He exists at all He has too much to do. He cares not whether you live or die, or scald or burn, or get devoured by black men, or stung to death by serpents. Reject my suit! I am a woman, and no woman ever forgives a slight of this kind. Have you seen my regiment of guards? Come forward, Captain Syren. Lieutenant Picklock, bring your company.'

The dogs came forward sulkily, and ranged themselves in line before this fury of a princess.

'Attention!' she commanded. They all stood upon their hind legs.

'Salute this honoured visitor!'

They bowed very low, pressed their right paws to their teeth, and then placed them on their hearts.

'On your heads!' In a moment they turned in the air like wheels, their heads on the floor.

'Heads up; play at leap-frog!' And they commenced forthwith to jump over each other, forming a remarkable circle around the fire, which continued to burn as brightly as ever.

'As you were: lie prostrate; beg for mercy!' She put them through a strange variety of positions, and as she dismissed them said to me in a hissing whisper: 'Reject my suit, insult my love, and when the twelfth bell sounds, you shall be added to their number.'

'And what shall I be, madam, if I consent to be your husband?'

'You shall be a prince,' she replied vehemently. 'Perpetual happiness, peace, joy, love, delight for ever, pleasure without end, shall be your lot. Decide now. We shall not need the light of the sun or the twinkling of the stars, for we shall be sun and star to each other. And when we are united we can see them as often as we like, and wander where we like upon the earth, and watch, ourselves unseen, the sons and daughters of men while they dance in their halls of dazzling light, and play in their delicious meadows and flowery gardens, or lull themselves into entrancing raptures with their sweetest melodies, which we can hear; and we can scatter blessings as we go, and lighten heavy burdens, and lessen pain, and cure disease, and feed the hungry. We can sit on golden clouds, or, if it is our humour, we can sail the seas on mountainous icebergs, and feel no cold. We can be young and beautiful for ever. Decide now, darling, darling!' And to my renewed consternation she again advanced, and tried to press her lips to mine, but I collected all my strength, both of mind and body, and pushed her away once more.

'Princess, whoever you are, it is in vain,' I said firmly. 'Please to withdraw, or if you will not, permit me to retire to another apartment. I love you not. Be your vengeance what it may, I tell you now, for the last time, I cannot love you. Were I as free as air to choose whom I would, I could not choose you, because my principles are too high to allow me to give my hand in wedded union to any woman to whom I could not give my heart also. I desire not wantonly to offend or insult you, or wound your exquisitely tender susceptibilities. If I could love you personally your gloomy, unhappy environment would render our marriage impossible. Did you tell me that the Almighty Being who made me does not know of my existence, or care for, or love me? How do you know that? Can you prove it to be true? If I obey His commandments and do not worship my own evil passions, you have no power to make me believe that He does not love me. If I do not obey Him, I have the witness within myself that I am no son of His, and that therefore He does not love me.'

'Poor fool! I pity you,' she answered in scorn 'but you will be wiser when it is too late. Thousands of your greatest philosophers and clever literary men agree with me.'

I did not answer. She gazed upon me with an expression which I shall never forget. Indignation and hatred flashed from her eyes; contempt, intensified by rage, was about to be poured forth in an overwhelming torrent on my devoted head from her cruel, uncompromising lips, when suddenly the thundering stroke of the great bell resounded through the palace. We both started in terror like a guilty pair, and as with a rush of a mighty gust of wind the Demon himself stood before us.

'How is this?' he roared. 'You here already, Bellagranda? is this the way my orders are obeyed? Are you, too, a Delilah, a Jezebel? You will ruin me and my best affairs with your blind idiotic folly. Away to your chamber, instantly, or Doctor Julius——'

The Princess uttered a loud shriek, and fled wildly from the room.

'Come, Ubertus,' said the Demon in a very gentle tone, 'you and I will take a quiet walk, and enjoy some of the grand sights of my beautiful city. Attach no importance to anything that foolish girl has been saying to you. I commanded her not to trouble you on any account. She disobeyed my command and shall be punished; but notwithstanding all she is a good girl, a most affectionate and obedient daughter—never disobedient except the inducement to be so is irresistible.' As he spoke he turned to me with an impudent leer on his countenance, which annoyed me very much, if indeed anything could annoy me in that horrible place.

It was with a great feeling of pleasure at my escape from the enchantment of one who I began to think was a most dangerous sorceress, equal perhaps to the dread Sycorax herself, that I now followed my 'friendly' guide through the halls and passages that led into the open street.