Artabanzanus/Chapter 5

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1325143Artabanzanus — Chapter IVWilliam Moore Ferrar



I found myself in a long straight corridor, walking as it were in a dream by the side of the Demon. He had reduced, for some reason, his abnormal height, and was now no taller than myself. The corridor, or covered street, was high and broad, and it was lit up by hundreds of glaring lamps, whose light dazzled my eyes. It had lanes opening into it, and numbers of ghostly-looking dwellings, with doors like our houses on earth, but without their cheerful and inviting appearance. Some of these were large, aristocratic buildings, residences evidently of great people; others close beside them were poor, insignificant-looking places. The doors of the larger houses were surrounded with lamps of various colours, and fashioned in all manner of fantastic shapes. Crowds of people were sauntering listlessly about, for the most part in a solemn and painful silence—like convicts, I thought, taking exercise in a prison yard. Occasionally a loud burst of bitter, derisive laughter, or a hideous yell of pain, or the shout of combatants in a sudden outbreak of popular passion, disturbed the pervading silence of the place.

Amongst the individuals who paraded this great street, I perceived one like a negro grenadier, who issued orders, and looked about him with the conscious authority of a powerful policeman. This individual saluted my guide in a stealthy, underhand sort of way. All the others were yellow and coffee-coloured people; thin and unhappy-looking beings, who wore only a single garment which reached from their necks to their heels. There was nothing, not even hair, on their bare skulls. We walked on and on past hundreds of doors, elbowing our way through the crowds, which seemed to grow denser every moment; our nostrils, mine at least, being saluted every now and again by an unearthly and abominable smell, and our ears by an increasing discord of wild screams and discordant singing. Advancing to a wide cross-street we stood before a great palace, upon which I gazed with wonder. It was a grand picture of oriental beauty. It was surrounded by guards, on foot and on horseback, men with fierce, swarthy complexions, who were armed in a fearful manner. Blazing lights were in all the apartments, and through the windows I saw numbers of people, men and women, running to and fro.

Suddenly a loud crash of drums and trumpets made me start violently, and I saw approaching a chariot so gaudily painted that it seemed to be on fire. It was drawn by men and horses mingled together. It evidently contained some great personage, for it was preceded and followed by many mounted guards. We drew aside to let it pass. Within it sat a tall, dark-featured woman, on whose countenance might be discovered the traces of extreme and severe beauty, but they were accompanied with those of the fiercest human passions, and of exaggerated pride and evil temper. She had on her head a leaden crown, and around her shoulders was thrown a gorgeous robe like the variegated skin of a tiger snake. Facing her, with his back to the horses, sat an officer, who seemed to be of very high rank. He wore the grand uniform of a Roman military tribune. The chariot stopped at the palace gate. The officer stepped down and presented his hand to the lady to help her in alighting, but she disdainfully refused it, tossed her magnificent head, and, leaping to the ground, entered the palace, followed by her abashed, but still obsequious knight.

'I must not speak to her now,' said the Demon with a sardonic grin. 'She is in one of her send-me-flying-over-the-moon tantrums, but we can go in. I'll make you invisible.'

Accordingly I felt an immediate change coming over me: for the first time in my life I was nothing but a spirit of air.

'Who is she, sir?' I was bold enough to ask.

'I ought not to mention her name,' answered he; 'but nothing may be concealed from you—Cleopatra, whom you may have heard of. And that is Mark Antony who follows so submissively at her heels. We shall have a fine laugh now; I have many a fine laugh at these people.'

The idea of laughing in such a place, and at such a scene, was so revolting that my heart almost stood still in my breast.

The carriage-folk went into a large hall, where there stood a high throne of lead, and I noticed that the hall was also furnished in a peculiar manner, with several massive chairs, couches, tables, and articles to which I can give no name, all, or nearly all, made of the same dingy metal. I cannot say positively that it was lead, having neglected to bring back a specimen of it for the benefit of science, but it was certainly very like lead, and that I shall call it. Glittering with a pale, ghastly light, there hung from the ceiling three heavy chandeliers crowded with candles of all the colours rainbow. The renowned queen lightly ascended the steps of the throne, and seated herself with great solemnity. She held up her right hand, a trumpet sounded, and instantly the room was filled with a motley group of elegant ladies, Roman and Egyptian officers, and ministers and gentlemen from Greece, Parthia, Carthage, and Asia Minor. When they were assembled, the Queen commanded in a sharp, shrill voice, 'Bring wine!'

A large leaden goblet full of the blood-coloured fluid was brought and presented to her by her Mayor of the Palace. She unclasped from her throat a pearl necklace of immense value, threw it into the goblet, stirred the foaming fluid furiously with the end of her sceptre, then lifted it to her lips, and swallowed every drop. Then Antony approached in a cringing posture, and said:

'What, my Queen! what, my Empress! not one drop left for me? I gave you that necklace; I won it in a game of balls and rackets from the Queen of Cappadocia, who is more spirited and far handsomer than you are.'

The courtiers laughed. The Queen looked at the impudent Antony with spiteful ferocity, and, darting from her seat, struck him on the face, and screamed:

'Out, slave—out, hypocrite—away from my sight, cruel, false, barbarous monster!'

Then she threw herself on the floor in her rage, and several of her ladies, rushing to her, pushed Antony away, calling him with echoing voices a cruel, false, barbarous monster. They lifted up their afflicted mistress, and administered the needful consolation.

'She charges him with cruelty,' whispered the Demon to me, while the laugh of the courtiers at the discomfiture of the hero began to ring again through the room. 'Why, she poisoned a brother of her own, and dragged a sister to death from the sanctuary of Diana; he bestowed kingdoms upon her as well as pearls, and made her his goddess, and see how she treats him now. But she is a fine woman—a good, sweet creature, and a daughter after my own heart, although she is wantonness and avarice beaten together like cockatrices' eggs for a pepper-and-mustard pudding! You will have to patch up their quarrels when you are my private secretary!' And the fiend had his laugh, and I did not envy him the pleasure.

I could not help pitying poor Antony. He is one of the grand and inimitable 'Lives' of Plutarch, in which I have from boyhood taken the greatest delight, although the dark side of his character is black enough. His close connection with, and devotion to, the wonderful Julius Caesar, his military talents and brilliant victories—nay, even his lightness and gaiety as contrasted with the heavy, bloodthirsty ferocity of Marius and Sylla—won my youthful admiration, if they did not command my respect; and his miserable self-inflicted death, under the influence of a heartless woman, often nearly brought tears to my eyes. What agony it must be to be under the heel of a vindictive, untruthful woman, who will unmercifully drag her victim before the scornful world !

A few steps brought us to the gate of another palace; except for the glaring lamps in the street it was in total darkness.

'This is the residence,' said the Demon, 'of another of my favourite daughters, and you will have to take especial care of her. I will tell you her name privately. She must be ill now, as all her lights are out, but we will go in and see her; perhaps we may be able to do her good. My dear young friend,' here he turned round with a rabbit-trap snap of his teeth close to my very nose, 'never mind what say about me; I don't care two straws for anything they say; the truth is, I delight in doing good whenever I can get a chance; nothing fills me with greater joy than to give pleasure to those who love me.'

Here I was overtaken by a violent fit of coughing and sneezing, which nearly cost me my life. When I recovered, we entered the palace, and met with none but some gloomy, scowling people, who allowed us to pass by without inquiring who we were, or what was our business. Tall guards in dismal uniforms, who looked like statues made of dirty snow, stood here and there in the vestibules and corridors. We ascended a broad staircase, and passed into a back chamber, in which was visible a dull, reddish light, proceeding from a solitary lamp. The furniture, like that of Cleopatra's palace, was principally of lead. On a couch, beside a small table, reclined a lady whose face, swollen and bloated, wore all the evidences of intense anguish. She was as pale as death, like one already dead, but I knew that she could not die. She moaned and trembled, opened her large eyes, which sparkled with mad, wild lustre, and closed them again in despairing agony. Her person was covered with a black robe like a funeral pall, and she had a protuberance on her breast which told either of some cherished offspring or of fearful disease. The Demon went close to her and spoke.

'You are ill again, my beloved daughter! indeed, you are not often well; I have come to comfort you: be comforted! can I do anything?'

'Remove these,' she replied, in tones in which hope seemed to be struggling with despair.

'Ah! I cannot,' answered the Demon; 'my power is great, but I am not omnipotent. I can merely alleviate your pain, and administer present consolation, if not hope of your ultimate restoration to health. You have been a good and an obedient daughter, always ready to anticipate my wishes; I wish I could make you happy. Let us see the children. If they trouble you much I will send you something to keep them quiet. Has Doctor Julius seen you lately?'


'Did he give you hope of relief?'

'No; he said the disease was incurable.' The lady passed her hand over her face and sighed deeply; as for tears, she seemed to have lost the power of weeping.

The Demon drew off the robe which covered the lady's breast. 'Come and look,' he said to me.

I shrank back; no terrible sight should, I had made up my mind, cross my eyeballs in that place, if I could possibly prevent it. Therefore, I not only shrank back, but I squeezed my eyelids together firmly. Fortunately, he did not insist on my obeying him.

As we left the room, I asked him if that lady had also been a queen.

'Yes,' he answered, with a low, malicious laugh. 'She was an empress of a very powerful nation indeed. I dare say some of her history is known to you. If it is not, it ought to be. There is nothing like teaching wisdom by examples. Nobody rejoices more than I do when I get an opportunity of impressing upon the minds of those who love me what a very wicked thing it is to persevere in sin up to the very moment of one's death. That empress was rich, wise, clever, and strong in national and unscrupulous energy; and she was famous—or infamous, I suppose, according to your code of morality—for the number of her lovers, and for her ambition, in the contemplated gratification of which she was suddenly struck down.

'Have I not a splendid city here?' resumed the Demon, as we walked through the crowded streets, in which new wonders presented themselves every moment. 'This portion of it is the Department of Sensual Pleasure. It is occupied by those beings who, when they were in your world, gave themselves up without restraint to the gratification of every evil passion. It is a good thing for me, for it gives plenty to do, and just like you, my friend I am fond of work. It keeps me in good health, and there's nothing like it. I am ambitious too, and covetous also greedy of gain and glory; and I never lose an opportunity of extending my empire, and adding to the number of my subjects. I use all sorts of means, and I'll teach you some precious tricks when you become my private secretary.'

Just then something like a cloud of black dust rushed through the street with the speed of a steam-engine. The Demon held up both his hands, and it stopped. It was a light and curious carriage of complicated construction, drawn by a noble pair of red horses, from whose sides fell flakes of snowy foam. Fire seemed to dart from their eyes and nostrils. Within the carriage sat a burly, jolly, middle-aged gentleman, dressed in clothes which must have been two or three hundred years old. He took off his hat to the Demon, and looked very keenly at me, for the spell of invisibility had been taken off.

'Whither away now in such break-neck haste, Doctor Julius?' inquired my conductor.

'To the Hall of Inexpressible Delight, please your Majesty,' replied the gentleman in a rich bass voice 'to see the unhappy Charles, who has been struck down again. And now, since I have fortunately met with you, sir may I take the liberty of inquiring after the health of the charming and amiable Princess Bellagranda?'

'She is as well as she always deserves to be,' answered the Demon; 'and now for my question: how are public affairs in your quarter?'

'Troublesome, sir-very troublesome; matters are looking ominous and gloomy—a congestion of blood sir; a congestion of blood. Stripes, rows, rebellions, revolutions!' replied the Doctor as he drove on.

The Demon muttered 'Ha!' with a snap of his teeth.

'He means Charles the Second, once the King of England,' he explained to me. 'That is the great and wonderfully clever Doctor Julius, the Director-General of my Military Hospitals, and one of my Ministers of State.'

He now led me into several great houses where resided men and women who had formerly filled the highest places upon earth, but who had utterly destroyed themselves by leading lives of constant pleasure, vice, and degradation. The portraits and pictures presented to our view by Tacitus, Gibbon, Hallam, and hundreds of other historians, appeared to me to be reproduced here on a gigantic and revolting scale. Hideous pictures were painted on many of the houses. I was in the centre of a crowd of brawlers, gamblers, blasphemers, drunkards, and larrikins, who eyed me with suspicion and hatred, and who, I believe, would have torn me to pieces had it not been for the presence of the police. On one side I saw an imitation of the famous Parc aux Cerfs where Louis the Fifteenth revelled in shameless debauchery with the Marchioness of Pompadour, Madame Barry and his other mistresses, who were now his scourging and tormenting serpents. On the other I saw a vast building, on which the words 'Hall of Inexpressible Delight' showed resplendent in large variegated lamps; this was crowded with kings and queens, dukes, barons, courtiers, and women of high rank. My companion pointed out several of them to me by name; amongst them I grieve to say that our Charles the Second was particularly conspicuous.

He lay on a leaden couch, surrounded by women who pretended to be weeping bitterly, so bitterly that one might have thought they had onions concealed in their handkerchiefs. He appeared to be at the point of death, although I well knew could not die. The honest-looking Doctor Julius stood beside him, putting a potent blistering cap on his head, and forcing a horrible drug, extracted from human skulls, into his mouth. 'Poor king!' I could not help saying aloud, 'son of an unfortunate father—descendant of a most unhappy queen—is this the end of all your greatness and reckless pleasure?'

'The end is not yet,' replied the Demon. 'That will never come.'

I then murmured to myself: 'Is there a merciful Ruler of the universe in existence?'

The names of even the most eminent of the delinquents who occupied this Hall are too numerous for repetition; and I could not remember the hundredth part of them. As for the common herd, they pressed upon me so thickly that I was nearly sick to death. They formed groups here and there, and abused and fought with each other in the open streets, their bald scalps shining in the gaslight. Many of them, poor beings, were consumed with a too-late and unavailing repentance. In uttermost shame they were trying to hide their nakedness in their squalid garments.

'This is the palace of Theodora, Empress of Constantinople,' said Artabanzanus, stopping before another gigantic and splendid edifice. 'She was a very extraordinary woman—a low, common woman in early life who became the wife of the Emperor Justinian. Come in; she is holding her court now. I will present you to her.'

'Oh no, thank you, sir,' I replied, shuddering. 'Please excuse me. I have seen enough. Take me out of this I implore your majesty; when will you take me back, sir, to the Great Lake?'

He laughed.

'All in good time, my thin-skinned friend. My dear Mr. Ubertus, you must have patience. I am bound to take you back within a certain number of days. Make yourself happy—there's nothing like it! I'm always happy and jolly, no matter who comes here. I'm sorry to leave you here by yourself for awhile, although there's plenty of company, but private business calls me away for ten or twenty of your mundane minutes. Stay here till I come back; if any of these people molest you, call the police.'

'Please, sir,' I said, 'indeed, I am very tired. I should like to sit or lie down while you are away.'

'Go in there,' he answered, pointing to a gaudy-looking house, 'and you will find a chair or a bed.'

No, thank you, sir. I would rather not. I should not feel happy or safe in any of these houses. If you will kindly order me a chair or a couch out here I shall esteem it a great favour, and I would feel myself under the protection of the police.'

'That I will, my brave Mr. Timidity,' he said, in an affable and jocular manner; 'and I'll send you the softest and most delightful couch you ever lay down on. I only wish my good Astoragus was here.'

'Here I am, my lord; what can I do, my lord?' said the ever ready and ubiquitous Astoragus, darting out of the crowd.

'Ha! are you there, General?' said the Demon; 'always on the watch, and mindful of your duty, as good as gold. Well, get an easy couch for this gentleman to lie down on, and place it here, and warn these people that he is not to be interfered with.'

Astoragus touched his hairless head with his cuttle-fish fingers, and whistled in a peculiarly suspicious manner. He himself went round an adjacent corner hurriedly, while a crowd of larrikins collected and honoured me with their concentrated attention. What could it all mean? Did they expect to see some grand sport? Presently four stout porters appeared, carrying an elegant-looking couch, and they put it down beside me. I examined it with great care, and eyed it wistfully. I was worn out, and it was of a beautiful and luxurious appearance, inviting me not to hesitate, but take my repose at once, lest the opportunity should pass away and not present itself again. But then a horrible thought darted into my mind. Was it not a larrikin's couch? and what is a larrikin? He is a waif of the streets who delights in playing mischievous, cruel tricks on passers-by who are not interfering with him; and he can be a young man of higher rank, with more coin than conscience, who prowls about at night tearing down tradesmen's signs, lifting gates off their hinges, assaulting the police, and amusing himself in other ways. The larrikin can be of the sweet and gentle sex also, more is the pity. The peculiar word was coined impromptu, it is said, by a Melbourne policeman, who introduced some youths and maidens to a certain magistrate with the intimation 'Please, sir, I caught these pussons a-larrikin!' It almost puts me in mind of the old-fashioned 'sky-larking.'

But how could I tell what might be the consequence to me if I laid my weary bones upon the larrikin's couch? Perhaps a riveting of the accursed chain! Perhaps some fearful disease! Perhaps an eternal shutting in my face of the gates of Paradise! But no, no, I cannot believe in such cruelty. God is surely a more merciful Being. I will not be chicken-hearted. Overcome by fatigue, I could not resist the temptation of first sitting upon it, and then cautiously lying down on it. All my doubts and fears vanished at once. Was I not under the protection of my 'friend' the Demon and his powerful police? And now that I had broken the ice, how soft, how sweet, how extremely comfortable! I never stretched myself on such a couch—it was delicious beyond the power of description, 'Certainly,' said I half aloud, 'if happiness can be found in a place like this it can only come while reclining on such a couch: we have no such articles of furniture in our world. If I could invent a couch like this I should make a splendid fortune.'

The thought of making a fortune set me thinking further and more deeply, and at any other time I would have laughed the idea to scorn; but now I asked myself seriously, Could I invent such a couch? The notion of converting larrikins into manufacturers of luxurious couches, on which honest elderly parties might repose their jaded limbs delightedly at the corners of public streets, was in itself so ludicrous that I laughed to myself for a long time, and yet I must have been overheard, for a faint echo of my laugh struck upon my ears; but was it more wonderful than the telegraph, or the phonograph, or the electric light?

A fortune, too! And what should I do with a fortune, who had been severely without one all my life? Build a grand house in town; drive through the streets four-in-hand on the box of an elegant drag filled with fine fashionable ladies and gentlemen; give splendid entertainments to the rich, obsequious world, his wife, and all his family, and leave the poor and miserable beings of the earth most haughtily and severely alone. Be the great Oliver Ubertus, the wealthy, the proud, the generous grandee, the inventor of the celebrated larrikin couch—the favourite of princes, the Buckingham of the nineteenth century, the observed of all observers!

Suddenly I bounded to my feet in the greatest horror and alarm. But the luxurious couch lifted up itself, and pulled me down again. Every hair of my head stood on end with terror and anguish. Had a hundred red-hot needles started up from the cushion of that couch? Had a thousand belligerent scorpions invaded my garments? I roared like a mad bull with pain, and danced about like an infuriated lion stung to diabolical rage with torture. The crowd of larrikins at the corner bellowed with wild laughter, and clapped their hands with delight. I threw myself on the ground and rolled over and over, hoping to extricate myself from that abominable couch, but in vain: its legs were round me like the arms of an octopus. I shouted 'Police, police, help, murder, mercy, mercy!'

Most fortunately my cries were heard, and about a dozen policemen rushed round the corner, knocking down twice that number of larrikins, and commenced belabouring the couch with their batons with all their might. That fiendish article loosened its hold, started up into its natural or unnatural shape, which was that of the death's-head, stinging-wasp, Astoragus himself, and bounded away like a racehorse, after giving me a parting kick. At that moment my patron the Demon made his appearance, and was duly informed of what had occurred.

'The villain, the incorrigible, irreclaimable villain!' he said excitedly: 'I'll boil him in petroleum and rackarock for this, and I'll command Doctor Julius to do it.'

'Oh please, sir,' said I, rubbing myself and blubbering, 'don't hurt the poor fellow; to be a larrikin and live here is punishment enough, and I never bear malice.'

'I tell you,' roared the Demon, with his usual rabbit-trap snap, 'and don't you tell me—I'll roast him in a furnace of hissing phosphorus of five thousand degrees of heat, I will.'

But, notwithstanding his loud threats and my anguish, I could see that he was ready to burst with suppressed laughter.

So passed my first day in that infernal city, and although I was horrified at its revolting scenes, and almost stung to death by the larrikin couch, yet I felt, as I lay down in bed in the Demon's palace, an awful fascination and desire taking possession of me, until I started at the hideous depth of my own iniquity, that I might stay in that city for ever, and that the beautiful Bellagranda might succeed when she again tried to press her lips to mine.