Artabanzanus/Chapter 6

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After a disturbed and fitful slumber of some eight or ten hours' duration, I was thoroughly aroused by the tolling of the great bell—one stroke only. 'The bell strikes one; we take no note of time save from its loss, to give it then a tongue is wise in man.' That toll resounded through the palace like the knell of Doom. My heart sank within me: my soul seemed to become that of a despicable, grovelling coward, and I actually trembled with apprehension. But after a little sober reflection, I whispered to myself, 'Courage, Oliver; remember Cromwell, things may not be so bad as they seem; the Demon may mean what he says when he assures you so solemnly that he will protect you, and take you back again to your beloved Great Lake; and as for the dangerous witch Bellagranda, she may forget all about you soon, when she falls in love with somebody else and not turn you into a black dog after all; so courage, my boy: be strong, fear not, but hope for the best!'

A loud knock at my door recalled me to a sense of my position and extreme danger; for it convinced me that I was still in the power of the Demon. I sprang from my bed, and opened the door cautiously. A gigantic negro, with a most extraordinary face, something like that of a black Angus bull, stood before me smiling not unpleasantly. He saluted me in military fashion, and asked, in good English, would I be pleased to dress, and come out to breakfast. No, I was already dressed, not having undressed at all, and I had no appetite for breakfast. I was nearly saying 'sir' to the monster. He was a benevolent looking monster, too, and gazed at me curiously with his large blue-black eyes, as who should say: 'Ah! massa debble be good friend, belly good friend to you, sare.'

Then he asked me if I wished to have my boots cleaned! I replied in amazement:

'My boots cleaned! Heaven and earth, no, my good fellow, there is no mud down here; but only let me get a tight hold of your General Astoragus, and I will polish my own boots in fine style.'

The grenadier grinned diabolically.

Would I, he presently asked, be pleased to accompany his master to the Royal Park to see a grand review of the army.

'Certainly,' I answered, 'I will accompany him with great pleasure, as I am under his protection. There's nothing I take a greater delight in than a good review. I have seen many in the Phoenix Park, close by where I was born. Will there be many troops on the ground?'

'Only a million, sare.'

'What, a million! do you mean to say a million?'

The monster nodded gravely.

'Bless my soul! a million of men in arms! thank Heaven it is not real war. Yes, tell your master I shall be happy to bear him company, I shall certainly be there. A million men under arms! what next, in the fiend's name?'

The sable grenadier saluted again, and withdrew. In about half an hour he returned and informed me that his master was ready, and that the carriage waited at the north postern gate. I forthwith followed him to that point of exit, where we found an elaborate kind of ammunition waggon to which were harnessed in deep and solemn array—oh powers of mercy! no less than twenty-four gigantic negroes!

At this extraordinary sight I hesitated before entering the carriage. The recollection of Astoragus and his Satanic couch flashed on my mind. But a sudden roll of fifes and drums announced the approach of the Demon himself; and forth he stalked, surrounded by his cringing slaves, driving away, by his all-absorbing presence, all inferior and subordinate thoughts from my mind. He smiled, condescended to offer me one of his fingers to shake, which I dared not for my life refuse, and hoped I had had a refreshing slumber. He had issued most positive orders, he said, that I should not be disturbed; and had stopped with his own hands the great bell of the palace clock until it was time for me to arise, lest its ringing should cause me uneasiness. After some more consolatory and complimentary observations, at which I bowed and scraped like the most contemptible of his courtiers, he requested me to take my seat in his military chariot. I obeyed in silence; he followed quickly, and away we went. No servants accompanied us, neither coachman on the box nor footman behind.

We drove for some time in silence, I in a dreamy trance, he unenviably 'chewing the cud of sweet or bitter fancy.' His negroes required no reins, as they obeyed his voice implicitly, 'needs must,' it is said, 'when the devil drives.' I wondered where he got these negroes from. I was overpowered with the grandeur of the streets through which we rolled. It was early morning, I could perceive by the waning and flickering light of the lamps, some of which appeared to be on the point of going out altogether. But, alas! there was no splendid light of day stealing softly on, with the modest pace of a lovely bride adorned for the husband of her choice. The palaces and houses looked like mere buildings of variegated cards, as we rapidly passed them by. There was a ghastly irregularity about them which I find it difficult to describe; every moment I expected them to vanish out of sight, like the fragile structures one sees in dreams. In a moment, as in a tropical transition from night to day, the city became alive with bustle and activity. The lamps burst forth more brilliantly than ever; and the people issued from their houses in crowds. Vehicles of all descriptions came forth from arched gateways, and rolled through the streets. The larrikins began to assemble at the corners, all preparing for an enterprising rush somewhere—I conjectured to the review ground.

'Is this a larrikin's carriage, sir?' I asked of my royal companion with humility.

'No,' he thundered; 'death and fury! do you think a larrikin would dare to play a trick on me? As for Astoragus, rogue and a rebel; he shall be drummed out of my army to the tune of the "Rogue's March," and you may play the drum, if you like. Fear nothing more; I will take care of you; my negroes are safe and sure: they obey me like little dogs, and dote on me in their hearts.'

'As the sweet Bellagranda does,' I said to myself. It is a wonder he did not read my thoughts; I was actually afraid to think.

The negroes flew along with surprising rapidity. They did not pause or hesitate, but rushed among the crowd, knocking down by dozens when they would not get out of the way. When they tore forth into the primordial abyss their master ordered them to go on like lightning, and while the flying chariot was rolling from side to side in mad excitement, he, regardless of the number of other carriages which we were constantly passing, and the numbers of people on horseback and on foot, all bound for the same quarter, deliberately took off all his clothes, and put on a gorgeous uniform and a splendid cocked hat and feathers, and girded himself with a sword-belt, to which was attached a heavy weapon, studded with innumerable brilliants. All these he drew from a spacious chest in his carriage, muttering to himself while he put them on: 'They shall know me now; I've been incognito for a long time; they will not be satisfied without blood; they shall have plenty, the grumbling, growling, pestilent knaves; their rascally quarrels disturb even my peace of mind; I'll crush the troublesome brutes.'

'I hope, sir,' I said as respectfully as I could, 'that there will be no real war to-day. I am a man of peace, and it would be a dreadful thing for me to see a million of men fighting and murdering each other on one battle-field.'

'You are right, my friend,' he bellowed; 'it would be a dreadful thing; but you are always ready to take nonsensical notions into your head. Who is thinking about real war? I'm sure I'm not. L'Empire c'est la paix.'

On we sped through and over the astonished multitudes I conjectured that each quarter of that great city was separate and distinct, and that there were no covered ways or short cuts from one to another. The distance from one gigantic archway to the adjoining one, though very considerable, was rapidly traversed, and soon we found ourselves entering a vast square into which opened a number of wide avenues. Its size was immense, and the roof was supported by a great number of pillars of black marble, on which hung innumerable bright lamps. It was surrounded by fantastic buildings which appeared in the lurid light like the spirits of mediaeval castles. There were peaceful-looking palaces, too, but these, as I afterwards discovered, were inhabited by the most treacherous and bloodthirsty of created beings. There were also many columns of great size and beauty, and of venerable antiquity, with fierce fires burning on their summits. One was dedicated to Glory, another to Victory, another to Patriotism, another to Despotic Power. Several were ornamented with statues of the Angel of Death, crowned with flowers which seemed to have been dipped in blood.

The Demon's chariot stood still at last beside a suspicious-looking crimson pool. The people who had come from the other quarters to see the review had ranged themselves around the four sides of the square. The resemblance of a curtain like that in a theatre was drawn up before us, and a picture presented to view which made my hair stand on end. The scene at first was one of peaceful joy and exquisite beauty. A spacious and magnificent park, with a handsome, not to say a grand, residence, fit for a royal duke; two gentlemen were talking and laughing together, within a short distance of the mansion, while several men were lounging about in their neighbourhood, and some were extended harmlessly on the grass, At a given signal they started up and attacked the two gentlemen with long knives, and they, after a vain struggle, fell stabbed to the heart. The assassins fled, but were pursued by the three Furies, and disappeared from the scene; and our noble Phoenix Park, in which I played many a time with my school-fellows, was polluted with blood shed by murderers.

Are murderers mad? Have they lost, with all their moral feeling, every perception of wisdom and prudence too? They seem to be incapable of reflecting that the blood which they so freely shed will some day come flowing back to their own doors. They are remorseless, cruel men, who cannot remember that the death they are so ready to inflict on others will certainly present his stern visage to themselves. They flatter themselves that the arm of the law, however strong, cannot reach them, and they refuse to believe that there is an avenging God in heaven. They are blind to the fact that they shall die a shameful death when their time comes, and inflict indelible disgrace on the relatives who survive them, through their ruthless deeds.

This scene vanished, and another succeeded it on the vacant space. This was a most clear and startling representation of the death of Robespierre and his wretched accomplices in guilt. As this horrible picture is only too well known to every reader of history, I shall not describe it here. It was represented before me in all its harrowing details, as it has been described by Thiers, Carlyle, and other authors. The people who surrounded the guillotine shouted with an insane joy. The world was relieved of monsters.

I turned to the Demon in desperation, and besought him to take me away from that dreadful place.

'No,' he replied, 'we are here now, and we must stay to see the end. What will your friends above say if you run away now like a coward, and have nothing to tell them when you return? It may be against my interest to show you these things, but show you them I must; so keep your eyes and your ears open.'

Other scenes, dark and terrible indeed in the history of our unhappy planet, succeeded each other quickly in this ghastly theatre. The last of these was that of a battle on the sea. Two dark lines of noble ships, splendidly built, manned and armed, wonderful creations of the intellects and hands of men, were battering each other with fire and cannon-balls, doing their very best to destroy each other, to rend, or burn, or sink each other in the sea. And this is honour, glory—certainly it is, and duty too, when defending the right against the wrong. The ambition of men and nations, which will resort to such cruel means as these for mere glory's sake, must be absolutely insane. One, and the largest, of the beautiful ships was set on fire by the hostile cannon, and blew up with a tremendous explosion, and I saw with an astonishment which I cannot express her fragments, masts and yards, guns, officers and men, flying through the air. We are indeed on the devil's playground! Cursed are those passions which give birth to such scenes as these!

And now the real business of this remarkable day was about to commence, and the Emperor Artabanzanus commanded his chariot to be drawn to the top of a great heap of cinders which stood on one side of the square. There stood in silent ranks a battalion of Larrikin Guards; a banner was raised on high, and a salvo of artillery, sudden and awful, like the salute which Wellington gave to Badajos at midnight, shook the marble pillars. The gates of the surrounding castles flew open, and forth issued from them dense masses of soldiers of all the nations upon earth, with drums beating and colours flying—regiment after regiment, squadron after squadron. There came first a crowd of officers of the highest rank in brilliant uniforms, who formed themselves into long ranks, and marched past the Demon, saluting him with military precision. They were in fact an immense concourse of emperors, kings, dukes, governors, councillors, who delighted, when they lived on earth, in war, in tyranny, and in shedding the blood of their fellow creatures. The master whom they so faithfully served, who now sat by my side, condescended to point out to me by name many a famous hero and potentate, whose histories had been the wonder of our youthful days. Many of the greatest of these broke off after they had passed, and took their places behind the carriage of their chief.

They were succeeded by the officers of lower rank, and then by the rank and file of the world's armies, horse, foot, and artillery. They swept past in dense masses, knights arrayed in glittering steel, paladins in chain armour, and proud barons in golden helmets and nodding plumes, with drawn swords in their hands, which flashed in the firelight. There were white-faced men among them, men who seemed to be sorry they had ever been born; and men with swarthy faces whose eyes sparkled with the eager anticipation of battle and mortal defiance of their foes. Clouds of heavy and light cavalry appeared to be forming on the field for actual fight. Battalions of infantry continued to issue from the castles and palaces, and took up their positions here and there. Some were clothed in the old military style of Greece and Rome, and were armed in the same fashion. Many presented the appearance of mediaeval hosts, and many more the modern panoply and pageantry of war. Troop after troop of horse artillery came thundering along, halting and unlimbering their guns, waiting and watching for the signal to open fire. The great conquerors and generals of the world dispersed themselves over the field, each with his brilliant staff. My obliging friend at the Demon's palace who wanted to clean my boots was no doubt right when he said there would be a million of men in arms on that field of blood.

I shaded my eyes with my hand, and said inwardly, 'Oh, blessed God! was it for this that all those undying souls were born? Where are the weeping mothers of these unhappy beings? For whose pleasure do they now renew their oft-repeated combats? Who is the author of all this fearful wickedness?' I stole a glance at the being who was sitting by my side. His grape-shot eyes were fixed in a glassy immovable stare, his rabbit-trap mouth grinding with the snaps of a galvanic battery, like the teeth of a wolf ravenous for food.

At that moment the fierce charges of horse began to be heard in the distance, like the hoarse roar of advancing ocean waves, accompanied by long-continued shooting, whether of victory or defiance I could not tell. A thousand guns opened their fire, and we could see the balls plunging into the embattled ranks on either side, and hundreds of men falling in the agonies of death. Again and again were repeated those mighty charges of horse, those furious shouts, and that hurricane of shot and shell. At length there was a lull for a few minutes, and then the ground trembled beneath the regular tramp of great masses of infantry. They advanced against each other with heads bent forward, eyes flashing fire, teeth firmly set. The Romans locked their shields, and brandished their flaming swords. The Goths yelled savagely, and hurled their javelins at the advancing foe. The Macedonians formed themselves into an impenetrable phalanx, and received their Persian enemies on the points of their pikes. Hannibal led on his Carthaginian bands, and the battle of Cannae was fought over again. Pompey fled from the field of Pharsalia, hotly pursued by Cesar's victorious horse. Here in this ghastly panorama a famous modern hero again gained his greatest victories.

A sudden increase of illumination now burst upon the awful scene, on which I gazed with bated breath, expecting every moment to be my last. Those who have read Mr. Rider Haggard's startling romance 'She' will not be surprised at the wonderful pictures presented to my view in a hitherto unexplored region of the universe. He describes a mysterious fire which his hero saw deep in the bowels of the earth, stalking along like a giant with a roar like that of a great waterfall, coming from nowhere, and returning to the same place; and in which the beautiful form of 'She' herself was reduced to its original dust. But I describe some of those scenes (at the expense of originality, it is true) which the world, and not the keen eye of imagination only, has actually witnessed with its own eyes. His description is undisguised fiction, mine undeniable truth. And if my readers are displeased with such revolting tragedies, what do they say to the narratives of slaughter, and shocking cannibalism, with which the world is now being flooded?

I looked around to see the cause of the increase of light, and, lo! some twenty or more of the castles and palaces on all sides of the square were wrapped in raging fire. The weird flames shot up into the black and hideous space above, and lost themselves in the dense obscurity of clouds of inky smoke. Now and again dreadful explosions of powder magazines rent the air, and the roofs and walls of many of the castles were hurled out with violence on the heads of the combatants.

While I gazed on this alarming spectacle, I became aware of a sharp pain at the back of my neck, very like the sting a of a scorpion. Placing my hand hastily on the affected part, I felt a clammy cuttle-fish finger pressing upon it, and looking round in the greatest terror, I beheld the larrikin fiend, Astoragus, sitting in the dickey contemplating the battle as gravely and solemnly as a judge, I instantly gave utterance to a loud roar of pain and rage. The Demon was startled at the sound, and turning, saw the injured innocent, his thoughts apparently far from doing any mischief. Without hesitation he seized him round the body with his boa-constrictor tail before he had time to escape, and roughly hurled him out of the chariot right over my head. He fell kicking amongst the poor negroes, who were still harnessed to the carriage, and they, struck with a mortal panic, started away at a furious gallop. In vain the Demon thundered orders to them to stop, and swore the most frightful oaths I ever heard; they only flew the faster, and they rushed—oh, how they rushed!—into the thickest of the raging battle.

Destruction now stared us in the face. The panic-stricken negroes continued their wild flight, dragging our carriage over the heaps of slain, and through the long lines of infuriated soldiers. It was impossible to escape a miserable death now, and I calmly resigned myself to my fate. Their almost omnipotent master, notwithstanding all his power to save his precious bones when he pleased, was dashed from his chariot across a broken gun-carriage. The cannon-balls still flew around us in a perfect storm, and the musket-bullets like a tempest of hail. The military vehicle in which I sat, and to which I resolutely clung for bare life, was at last violently wrenched asunder, and I was thrown pell-mell amongst the ruins. Even then I did not lose my senses, but I knew too well that it was necessary to prepare for instant dissolution. Oh! what had I done to deserve this cruel fate? I had always hated war: the sight of two dogs fighting had often been enough to fill me with—I shall not say fear or alarm—but a profound disapproval of what was contrary to my nature. I never fought an earnest battle in my life except once, and that was decided in one round; moral battles I have been fighting all my life.

But now, what was my wretched condition? A last farewell to the dear ones whom I loved was denied me; no watch-dog's honest bark would welcome me when I drew near home; no eye would grow brighter at my coming. The wife of my youth, now the cherished companion of my declining years, my children, my grandchildren, the chattering and laughing, the noisy, innocent, and beautiful little ones, where are they now? Oh, that they might never know how or where I was doomed to die! I should never see my shining silver lakes, or the green fields, or the grand forests, or the golden sunshine again. Never again rest in my armchair at home, and pore over my favourite books, as in days gone by for ever. The trees I had planted with my own hands, and their lovely growing day by day, were now hidden from mine eyes. The friends whom I have loved, and who have loved me—have I lost them for evermore?

Thinking thus, and with a thousand other despairing thoughts, whether wicked or not I do not know, I became aware that the battle was not yet over. The thought of Astoragus crossed my mind, and a prayer from my heart ascended to Heaven that he might not find me out, or sting me again. Renewed shouting, and a violent shaking of the ground, alarmed me terribly. All the demons in that pandemonium seemed to be let loose once more. I raised my head, and beheld the crowned kings and emperors flying from and after each other, some torn in pieces by their enemies, others by their own subjects. One of them, whom I knew only too well, came panting and rushing from the field. His face was deadly pale, and his eyes were starting out of his head with terror, for he was pursued by thousands of armed men whom he had slain in cold blood or in battle. As he came near, I saw that the unfortunate being, who had been literally covered with earthly glory, in addition to his mental anguish, had a fearful disease rankling at his heart. He fell down groaning bitterly on my breast; his enemies cut and thrust at him as they rushed past. Notwithstanding my agonies and his, I was cruel enough to say, 'Ha! old fellow, are you getting enough of it at last?'

I do not know whether it is right for us to go off into fits of moralizing on the subject of war. The Israelites of old were permitted to wage it against their enemies by their Holy and Divine Master, but we can well believe that their wars were waged against barbarous, unclean idolaters. Christ said He came not to bring peace on the earth but a sword; and again, 'Put up again thy sword into his place, for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.' How are these contradictory statements to be reconciled? I seek not of myself to penetrate or explain the hidden meaning of our Saviour's words, but I believe that unjust, aggressive war, is as contrary to His divine wish and command, as it is to commit secret murder or any other sin. Unjust war seems to me to be only worthy—if it is worthy even of them—of yahoos, of gorillas, of the evil spirits of the infernal and for ever cursed world. If the great men of the earth are not madmen, they should remember by whose hands they were made, and put away the accursed thing from them. My business, however, is not to moralize, but to tell my story.

Once more the earth shook: the brigades and squadrons and batteries swept over us as we lay helplessly on the ground; shouting dragoons, whiskered pandoors, fierce lancers, and artillery wheels, and masses of blaspheming infantry, trampled and crushed us into the gory clay; but at last—all in a moment—the darkness of death covered us with its friendly mantle.