Gateway to the Classics: Stories of the Magicians by Alfred J. Church
Stories of the Magicians by  Alfred J. Church

What Thalaba Saw at Babylon

Thalaba rose from the earth, and bent his head in prayer. When he lifted it up, the sky was overcast with clouds, which before long came down in rain. He bared his head, and stretched his hands to the shower, and felt refreshed. As he did this he heard a loud, quick panting, and looking up saw a tiger run by, its head hanging low, its dry tongue lolling out of its mouth. Thalaba knew that the beast was searching for water, and following it at a distance saw it stoop down and drink. A pelican had built its nest in the wilderness, and had carried thither a stock of water for its young, which were swimming and dipping their heads in the bath. When the tiger approached, they crowded nestling under their mother's wings; the beast drank, but did not harm them. Of the tiger the mother bird had no fear, for it was a familiar guest. But when the man came near she menaced him with her wings and outstretched neck, emboldened by a mother's terrors. Thalaba drank and filled his water-skin, yet left enough for life to the pelican and her young. Then as he departed he blessed the carrier-bird, the dweller in the desert, and Him, the Common Father, who provides for all His creatures, and so went with new strength and confidence on his way.

After many a day's toil he came to Bagdad. There indeed, for all its pomp and wealth, though the merchants of East and West met in her bazaars, and long troops of laden camels lined her streets, and Tigris bore fleets of vessels on his stream, Thalaba did not linger for a day. He loathed everything that should delay the hour, when returning from his search, he should hang Hodeirah's sword on the pillar of Moath's tent. Before the sun had risen he passed out of the gates, and the last light of the sun was in the horizon when he came to the ruins of Babylon. It was a desolate place; the scorpion basked in the palace courts, and the she-wolf hid her litter in the temples. The Arab never pitched his tent within the walls, and the shepherd drove his flocks far from them. And Thalaba went cautiously, feeling the ground before him with his bow, till he came to a place where he could proceed no longer, the ruins closing him in on every side. He leant against a broken column, thinking what he should next do. Soon he heard steps approaching, and turning saw in the moonlight a man in full armour approaching.

"Who are you," said the stranger, "that at such an hour you wander in such a place as this? A traveller that has lost his way? or a robber hiding his plunder, or a magician with spells to make these ruins disclose the treasures that some say are buried among them?"

"I am neither traveller, nor robber, nor magician," said Thalaba; "I seek the angels, Haruth and Maruth; but tell me, Stranger, why are you here?"

The soldier, himself haughty and fearless, was not ill-pleased with the lad's spirit. "Do you know," he said, "the cause of their punishment?"

"I have been seeking for it in vain."

"Have you courage to tread a dangerous path?"

"Lead on!"

"Young Arab, if your heart beats evenly in danger; if you do not fear what makes other men tremble; if you can look undismayed at what even the soldier well tried in battle might well shrink from, then follow me, for I am bound for the cave."

"Lead on," said Thalaba again, and Mohareb (for that was the stranger's name) led the way.

There was a strange sound about the two as they went. It was not the wind, for Thalaba's long locks lay unmoved upon his shoulders. It was not the roar of the river as it rushed down some waterfall, for Euphrates flowed quietly over the plain. It came from the black boiling springs that rose in the great bitumen lake. Along the lake's side the two travellers walked, till they came to a cave out of the mouth of which the black torrent rolled. Mohareb turned to Thalaba and said, "Dare you enter it?

"Lead on," said Thalaba the third time, and set his foot inside the cave.

"Stay, madman!" cried his guide, "would you rush headlong on certain death? Where are your arms with which to meet the Keeper of the passage?"

A loud shriek from the depths of the cavern drowned Thalaba's answer. "Fate favours you," said Mohareb, "or your name had been blotted to-day out of the Book of Life."

As he spoke he drew a bag from underneath his cloak. "You are a brave boy," he said, "but to leap unprepared into danger, as lions rush upon the hunter's spear, is folly. Zohak the giant keeps the passage, and it is not by force we can win it." He drew a man's hand, shrivelled and dry and black, out of the bag, and fitted a taper into the fingers. "See," said he, "this is a murderer's hand; the very hand with which he did the deed. I drove the vultures from the stake on which he died impaled, and cut off the hand, and dried it for nine weeks in the sun. And the taper—but you have not learnt these secrets. See how clear it burns, but its ingredients scatter a deathly vapour through the cave; and when the keeper of the passage feels them, it will lull even his agony to sleep, and he will leave the passage free."

Mohareb led the way with the taper in his hand; and now they came to where the cave became loftier and narrower. Here Zohak sat with great snakes growing from his shoulders. Mohareb held the taper towards him; and the magic spell of the taper had such power that his eyes closed in sleep, and he lay all his length along the floor of the passage. But the two snakes were not asleep. They darted out their fiery tongues, and shut the passage. Mohareb drew from his wallet two fresh human heads, and threw them down before them. They turned eagerly to their horrid feast, and the travellers passed unharmed. And now the cave opened wider than before, till they came to a great pit, so deep and black that no eye could pierce its darkness.

"Here," said Mohareb, "the angels that teach enchantments dwell."

Thalaba said aloud, "Haruth and Maruth, hear us! I do not come to learn forbidden secrets. By God's command I am here. Tell me the Talisman."

"Do you think," said Mohareb, "that you will thus trick them out of their secret? Keep this righteousness of the lip for the mosque and the market-place. The spirits know the heart; only compelled by strong and torturing spells will they tell you the secret by which you can descend."

"Descend!" cried Thalaba, astonished.

"What!" said Mohareb, "have I led some silly prayer-monger here? What brings you to this place? By heaven you shall pay for your folly in coming." And he lifted his scymitar to strike him.

He lifted it; but his arm hung powerless in the air; for the mighty spell of the Ring forbad it to fall. In a rage he cried, "Then this is your trust in God! He had failed to save you but for the Ring. It is to spells and magic that you trust after all."

"Blasphemer!" cried Thalaba, "do you say that I trust in magic spells for want of faith in God? See now." And he took Abdaldar's ring from his finger, and threw it into the pit. A skinny hand came up, and caught it as it fell, and peals of devilish laughter shook the cave.

Mohareb's cheek flushed with joy, and he lifted his scymitar again. Thalaba saw the blue gleam of the blade as it descended, and sprang at the soldier, and grappled him breast to breast. Mohareb was sinewy and large of limb, broad shouldered, and his joints well knit, and he was practised in the art of war. Thalaba's strength was not so mature ; but the inspiration of the moment gave him the strength of a madman. Mohareb reeled before him. With knee and breast and arm he pressed on his enemy and drove him backwards to the very brink of the pit. For a moment they struggled fiercely on the very edge ; then with a fresh impulse of force Thalaba thrust him down, and Mohareb was engulfed in the abyss.

His breath came fast with the struggle. Panting he breathed out a broken prayer of thankfulness ; then said—

"Haruth and Maruth, are ye here? or has that servant of sin misled me? I, Thalaba, Servant of the Lord, invoke you. Hear me; so may Heaven accept your penitence. I go to root out of earth the sorcerer brood. Tell me the Talisman I need."

As he spoke, beyond the abyss he saw the angels reclining on the rock. Their faces were sad; but guilt and shame had been purged away. This was their answer. "Son of Hodeirah! thou hast proved it here. The Talisman is Faith."

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