Where then was Thalaba that the Spirit could not see him either on the land or on the sea? When Hodeirah and his children were slain by Okba the Magician, Zeinab fled into the desert with Thalaba, the one son that was left to her, a lad of some twelve years of age. It was night, and she wandered on, not knowing where she was going or what she should do.
"Mother," said Thalaba, "tell me who slew my father?"
"I know not," answered Zeinab, "I did not think that he had an enemy."
"Well, I will hunt him through the world. Already I can bend my father's bow, and I shall soon have strength to drive an arrow into his heart."
"All that is far in the future, my son; but now we are in the desert."
And she looked round, but could not see even a tree; only the, dark blue sky closing them round on every side like a great dome. She thought to herself, "Why were we saved? we shall die here of hunger and thirst; "and she sat down and wept over the boy.
A moment after he cried out in wonder, and Zeinab lifted up her head, and saw before her a great palace in the midst of a wood. The trees were such that the very cedars of Lebanon could not match them, and the palace more splendid than any that had ever been built in Egypt or Babylon or Rome. The two went into the wood, and walked on till, under the shade of a mimosa tree, they saw a young man lying on a couch. He had been asleep, but woke at the sound of their steps, and looked with wonder at the new-comers.
"Forgive us," said Zeinab, "distress has made me bold. Help us; God blesses them that help the widow and the fatherless."
"Thank God," said the young man, "that I hear again a human voice. But tell me, who are you that you have found your way into this place which no foot of man has trodden for ages?"
"Yesterday," said Zeinab, "I was a happy wife and mother. To-day I am a widow, and of my children this only is left."
"Heaven has surely guided you hither," cried the young man, "and lifted the veil which has hidden this place for many ages from the eyes of men. But hear my tale."
"This is the Paradise of Irem which King Shedad built in his pride. In the days of my youth this was a populous land and rich. The tribe of Ad inhabited it, and there was none whose sons were braver or daughters more fair. My name then was Aswad—what ages have passed since I heard it! I was of noble birth and rich. My father had a hundred horses in his stables; as for the number of his camels it was not known. We were prosperous and powerful, but alas! we worshipped idols, and we mocked the prophets of God when they bade us turn from our evil ways and repent.
"King Shedad conceived in his heart the desire to make a garden in the wilderness more beautiful than the Garden of Eden, and to build in the middle of the Garden a palace which should surpass all the palaces upon earth. For this palace gold mines were exhausted, and precious stones, diamonds, and emeralds and rubies and sapphires were gathered from all the world, and ebony, that strange tree which has neither fruit nor leaves, but grows under the earth, where it is discovered by its scent. In the garden there were all the flowers that are known in the world. The trees Shedad transplanted full grown, for he was not content to wait. And in every walk of the garden there were marble statues of chiefs and heroes. Long since the statues have become mere shapeless lumps of stone, but the trees and the flowers remain, for the care of nature has perpetuated them. When the palace and the garden were finished, there came a great drought upon the country of the children of Ad. For three years there was no rain, till the wells were dried up. We prayed for rain, but we prayed to our idols; and it was all in vain. There was neither rain nor dew. At last the King sent a messenger, Kail by name, to the Red Hillock at Mecca, thinking that the gods would hear our prayers more readily from there. And all the while the prophet Houd, who was a messenger of the true God, continued to warn us, crying, 'Turn, ye men of Ad, from the wrath to come;' but we gave no heed to him.
"At this time it chanced that my father died, and was buried. At his grave, after the custom of the country, we tied a camel, and left it to die, that when the resurrection came, he might find it ready to mount. It was his favourite beast, and it had carried me often when I was a child, and one day as I passed by, it knew me, and turned its eye upon me. Sunk it was and dim, for the beast was nearly dead of hunger. I could not bear to see it, and taking my knife, I cut the rope, and let it go free, thinking that there was no man near to see what I did. But Houd the prophet saw me, and said, 'Blessed art thou, young man, for this good deed. In the day of visitation, God will remember thee.'
"And, indeed, the day of visitation was at hand. King Shedad had now finished building his palace. So he sent out his commands that all his people, men and women, young and old, masters and slaves alike, should come and see his palace, and keep a great feast. On the day appointed they all came. Their tents upon the sands of the desert were as many as the waves of the sea. And the King went up to the top of the highest tower of the palace that he had built, and showed himself. When the people saw him they shouted, 'He is a God! He is a God!'
"Then in the wantonness of his heart he commanded that the Prophet Houd should be brought. He led the man of God through all the courts with their columns of many-coloured marbles, and the rooms shining with gold and jewels. 'Hast thou ever seen such a sight as this?' he said. 'They say that Heaven has made thee wiser than other men. Canst thou then tell the value of these things?' Houd the prophet answered, 'O Shedad, only in the hour of death can a man value such things.'
"But the pride of the King was not one whit abated. 'Hast thou fault to find with the building?'
"The prophet said, 'The walls are weak, for Azrael, the Angel of Death can enter in. The building is ill-secured, for the Icy Wind, which nothing that lives can endure, can pierce it.'
"The King's face fell, and his lips were pale with anger.
"Then he led the Prophet to the top of the tower, and pointed to the multitude; and when they shouted again, 'He is a God! He is a God!' he asked, 'Say, Prophet, do they not speak the truth?'
"The Prophet said not a word, but when he looked at that great multitude he wept. As he looked there went up a great cry of joy. 'The messenger is come! Kail has returned from Mecca, and he brings back the boon which he sought.' Then we went out, and looked up to the sky, and there was a deep black cloud over our heads. All the people looked up and blest the coming rain. Meanwhile the messenger told his tale to the King.
"'I went to Mecca, and knelt at the Red Hillock, and prayed to God for rain. And when I had finished my prayer, I saw three clouds in the sky. One was white like the clouds that hang over the sky at noon; and one was red, like the clouds that have caught the last rays of the sun in the evening, and the third was black and heavy with its load of rain. As I looked, there came a voice from Heaven, 'Choose, Kail, one of these three.' So I chose the black cloud that was heavy with rain.'
"'You chose right,' said the King. And all the people shouted 'Right!' But the Prophet stood up and cried, 'Woe to the children of Ad, for death is gone up into her palaces!' Then he turned to the multitude and said, 'Fly from the wrath to come, ye who would save your souls alive, for strong is the hand that holds the bow, and His arrows err not from their mark!'
"Then a few faithful souls came out from the throng and followed him. But the rest answered him with laughter or with curses. And when he was about to depart with the faithful few, he looked back and his eye fell on me. He called me by my name, 'Aswad!' I heard him and trembled. Again he said, 'Aswad!' and I had almost followed; but I was afraid of the laughter of my friends, and I stayed, and the opportunity was lost.
"When the Prophet had departed the cloud grew blacker and blacker. At length it opened, but there was no rain there, only the Icy Wind of Death. Thousands and tens of thousands fell all around me, till the King and all his people had perished; and I was left alone. Then there came a voice, 'Aswad, in the day of visitation God hath remembered thee!'
"I tried to go forth from the scene of death. The way was open and I could see no barrier, but there was a chain round the place that I could not pass. Twice I attempted to pass. The third time the Voice said, 'Aswad, be content, and bless the Lord. Repent of thy misdeeds, and when thy soul is prepared, breathe thy wish to die, and Azrael shall come."
"And here I have lived since that day, I know not for how many ages. I have heard no sound but of the fountain as it rises and falls, and of the tree as it whispers in the wind. My clothing has not grown old, and my sandal is not worn upon my foot. But sinner that I am, I dare not ask to die."
This was the tale that Aswad told. Zeinab said, "You are blessed, Aswad. The Lord who has saved you from destruction will call you when He sees fit. But oh, that when I wished to die Azrael might come for me! This very hour would I go to Hodeirah and my children!"
As she spoke there was heard the rushing of wings, and Azrael stood beside the three. His face was dark and solemn, and indeed he never smiles, but it was not stern. "Zeinab," he said, "thy prayer is heard. Aswad, thy hour is come." When they heard him speak, they fell upon the ground and blessed the voice. "Me too! me too!" cried Thalaba, "O angel of Death, take me too!"
"Son of Hodeirah," said the angel, "it is not thine hour. Thou art chosen to do the will of Heaven, to avenge thy father's death, and to do the mightiest work that ever was done by man. Live and remember this: "Destiny hath marked thee from mankind." In a moment he was gone. And when Thalaba looked round him, the palace and the gardens had vanished away, and he was alone in the desert.