How Thalaba Went on His Errand
And now Thalaba lived in peace in Moath's tent four years or so, till he was grown to a man's strength and stature. He could bend his father's bow, nor use his whole strength to do it. He was tall and shapely. Indeed there was not a handsomer or stronger youth in the whole of Arabia. Moath loved him as a son. He had found him years before alone in the wilderness, weeping for his mother, and pitied him. But when he heard his wonderful tale, and saw how his heart was set on a great task that he had to do, his pity was changed into reverence, and he kept the boy with such care as he would have kept a trust from God. Moath loved Thalaba as father loves his son, and Oneiza loved him as a sister loves her brother, and Thalaba loved them both dearly in return. The master of the Tent was neither rich nor poor. God had given him enough and a contented mind. Camels he had which Thalaba tended; and goats which Oneiza milked. The clothes that they wore were spun by the maid's nimble fingers. So they lived happily, wanting nothing from without.
Nevertheless, in his inmost heart Thalaba was not content, but thought of the work to which he was called, and was impatient to set about it. He would often dream that the time was come, would dream that he had lifted his hand to strike his father's murderer, and that he had his hand upon the sword that was circled with fire.
One day, he and Oneiza were amusing themselves with Hodeirah's bow, for now the girl had strength enough to bend it, and could send an arrow straight up into the air, so far that the eye could scarcely follow its flight. As he looked he said, "When will the hour come for me to use these arrows in avenging my father? Am I not strong enough? or can the will of Heaven be changed, and I am not to be called?"
"Impatient boy," said Moath, smiling.
"Impatient Thalaba!" said Oneiza, smiling also, but somewhat sadly.
Just at that moment there passed over their heads a cloud of locusts, winging their way eastward from Syria.
"See," said Moath, "see how all things obey their doom! They have done their appointed work, eating up the fields of men for their sins, and now they go to their graves. She how the birds follow them, and soar above them, and thin them as they fly, rejoicing in their banquet. Do you think, as some would tell you, that these birds, which we welcome as the destroyers of the locusts, are brought hither by the charms of the priests? Not so—God sends the locusts to punish man, and He sends also the birds to rid us of them when the time is come."
Meanwhile Oneiza was looking up to where one of the birds was flying above her head. As she looked, he dropped a locust from his talons, and it fell upon her robe. Beautiful was the creature, with its grass-green body and double sets of wings, and its jet-black eyes, and glossy glistening breastplate, as it seemed. As she looked, she seemed to see mysterious lines upon its forehead. "Look, father! do you know what is here written?" she cried; and to Thalaba, "Look! it may be that these lines are written in the language of the ring."
Thalaba bent down and looked. In a moment his cheeks grew red, and he started back, for these lines could be plainly read, "When the Sun shall be darkened at noon, depart, Son of Hodeirah."
Moath and Oneiza were troubled, but Thalaba rejoiced. Every day at noon he watched the sky. Meanwhile he made new plumes for his arrows, and sharpened their points.
"Are you weary, then, of the tent?" said Moath.
"Not so," said Thalaba, "but I would go and do my work, and return never to leave you any more."
As Thalaba spoke, Oneiza looked again at the sun, and saw, or thought she saw, a speck upon it. It was so small that none who were watching the sun that day had yet perceived it; but Oneiza's eyes were sharpened by love. Certainly it was there; and it grew and grew, and Thalaba put the full quiver on his shoulder, and took the bow in his hand, and prepared to depart. And now half the Sun is covered, and now, again, the day grows dark, and the birds go to roost, and the owl, the bird of night, comes forth, and the eyes of the Hyena are seen to glare.
"Farewell, my father! farewell, Oneiza!" said Thalaba.
"Will you not wait for a sign to show the way?" said Moath.
"God will conduct me," said Thalaba, and went out into the darkness, and they heard his steps as he went, and the quiver rattling on his shoulders.
He had not gone far when he saw a dim shape in the darkness. As he looked it grew brighter, and he recognized the form and face of his mother. "Go," she said, "to Babylon, and ask the Angels for the talisman."
The spirit came towards him as it spake, as though to give him a mother's kiss, and Thalaba ran forward. But all that he felt was the wind playing on his cheek, and all that he saw was the darkness. "Mother, mother!" he cried, "let me see you again."
"You shall see me," she said, "in the hour of death."
Then the day dawned again, and the darkness dispersed. Thalaba went on full of hope, and of the expectation of great deeds, and of how he should come back some day to Moath's tent, and of all his thoughts Oneiza was a part. At sunset he came to a well, over which hung an Acacia tree. Then he made his ablutions, and said his prayers, and then brought out his provision of food. As he ate, came a traveller on a camel, who greeted him courteously, and sat down beside him by the well, and kept him company over his meal. The stranger was an old man, but vigorous, and one who scarcely seemed to need the staff which he carried. His eyes were quick and piercing, and his beard long and curly. He was courteous in manner, and his talk ready, and full of knowledge. A traveller could scarce have a more pleasant companion on his way.
As they talked, Thalaba asked, "Whither are you bent?"
"I go to Bagdad," said the old man. Thalaba's eyes kindled with joy to hear the word.
"And I too," he said. "May I be your companion?"
"Willingly," said the other.
Then they talked further together.
"You are young to travel."
"I have never yet come beyond the desert."
"We are bound for a noble city ; you will see splendid palaces and mosques and rich bazaars, to which merchants bring all the wealth of the world."
"Is it not Bagdad near the site of ancient Babylon?"
"Even so, a long day's journey."
"And the ruins?"
"There is a mighty mass of them; enough to tell us how great were our fathers in comparison of us."
"Do not the angels Haruth and Maruth atone for their sin at Babylon?"
"There is a tale that they do. But Ignorance believes many falsehoods for truth. What have you heard of these same angels?"
"This. Once on a time the angels, talking in heaven, expressed their wonder at the obstinacy of man, that though signs and tokens were given to him, and prophets sent to exhort him, nevertheless he would not repent. So stubborn a creature, they said, should have mercy refused to him for ever. God heard their unforgiving pride, and commanded two of those spirits that had not fallen, because they had not been tempted, to descend to the earth, and judge men's causes. For a time they judged righteously, but when an exceedingly beautiful woman came before them, they were tempted. 'Tell me,' said the woman, 'the name of God.' So they told her; and in a moment, by the power of that name, she was lifted up to heaven, and accused them before the judgment seat of God. They were called, but had no defence; only they entreated that the punishment of their sin might not endure for ever, but might at the last restore them purified to their place in heaven. This is the tale that I have heard."
"And you have heard also, doubtless, that the place of their punishment is at Babylon, and that there magicians seek them, and force from their unwilling lips the secrets of sorcery.
"Is not this true?
"Have you never seen some familiar shape distorted in the twilight into something uncouth and strange."
"Just so common things viewed through the mist of error terrify men's minds."
"But is it written in the Book that Haruth and Maruth were thus condemned?"
"God often teaches us by fables."
"But is not the place of their punishment at Babylon?"
"Yes, at Babylon they are to be found. But enough for the present. Night is at hand. I am an old man, and my eyes are heavy. We shall have time enough to talk to-morrow. Peace be with you, my son."