The Vizier of the Two-Horned Alexander, Page 2Frank Richard Stockton
"There are two points about your story that I do not comprehend," saidI (and as I spoke I could not help the thought that in reality I did notcomprehend any of it). "In the first place, I don't see how you couldlive for a generation or two in one place and then go off to an entirelynew locality. I should think there were not enough inhabited spots inthe world to accommodate you in such extensive changes."
Mr. Crowder smiled. "I don't wonder you ask that question," he said; "butin fact it was not always necessary for me to seek new places. There aretowns in which I have taken up my residence many times. But as I arrivedeach time as a stranger from afar, and as these sojourns were separatedby many years, there was no one to suppose me to be a person who hadlived in that place a century or two before."
"Then you never had your portrait painted," I remarked.
"Oh, yes, I have," he replied. "Toward the close of the thirteenth centuryI was living in Florence, being at that time married to a lady of wealthyfamily, and she insisted upon my having my portrait painted by Cimabue,who, as you know, was the master of Giotto. After my wife's deathI departed from Florence, leaving behind me the impression that I intendedsoon to return; and I would have been glad to take the portrait with me,but I had no opportunity. It was in 1503 that I went back to Florence, andas soon as I could I visited the stately mansion where I had once lived,and there in the gallery still hung the portrait. This was anunsatisfactory discovery, for I might wish at some future time to settleagain in Florence, and I had hoped that the portrait had faded, or that ithad been destroyed; but Cimabue painted too well, and his work was thenheld in high value, without regard to his subject. Finding myselfentirely alone in the gallery, I cut that picture from its frame.I concealed it under my cloak, and when I reached my lodging I utterlydestroyed it. I did not feel that I was committing any crime in doingthis; I had ordered and paid for the painting, and I felt that I had aright to do what I pleased with it."
"I don't see how you can help having your picture taken in these days,"I said; "even if you refuse to go to a photographer's, you can't escapethe kodak people. You have a striking presence."
"Oh, I can't get away from photographers," he answered. "I have had anumber of pictures taken, at the request of my wife and other people.It is impossible to avoid it, and that is one of the reasons why I amnow telling you my story. What is the other point about which youwished to ask me?"
"I cannot comprehend," I answered, "how you should ever have foundyourself poor and obliged to work. I should say that a man who had livedso long would have accumulated, in one way or another, immense wealth,inexhaustible treasures."
"'I CUT THAT PICTURE FROM ITS FRAME.'"]
"Oh, yes," said he, with a smile; "Monte Cristo, and all that sort ofthing. Your notion is a perfectly natural one, but I assure you, Mr.Randolph, that it is founded upon a mistake. Over and over and over againI have amassed wealth; but I have not been able to retain it permanently,and often I have suffered for the very necessaries of life. I have beenhungry, knowing that I could never starve. The explanation of this stateof things is simple enough: I would trade; I would speculate; I wouldmarry an heiress; I would become rich; for many years I would enjoy mypossessions. Then the time would come when people said: 'Who owns thesehouses?' 'To whom belongs this money in the banks?' 'These properties werepurchased in our great-grandfathers' times; the accounts in the banks wereopened long before our oldest citizens were born. Who is it who is makingout leases and drawing checks?' I have employed all sorts of subterfugesin order to retain my property, but I have always found that to prove mycontinued identity I should have to acknowledge my immortality; and inthat case, of course, I should have been adjudged a lunatic, andeverything would have been taken from me. So I generally managed, beforethe time arrived when it was actually necessary for me to do so, to turnmy property, as far as possible, into money, and establish myself in someother place as a stranger. But there were times when I was obliged tohurry from my home and take nothing with me. Then I knew misery.
"It was during the period of one of my greatest depressions that I metwith a monk who was afterward St. Bruno, and I joined the Carthusianmonastery which he founded in Calabria. In the midst of their asceticism,their seclusion, and their silence I hoped that I might be asked noquestions, and need tell no lies; I hoped that I might be allowed to liveas long as I pleased without disturbance; but I found no such immunity.When Bruno died, and his successor had followed him into the grave, it wasproposed that I should be the next prior; but this would not have suitedme at all. I had employed all my time in engrossing books, but the dutiesof a prior were not for me, so I escaped, and went out into the worldagain."
As I sat and listened to Mr. Crowder, his story seemed equally wonderfulto me, whether it were a plain statement of facts or the relation of aninsane dream. It was not a wild tale, uttered in the enthusiasticexcitement of a disordered mind; but it was a series of reminiscences,told quietly and calmly, here a little, there a little, withoutchronological order, each one touched upon as it happened to suggestitself. From wondering I found myself every now and then believing: butwhenever I realized the folly in which I was indulging myself, I shookoff my credulity and endeavored to listen with interest, but withoutjudgment, for in this way only could I most thoroughly enjoy thestrange narrative; but my lapses into unconscious belief were frequent.
"You have spoken of marriage," said I. "Have you had many wives?"
My host leaned back in his chair and looked up at the ceiling. "That is asubject," he said, "of which I think as little as I can, and yet I mustspeak to you of it. It is right that I should do so. I have been marriedso often that I can scarcely count the wives I have had. Beautiful women,good women, some of them women to whom I would have given immortality hadI been able; but they died, and died, and died. And here is one of thegreat drawbacks of living forever.
"Yet it was not always the death of my wives which saddened me the most;it was their power of growing old. I would marry a young woman, beautiful,charming. You need not be surprised that I was able to do this, for in allages woman has been in the habit of disregarding the years of man, andI have always had a youthful spirit; I think it is Daudet who says thatthe most dangerous lover is the man of fifty-three. I would live happilywith a wife; she would gradually grow to be the same age as myself; andthen she would become older and older, and I did not. As I have said,there were women to whom I would have given immortality if I could; butI will add that there have been times when I would have given up my ownimmortality to be able to pass gently into old age with a beloved wife.
"You will want to know if I have had descendants. They exist by thethousand; but if you ask me where they are, I must tell you that I donot know. I now have but one child, a little girl who is asleepup-stairs. I have gathered around me families of sons and daughters;they have grown up, married, and my grandchildren have sat upon my knees.Sometimes, at long intervals, I have known great-grandchildren. But whenmy sons and daughters have grown gray and gone to their graves, I havewithdrawn myself from the younger people,--some of whom were notacquainted with me, others even had never heard of me,--and then by thenext generation the old ancestor, if remembered at all, was connectedonly with the distant past. And so family after family have melted intothe great mass of human beings, and are as completely lost as though theywere water thrown into the sea.
"I have always been fond of beautiful women, and as you have met Mrs.Crowder, you know that my disposition has not changed. Sarah, the wifeof Abraham, was considered a woman of great beauty in her day, and thefame of her charms continues; but I assure you that if she lived now herattractions would not have given her husband so much trouble. I saw agood deal of Sarah when I visited Abraham with my master Alexander, andI have seen many more beautiful women since that time. Hagar was a finewoman, but she was too dark, and her face had an anxious expression whichinterfered with her beauty."
"Was Hagar really the wife of Abraham," I asked, "as the Mussulmans
say,and was Ishmael considered his heir?"
"When I saw them," my host continued, "the two women seemed as friendlyas sisters, and Isaac was not yet born. At that time it was considered,of course, that Ishmael was Abraham's heir. Certainly he was a much finerman than Isaac, with whom I became acquainted a long time afterward. Therewere some very beautiful women at the court of Solomon. One of these wasBalkis, the famous Queen of Sheba."
"Did you ever meet Cleopatra?" I interrupted.
"I never saw her," was the answer, "but, from what I have heard, I donot think I should have cared for her if I had seen her asleep. What mighthave happened had I seen her awake is quite another matter. I have noticedthat women grow more beautiful as the world grows older, and men growtaller and better developed. You would consider me, I think, a man ofaverage size; but I tell you that in my early life I was exceptionallytall, and I have no doubt it was my stature and presence to whichI largely owed my preferment at the court of Alexander. I was living inSpain toward the close of the tenth century, when I married the daughterof an Arabian physician, who was a wonderfully beautiful woman. She wasnot dark, like the ordinary Moorish women. In feature and form shesurpassed any creation of the Greek sculptors, and I have been in many oftheir workshops, and have seen their models. This lady lived longer thanany other wife I had. She lived so long, in fact, that when we leftCordova we both thought it well that she should pass as my mother. She wasone of the few wives to whom I told my story. It did not shock her, forshe believed her father to be a miracle-worker, and she had faith in manystrange things. Her great desire was to live as long as I should, andI think she believed that this might happen. She died at the age of onehundred and fifteen, and was lively and animated to the very last.My first American wife was a fine woman, too. She was a French creole, anddied fifteen years ago. We had no children."
"'WHEN WE LEFT CORDOVA.'"]
"It strikes me," I said suddenly, "that you must understand a great manylanguages--you speak so much of living with people of different nations."
"It would be impossible," he answered, "unless I were void of ordinaryintelligence, to live as long as I have, and not become a generallinguist. Of course I had to learn the languages of the countriesI visited, and as I was always a student, it delighted me to do so. Infact, I not only studied, but I wrote. When the Alexandrian library wasdestroyed, fourteen of my books were burned. When I was in Italy with myfirst American wife, I visited the museum at Naples, and in the roomwhere the experts were unrolling the papyri found in Pompeii, I lookedover the shoulder of one of them, and, to my amazement, found that one ofthe rolls was an account-book of my own. I had been a broker in Pompeii,and these were the records of moneys I had loaned, on interest, to variousmerchants and tradespeople. I was always fond of dealing in money, and atpresent I am a broker in Wall street. During the first crusades I was abanker in Genoa, and lent large sums to the noble knights who were settingforth for Jerusalem."
"'I HAD BEEN A BROKER IN POMPEII.'"]
"'I LENT LARGE SUMS TO THE NOBLE KNIGHTS.'"]
"Was much of it repaid?" I asked.
"Most of it. The loans were almost always secured by good property. AsI look back upon the vast panorama of my life," my host continued, aftera pause, "I most pleasantly recall my various intimacies with learnedmen, and my own studies and researches; but in the great company of menof knowledge whom I have known, there was not one in whom I was so muchinterested as in King Solomon. I visited his court because I greatlywished to know a man who knew so much. It was not difficult to obtainaccess to him, for I came as a stranger from Ethiopia, to the east ofEthiopia, to the east of the Red Sea, and the king was always anxiousto see intelligent people from foreign parts. I was able to tell him agood deal which he did not know, and he became fond of my society.
"I found Solomon a very well-informed man. He had not read and studiedbooks as much as I had, and he had not had my advantages of directintercourse with learned men; but he was a most earnest and indefatigablestudent of nature. I believe he knew more about natural history than anyhuman being then living, or who had preceded him. Whenever it waspossible for him to do so, he studied animal nature from the livingmodel, and all the beasts, birds, and fishes which it was possible forhim to obtain alive were quartered in the grounds of his palace. In acertain way he was an animal-tamer. You may well imagine that this greatking's wonderful possessions, as well as the man himself, were the sourceof continual delight to me.
"The time-honored story of Solomon's carpet on which he mounted and waswafted away to any place, with his retinue, had a good deal of foundationin fact; for Solomon was an exceedingly ingenious man, and not onlyconstructed parachutes by which people could safely descend from greatheights, but he made some attempts in the direction of ballooning.I have seen small bags of thin silk, covered with a fine varnish made ofgum to render them air-tight, which, being inflated with hot air andproperly ballasted, rose high above the earth, and were wafted out ofsight by the wind. Many people supposed that in the course of timeSolomon would be able to travel through the air, and from this idea wasderived the tradition that he really did so.
"Another of the interesting legends regarding King Solomon concerned hisdominion over the Jinns. These people, of whom so much has been writtenand handed down by word of mouth, and who were supposed by subsequentgenerations to be a race of servile demons, were, in reality, savagenatives of surrounding countries, who were forced by the king to work onhis great buildings and other enterprises, and who occupied very much theposition of the coolies of the present day. But that story of the deadSolomon and the Jinns who were at work on the temple gives a good idea ofone of the most important characteristics of this great ruler. He was aman who gave personal attention to all his affairs, and was in the habitof overseeing the laborers on his public works. Do you remember the storyto which I refer?"
I was obliged to say that I did not think I had ever heard it.
"The story runs thus," said my host: "The Jinns were at work buildingthe temple, and Solomon, according to his custom, overlooked them daily.At the time when the temple was nearly completed Solomon felt that hisstrength was passing from him, and that he would not have much longer tolive. This greatly troubled him, for he knew that when the Jinns shouldfind that his watchful eye would be no more upon them, they would rebeland refuse to work, and the temple would not be finished during hisreign. Therefore, as the story runs, he came, one day, into the temple,and hoped that he might be enabled to remain there until the greatedifice should be finished. He stood leaning on his staff, and the Jinns,when they beheld their master, continued to work, and work, and work. Whennight came Solomon still remained standing in his accustomed place, andthe Jinns worked on, afraid to cease their toil for a moment.
SOLOMON AND THE JINNS.]
"Standing thus, Solomon died; but the Jinns did not know it, and theirtoil and labor continued, by night and by day. Now, according to thetradition, a little white ant, one of the kind which devours wood, cameup out of the earth on the very day on which Solomon died, and began tognaw the inside of his staff. She gnawed a little every day, until atlast the staff became hollow from one end to the other; and on the daywhen she finished her work, the work of the Jinns was also finished.Then the staff crumbled, and the dead Solomon fell, face foremost, tothe earth. The Jinns, perceiving that they had been slaving day and nightfor a master who was dead, fled away with yells of rage and vexation.But the glorious temple was finished, and King Solomon's work was done.Tabari tells this story, and it is also found in the Koran; but the originof it was nothing more than the well-known custom of Solomon to exercisepersonal supervision over those who were working for him.
"I was the person from whom Solomon first heard of the Queen of Sheba.I had lived in her capital city for several years, and she had summonedme before her, and had inquired about the places I had visited and thethings I had seen. What I said about this wonderful woman and theadmirable administration of her empire interested Solomon very much,
and he was never tired of hearing me talk about her. At one timeI believe he thought of sending me as an ambassador to her, but afterwardgave up this notion, as I did not possess the rank or position whichwould have qualified me to represent him and his court; so he sent asuitable delegation, and, after a great deal of negotiation anddiplomatic by-play, the queen actually determined to come to see Solomon.Soon after her arrival with her great retinue, she saw me, and immediatelyrecognized me, and the first thing she said to me was that she perceivedI had grown a good deal older than when I had been living in her domains.This delighted me, for before coming to Jerusalem I had allowed my hairand beard to grow, and had dispensed with as much as possible of myordinary erect mien and lightness of step; for I was very much afraid, ifI were not careful, that the wise king would find out that there wassomething irregular in my longevity, and an old man may continue to lookold much longer than a middle-aged man can continue to appear middle-aged.
"It was a great advantage to me to find myself admitted to a certainintimacy with both the king and his visitor the queen. As I was a subjectof neither of them, they seemed to think this circumstance allowed alittle more familiarity than otherwise they would have shown. Besides, myage had a great deal to do with the freedom with which they spoke to me.Each of them seemed anxious to know everything I could tell about theother, and I would sometimes be subjected to embarrassing questions.
"There is a great deal of extravagance and perversion in the historicaland traditional accounts of the tricks which these two royal personagesplayed upon each other. Most of these old stories are too silly to repeat,but some of them had foundation in fact. They tell a tale of how the queenset five hundred boys and five hundred girls before the king, all thegirls dressed as boys and all the boys dressed as girls, and then sheasked him, as he was such a wise man, immediately to distinguish those ofone sex from those of the other. Solomon did not hesitate a moment, butordering basins of water to be brought, he commanded the young people towash their hands. Thereupon he watched them closely, and as the boyswashed only their hands, while the girls rolled up their sleeves andwashed their arms as well as their hands, Solomon was able, without anytrouble, to pick out the one from the other. Now, something of this kindreally happened, but there were only ten boys and ten girls. But in thecourse of ages the story grew, and the whole thing was made absurd; forthere never was a king in the world, nor would there be likely to be one,who could have a thousand basins ready immediately to put before a companywho wished to wash their hands. But the result of this scheme convincedthe queen that Solomon was a man of the deepest insight into the mannersand customs of human beings, as well as those of animals, birds, andfishes.
"But there is an incident with which I was personally connected which wasknown at the time to very few people, and was never publicly related. Thebeautiful queen desired, above all other things, to know whether Solomonheld her in such high esteem because she was a mighty queen, or onaccount of her personal attractions; and in order to discover the truthin regard to this question, she devised a little scheme to which she mademe a party. There was a young woman in her train, of surpassing beauty,whose name was Liridi, and the queen was sure that Solomon had never seenher, for it was her custom to keep her most beautiful attendants in thebackground. This maiden the queen caused to be dressed in the richest andmost becoming robes, and adorned her, besides, with jewels and goldenornaments, which set off her beauty in an amazing manner. Then, havingmade many inquiries of me in regard to the habits of Solomon, she orderedLiridi to walk alone in one of the broad paths of the royal gardens at thetime when the king was wont to stroll there by himself. The queen wishedto find out whether this charming apparition would cause the king toforget her for a time, and she ordered me to be in the garden, and soarrange my rambles that I could, without being observed, notice whathappened when the king should meet Liridi. I was on hand before theappointed time, and when I saw the girl walking slowly up the shadedavenue, I felt obliged to go to her and tell her that she was too soon,and that she must not meet Solomon near the palace. As I spoke to herI was amazed at her wonderful beauty, and I did not believe it possiblethat the king could gaze upon her without such emotion as would make himforget for the moment every other woman in the world.
"The queen had purposely made an appointment with him for the same hour,so that if he did not come she would know what was detaining him. Atlength Solomon appeared at the far end of the avenue, and Liridi beganagain her pensive stroll. When the king reached her, she retired to oneside, her head bowed, as if she had not expected to meet royalty in thissecluded spot. King Solomon was deep in thought as he walked, but whenhe came near the maiden, he raised his eyes and suddenly stopped. I wasnear by, behind some shrubbery, and it was plain enough to me that he wasdazzled by this lovely apparition. He asked her who she was, and whenshe had told him he gazed at her with still greater attention. Thensuddenly he laughed aloud. 'Go tell the queen,' said he, 'that she hathmissed her mark. The arrow which is adorned with golden trappings andprecious stones cannot fly aright.' Then he went on, still laughing tohimself. In the evening he told me about this incident, and said that ifthe maiden had been arrayed in the simple robes which became her stationhe would have suspected nothing, and would probably have stopped toconverse with her so long that he would have failed to keep hisappointment with his royal guest.
"'GO TELL THE QUEEN'"]
"The queen was very much annoyed at the ill success of her littleartifice, but it was not long after this that she and the king discoveredtheir true feeling for each other, and they were soon married. Thewedding was a grand one--grander than tradition relates, grander than themodern mind can easily comprehend. When they went to the palace to sitfor the first time in state before the vast assembly of dignitaries andcourtiers, the queen found, beside the throne of Solomon, her own throne,which he had caused to be brought from Sheba in time for this occasion.This incident, I think, affected her more agreeably than anything elsethat happened. Great were the festivities. Honors and dignities werebestowed on every hand, and I might have come in for some substantialbenefit had it not been that I committed a great blunder. I had fallenin love with the beautiful Liridi, and as the queen seemed so graciousand kind to everybody, I made bold to go to her and ask that she wouldallow me to marry her charming handmaiden. But, to my surprise, thisrequest angered the queen. She told me that such an old man as myselfought to be ashamed to take a young girl to wife; that she was opposedto such marriages; and that, in fact, I ought to be punished for evenmentioning the subject.
"I retired in disgrace, and very soon afterward I left Jerusalem, forI have found, by varied experiences, that the displeasure of rulers isan unhealthful atmosphere in which to live. However, the Queen of Shebadid not get altogether the better of me. As you know, King Solomon andhis royal wife did not reign together very long. They ruled over twogreat kingdoms, each of which required the presence of its sovereign;so Queen Balkis soon went back to Sheba with more wealth, more soldiers,more camels, horses, and grand surroundings of every kind, than she hadbrought with her. She carried in her baggage-train her royal throne,but she did not take with her the beautiful Liridi. That lady had beengiven in marriage to an officer in Solomon's army, and thirty yearsafterward, in the land of Asshur, where her father was stationed,I married the youngest daughter of Liridi. The latter was then dead, butmy wife, with whom I lived happily for many years in Phoenicia, was quiteas beautiful. I was greatly inclined, at the time, to send a courier witha letter to the Queen of Sheba, informing her of what had happened; butI was afraid. She was then an elderly woman, and I was informed that agehad actually sharpened her wits, so that if I had incensed her and givenher reason to suspect the truth about my unnatural age, I believe therewas no known country in which I could have concealed myself from heremissaries.
"There are many, many incidents which crowd upon my memory," continued myhost, "but--" and as he spoke he pulled out his watch. "My conscience!"he exclaimed, "it is twenty minutes pa
st three! I should be ashamed ofmyself, Mr. Randolph, for having kept you up so long."
We both rose to our feet, and I was about to say something polite, suitedto the occasion, but he gave me no chance.
"I felt I must talk to you," he said, speaking very rapidly. "I havediscovered you to be a man of appreciation--a man who should hear mystory. I have felt for some years that it would soon become impossible forme to conceal my experiences from my fellow-men. I believe mankind has nowreached a stage of enlightenment--at least, in this country--when theperson who makes strange discoveries which cannot be explained, and theperson who announces facts which cannot be comprehended by the human mind,need not fear to be punished as a sorcerer, or thrust into a cell as alunatic. I may be mistaken in regard to this latter point, but I thinkI am right. In any case, I do not wish to live much longer as I have beenliving. As I must live on, with generation after generation rising upabout me, I want those generations to know before they depart from thisearth that I am a person who does not die. I am tired of deceptions; I amtired of leaving the places where I have lived long and am known, andarriving in other places where I am a stranger, and where I must beginmy life again.
"I do not wish to be in a hurry to make my revelations to the world atlarge. I do not wish to startle people without being able to show themproof of what I say. I wish to speak only to persons who are worthy tohear my story, and I have begun with you. I do not want you to believeme until you are quite ready to do so. Think over what I have said,consider it carefully, and make up your mind slowly.
"You are a young man in good health, and you will, in all probability,live long enough to assure yourself of the truth or falsity of whatI have told you about my indefinite longevity. I should be glad to relatemy story to scientific men, to physicians, to students; but, as I havesaid, we shall wait for that. In the meantime, you may, if you choose,write down what I have told you, or as much of it as you remember. I haveno written records of my past life. Long, long ago I made such, butI destroyed them, for I knew not what evil they might bring upon me werethey discovered. But you may write the little I have told you, and whenyou feel that the time has come, you may give it to the world. And nowwe must retire. It is wicked to keep you out of your bed any longer."
"One word," said I. "Do you intend now to tell your wife?"
"Yes," he answered, "I shall tell her tomorrow. Having reposed confidencein you, it would be treating her shamefully if I should withhold thatconfidence from her. She has often said to me that I do not look a dayolder than when I married her. I want her now to know that I need neverlook a day older; I shall counterfeit old age no more."
I did not sleep well during what was left of the night, for my mind wenttraveling backward and forward through the ages. The next morning, atbreakfast, Mr. Crowder appeared in his ordinary good spirits, but hiswife was very quiet. She was pale, and occasionally I thought I saw signsof trouble on her usually placid brow. I felt sure that he had told herhis story. As I looked at her, I could not prevent myself from seriouslywondering that a man who had seen Abraham and Sarah, and had beenpersonally acquainted with the Queen of Sheba, should now be married to aQuaker lady from North Sixteenth street, Philadelphia. After breakfastshe found an opportunity of speaking to me privately.
"Do you believe," she asked very hurriedly, "what my husband told you lastnight--the story of his earthly immortality?"
"I really do not know," I answered, "whether I believe it or not. Myreason assures me that it is impossible; and yet there is in Mr. Crowder'smanner so much sincerity, so much--"
Contrary to her usual habits, I am sure, she interrupted me.
"Excuse me," she said, "but I must speak while I have the chance. Youmust believe what my husband has said to you. He has told me everything,and I know that it is impossible for him to tell a lie. I have not yetarranged my ideas in regard to this wonderful revelation, but I believe.If the time should ever come when I shall know I should not believe, thatwill be another matter. But he is my husband. I know him, I trust him.Will you not do the same?"
"I will do it," I exclaimed, "until the time comes when I shall know thatI cannot possibly do so."
She gave me her hand, and I shook it heartily.
"SHE GAVE ME HER HAND, AND I SHOOK IT HEARTILY."]