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Stories of the Magicians by  Alfred J. Church


 

 

THE SLEDGE AND THE BOAT

[99] WHEN Okba saw that his daughter was dead, he threw himself on her dead body in a passion of grief, now crying out to the powers of Hell to help him, and then to Heaven to strike him dead, and then again cursing Thalaba. But the youth stood by in silent pity. As he stood, he felt his cheek suddenly fanned by a motion of the air, and looking round saw that it came from the wings of a green bird that was hovering near him. And now the bird perched on his hand, and turned a gentle eye to him, as if to win his confidence. Then it sprang up and flew forward, and then returned and perched as before, manifestly inviting him to follow. Thalaba obeyed the call, and under the moonlight pursued his way across the river. And [100] now the morning sun came out, and the bird still flew before him; all the day long it was his guide, but when the evening came, leaving a purple light on the range of hills to which his steps were bent, it vanished out of his sight. For a while Thalaba thought that it had left him. But when he had made his evening prayer, and lifted his head from the ground, he saw a speck in the air; nearer it came, and nearer, till he saw that it was his guide. The bird hung hovering before the traveller, and in her foot she clasped a cluster of fruit that she had brought from the woods of Paradise. Thalaba took and ate, and felt all his powers renewed. In his fresh strength he climbed with untired feet the steep ascent of the hills, and the bird still guided him, till in the very heart of the mountains a valley opened before his eyes. It was the Simorg's Valley, the dwelling of the Bird of Ages.

On a green mossy bank beside a rivulet the Bird of Ages stood. Thalaba approached, and crossing his arms upon his breast, thus spoke: "Earliest and wisest of all things that are, guide me. I beseech thee, on my way. I am [101] bound for the Caverns under the rocks of the ocean, where the Sorcerers have their dwellings. How may I reach them?"

The Simorg opened his eyes, and said, "Go northward by the stream. In the fountain of the Rock wash away thy stains. Then fortify thy soul with prayer. Thus prepared, climb on the sledge. Be bold; be cautious. Seek and find, for God has appointed all."

Then he was silent, and returned to his repose.

Thalaba went northward along the rivulet's side, tracing it to its source, and the green bird went with him till they reached the Fountain of the Rock. There the youth washed away his stains, and fortified his soul with prayer, and the bird stood meanwhile near the youth, thinking of all the perils through which he must pass.


[Illustration]

THE SIMORG

When he had finished ablution and prayer, ha saw a sledge under a pine-tree, and the dogs harnessed to it, and the dogs were watching him with their ears erect and their eyes wide open. They were as lean as dogs could be, and black but for one white line like the [102] new moon upon their breasts. Thalaba took his place in the sledge, and the bird perched on his knees, and when the dogs, turning their heads, saw that he was sated they started. Up the icy path they hastened, and when they reached the top, they stood still and panted, and looked back to the youth, as if pleading for pity, and moaned and whined with fear.

And now they start again on the downward path. It was narrow and steep, with a wall of rock on one side, and a precipice on the other. One sway of the sledge will send the traveller headlong on to the rocks below. And still the dogs barked and whined, and though Thalaba sat with his arms folded, and had neither scourge nor goad, the blood flowed fast from their skin and tracked the way with red. And now on a height above the path a giant fiend stands ready to thrust down an avalanche. If Thalaba looks back, he dies. But he is brave, and the dogs are swift, and the thunder of the falling avalanche echoes far behind. So they reach the plain.

It was a desolate expanse with neither grass nor bush nor tree. The dogs went quickly on [103] their way; but when the sun went down, they stopped and looked at Thalaba. He knelt on the ground, and said his prayer, and they knelt beside him, the tears running down their cheeks. This done they lay close together, as close as they could lie, and slept; and Thalaba slept, lying backward in the sledge, and the green bird slept, nestling in his breast.

At dawn the dogs woke him, and knelt again with him while he prayed. And all that day and many days afterwards they travelled across the plain, halting at the hour of prayer, and the bird was a companion to Thalaba by day, and rested in his breast at night.

And now the signs of life begin to appear. First is seen the fir, then the laurel with down-curving arms, then the quivering leaves of the aspen, then the poplar, and the light and peaceful birch. Now, too, Thalaba can see the track of the deer, and the ermine running over the snow, and hear the whirr of the grouse's wings among the pines; now, too, the owl follows his sledge, and soon he hears the song of the thrush, till at last he comes to bushes and grass, [104] and thickets bright with red berries, and to flowers.

Now was the last morning of their journey, and the green bird fixed on Thalaba an entreating eye. At that moment speech was given her.

"Servant o-'God," she said, "if I have guided you right, give me what I ask."

"Ask what you will, I shall still be your debtor."

"Son of Hodeirah, when you shall see an old man bent under the burden of his punishment, forgive him, yea, and pray for him."

Thalaba's cheek flushed, and he looked to the bird as if half repenting his promise, for he thought of Okba, and remembered his father's dying groan.

The bird saw his doubt, and spoke again. "O Thalaba, if she who received the blow of the dagger to save you deserves one kind remembrance, save the father whom she loves from endless death."

"What, Leila, is it you? What is it I dare refuse to you? This is no time to harbour thoughts of revenge in my heart. Here I put [105] them off for ever. God pardon me as I pardon him. But who am I that I should save a sinful soul?"

"Enough! When the hour is come, remember me!" And she spread her wings and soared to Paradise.

And now the dogs start forward on their journey. It was still early morning when they reached the well-head of a rock. The little pool was clear and deep. It was stirred strangely below, but its surface was calm; and on it there lay a little boat. It had neither oar nor sail, only a rudder, and by the rudder stood a Damsel.

The dogs looked wistfully at her, and their tongues were loosed. "Have we done well, dear Mistress?" they asked.

The Damsel answered—" Poor servants of God, when all this witchery is destroyed, your woes and mine will end. This new adventurer gives us a new hope. God forbid that he like you should perish for his fears! But now sleep, and wait the end in peace."

As she spoke a deep sleep fell upon them. Then the Damsel said to Thalaba, "Will you [106] come with me? The wags is strange and dangerous; but the wretched ask your help. Will you come?"

"I will come in the name of God," said jhalaba, and stepped into the boat.

The stream ran on through pleasant fields, with flowers blooming at the side, and willows dipping their boughs into its waters, and the dragon-flies, bright with green and gold, skimming over its surface. And now it was swollen by many a rivulet and rill, and grew into a great river, with banks that widened as they went.

"Will you come with me?" asked the Damsel again.

"Go on, in the name of God," answered Thalaba.

And now they are come to the sea; and the Damsel asked him a third time, "Will you come?" and Thalaba answered as before.

And now they see the land, and the caverns frowning on the rocks. The Damsel said—"See that cavern, our path is under its arch. But now it is the ebb, and before the flood we cannot pass over the rocks. Go and perform [107] your last ablutions on the rocks and strengthen your heart with prayer. I too have need of prayer."

And she guided the boat with a firm hand through the breakers, and Thalaba leapt out upon the shore.


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