THE VIZIER OF THE TWO-HORNED ALEXANDER
FRANK R. STOCKTON
The story told in this book is based upon legendary history, and the statements on which it is founded appear in the chronicles of Abou-djafar Mohammed Tabari. This historian was the first Mussulman to write a general history of the world. He was born in the year 244 of the Hejira (838-839 A.D.), and passed a great part of his life in Bagdad, where he studied and taught theology and jurisprudence. His chronicles embrace the history of the world, according to his lights, from the creation to the year 302 of the Hejira.
In these chronicles Tabari relates some of the startling experiences of El Khoudr, or El Kroudhr, then Vizier of that great monarch, the Two-Horned Alexander, and these experiences furnish the motive for those subsequent adventures which are now related in this book.
Some writers have confounded the Two-Horned Alexander with Alexander the Great, but this is an inexcusable error. References in ancient histories to the Two-Horned Alexander describe him as a great and powerful potentate, and place him in the time of Abraham. Mr. S. Baring-Gould, in his "Legends of the Patriarchs and Prophets," states that, after a careful examination, he has come to the conclusion that some of the most generally known legends which have come down to us through the ages are based on incidents which occurred in the reign of this monarch.
The hero of this story now deems it safe to speak out plainly without fear of evil consequences to himself, and his confidence in our high civilization is a compliment to the age.
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
I lent large sums to the noble knights
"Don't you do it"
His wife was a slender lady
"Time of Abraham!" I exclaimed
Moses asked embarrassing questions
An encounter with Charles Lamb
I cut that picture from its frame
When we left Cordova
I had been a broker in Pompeii
Solomon and the Jinns
"Go tell the queen"
She gave me her hand, and I shook it heartily
Asking all sorts of questions
And roughly told me
She turned her head
I proceeded to dig a hole
"Why are you not in the army?"
Nebuchadnezzar and the gardener
Petrarch and Laura
The crouching African fixed her eyes upon him
THE VIZIER OF THE TWO-HORNED ALEXANDER
I was on a French steamer bound from Havre to New York, when I had a peculiar experience in the way of a shipwreck. On a dark and foggy night, when we were about three days out, our vessel collided with a derelict—a great, heavy, helpless mass, as dull and colorless as the darkness in which she was enveloped. We struck her almost head on, and her stump of a bowsprit was driven into our port bow with such tremendous violence that a great hole—nobody knew of what dimensions—was made in our vessel.
The collision occurred about two hours before daylight, and the frightened passengers who crowded the upper deck were soon informed by the officers that it would be necessary to take to the boats, for the vessel was rapidly settling by the head.
Now, of course, all was hurry and confusion. The captain endeavored to assure his passengers that there were boats enough to carry every soul on board, and that there was time enough for them to embark quietly and in order. But as the French people did not understand him when he spoke in English, and as the Americans did not readily comprehend what he said in French, his exhortations were of little avail. With such of their possessions as they could carry, the people crowded into the boats as soon as they were ready, and sometimes before they were ready; and while there was not exactly a panic on board, each man seemed to be inspired with the idea that his safety, and that of his family, if he had one, depended upon precipitate individual action.
I was a young man, traveling alone, and while I was as anxious as any one to be saved from the sinking vessel, I was not a coward, and I could not thrust myself into a boat when there were women and children behind me who had not yet been provided with places. There were men who did this, and several times I felt inclined to knock one of the poltroons overboard. The deck was well lighted, the steamer was settling slowly, and there was no excuse for the dastardly proceedings which were going on about me.
It was not long, however, before almost all of the passengers were safely embarked, and I was preparing to get into a boat which was nearly filled with the officers and crew, when I was touched on the shoulder, and turning, I saw a gentleman whose acquaintance I had made soon after the steamer had left Havre. His name was Crowder. He was a middle-aged man, a New-Yorker, intelligent and of a social disposition, and I had found him a very pleasant companion. To my amazement, I perceived that he was smoking a cigar.
"If I were you," said he, "I would not go in that boat. It is horribly crowded, and the captain and second officer have yet to find places in it."
"That's all the more reason," said I, "why we should hurry. I am not going to push myself ahead of women and children, but I've just as much right to be saved as the captain has, and if there are any vacant places, let us get them as soon as possible."
Crowder now put his hand on my shoulder as if to restrain me. "Safety!" said he. "You needn't trouble yourself about safety. You are just as safe where you are as you could possibly be in one of those boats. If they are not picked up soon,—and they may float about for days,—their sufferings and discomforts will be very great. There is a shameful want of accommodation in the way of boats."
"But, my dear sir," said I, "I can't stop here to talk about that. They are calling for the captain now."
"Oh, he's in no hurry," said my companion. "He's collecting his papers, I suppose, and he knows his vessel will not sink under him while he is doing it. I'm not going in that boat; I haven't the least idea of such a thing. It will be odiously crowded, and I assure you, sir, that if the sea should be rough that boat will be dangerous. Even now she is overloaded."
I looked at the man in amazement. He had spoken earnestly, but he was as calm as if we were standing on a sidewalk, and he endeavoring to dissuade me from boarding an overcrowded street-car. Before I could say anything he spoke again:
"I am going to remain on this ship. She is a hundred times safer than any of those boats. I have had a great deal of experience in regard to vessels and ocean navigation, and it will be a long time before this vessel sinks, if she ever sinks of her own accord. She's just as likely to float as that derelict we ran into. The steam is nearly out of her boilers by this time, and nothing is likely to happen to her. I wish you would stay with me. Here we will be safe, with plenty of room, and plenty to eat and drink. When it is daylight we will hoist a flag of distress, which will be much more likely to be seen than anything that can flutter from those little boats. If you have noticed, sir, the inclination of this deck is not greater now than it was half an hour ago. That proves that our bow has settled down about as far as it is going. I think it likely that the water has entered only a few of the forward compartments."
The man spoke so confidently that his words made an impression upon me. I knew that it very often happens that a wreck floats for a long time, and the boat from which the men were now frantically shouting for the captain would certainly be dangerously crowded.
"Stay with me," said Mr. Crowder, "and I assure you, with as much reason as any man can assure any other man of anything in this world, that you will be perfectly safe. This steamer is not going to sink."
There were rapid footsteps, and I saw the captain and his second officer approaching.
"Step back here," said Mr. Crowder, pulling me by the coat. "Don't let them see us. They may drag us on board that confounded boat. Keep quiet, sir, and let them get off. They think they are the last on board."
Involuntarily I obeyed him, and we stood in the shadow of the great funnel. The captain had reached the rail.
"Is every one in the boats?" he shouted, in French and in English. "Is every one in the boats? I am going to leave the vessel."
I made a start as if to rush toward him, but Crowder held me by the arm.
"Don't you do it," he whispered very earnestly. "I have the greatest possible desire to save you. Stay where you are, and you will be all right. That overloaded boat may capsize in half an hour."
I could not help it; I believed him. My own judgment seemed suddenly to rise up and ask me why I should leave the solid deck of the steamer for that perilous little boat.
I need say but little more in regard to this shipwreck. When the fog lifted, about ten o'clock in the morning, we could see no signs of any of the boats. A mile or so away lay the dull black line of the derelict, as if she were some savage beast who had bitten and torn us, and was now sullenly waiting to see us die of the wound. We hoisted a flag, union down, and then we went below to get some breakfast. Mr. Crowder knew all about the ship, and where to find everything. He told me he had made so many voyages that he felt almost as much at home on sea as on land. We made ourselves comfortable all day, and at night we went to our rooms, and I slept fairly well, although there was a very disagreeable slant to my berth. The next day, early in the afternoon, our signal of distress was seen by a tramp steamer on her way to New York, and we were taken off.
We cruised about for many hours in the direction the boats had probably taken, and the next day we picked up two of them in a sorry condition, the occupants having suffered many hardships and privations. We never had news of the captain's boat, but the others were rescued by a sailing-vessel going eastward.
Before we reached New York, Mr. Crowder had made me promise that I would spend a few days with him at his home in that city. His family was small, he told me,—a wife, and a daughter about six,—and he wanted me to know them. Naturally we had become great friends. Very likely the man had saved my life, and he had done it without any act of heroism or daring, but simply by impressing me with the fact that his judgment was better than mine. I am apt to object to people of superior judgment, but Mr. Crowder was an exception to the ordinary superior person. From the way he talked it was plain that he 'had much experience of various sorts, and that he had greatly advantaged thereby; but he gave himself no airs on this account, and there was nothing patronizing about him. If I were able to tell him anything he did not know,—and I frequently was,—he was very glad to hear it.
Moreover, Mr. Crowder was a very good man to look at. He was certainly over fifty, and his closely trimmed hair was white, but he had a fresh and florid complexion. He was tall and well made, fashionably dressed, and had an erect and somewhat military carriage. He was fond of talking, and seemed fond of me, and these points in his disposition attracted me very much.
My relatives were few, they lived in the West, and I never had had a friend whose company was so agreeable to me as that of Mr. Crowder.
Mr. Crowder's residence was a handsome house in the upper part of the city. His wife was a slender lady, scarcely half his age, with a sweet and interesting face, and was attired plainly but tastefully. In general appearance she seemed to be the opposite of her husband in every way. She had suffered a week of anxiety, and was so rejoiced at having her husband again that when I met her, some hours after Crowder had reached the house, her glorified face seemed like that of an angel. But there was nothing demonstrative about her. Even in her great joy she was as quiet as a dove, and I was not surprised when her husband afterward told me that she was a Quaker.
I was entertained very handsomely by the Crowders. I spent several days with them, and although they were so happy to see each other, they made it very plain that they were also happy to have me with them, he because he liked me, she because he liked me.
On the day before my intended departure, Mr. Crowder and I were smoking, after dinner, in his study. He had been speaking of people and things that he had seen in various parts of the world, but after a time he became a little abstracted, and allowed me to do most of the talking.
"You must excuse me," he said suddenly, when I had repeated a question; "you must not think me willingly inattentive, but I was considering something important—very important. Ever since you have been here, —almost ever since I have known you, I might say,—the desire has been growing upon me to tell you something known to no living being but myself."
This offer did not altogether please me; I had grown very fond of Crowder, but the confidences of friends are often very embarrassing. At this moment the study door was gently opened, and Mrs. Crowder came in.
"No," said she, addressing her husband with a smile; "thee need not let thy conscience trouble thee. I have not come to say anything about gentlemen being too long over their smoking. I only want to say that Mrs. Norris and two other ladies have just called, and I am going down to see them. They are a committee, and will not care for the society of gentlemen. I am sorry to lose any of your company, Mr. Randolph, especially as you insist that this is to be your last evening with us; but I do not think you would care anything about our ward organizations."
"Now, isn't that a wife to have!" exclaimed my host, as we resumed our cigars. "She thinks of everybody's happiness, and even wishes us to feel free to take another cigar if we desire it, although in her heart she disapproves of smoking."
We settled ourselves again to talk, and as there really could be no objection to my listening to Crowder's confidences, I made none.
"What I have to tell you," he said presently, "concerns my life, present, past, and future. Pretty comprehensive, isn't it? I have long been looking for some one to whom I should be so drawn by bonds of sympathy that I should wish to tell him my story. Now, I feel that I am so drawn to you. The reason for this, in some degree at least, is because you believe in me. You are not weak, and it is my opinion that on important occasions you are very apt to judge for yourself, and not to care very much for the opinions of other people; and yet, on a most important occasion, you allowed me to judge for you. You are not only able to rely on yourself, but you know when it is right to rely on others. I believe you to be possessed of a fine and healthy sense of appreciation."
I laughed, and begged him not to bestow too many compliments upon me, for I was not used to them.
"I am not thinking of complimenting you," he said. "I am simply telling you what I think of you in order that you may understand why I tell you my story. I must first assure you, however, that I do not wish to place any embarrassing responsibility upon you by taking you into my confidence. All that I say to you, you may say to others when the time comes; but first I must tell the tale to you."
He sat up straight in his chair, and put down his cigar. "I will begin," he said, "by stating that I am the Vizier of the Two-horned Alexander."
I sat up even straighter than my companion, and gazed steadfastly at him.
"No," said he, "I am not crazy. I expected you to think that, and am entirely prepared for your look of amazement and incipient horror. I will ask you, however, to set aside for a time the dictates of your own sense, and hear what I have to say. Then you can take the whole matter into consideration, and draw your own conclusions." He now leaned back in his chair, and went on with his story: "It would be more correct, perhaps, for me to say that I was the Vizier of the Two-horned Alexander, for that great personage died long ago. Now, I don't believe you ever heard anything about the Two-horned Alexander."
I had recovered sufficiently from my surprise to assure him that he was right.
My host nodded. "I thought so," said he; "very few people do know anything about that powerful potentate. He lived in the time of Abraham. He was a man of considerable culture, even of travel, and of an adventurous disposition. I entered into the service of his court when I was a very young man, and gradually I rose in position until I became his chief officer, or vizier."
I sprang from my chair. "Time of Abraham!" I exclaimed. "This is simply—"
"No; it is not," he interrupted, and speaking in perfect good humor. "I beg you will sit down and listen to me. What I have to say to you is not nearly so wonderful as the nature and power of electricity."
I obeyed; he had touched me on a tender spot, for I am an electrician, and can appreciate the wonderful.
"There has been a great deal of discussion," he continued, "in regard to the peculiar title given to Alexander, but the appellation 'two-horned' has frequently been used in ancient times. You know Michelangelo gave two horns to Moses; but he misunderstood the tradition he had heard, and furnished the prophet with real horns. Alexander wore his hair arranged over his forehead in the shape of two protruding horns. This was simply a symbol of high authority; as the bull is monarch of the herd, so was he monarch among men. He was the first to use this symbol, although it was imitated afterward by various Eastern potentates.
"As I have said, Alexander was a man of enterprise, and it had come to his knowledge that there existed somewhere a certain spring the waters of which would confer immortality upon any descendant of Shem who should drink of them, and he started out to find this spring. I traveled with him for more than a year. It was on this journey that he visited Abraham when the latter was building the great edifice which the Mohammedans claim as their holy temple, the Kaaba.
"It was more than a month after we had parted from Abraham that I, being in advance of the rest of the company, noticed a little pool in the shade of a rock, and being very warm and thirsty, I got down on my hands and knees, and putting my face to the water, drank of it. I drank heartily, and when I raised my head, I saw, to my amazement, that there was not a drop of water left in the spring. Now it so happened that when Alexander came to this spot, he stopped, and having regarded the little hollow under the rock, together with its surroundings, he dismounted and stood by it. He called me, and said: 'According to all the descriptions I have read, this might have been the spring of immortality for which I have been searching; but it cannot be such now, for there is no water in it.' Then he stooped down and looked carefully at the hollow. 'There has been water here,' said he, 'and that not long ago, for the ground is wet.'
"A horrible suspicion now seized upon me. Could I have drained the contents of the spring of inestimable value? Could I, without knowing it, have deprived my king of the great prize for which he had searched so long, with such labor and pains? Of course I was certain of nothing, but I bowed before Alexander, and told him that I had found an insignificant little puddle at the place, that I had tasted it and found it was nothing but common water, and in quantity so small that it scarcely sufficed to quench my thirst. If he would consent to camp in the shade, and wait a few hours, water would trickle again into the little basin, and fill it, and he could see for himself that this could not be the spring of which he was in search.
"We waited at that place for the rest of the day and the whole of the night, and the next morning the little basin was empty and entirely dry. Alexander did not reproach me; he was accustomed to rule all men, even himself, and he forbade himself to think that I had interfered with the great object of his search. But he sent me home to his capital city, and continued his journey without me. 'Such a thirsty man must not travel with me,' he said. 'If we should really come to the immortal spring, he would be sure to drink it all.'
"Nine years afterward Alexander returned to his palace, and when I presented myself before him he regarded me steadfastly. I knew why he was looking at me, and I trembled. At length he spoke: 'Thou art not one day older than when I dismissed thee from my company. It was indeed the fountain of immortality which thou didst discover, and of which thou didst drink every drop. I have searched over the whole habitable world, and there is no other. Thou, too, art an aristocrat; thou, too, art of the family of Shem. It was for this reason that I placed thee near me, that I gave thee great power; and now thou hast destroyed all my hopes, my aspirations. Thou hast put an end to my ambitions. I had believed that I should rule the world, and rule it forever.' His face grew black; his voice was terrible. 'Retire!' he said. 'I will attend to thy future.'
"I retired, but my furious sovereign never saw me again. I was fifty-three years old when I drank the water in the little pool under the rock, and I was well aware that at the time of my sovereign's return I felt no older and looked no older. But still I hoped that this was merely the result of my general good health, and that when Alexander came back he would inform me that he had discovered the veritable spring of immortality; so I retained my high office, and waited. But I had made my plans for escape in case my hope should not be realized. In two minutes from the time I left his presence I had begun my flight, and there were no horses in all his dominions which could equal the speed of mine.
"Now began a long, long period of danger and terror, of concealment and deprivation. I fled into other lands, and these were conquered in order that I might be found. But at last Alexander died, and his son died, and the sons of his son died, and the whole story was forgotten or disbelieved, and I was no longer in danger of living forever as an example of the ingenious cruelty of an exasperated monarch.
"I do not intend to recount my life and adventures since that time; in fact, I shall scarcely touch upon them. You can see for yourself that that would be impossible. One might as well attempt to read a history of the world in a single evening. I merely want to say enough to make you understand the situation.
"A hundred years after I had fled from Alexander I was still fifty-three years old, and knew that that would be my age forever. I stayed so long in the place where I first established myself that people began to look upon me with suspicion. Seeing me grow no older, they thought I was a wizard, and I was obliged to seek a new habitation. Ever since, my fate has been the necessity of moving from place to place. I would go somewhere as a man beginning to show signs of age, and I would remain as long as a man could reasonably be supposed to live without becoming truly old and decrepit. Sometimes I remained in a place far longer than my prudence should have permitted, and many were the perils I escaped on account of this rashness; but I have gradually learned wisdom."
The man spoke so quietly and calmly, and made his statements in such a matter-of-fact way, that I listened to him with the same fascinated attention I had given to the theory of telegraphy without wires, when it was first propounded to me. In fact, I had been so influenced by his own conviction of the truth of what he said that I had been on the point of asking him if Abraham had really had anything to do with the building of the Islam temple, but had been checked by the thought of the utter absurdity of supposing that this man sitting in front of me could possibly know anything about it. But now I spoke. I did not want him to suppose that I believed anything he said, nor did I really intend to humor him in his insane retrospections; but what he had said suggested to me the very apropos remark that one might suppose he had been giving a new version of the story of the Wandering Jew.
At this he sat up very straight, on the extreme edge of his chair; his eyes sparkled.
"You must excuse me," he said, "but for twenty seconds I am going to be angry. I can't help it. It isn't your fault, but that remark always enrages me. I expect it, of course, but it makes my blood boil, all the same."
"Then you have told your story before?" I said.
"Yes," he answered. "I have told it to certain persons to whom I thought it should be known. Some of these have believed it, some have not; but, believers or disbelievers, all have died and disappeared. Their opinions are nothing to me. You are now the only living being who knows my story."
I was going to ask a question here, but he did not give me a chance. He was very much moved.
"I hate that Wandering Jew," said he, "or, I should say, I despise the thin film of a tradition from which he was constructed. There never was a Wandering Jew. There could not have been; it is impossible to conceive of a human being sent forth to wander in wretchedness forever. Moreover, suppose there had been such a man, what a poor, modern creature he would be compared with me! Even now he would be less than two thousand years old. You must excuse my perturbation, but I am sure that during the whole of the Christian era I have never told my story to any one who did not, in some way or other, make an absurd or irritating reference to the Wandering Jew. I have often thought, and I have no doubt I am right, that the ancient story of my adventures as Kroudhr, the Vizier of the Two-horned Alexander, combined with what I have related, in one century or another, of my subsequent experiences, has given rise to the tradition of that very unpleasant Jew of whom Eugne Sue and many others have made good use. It is very natural that there should be legends about people who in some way or other are enabled to live forever. If Ponce De Leon and his companions had mysteriously disappeared when in search of the Fountain of Youth, there would be stories now about rejuvenated Spaniards wandering about the earth, and who would always continue to wander. But the Fountain of Youth is not a desirable water-supply, and a young person who should find such a pool would do well to wait until he had arrived at maturity before entering upon an existence of indefinite continuance.
"But I must go on with my story. At one time I made for myself a home, and remained in it for many, many years without making any change. I became a sort of hermit, and lived in a rocky cave. I allowed my hair and beard to grow, so that people really thought I was getting older and older; at last I acquired the reputation of a prophet, and was held in veneration by a great many religious people. Of course I could not prophesy, but as I had such a vast deal of experience I was able to predicate intelligently something about the future from my knowledge of the past. I became famed as a wonderful seer, and there were a great many curious stories told about me.
"Among my visitors at that time was Moses. He had heard of me, and came to see what manner of man I was. We became very well acquainted. He was a man anxious to obtain information, and he asked me questions which embarrassed me very much; but I do not know that he suspected I had lived beyond the ordinary span of life. There are a good many traditions about this visit of Moses, some of which are extant at the present day; but these, of course, are the result of what might be called cumulative imagination. Many of them are of Moslem origin, and the great Arabian historian Tabari has related some of them.
"I learned a great deal while I lived in this cave, both from scholars and from nature; but at last new generations arose who did not honor or even respect me, and by some I was looked upon as a fraudulent successor to the old prophet of whom their ancestors had told them, and so I thought it prudent to leave."
My interest in this man's extraordinary tissue of retrospection was increasing, and I felt that I must not doubt nor deny; to do so would be to break the spell, to close the book.
"Did it not sometimes fill you with horror to think that you must live forever?" I asked.
"Yes," he answered, "that has happened to me; but such feelings have long, long passed away. If you could have lived as I have, and had seen the world change from what it was when I was young to what it is now, you would understand how a man of my disposition, a man of my overpowering love of knowledge, love of discovery, love of improvement, love of progress of all kinds, would love to live. In fact, if I were now to be told that at the end of five thousand years I must expire and cease, it would fill me with gloom. Having seen so much, I expect more than most men are capable of comprehending. And I shall see it all—see the centuries unfold, behold the wonderful things of the future arise! The very thought of it fills me with inexpressible joy."
For a few moments he remained silent. I could understand the state of his mind, no matter how those mental conditions had been brought about.
"But you must not suppose," he continued, "that this earthly immortality is without its pains, its fears, I may say its horrors. It is precisely on account of all these that I am now talking to you. The knowledge that my life is always safe, no matter in what peril I may be, does not relieve me from anxiety and apprehension of evil. It would be a curse to live if I were not in sound physical condition; it would be a curse to live as a slave; it would be a curse to live in a dungeon. I have known vicissitudes and hardships of every kind, but I have been fortunate enough to preserve myself whole and unscathed, in spite of the dangers I have incurred.
"I often think from what a terrible fate I saved my master, Alexander of the two horns. If he had found the fountain he might have enjoyed his power and dominion for a few generations. Then he would have been thrown down, cast out, and even if he had escaped miseries which I cannot bear to mention, he never could have regained his high throne. He would have been condemned to live forever in a station for which he was not fitted.
"It is very different with me. My nature allows me to adapt myself to various conditions, and my habits of prudence prevent me from seeking to occupy any position which may be dangerous to me by making me conspicuous, and from which I could not easily retire when I believe the time has come to do so. I have been almost everything; I have even been a soldier. But I have never taken up arms except when obliged to do so, and I have known as little of war as possible. No weapon or missile could kill me, but I have a great regard for my arms and legs. I have been a ruler of men, but I have trembled in my high estate, for I feared the populace. They could do everything except take my life. Therefore I made it a point to abdicate when the skies were clear. In such cases I set out on journeys from which I never returned.
"I have also lived the life of the lowly; I have drawn water, and I have hewn wood. By the way, that reminds me of a little incident which may interest you. I was employed in the East India House at the time Charles Lamb was a clerk there. It was not long after he had begun to contribute his Elia essays to the 'London Magazine.' I had read some of them, and was interested in the man. I met him several times in the corridors or on the stairways, and one day I was going up-stairs, carrying a hod of coals, as he was coming down. Looking up at him, I made a misstep, and came near dropping a portion of my burden. 'My good man,' said he, with a queer smile, 'if you would learn to carry your coals as well as you carry your age you would do well.' I don't remember what I said in reply; but I know I thought if Charles Lamb could be made aware of my real age he would abandon his Elia work and devote himself to me."
"It is a pity you did not tell him," I suggested.
"No," replied my host. "He might have been interested, but he could not have appreciated the situation, even if I had told him everything. He would not really have known my age, for he would not have believed me. I might have found myself in a lunatic asylum. I never saw Lamb again, and very soon after that meeting I came to America."
"There are two points about your story that I do not comprehend," said I (and as I spoke I could not help the thought that in reality I did not comprehend any of it). "In the first place, I don't see how you could live for a generation or two in one place and then go off to an entirely new locality. I should think there were not enough inhabited spots in the world to accommodate you in such extensive changes."
Mr. Crowder smiled. "I don't wonder you ask that question," he said; "but in fact it was not always necessary for me to seek new places. There are towns in which I have taken up my residence many times. But as I arrived each time as a stranger from afar, and as these sojourns were separated by many years, there was no one to suppose me to be a person who had lived 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 century I was living in Florence, being at that time married to a lady of wealthy family, and she insisted upon my having my portrait painted by Cimabue, who, as you know, was the master of Giotto. After my wife's death I departed from Florence, leaving behind me the impression that I intended soon 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, and as 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 an unsatisfactory discovery, for I might wish at some future time to settle again in Florence, and I had hoped that the portrait had faded, or that it had been destroyed; but Cimabue painted too well, and his work was then held in high value, without regard to his subject. Finding myself entirely alone in the gallery, I cut that picture from its frame. I concealed it under my cloak, and when I reached my lodging I utterly destroyed it. I did not feel that I was committing any crime in doing this; I had ordered and paid for the painting, and I felt that I had a right 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 escape the kodak people. You have a striking presence."
"Oh, I can't get away from photographers," he answered. "I have had a number 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 am now telling you my story. What is the other point about which you wished to ask me?"
"I cannot comprehend," I answered, "how you should ever have found yourself poor and obliged to work. I should say that a man who had lived so long would have accumulated, in one way or another, immense wealth, inexhaustible treasures."
"Oh, yes," said he, with a smile; "Monte Cristo, and all that sort of thing. 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 again I 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 been hungry, knowing that I could never starve. The explanation of this state of things is simple enough: I would trade; I would speculate; I would marry an heiress; I would become rich; for many years I would enjoy my possessions. Then the time would come when people said: 'Who owns these houses?' 'To whom belongs this money in the banks?' 'These properties were purchased in our great-grandfathers' times; the accounts in the banks were opened long before our oldest citizens were born. Who is it who is making out leases and drawing checks?' I have employed all sorts of subterfuges in order to retain my property, but I have always found that to prove my continued identity I should have to acknowledge my immortality; and in that case, of course, I should have been adjudged a lunatic, and everything would have been taken from me. So I generally managed, before the time arrived when it was actually necessary for me to do so, to turn my property, as far as possible, into money, and establish myself in some other place as a stranger. But there were times when I was obliged to hurry 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 met with a monk who was afterward St. Bruno, and I joined the Carthusian monastery which he founded in Calabria. In the midst of their asceticism, their seclusion, and their silence I hoped that I might be asked no questions, and need tell no lies; I hoped that I might be allowed to live as 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 was proposed that I should be the next prior; but this would not have suited me at all. I had employed all my time in engrossing books, but the duties of a prior were not for me, so I escaped, and went out into the world again."
As I sat and listened to Mr. Crowder, his story seemed equally wonderful to me, whether it were a plain statement of facts or the relation of an insane dream. It was not a wild tale, uttered in the enthusiastic excitement of a disordered mind; but it was a series of reminiscences, told quietly and calmly, here a little, there a little, without chronological order, each one touched upon as it happened to suggest itself. From wondering I found myself every now and then believing: but whenever I realized the folly in which I was indulging myself, I shook off my credulity and endeavored to listen with interest, but without judgment, for in this way only could I most thoroughly enjoy the strange 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 a subject," he said, "of which I think as little as I can, and yet I must speak to you of it. It is right that I should do so. I have been married so 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 had I been able; but they died, and died, and died. And here is one of the great 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 all ages woman has been in the habit of disregarding the years of man, and I have always had a youthful spirit; I think it is Daudet who says that the most dangerous lover is the man of fifty-three. I would live happily with a wife; she would gradually grow to be the same age as myself; and then 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; but I will add that there have been times when I would have given up my own immortality 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 the thousand; but if you ask me where they are, I must tell you that I do not know. I now have but one child, a little girl who is asleep up-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 when my sons and daughters have grown gray and gone to their graves, I have withdrawn myself from the younger people,—some of whom were not acquainted with me, others even had never heard of me,—and then by the next generation the old ancestor, if remembered at all, was connected only with the distant past. And so family after family have melted into the great mass of human beings, and are as completely lost as though they were 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 wife of Abraham, was considered a woman of great beauty in her day, and the fame of her charms continues; but I assure you that if she lived now her attractions would not have given her husband so much trouble. I saw a good deal of Sarah when I visited Abraham with my master Alexander, and I have seen many more beautiful women since that time. Hagar was a fine woman, but she was too dark, and her face had an anxious expression which interfered 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 friendly as 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 finer man than Isaac, with whom I became acquainted a long time afterward. There were some very beautiful women at the court of Solomon. One of these was Balkis, 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 do not think I should have cared for her if I had seen her asleep. What might have happened had I seen her awake is quite another matter. I have noticed that women grow more beautiful as the world grows older, and men grow taller and better developed. You would consider me, I think, a man of average size; but I tell you that in my early life I was exceptionally tall, and I have no doubt it was my stature and presence to which I largely owed my preferment at the court of Alexander. I was living in Spain toward the close of the tenth century, when I married the daughter of an Arabian physician, who was a wonderfully beautiful woman. She was not dark, like the ordinary Moorish women. In feature and form she surpassed any creation of the Greek sculptors, and I have been in many of their workshops, and have seen their models. This lady lived longer than any other wife I had. She lived so long, in fact, that when we left Cordova we both thought it well that she should pass as my mother. She was one of the few wives to whom I told my story. It did not shock her, for she believed her father to be a miracle-worker, and she had faith in many strange things. Her great desire was to live as long as I should, and I think she believed that this might happen. She died at the age of one hundred 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, and died fifteen years ago. We had no children."
"It strikes me," I said suddenly, "that you must understand a great many languages—you speak so much of living with people of different nations."
"It would be impossible," he answered, "unless I were void of ordinary intelligence, to live as long as I have, and not become a general linguist. Of course I had to learn the languages of the countries I visited, and as I was always a student, it delighted me to do so. In fact, I not only studied, but I wrote. When the Alexandrian library was destroyed, fourteen of my books were burned. When I was in Italy with my first American wife, I visited the museum at Naples, and in the room where the experts were unrolling the papyri found in Pompeii, I looked over the shoulder of one of them, and, to my amazement, found that one of the 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 various merchants and tradespeople. I was always fond of dealing in money, and at present I am a broker in Wall street. During the first crusades I was a banker in Genoa, and lent large sums to the noble knights who were setting forth for Jerusalem."
"Was much of it repaid?" I asked.
"Most of it. The loans were almost always secured by good property. As I look back upon the vast panorama of my life," my host continued, after a pause, "I most pleasantly recall my various intimacies with learned men, and my own studies and researches; but in the great company of men of knowledge whom I have known, there was not one in whom I was so much interested as in King Solomon. I visited his court because I greatly wished to know a man who knew so much. It was not difficult to obtain access to him, for I came as a stranger from Ethiopia, to the east of Ethiopia, to the east of the Red Sea, and the king was always anxious to see intelligent people from foreign parts. I was able to tell him a good 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 studied books as much as I had, and he had not had my advantages of direct intercourse with learned men; but he was a most earnest and indefatigable student of nature. I believe he knew more about natural history than any human being then living, or who had preceded him. Whenever it was possible for him to do so, he studied animal nature from the living model, and all the beasts, birds, and fishes which it was possible for him to obtain alive were quartered in the grounds of his palace. In a certain way he was an animal-tamer. You may well imagine that this great king's wonderful possessions, as well as the man himself, were the source of continual delight to me.
"The time-honored story of Solomon's carpet on which he mounted and was wafted away to any place, with his retinue, had a good deal of foundation in fact; for Solomon was an exceedingly ingenious man, and not only constructed parachutes by which people could safely descend from great heights, but he made some attempts in the direction of ballooning. I have seen small bags of thin silk, covered with a fine varnish made of gum to render them air-tight, which, being inflated with hot air and properly ballasted, rose high above the earth, and were wafted out of sight by the wind. Many people supposed that in the course of time Solomon would be able to travel through the air, and from this idea was derived the tradition that he really did so.
"Another of the interesting legends regarding King Solomon concerned his dominion over the Jinns. These people, of whom so much has been written and handed down by word of mouth, and who were supposed by subsequent generations to be a race of servile demons, were, in reality, savage natives of surrounding countries, who were forced by the king to work on his great buildings and other enterprises, and who occupied very much the position of the coolies of the present day. But that story of the dead Solomon and the Jinns who were at work on the temple gives a good idea of one of the most important characteristics of this great ruler. He was a man who gave personal attention to all his affairs, and was in the habit of overseeing the laborers on his public works. Do you remember the story to 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 building the temple, and Solomon, according to his custom, overlooked them daily. At the time when the temple was nearly completed Solomon felt that his strength was passing from him, and that he would not have much longer to live. This greatly troubled him, for he knew that when the Jinns should find that his watchful eye would be no more upon them, they would rebel and refuse to work, and the temple would not be finished during his reign. Therefore, as the story runs, he came, one day, into the temple, and hoped that he might be enabled to remain there until the great edifice should be finished. He stood leaning on his staff, and the Jinns, when they beheld their master, continued to work, and work, and work. When night came Solomon still remained standing in his accustomed place, and the Jinns worked on, afraid to cease their toil for a moment.
"Standing thus, Solomon died; but the Jinns did not know it, and their toil and labor continued, by night and by day. Now, according to the tradition, a little white ant, one of the kind which devours wood, came up out of the earth on the very day on which Solomon died, and began to gnaw the inside of his staff. She gnawed a little every day, until at last the staff became hollow from one end to the other; and on the day when she finished her work, the work of the Jinns was also finished. Then the staff crumbled, and the dead Solomon fell, face foremost, to the earth. The Jinns, perceiving that they had been slaving day and night for 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 origin of it was nothing more than the well-known custom of Solomon to exercise personal 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 summoned me before her, and had inquired about the places I had visited and the things I had seen. What I said about this wonderful woman and the admirable administration of her empire interested Solomon very much, and he was never tired of hearing me talk about her. At one time I believe he thought of sending me as an ambassador to her, but afterward gave up this notion, as I did not possess the rank or position which would have qualified me to represent him and his court; so he sent a suitable delegation, and, after a great deal of negotiation and diplomatic by-play, the queen actually determined to come to see Solomon. Soon after her arrival with her great retinue, she saw me, and immediately recognized me, and the first thing she said to me was that she perceived I 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 hair and beard to grow, and had dispensed with as much as possible of my ordinary erect mien and lightness of step; for I was very much afraid, if I were not careful, that the wise king would find out that there was something irregular in my longevity, and an old man may continue to look old 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 certain intimacy with both the king and his visitor the queen. As I was a subject of neither of them, they seemed to think this circumstance allowed a little more familiarity than otherwise they would have shown. Besides, my age 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 the other, and I would sometimes be subjected to embarrassing questions.
"There is a great deal of extravagance and perversion in the historical and traditional accounts of the tricks which these two royal personages played 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 queen set five hundred boys and five hundred girls before the king, all the girls dressed as boys and all the boys dressed as girls, and then she asked him, as he was such a wise man, immediately to distinguish those of one sex from those of the other. Solomon did not hesitate a moment, but ordering basins of water to be brought, he commanded the young people to wash their hands. Thereupon he watched them closely, and as the boys washed only their hands, while the girls rolled up their sleeves and washed their arms as well as their hands, Solomon was able, without any trouble, to pick out the one from the other. Now, something of this kind really happened, but there were only ten boys and ten girls. But in the course of ages the story grew, and the whole thing was made absurd; for there 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 company who wished to wash their hands. But the result of this scheme convinced the queen that Solomon was a man of the deepest insight into the manners and customs of human beings, as well as those of animals, birds, and fishes.
"But there is an incident with which I was personally connected which was known at the time to very few people, and was never publicly related. The beautiful queen desired, above all other things, to know whether Solomon held her in such high esteem because she was a mighty queen, or on account of her personal attractions; and in order to discover the truth in regard to this question, she devised a little scheme to which she made me 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 seen her, for it was her custom to keep her most beautiful attendants in the background. This maiden the queen caused to be dressed in the richest and most becoming robes, and adorned her, besides, with jewels and golden ornaments, which set off her beauty in an amazing manner. Then, having made many inquiries of me in regard to the habits of Solomon, she ordered Liridi to walk alone in one of the broad paths of the royal gardens at the time when the king was wont to stroll there by himself. The queen wished to find out whether this charming apparition would cause the king to forget her for a time, and she ordered me to be in the garden, and so arrange my rambles that I could, without being observed, notice what happened when the king should meet Liridi. I was on hand before the appointed time, and when I saw the girl walking slowly up the shaded avenue, 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 her I was amazed at her wonderful beauty, and I did not believe it possible that the king could gaze upon her without such emotion as would make him forget 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. At length Solomon appeared at the far end of the avenue, and Liridi began again her pensive stroll. When the king reached her, she retired to one side, her head bowed, as if she had not expected to meet royalty in this secluded spot. King Solomon was deep in thought as he walked, but when he came near the maiden, he raised his eyes and suddenly stopped. I was near by, behind some shrubbery, and it was plain enough to me that he was dazzled by this lovely apparition. He asked her who she was, and when she had told him he gazed at her with still greater attention. Then suddenly he laughed aloud. 'Go tell the queen,' said he, 'that she hath missed her mark. The arrow which is adorned with golden trappings and precious stones cannot fly aright.' Then he went on, still laughing to himself. In the evening he told me about this incident, and said that if the maiden had been arrayed in the simple robes which became her station he would have suspected nothing, and would probably have stopped to converse with her so long that he would have failed to keep his appointment with his royal guest.
"The queen was very much annoyed at the ill success of her little artifice, but it was not long after this that she and the king discovered their true feeling for each other, and they were soon married. The wedding was a grand one—grander than tradition relates, grander than the modern mind can easily comprehend. When they went to the palace to sit for the first time in state before the vast assembly of dignitaries and courtiers, 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 else that happened. Great were the festivities. Honors and dignities were bestowed on every hand, and I might have come in for some substantial benefit had it not been that I committed a great blunder. I had fallen in love with the beautiful Liridi, and as the queen seemed so gracious and kind to everybody, I made bold to go to her and ask that she would allow me to marry her charming handmaiden. But, to my surprise, this request angered the queen. She told me that such an old man as myself ought to be ashamed to take a young girl to wife; that she was opposed to such marriages; and that, in fact, I ought to be punished for even mentioning the subject.
"I retired in disgrace, and very soon afterward I left Jerusalem, for I have found, by varied experiences, that the displeasure of rulers is an unhealthful atmosphere in which to live. However, the Queen of Sheba did not get altogether the better of me. As you know, King Solomon and his royal wife did not reign together very long. They ruled over two great 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 had brought with her. She carried in her baggage-train her royal throne, but she did not take with her the beautiful Liridi. That lady had been given in marriage to an officer in Solomon's army, and thirty years afterward, in the land of Asshur, where her father was stationed, I married the youngest daughter of Liridi. The latter was then dead, but my wife, with whom I lived happily for many years in Phoenicia, was quite as beautiful. I was greatly inclined, at the time, to send a courier with a letter to the Queen of Sheba, informing her of what had happened; but I was afraid. She was then an elderly woman, and I was informed that age had actually sharpened her wits, so that if I had incensed her and given her reason to suspect the truth about my unnatural age, I believe there was no known country in which I could have concealed myself from her emissaries.
"There are many, many incidents which crowd upon my memory," continued my host, "but—" and as he spoke he pulled out his watch. "My conscience!" he exclaimed, "it is twenty minutes past three! I should be ashamed of myself, Mr. Randolph, for having kept you up so long."
We both rose to our feet, and I was about to say something polite, suited to the occasion, but he gave me no chance.
"I felt I must talk to you," he said, speaking very rapidly. "I have discovered you to be a man of appreciation—a man who should hear my story. I have felt for some years that it would soon become impossible for me to conceal my experiences from my fellow-men. I believe mankind has now reached a stage of enlightenment—at least, in this country—when the person who makes strange discoveries which cannot be explained, and the person 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 a lunatic. I may be mistaken in regard to this latter point, but I think I am right. In any case, I do not wish to live much longer as I have been living. As I must live on, with generation after generation rising up about me, I want those generations to know before they depart from this earth that I am a person who does not die. I am tired of deceptions; I am tired of leaving the places where I have lived long and am known, and arriving in other places where I am a stranger, and where I must begin my life again.
"I do not wish to be in a hurry to make my revelations to the world at large. I do not wish to startle people without being able to show them proof of what I say. I wish to speak only to persons who are worthy to hear my story, and I have begun with you. I do not want you to believe me 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 what I have told you about my indefinite longevity. I should be glad to relate my story to scientific men, to physicians, to students; but, as I have said, 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 have no written records of my past life. Long, long ago I made such, but I destroyed them, for I knew not what evil they might bring upon me were they discovered. But you may write the little I have told you, and when you feel that the time has come, you may give it to the world. And now we 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 confidence in you, it would be treating her shamefully if I should withhold that confidence from her. She has often said to me that I do not look a day older than when I married her. I want her now to know that I need never look 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 went traveling backward and forward through the ages. The next morning, at breakfast, Mr. Crowder appeared in his ordinary good spirits, but his wife was very quiet. She was pale, and occasionally I thought I saw signs of trouble on her usually placid brow. I felt sure that he had told her his story. As I looked at her, I could not prevent myself from seriously wondering that a man who had seen Abraham and Sarah, and had been personally acquainted with the Queen of Sheba, should now be married to a Quaker lady from North Sixteenth street, Philadelphia. After breakfast she found an opportunity of speaking to me privately.
"Do you believe," she asked very hurriedly, "what my husband told you last night—the story of his earthly immortality?"
"I really do not know," I answered, "whether I believe it or not. My reason assures me that it is impossible; and yet there is in Mr. Crowder's manner 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. You must 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 yet arranged 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, that will 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 that I cannot possibly do so."
She gave me her hand, and I shook it heartily.
About four months after my first acquaintance with Mr. and Mrs. Crowder, I found myself again in New York; and when I called at the house of my friends, I received from them a most earnest invitation to take up my abode with them during my stay in the city.
Of course this invitation was eagerly accepted; for not only was the Crowder house a home of the most charming hospitality, but my interest in the extraordinary man who was evidently so glad to be my host was such that not one day had passed since I last saw him in which I did not think of him, and consider his marvelous statements from every point of view which my judgment was capable of commanding. I found Mr. Crowder unchanged in appearance and manner, and his wife was the same charming young woman I had known. But there was nothing surprising in this. People generally do not change very much in four months; and yet, in talking to Mr. Crowder, I could not prevent myself from earnestly scanning his features to see if he had grown any older.
He noticed this, and laughed heartily. "It is natural enough," he said, "that you should wish to assure yourself that there is a good foundation to your belief in what I have told you; but you are in too great a hurry: you must wait some years for that sort of proof, one way or the other. But I believe that you do believe in me, and I am not in the least disturbed by the way you look at me."
After dinner, on the first day of my visit, when we were smoking together, I asked Mr. Crowder if he would not continue the recital of his experiences, which were of such absorbing interest to me that sometimes I found them occupying my mind to an extent which excluded the consideration of everything relating to myself and the present time.
"From one point of view," he said, "that would be a bad thing for you: but I don't look at it in that way; in fact, I hope you may become my biographer. I will furnish you with material enough, and you can arrange it and put it in shape; that is, if, in the course of a few years, you consider that, in doing what I ask of you, you will be writing the true life of a man, and not a collection of fanciful stories. So I hope you may find that you have not lost your time when thinking so much of a man of the past."
Now, there is no doubt that I did most thoroughly believe in Crowder. I had argued with myself against this belief to the utmost extent of my ability, and I had now given up the effort. If I should disbelieve him I would deprive myself of one of the most precious privileges of my existence, and I did not intend to do so until I found myself absolutely forced to admit that I was mistaken. Time would settle all this, and all that I had to do now was to listen, enjoy, and be thankful for the opportunity.
"I am not going to tell any stories now," he said, "for my wife has not overcome her dislike to tobacco smoke, and she has insisted that she shall be one of my hearers when I tell stories of my past life to you; but I can tell you this, my friend: she will believe every word I say; there can be no possible doubt of that. I have told her a good many things since I saw you last, and her faith in me is a joy unspeakable."
Of course I was delighted to hear that this charming lady was to be my fellow-auditor, and said so.
"I often think of you two," said Mr. Crowder, contemplatively leaning back in his arm-chair. "I think of you together, but I am bound to say that the thought is not altogether pleasant." I showed my amazement at this remark. "It can't be helped," he said; "it can't be helped. It's one of the things I have to suffer. I have suffered it over and over again thousands of times, but I never get used to it. Here you are, two young people, young enough to be my children: one is my wife; the other, I am proud to say, my best friend. You are the only persons in the world who know my story. You have faith in me, and the thought of that faith is the greatest pleasure of my life. Year by year you two will grow older; year by year you will more nearly approach my own age, and become, according to the ordinary opinion of the world, more suitable companions for me. Then you will reach my age. We shall be three gray-haired friends. Then will come the saddening time, the mournful days. You two will grow older and older, and I shall remain where I am—always fifty-three. Then you will grow to be elderly—elderly people; at last, aged people. If you live long enough I shall look up to you as I would to my parents."
This was a state of things I had never contemplated. I could scarcely appreciate it.
"Of course," he continued, "I wish you both to live long; but don't you see how it affects me? But enough of that. Here comes Mrs. Crowder, and with her all subjects must be pleasant ones."
"I think thee must buy some short cigars," she said, just putting her head inside the door, "to smoke after dinner. If large ones are necessary, they can be smoked after I go to bed. I am getting very impatient; for now that Mr. Randolph is here, I believe that thee is going to be unusually interesting."
We arose immediately, and joined Mrs. Crowder in the library.
This lady's use of the plain speech customary with Quakers was very pleasant to me. I had had but little acquaintance with it, and at first its independence of grammatical rules struck upon me unpleasantly; but I soon began to enjoy Mrs. Crowder's speech, when she was addressing her husband, much more than I did the remarks she made to me, the latter being always couched in the most correct English. There was a sweetness about her "thee" which had the quality of gentle music; and when she used the word "thy" it was pronounced so much like "thee" that I could scarcely perceive the difference. To her husband and child she always used the Quaker speech of the present day; and as I did not like being set aside in this way, I said to her that I hoped there was no rule of the Society of Friends which would compel her to make a change in her form of speech when she addressed me. "If thee likes," she said, with a smile, "thee is welcome to all the plain speech thee wants." And after that, when she spoke to me, she did not turn me out among the world's people.
"Now, you know," said Mr. Crowder, "that I'm not going to play the part of an historian. That sort of discourse would bore me, and it would bore you. If there is any kind of thing that you would like to hear about, all you have to do is to ask me; and if you don't care to do this, I will tell you whatever comes up in my memory, without any regard to chronology or geography, just as I talked to you before. If I were to begin at the beginning and go straight along, even if I skipped ever so much, the story would—it would be a great deal too long."
I am sure that Mrs. Crowder and I both felt what he did not wish to say—that we were not likely to live to hear it all.
"There are a great many things I should like to ask thee," said Mrs. Crowder, speaking quickly, as if to change the subject of her thoughts; "but I believe I have forgotten most of them. But here is something I should like to know—that is," she said, turning to me, "if thee hasn't anything in thy mind which thee wishes to ask about?"
I noticed that she pronounced "thy" very distinctly, a little bit of grammatical conscience probably obtruding itself. Of course, I had nothing to ask, and she put her question: "What did thee do in the dark ages?"
Crowder laughed. "That is a big question," said he, "and the only answer I can give you in a general way is that there were so many things that I was not able to do, or did not dare to do, that I look upon those centuries as the most disagreeable part of my whole life. But you must not suppose that everybody felt as I did. A great many of the people by whom I was surrounded at that doleful period appeared to be happier and better satisfied with their circumstances than any I have known before or after. There was little ambition, less responsibility; and if the poor and weak suffered from the rapacity and violence of the rich and strong, they accepted their misfortunes as if they were something they were bound to expect, such as bad weather. I am not going to talk history, and there is one thing that your question reminds me of. During that portion of the middle ages which is designated as dark, I employed myself in a great many different ways: I was laborer, sailor, teacher, and I cannot tell you what besides; but more frequently than anything else I was a teacher."
"Thee must have been an angel of light," Mrs. Crowder remarked.
"No," said he; "an angel of light would have been very conspicuous in those days. I didn't pose for such a part. In fact, if I had not succeeded in appearing like a partial ignoramus I should have been obliged to go into a monastery, for in those days the monks were the only people who knew anything. They expected to do all the teaching that was done; but, for all that, a few scholars cropped up now and then, and here and there, who did not care to have monks for masters; and by instructing these in a very modest, quiet way I frequently managed to make a living."
"I should think," I said, "that at any time and in any period you would have been a person of importance, with your experience and knowledge of men."
Mr. Crowder shook his head. "No," said he; "not so. To make myself of importance in that time I must have been a soldier, and the profession of arms, you know, is one I have always avoided. A man who cannot be killed should take care that he be not wounded."
"I am so glad that thee did take care," ejaculated Mrs. Crowder; "but even I cannot see how thee kept out of fighting in those disorderly times."
"I did not keep out of it altogether, but in every possible way I tried to do so, and for the most part succeeded. Whenever I was likely to be involved in military operations, I let my hair and beard grow, and the white-haired old man was usually exempted. I have had far more experience in keeping out of battles than any other human being has had in the art of winning them. But what you two want is a story, and I will give you one.
"During some of the earlier years of the seventh century, I was living in Ravenna, and there I had three or four scholars whom I taught occasionally. I did not dare to keep a regular school, with fixed hours and all that; but while I was not working at my trade, which was then that of a mason, I gave lessons to some young people in the neighborhood. Sometimes I taught in the evening, sometimes in bad weather when we did not work out of doors. No one of my scholars showed any intelligence, except a girl about eighteen years old. Her father, I think, was a professional robber, for his family lived very well, and he was generally absent from home at the head of a little band of desperate fellows, of whom there were a great many in that region.
"This girl, whose name was Rina, had an earnest desire for knowledge, and showed a great capacity for imbibing it and retaining it. In fact, I believe she was the most intelligent person in that region."
"Was she pretty?" asked Mrs. Crowder.
"Yes," replied her husband; "she was very good-looking. I was so interested in her desire for knowledge that I taught her a great deal more than I would have dared to teach anybody else; and the more I taught, the more she wanted to learn.
"I soon became very much concerned about Rina. Some man of the neighborhood, old or young, would be sure to marry her before very long, and then there would be an end of the development of what I considered the brightest intellect of the day."
"So to keep that from happening to her, thee married her thyself?" asked Mrs. Crowder.
Her husband smiled. "Yes; that is what I did. You know," he said, addressing me, "that I believe that Mrs. Crowder takes more interest in my marriages than in anything else I have done in the course of my career."
"Certainly I do," she said, with a little flush. "Of course thee had to be married, and it is natural enough that I should want to know whom thee married, and all about it."
"Well," said Mr. Crowder, "we must get on with this. A priest with whom I was acquainted married us, and we immediately fled from Ravenna. After a year or two of wandering through benighted countries where even kings and rulers could not write their names, and where reading seemed to be a lost art, except in the monasteries, we made up our minds, if possible, we would go from darkness into light, and so we set out on a journey to China."
At this statement Mrs. Crowder and I looked surprised.
"I don't wonder you open your eyes," said he. "It must seem odd to you, unless you are very familiar with the history of the period, that we should go from Europe to China in search of enlightenment and civilization; but that is what we did, and we found what we looked for. As the Pope had sent an envoy to China, and as some Nestorian missionaries had gone there, I believed that we could go.
"This journey to the Chinese province of Nan-hae occupied the greater part of five years; but to me personally that was of no account, for I had time enough. Although we passed through all sorts of hardships and dangers, my wife was greatly interested in the strange things and people she met. Sometimes we traveled by water, sometimes on horses and asses, and very often we walked. During the last part of the journey we joined a caravan which went through central Asia.
"At that time China was ruled by a woman, the Empress Woo. For a long time back there had been a period of great intellectual activity in China. Literature and the arts flourished, and while the great personages of Europe did not know how to write, these people were printing from wooden blocks.
"The empress was a remarkable woman. She had been one of the widows of a monarch, and when his son succeeded to the throne she married him. She had great ambition and great ability. She put down her enemies, and she put herself forward. She took her husband's place in all the imperial consultations and decisions, and very soon set him aside, and for forty years was actual ruler of the empire.
"She was a great woman, this Empress Woo. Very little happened in her dominions that she did not know, and when two wanderers arrived from the far and unknown West, she sent for me and my wife to appear before her at the palace. We were received with much favor, for we could do her no possible harm, and she was very eager for knowledge. My wife was an object of great curiosity to her, as she was so different from the Chinese women. But as poor Rina could never acquire a word of the language of the country, the empress soon ceased to take interest in her. As I was always very good at picking up languages, she had me at the palace a great deal, asking all sorts of questions about the Western countries and people. I was also able to tell her much about bygone ages, which information she thought, of course, I had acquired by reading.
"One day the empress asked me about the marriage customs in the West, and wanted to know how many wives a man could have in our country. She seemed to be so much in earnest, as she spoke, that I was frightened. I did not know what to answer. But fortunately one of her generals was announced, and she did not press the question. As I was leaving the palace, one of the officers of the court took me aside, and told me that the empress was thinking of marrying me, and that I had better put on some fine clothes when I came again. This was terrible news, but I was bound to tell my wife, and we sat up all night talking about it. To escape from that region would have been impossible. We were obliged to stay and face the inevitable, whatever it might be.
"The question which Rina and I had to decide was a very simple one, but terribly difficult for all that. If I should tell the empress that men of my country believed that it was right to have but one wife, Rina would quickly be disposed of; so she had to decide whether she would prefer to die so that I might marry the empress, or to preserve her life and lose her undivided possession of a husband."
"I know what I would have done," said Mrs. Crowder, her eyes very bright; "I would have let her kill me. I would never have consented for thee to marry the wretch."
"That would have pleased her," said Mr. Crowder; "for she would have had me all the same, and you would have been out of the way."
"Then I would not have died," said the little Quakeress, almost fiercely; "I would not have done anything to please her. But I don't know. What did thee and thy wife do?"
"We talked and talked and talked," said Mr. Crowder, "and at last I persuaded her to live; that is to say, not to make herself an obstacle to the wishes of the empress. It was a terrible trial, but she consented. The more insignificant she became, I told her, the greater her chances of safety.
"The next day the empress sent for me, as I was sure she would do.
"'You did not tell me,' she said, 'how many wives your men have.' 'That all depends upon the will of our sovereign,' I replied; 'in matrimonial affairs we do as we are commanded. When we have no commands from the throne, our circumstances regulate the matter.'"
"Thee did tell a dreadful lie while thee was about it," said Mrs. Crowder, "but I suppose thee had to."
"You are right there," said her husband; "and my answer pleased the empress. 'That is what I like,' she said. 'The monarch should settle all these matters. I hope some day to settle them in this country.' Then, without any hesitation or preface, she announced her intention of marrying me. 'I greatly need,' she said, 'a learned man for an imperial consort. My present husband knows nothing. I never trust him with any affairs of state. But I have never asked you anything to which you did not give me a satisfactory answer.' Now, my dear," said Mr. Crowder, "you see the reward of vanity. If I had pretended to be a fool instead of aspiring to be a philosopher and an historian, I should never have attracted the interest of the queen."
"And did thee marry her?" asked his wife. "I do so pity poor Rina!"
"I'll tell you how it turned out," he continued. "After pressing me a good deal, the empress said: 'I had intended to marry you in a few days, or as soon as the preparations could be made; but I have now postponed that ceremony. I find that military affairs must occupy me for some time, and it would be better for me at present to marry one of my generals. A military man is what the country needs. But I shall want a counselor of your sort very soon, so you must hold yourself ready to marry me whenever I shall notify you.'
"My instincts prompted me to ask her what the imperial general might be apt to think about the increase in her matrimonial forces, but I was wise enough to hold my tongue. When the general should cease to be of use to her, I knew very well that he would not be likely to offer opposition to anything on earth."
"How glad I am," ejaculated Mrs. Crowder, "that thee didn't ask any questions, and that thee consented to everything the wicked creature said!"
"So am I," he replied; "and I was glad to get out of that palace, which I never entered again. From that day I began to grow old as fast as I could. My hair and beard became very long; I ate but little; I stooped more and more each day, and walked with a staff. I began to be very forgetful when people asked me questions. About a year afterward the queen saw me. I was in the crowd near the palace, where I had purposely gone that I might be seen. She looked at me, but gave no sign that she recognized me. The next day an officer came to me, and roughly told me that the empress had no use for dotards in her dominions, and that the sooner I went away the better for me. I afterward heard that the execution of two strangers had been ordered, but that a certain superstition in the mind of the empress had prevented this. She had heard, through persons who had met the Nestorians, that people of our country were protected in some strange manner which she did not understand.
"Rina and I could not leave China, for I had now no money; but we went to a distant province, where I lived for more than ten years, passing as a Chinaman."
"And Rina—poor Rina?" asked Mrs. Crowder.
"She soon died," said her husband. "She was in a state of fear nearly all the time. She could not speak the language, and it may be said that she gave up her life in her pursuit of knowledge. In this respect she was as wonderful a woman as was the Empress Woo."
"And a thousand times better," said Mrs. Crowder, earnestly. "And then?"
"Then," said her husband, "I married a Chinese woman."
"What!" exclaimed Mrs. Crowder, her eyes almost round.
"Yes, my dear; it was a great deal safer for me to be married, and to become as nearly as possible like the people by whom I was surrounded."
"But thee didn't have several wives, did thee?" asked Mrs. Crowder.
"Oh, no," he answered; "I was too poor for anything of that kind to be expected of me. When an opportunity came to join a caravan and get away, I took my Chinese wife with me, and eventually reached Arabia. There we stayed for a long time, for I found it impossible to prosecute my journeying. Eventually, however, we reached the island of Malta, where my wife lived to be over seventy. Travel, hardships, and danger seemed to agree with her. She never spoke any language but her own, and as she was of a quiet disposition, and took no interest in the things she saw, she generally passed as an imbecile. But she was the first Chinese woman who ever visited Europe."
"I guess thee was very sorry thee brought her before thee got through with her. I don't approve of that matrimonial alliance at all," said Mrs. Crowder.
During this and succeeding evenings of narration, it must not be supposed I sat silent, making no remarks upon what I heard; but, in fact, what I said was of hardly any importance, and certainly not worth introducing into this account of Mr. Crowder's experiences. But the effect of his words upon Mrs. Crowder, as shown both by the play of her features and her frequent questions and exclamations, interested me almost as much as the statements of my host. I had previously known her as the gentlest, the sweetest, and the most attractive of my female acquaintances; but now I found her to be a woman of keen intellect and quick appreciation. Her remarks, which were very frequent, and which I shall not always record, were like seasoning and spice to the narrative of Mr. Crowder. Never before had a wife heard such stories from a husband, and there never could have been a woman who would have heard them with such religious faith. Naturally, she showed me a most friendly confidence. The fact that we were both the loyal disciples of one master was a bond between us. He was so much older than either of us, and he regarded us sometimes with what looked so much like parental affection, that it would not have been surprising if persons, not believers as we were, should have entertained the idea that, in course of time, he would pass away, and that we two should be left to comfort each other as well as we might. But I, who had heard my friend speak of the coming years, could not forget the picture he had drawn of two aged and feeble people, looked up to in love and veneration by a fresh and hearty man of fifty-three.
"Thee never seemed to have any trouble in getting married," said Mrs. Crowder. "Did thee ever stay an old bachelor any length of time?"
Crowder laughed. Such questions from his wife amused him very much.
"I was thinking of changing the subject," said he, "and was about to tell you something which had not anything to do with wives and marriages. I thought you might be tired of that sort of thing."
"Not at all," said she, quickly; "that's just what I want to hear."
"Very well," answered he; "I will give you a little instance of one of my failures in love-making.
"It was long before my visit to Empress Woo; in fact, it was about eleven hundred years before Christ, and I was living in Syria, where I was teaching school in the little town of Timnath. I became very much interested in one of the girls of my class. She was a good deal older than any of the others; in fact, she was a young woman. She had a bright mind, and was eager to learn, and I naturally became interested in her; and in the course of time she pleased me so much that I determined to marry her."
"It seems thee was in the habit of marrying thy scholars," said Mrs. Crowder.
"There is nothing very strange in that," he replied; "a schoolmaster usually becomes very well acquainted with some of his scholars, and if a girl pleases him very much it is not surprising that he should prefer to marry her, or, at least, to try to, than to go out among comparative strangers to look for a wife."
"If I had been in thy place," said Mrs. Crowder, reflectively, "sometimes I would have enjoyed a long rest of bachelordom; it would have been a variety."
"Oh, I have had variety of that kind," said he. "For many succeeding decades I have been widower, or bachelor, whichever you choose to call it.
"As I was saying, this girl pleased me very much. She was good-looking, bright, and witty, and her dark, flashing eyes won her a great deal of attention from the young men of the place; but she would not have anything to do with them. They could not boast much in regard to intelligence or education, nor were any of them in very good circumstances; and so, in spite of my years, she seemed to take very kindly to me, and I made up my mind I would marry her the approaching autumn. I had some money, and there was a house with a piece of land for sale near the town. This I planned to buy, and to settle down as an agriculturist. I was tired of school-teaching."
"No wonder," said Mrs. Crowder, "as thee intended to take out of it its principal attraction."
"We were walking, one evening, over the fields, talking of astronomy, in which she took a great interest, when we saw a man approaching who was evidently a stranger. He was a fellow of medium height, but he gave the impression of great size and vigor. As he came nearer, striding over the rough places, and paying no attention to paths, I saw that he was very broad-shouldered, with a heavy body and thick neck. His legs were probably of average size, but they looked somewhat small in comparison with his body and his long arms, which swung by his sides as he walked. He was a young man, bushy-bearded, with bright and observant eyes. As he passed us, he looked very hard at my companion, and, I am sorry to say, she turned her head and gazed steadfastly at him.