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The Vizier of the Two-Horned Alexander By Frank Richard Stockton Characters: 30376

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


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 Eugène 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."

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