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The Vizier of the Two-Horned Alexander By Frank Richard Stockton Characters: 31004

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

"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.

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