« PreviousContinue »
THE CITY OF THE DESERT.
BY DERWENT CONWAY.
ELEVEN days had I trodden these trackless solitudes : eleven times had I seen the sun rise from the vast level that stretched around me. It was now evening, and as the oblique rays shot athwart the desert, I fancied I descried the appearance of columns rising on the far horizon. I strained my aching eye-balls, to pierce as it were, between the desert and the sky, that I might be assured no moving pillars of sand had been mistaken for the vestiges of human labour ; but the appearances continued immovable. This, then, was the City of the Desert ; here it was, that on the morning of the twelfth day, as my vision had revealed, I should obtain the promised gift-contentment! A thousand times had I bewailed the shortness of human life: “it is a worthless possession,” I have exclaimed, “ too brief for enjoyment: oh, that I might live for a thousand years !" “Go,” said the vision; “ go to the City of the Desert, and there learn contentment.”
As the morning of the twelfth day dawned, it revealed the object of my search. An irregular line of varied elevations, evidently the work of man, shewed, either the existence or the remains of his habitation. As I approached, the line grew into greater distinctness, and soon, the uprisen sun bathed in gold the pinnacles of a hundred temples. I knew not if the City were inhabited; this, my vision had not revealed ; and I stopped to listen if any sound of life came over the desert. The profoundest stillness reigned, the City was as silent as the wilderness that surrounded it; and, as I passed within the walls, I believed myself to be the only human being they inclosed. It was a solemn and imposing spectacle. I wandered through long and spacious streets all silent as the grave: palaces, temples, and private dwellings, stood, some as if they were yet the habitations of the living: some crumbling into ruins. Columns, upon which the art of man had been exhausted, lay prostrate, or stood yet erect, though mouldering away, -bright in the rays of the morning sun, that for centuries had risen and set upon their silent beauty. I was suddenly awakened from a deep reverie by the sound of a footstep. An aged man stood within a few paces of me; and, as I involuntarily stepped back, somewhat awed by the presence of one whose appearance bespoke a nature if not different, yet less evanescent than my own : “ Fear nothing,” said he, in a tongue that had long ceased to be the language of living lips, “fear nothing ; comest thou bither to learn, from one over whose head centuries have passed, the misery of length of years ? Thou doest well: follow me, and thou shalt hear of the curse that has rested upon me for a thousand years.” I obeyed my conductor, who led me into a garden, where, in the centre, shaded by date trees, stood a fountain, and on the ground, a marble basin, into which the water fell, drop by drop. “See,” said he, “ there is only one pebble in this basin,” and an exulting smile passed over his shrivelled countenance; “ once there were a thousand, but nine hundred and ninety-nine are resting on the ground : I have taken one from the heap, each year of the nine hundred and ninety-nine that the curse has endured, that I might know my hour; to-night, when the moonbeam shall tip the date tree, I will throw this on the ground also : sit down upon these steps," continued the patriarch, “and listen to the story of my life.” I sat down beside the man of a thousand years, as thus he spoke :
“ The City which now contains but thee and me, and which has been for a thousand years the dwelling-place of only one, was once the habitation of a million of living men and women. Tens of thousands in lusty manhood, once walked these silent streets; and the light glee of children who lived not to be men, mingled with the noise of the waters that once gushed from this fountain, and with the sounds of happy living creatures that filled the air, or gambolled on the earth. I see it all, but as yesterday. But a curse came upon the City; and the curse has rested upon me. Famine came first ; many died, but they who had bread, gave to them who had none—all, save me, and my kindred; we ate abundantly, while famished men fought with the dogs for putrid offals. Then came disease; thousands died in a day, and thousands were each day newly smitten ; but no man refused to tend the sick,—all were kind and compassionate, save me. When famine alone had visited us, I did not desert my kindred, because we had abundance; but now, I forsook all. My father was stricken, my mother—she who had so often watched over me,—my mother was stricken-sisters, brethren, all were stricken; but I visited them not, nor helped them. I garnered my own dwelling with provisions and costly wines, and secluded myself from all intercourse with the diseased; there I prayed a selfish prayer for life. I said, “Let all die ; but grant life to me.' Alas! my prayer—my guilty prayer—was heard.
"" Live,' said a voice, as my prayer expired on my lips; live, foolish Azib, be cursed with life ; life for a thousand years !
“I understood not then, how life could be a curse. I exulted in the anticipation of length of years. Death, that to others is always near, to me was afar off. Life, that to others was uncertain, was to me assured ; life for a thousand years. The period at which I was resolved to return to the world, had not yet arrived: but the pro
mise of life was sufficient security, even although disease should still be raging; and I came forth from my solitude. As I passed through this garden (for yonder, where that one column still stands, was my dwelling), I marvelled at the great stillness that filled the air; but I guessed not the curse that was upon me : that the City was half depeopled, I believed ; that my friends, that my kindred had perished, might be; but not that all had perished ! I entered the house of my kindred; I went into many chambers, but they were empty. I heard a noise in that which was my mother's; and as I approached the door, a hyæna came forth. Oh! what a spectacle was reserved for me! I passed quickly into the streets,—they were silent and empty. I entered the houses,- in those that were shut, I found the dead; in those that were open, I found both the dead and the living; the dead of my own species, the living of another. Night came, and I again sought my dwelling. Now I prayed for death ; but I heard the curse again pronounced, Live! be cursed with life, life for a thousand years !' I again walked out into the streets, in search of death; but the hyæna and the wolf passed by, and avoided me. Now I knew that the curse was upon me, and that mine was a charmed life; and I returned to this garden, and sat down upon the marble steps where we now rest. I knew that life must endure for a thousand years, and I picked up a thousand pebbles, and placed them in that marble basin, where now but one remains.