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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Vizier Of The Two-horned Alexander - Chapter 3
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The Vizier Of The Two-horned Alexander - Chapter 3 Post by :andrewteg Category :Long Stories Author :Frank R Stockton Date :May 2012 Read :1962

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The Vizier Of The Two-horned Alexander - Chapter 3

CHAPTER III

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.

(Illustration: "'ASKING ALL SORTS OF QUESTIONS.'")

"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.

(Illustration: "'AND ROUGHLY TOLD ME.'")

"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.

(Illustration: "'SHE TURNED HER HEAD.'")

"'That's a fine figure of a man,' she said. 'He looks strong enough for anything.'

"I didn't encourage her admiration. 'He might be made useful on a farm,' I said; 'if his legs were as big as the rest of him, he could draw a plow as well as an ox.'

"She made no answer to this; but her interest in astronomy seemed to decrease, and she soon proposed that we should turn back to the town. On the way we met the stranger again, and this time he stopped and asked us some questions about the country and the neighborhood. All the time we were talking he and my scholar were looking at each other, and each of them seemed entirely satisfied with the survey. The next day the girl was very inattentive at school, and in the afternoon, when I hoped to take a walk with her, I could not find her, and went out by myself. Before long I saw her sitting under a tree, talking to the stranger of yesterday."

"She was a regular flirt," said Mrs. Crowder.

"Apparently she was," replied her husband; "but although I might have excused her, considering how much better suited this stranger was to her, in point of years at least, I was not willing to withdraw and leave her to another, especially as he might be a person entirely unworthy of her.

"I did not disturb them, but I went back to the town and made some inquiries about the stranger. I found that he was a Danite, and lived with his parents in Zorah, and that his name was Samson. I also learned that his family was possessed of considerable means.

"It soon became plain that it would not be easy for me to carry out my marriage plans and settle down among my vines and fig-trees. Samson went home, told his parents of his desire to marry this girl, and in the course of time they all came down to Timnath and made regular matrimonial propositions to her parents."

"Was this the great Samson who tore lions apart and threw down temples?" asked Mrs. Crowder, in amazement.

"The very man," was the reply; "and he was the most formidable rival I ever had in that sort of affair. The proper thing for me to do, according to the custom of the times, would have been to take him aside, as soon as I found that he was paying attentions to my sweetheart, and fight him; but the more I looked at him and his peculiar proportions, the more I was convinced that he was not a man with whom I wanted to fight."

"I should think not," said Mrs. Crowder. "How glad I am thee never touched him!"

"The result might not have been disastrous to me," he said; "for although I have always avoided military matters as much as possible, I was probably better versed in the use of a sword than he was. But I did not care to kill him, and from what I heard of him afterward, I am sure that if he had ever got those long arms around me I should have been a mass of broken bones.

"So, taking everything into consideration, I gave up my plan to marry this girl of Timnath; and I was afterward very glad I did so, for she proved a tricky creature, and entered into a conspiracy to deceive her husband, actually weeping before him seven days in order to worm out of him the secret of his strength."

"I suppose thee never met Delilah?" asked Mrs. Crowder.

"Oh, no," he answered; "before Samson was married I left that part of the world, and I did not make the acquaintance of the attractive young person who was so successful in the grand competition of discovering the source of Samson's strength. In fact, it was nearly a hundred years after that before I heard of those great exploits of Samson which have given him such widespread fame."

"I am glad thee never met Delilah," said Mrs. Crowder, reflectively; "for thee, too, was possessed of a great secret, and she might have gained it from thee."

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