Saturday, October 9, 2010

A Glimpse into the Future

“CHARIDEMUS," said the Theban to his friend one morning, when, the order to march having been given, the two friends were busy with their preparations, "Charidemus, we have been more than a month in Babylon, and yet have never seen its greatest wonder."

"What do you mean?" returned the other. "The place seems to me full of wonders, and I should be greatly puzzled to say which is the greatest."

"I mean the magic, of course. Everybody says that the Babylonian magicians are the most famous in the world. I don't think we ought to go away without finding out something about them."

"I cannot say that I feel particularly disposed that way. Do you think that people have ever got any real good from oracles and soothsaying and auguries and such things? It seems to me that when they do get any knowledge of the future, it is a sort of half-knowledge, that is much more likely to lead them astray than to guide. However, if you are very curious about these magicians, I don't mind coming with you."

"Who will tell us the best man to go to? Do you think that Eleazar would be likely to know? "

"He may know, as he seems to know everything. But I don't think that we had better ask him. I feel sure that he hates the whole race. Don't you remember when he was reading out of that book his explaining that the 'wise men' of Babylon were the magicians, and saying that whatever in their art was not imposture was wickedness?"

"Yes; and he wondered why Daniel, when he came to have the king's ear, did not have the whole race exterminated. As you say, Eleazar is not likely to help us."

The two friends, however, easily found the information that they wanted. There could be no doubt who was the man they should consult. All agreed that the prince of the magicians was Arioch. "If you want to know what the stars can tell you," explained a seller of sword blades with whom they had had some dealings, and whom they consulted, "you must go to Zaidu. He is the most learned of the star-gazers, of the astrologers. Or, if you want to learn what can be found out from the entrails of beasts, and the flight or notes of birds, you must go to Zirbulla. The best interpreter of dreams, again, is Lagamar. But if you want a magician, then Arioch is your man. And if you want my advice, young gentlemen," went on the sword-dealer, who seemed indeed to have thought a good deal about the subject, "I should say, Go to a magician. You see the stars are very much above us; they may have something to say in great matters—wars, and such like—but I don't see how they can concern themselves with you and me. Then the birds and beasts are below us. And as for dreams, what are they but our own thoughts? Don't understand me, gentlemen," he exclaimed, "to say that I don't believe in stars and dreams and the other things; but, after all, magic, I take it, is the best way of looking into the future."

"Why?" asked the two friends, to whom much of this distinguishing between different kinds of divination was new.

"Because the magicians have to do with spirits, with demons," said their informant, his voice sinking to an awe-stricken whisper; "and the demons are not above us like the stars, nor below us like the beasts. They are with us, they are like us. Some of them have been men, and now that they are free from the body they see what we cannot see. But Arioch will tell you more about these things than I can. I am only in the outside court; he is in the shrine."

Arioch's house was in the best quarter of the city, and was so sumptuous a dwelling, both within and without, as to show clearly enough that magic was a lucrative art. The magician himself was not the sort of man whom the friends had expected to see. He was no venerable sage, pale with fasting and exhausted with midnight vigils, but a man of middle-age, whose handsome face was ruddy with health and brown with exercise, and who, with his carefully curled hair and beard and fashionable clothing, seemed more like a courtier than a sorcerer.

Arioch received his guests with elaborate politeness. He clapped his hands, and a slave appeared, carrying three jewelled cups, full of Libyan wine, a rare vintage, commonly reserved, as the young men happened to know, for royal tables. He clapped his hands again, but this time twice, and a little girl, with yellow hair and a complexion of exquisite fairness, came in with a tray of sweetmeats. She had been bought, he explained, from a Celtic tribe in the far West, and he hinted that the cost of her purchase had been enormous. A conversation followed on general topics, brought round gradually and without effort, as it seemed, to the object of the visit.

"So your want to have a look into the future?" he asked.

The two friends admitted that they did.

"Perhaps I can help you," said the magician. "But you know, I do not doubt, that one does not look into the future as easily as one reads a calendar or a tablet."

For a short time he seemed to be considering, and then went on, "I must think the matter over; and if the thing can be done there are some preparations which I must make. Meanwhile my secretary shall show you some things which may be worth your looking at."

He touched a silver hand-bell which stood on a table—a slab of citron wood on a silver pedestal—which stood by his side. A young man, who was apparently of Egyptian extraction, entered the room. Arioch gave him his directions.

"Show these gentlemen the library and anything else that they may care to see."

The library was indeed a curious sight. To the Greeks five centuries constituted antiquity. Legends, it is true, went back to a far remoter past, but there was nothing actually to be seen or handled of which they could be certain that it was much older than this. But here they stood in the presence of ages, compared to which even their own legends were new.

"This," said their guide, pointing to an earthen jar, "contains the foundation cylinder of the Sun Temple, written by the hand of Naramsin himself. Nabonidus, whom you call Labynetus, found it more than two hundred years ago, and it was then at least three thousand years old. These again," and he pointed as he spoke to several rows of bricks covered with wedge-shaped characters, "are the Calendar of Sargon. They are quite modern. They can be scarcely two thousand years old. This roll," he went on, "was part of a library which King Nebuchadnezzar brought back from Egypt. He gave it to an ancestor of my master. It is the story of the king whom you call Sesostris, I think."

These were some of the curiosities of the collection. But it contained a number of more modern works, and was especially rich, as might be expected, in works dealing with the possessor's art. "There was no book of importance on this subject," the secretary was sure, "that his master did not possess." He pointed to the most recent acquisition, which had come, he said, from Carthage.

"It is almost the first book," he remarked, "that has been written in that city; not worth very much, I fancy; but, then, my master likes to have everything, and there must be bad as well as good."

There were other things in the library which some visitors might have thought more interesting than books. The heavy iron doors of a cupboard in the wall were thrown back, and showed a splendid collection of gold and silver cups and chargers, some of them exact models, the secretary said, of the sacred vessels from Jerusalem. The originals had been all scrupulously restored by Cyrus and his successors. A drawer was opened, and found to be full of precious stones, conspicuous among which were some emeralds and sapphires of unusual size. "Presents," exclaimed the secretary, "from distinguished persons who have received benefit from my master's skill."

The visitors were politely given to understand that they, too, would be expected to contribute something to this lavish display of wealth.

"It is usual," said the secretary, "for those who consult the future to make some little offering. This part of the business has been put under my management. The master never touches coin; he must go into the presence of the spirits with clean hands. Touched with dross, they might raise the wrath of the Unseen Ones."

The two friends thought the scruple a little fine-drawn, but said nothing.

"My master," the secretary went on, "is unwilling that any one should be shut out from the sight of that which might profit him for lack of means, and has fixed the fee at five darics. There are rich men who force upon him, so to speak, much more costly gifts."

The friends, who happened to have their pockets full of prize-money, produced the ten darics, not without a misgiving that what they were to hear would scarcely be worth the money. But the adventure, if followed so far, would have to be followed to the end. To grumble would be useless, and if there was anything to be learnt, might injure the chance of learning it.

The gold duly handed over, the inquirers were taken back, not to the chamber in which Arioch had received them, but to one of a far more imposing kind. It was a lofty vaulted room, pervaded with a dim green light coming from an invisible source, as there were neither lamps nor any window or skylight to be seen. The tessellated floor had strange devices, hideous figures of the demons which were the life-long terror of the superstitious Babylonians. On a brazen altar in the centre of the room some embers were smouldering. These, as the visitors entered, were fanned by some unseen agency to a white heat. A moment afterwards Arioch threw some handfuls of incense on them, and the room was soon filled with fumes of a most stupefying fragrance. The magician himself was certainly changed from the worldly-looking personage whom the friends had seen an hour before. His face wore a look of exaltation; while the dim green light had changed its healthy hue to a ghastly paleness. His secular attire had been changed for priestly robes of white, bound round the waist by a girdle which looked like a serpent, and surmounted by a mitre in the top of which a curious red light was seen to burn. The young men, though half-contemptuous of what they could not help thinking to be artificial terrors, yet felt a certain awe creeping over them as they gazed.

"You desire," said the magician in a voice which his visitors could hardly recognize as that in which he had before accosted them, "you desire to hear from the spirits what they have to tell you of the future."

"We do," said Charidemus.

"There are spirits and spirits," continued Arioch, "spirits which come in visible shape, and with which you can talk face to face, and spirits whose voices only can be discerned by mortal senses. The first are terrible to look upon and dangerous to deal with."

"We do not fear," said the young men.

"But I fear," returned the magician, "if not for you, yet for myself. What would your king say if two of his officers, traced to my house, should be missing, or—I have seen such things—should be found strangled? Not all my art—and I know something I assure you—would save me. And then I dread the spirits, if I call them up unprepared, even more than I dread your king. No, my young friends, I dare not call up the strongest spirits that I know. But, believe me, you shall not repent of having come, or think your time wasted."

"Do as you think best," said Charidemus. "We shall be content; it is your art, not ours."

Arioch commenced a low chant which gradually grew louder and louder till the roof rang again with the volume of sound. The listeners could not understand the words. They were in the tongue of the Accadian tribes whom the Babylonian Semites had long before dispossessed; but they could distinguish some frequently recurring names, always pronounced with a peculiar intonation, which they imagined, to be the names of the spirits whom the magician was invoking.

The chant reached the highest pitch to which the voice could be raised, and then suddenly ceased.

"Be sure," said Arioch, in his usual voice, "that you stand within the circle, and do not speak."

The circle was the region that was protected by incantations from the intrusion of spirits, that of the more powerful and malignant kind being excepted, as the magician had explained.

"These strangers seek to know the future," said Arioch, with the same strained voice and in the same tongue which he had used in his invocation. He interpreted his words in Greek, as he also interpreted the answers. These answers seemed to come from a distance; the language used was the same, as far as the hearers could judge of words which they did not understand; the voice had a very different sound.

"They were foes and they are friends. Dear to the immortal gods is he that can forgive, and dear is he who can bear to be forgiven. The years shall divide them, and the years shall bring them together. They shall travel by diverse ways, and the path shall be smooth to the one and rough to the other, but the end shall be peace, if only they be wise. The tree that was a sapling yesterday to-morrow shall cover the whole earth. But it shall be stricken from above, and great will be its fall. Many will perish in that day. Happy is he who shall be content to stand afar and watch."

The voice ceased, and a moment afterwards the strange light of the chamber changed to that of the ordinary day. "The spirit will speak no more," said Arioch. "Come with me." And he led them out of the chamber. When they had got back to the room into which they had been ushered at first, he said, "These things are for your own ears; I leave it to your discretion to determine when you will speak of them. At least let it not be for years to come. For yourselves, I see nothing but light in the future; but for one who is greater than you, there is darkness in the sky. But be silent. It is dangerous to prophecy evil to the mighty. Yet, if the occasion should come, say to your master, 'Beware of the city whose fortifications were built by the potters.' "

"Was this worth our ten darics, think you?" said the Theban, as they walked to their own quarters, through streets filled with the bustle of preparation, for the army was getting ready to march. "Surely one might get good luck told to one, and good advice given for less. But he seemed to know something about us."

The two friends were never able quite to make up their minds, whether the magician's words were a happy guess, or a genuine prediction. As they came to know more of the marvels of Eastern sorcery they thought less of the outside marvels of the scene which they had witnessed. They made acquaintance, for instance, with ventriloquism, a curious gift scarcely known in the West, but frequently used for purposes of religious imposture by some of the Asiatic peoples. And they could make a shrewd guess that persons in Arioch's position made it their business to gather all the knowledge that they could about the past history of those who consulted them. But there was always an unexplained remainder. This was not an uncommon experience. There is plenty of carefully gathered knowledge of the past, plenty of shrewd guessing at the future, and plenty, it cannot be doubted, of imposture—but something more.

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