Fragment of a Novel

George Gordon

17 Jun, 2014 10:06 PM

"June 17, 1816.

"In the year 17Ñ, having for some time determined on a journey through
countries not hitherto much frequented by travellers, I set out, accompanied
by a friend, whom I shall designate by the name of Augustus Darvell. He was
a few years my elder, and a man of considerable fortune and ancient family,
advantages which an extensive capacity prevented him alike from undervaluing
and overrating. Some peculiar circumstances in his private history had
rendered him to me an object of attention, of interest, and even of regard,
which neither the reserve of his manners, nor occasional indication of an
inquietude at times approaching to alienation of mind, could extinguish.

"I was yet young in life, which I had begun early; but my intimacy with him
was of a recent date: we had been educated at the same schools and
university; but his progress through these had preceded mine, and he had
been deeply initiated into what is called the world, while I was yet in my
novitiate. While thus engaged, I heard much both of his past and present
life; and, although in these accounts there were many and irreconcilable
contradictions, I could still gather from the whole that he was a being of
no common order, and one who, whatever pains he might take to avoid remark,
would still be remarkable. I had cultivated his acquaintance subsequently,
and endeavoured to obtain his friendship, but this last appeared to be
unattainable: whatever affections he might have possessed seemed now, some
to have been extinguished, and others to be concentred: that his feelings
were acute, I had sufficient opportunities of observing; for, although he
could control, he could not altogether disguise them; still he had a power
of giving to one passion the appearance of another, in such a manner that it
was difficult to define the nature of what was working within him; and the
expressions of his features would vary so rapidly, though slightly, that it
was useless to trace them to their sources. It was evident that he was a
prey to some cureless disquiet; but whether it arose from ambition, love,
remorse, grief, from one or all of these, or merely from a morbid
temperament akin to disease, I could not discover: there were circumstances
alleged which might have justified the application to each of these causes;
but, as I have before said, these were so contradictory and contradicted,
that none could be fixed upon with accuracy. Where there is mystery, it is
generally supposed that there must also be evil: I know not how this may be,
but in him there certainly was the one, though I could not ascertain the
extent of the other Ñ and felt loth, as far as regarded himself, to believe
in its existence. My advances were received with sufficient coldness: but I
was young, and not easily discouraged, and at length succeeded in obtaining,
to a certain degree, that common-place intercourse and moderate confidence
of common and every-day concerns, created and cemented by similarity of
pursuit and frequency of meeting, which is called intimacy, or friendship,
according to the ideas of him who uses those words to express them.

"Darvell had already travelled extensively; and to him I had applied for
information with regard to the conduct of my intended journey. It was my
secret wish that he might be prevailed on to accompany me; it was also a
probable hope, founded upon the shadowy restlessness which I observed in
him, and to which the animation which he appeared to feel on such subjects,
and his apparent indifference to all by which he was more immediately
surrounded, gave fresh strength. This wish I first hinted, and then
expressed: his answer, though I had partly expected it, gave me all the
pleasure of surprise Ñ he consented; and, after the requisite arrangement,
we commenced our voyages. After journeying through various countries of the
south of Europe, our attention was turned towards the East, according to our
original destination; and it was in my progress through these regions that
the incident occurred upon which will turn what I may have to relate.

"The constitution of Darvell, which must from his appearance have been in
early life more than usually robust, had been for some time gradually giving
away, without the intervention of any apparent disease: he had neither cough
nor hectic, yet he became daily more enfeebled; his habits were temperate,
and he neither declined nor complained of fatigue; yet he was evidently
wasting away: he became more and more silent and sleepless, and at length so
seriously altered, that my alarm grew proportionate to what I conceived to
be his danger.

"We had determined, on our arrival at Smyrna, on an excursion to the ruins
of Ephesus and Sardis, from which I endeavoured to dissuade him in his
present state of indisposition Ñ but in vain: there appeared to be an
oppression on his mind, and a solemnity in his manner, which ill
corresponded with his eagerness to proceed on what I regarded as a mere
party of pleasure little suited to a valetudinarian; but I opposed him no
longer Ñ and in a few days we set off together, accompanied only by a
serrugee and a single janizary.

"We had passed halfway towards the remains of Ephesus, leaving behind us the
more fertile environs of Smyrna, and were entering upon that wild and
tenantless tract through the marshes and defiles which lead to the few huts
yet lingering over the broken columns of Diana Ñ the roofless walls of
expelled Christianity, and the still more recent but complete desolation of
abandoned mosques Ñ when the sudden and rapid illness of my companion
obliged us to halt at a Turkish cemetery, the turbaned tombstones of which
were the sole indication that human life had ever been a sojourner in this
wilderness. The only caravansera we had seen was left some hours behind us,
not a vestige of a town or even cottage was within sight or hope, and this
'city of the dead' appeared to be the sole refuge of my unfortunate friend,
who seemed on the verge of becoming the last of its inhabitants.

"In this situation, I looked round for a place where he might most
conveniently repose: contrary to the usual aspect of Mahometan
burial-grounds, the cypresses were in this few in number, and these thinly
scattered over its extent; the tombstones were mostly fallen, and worn with
age: upon one of the most considerable of these, and beneath one of the most
spreading trees, Darvell supported himself, in a half-reclining posture,
with great difficulty. He asked for water. I had some doubts of our being
able to find any, and prepared to go in search of it with hesitating
despondency: but he desired me to remain; and turning to Suleiman, our
janizary, who stood by us smoking with great tranquility, he said,
'Suleiman, verbana su,' (i.e. 'bring some water,') and went on describing
the spot where it was to be found with great minuteness, at a small well for
camels, a few hundred yards to the right: the janizary obeyed. I said to
Darvell, 'How did you know this?' He replied, 'From our situation; you must
perceive that this place was once inhabited, and could not have been so
without springs: I have also been here before.'

" 'You have been here before! How came you never to mention this to me? and
what could you be doing in a place where no one would remain a moment longer
than they could help it?'

"To this question I received no answer. In the mean time Suleiman returned
with the water, leaving the serrugee and the horses at the fountain. The
quenching of his thirst had the appearance of reviving him for a moment; and
I conceived hopes of his being able to proceed, or at least to return, and I
urged the attempt. He was silent Ñ and appeared to be collecting his spirits
for an effort to speak. He began Ñ

" 'This is the end of my journey, and of my life; I came here to die; but I
have a request to make, a command Ñ for such my last words must be. Ñ You
will observe it?'

" 'Most certainly; but I have better hopes.'

" 'I have no hopes, nor wishes, but this Ñ conceal my death from every human

" 'I hope there will be no occasion; that you will recover, and Ñ'

" 'Peace! it must be so: promise this.'

" 'I do.'

" 'Swear it, by all that Ñ' He here dictated an oath of great solemnity.

" 'There is no occasion for this. I will observe your request; and to doubt
me is Ñ'

" 'It cannot be helped, you must swear.'

"I took the oath, it appeared to relieve him. He removed a seal ring from
his finger, on which were some Arabic characters, and presented it to me. He
proceeded Ñ

" 'On the ninth day of the month, at noon precisely (what month you please,
but this must be the day), you must fling this ring into the salt springs
which run into the Bay of Eleusis; the day after, at the same hour, you must
repair to the ruins of the temple of Ceres, and wait one hour.'

" 'Why?'

" 'You will see.'

" 'The ninth day of the month, you say?'

" 'The ninth.'

"As I observed that the present was the ninth day of the month, his
countenance changed, and he paused. As he sat, evidently becoming more
feeble, a stork, with a snake in her beak, perched upon a tombstone near us;
and, without devouring her prey, appeared to be steadfastly regarding us. I
know not what impelled me to drive it away, but the attempt was useless; she
made a few circles in the air, and returned exactly to the same spot.
Darvell pointed to it, and smiled Ñ he spoke Ñ I know not whether to himself
or to me Ñ but the words were only, 'Tis well!'

" 'What is well? What do you mean?'

" 'No matter; you must bury me here this evening, and exactly where that
bird is now perched. You know the rest of my injunctions.'

"He then proceeded to give me several directions as to the manner in which
his death might be best concealed. After these were finished, he exclaimed,
'You perceive that bird?'

" 'Certainly.'

" 'And the serpent writhing in her beak?'

" 'Doubtless: there is nothing uncommon in it; it is her natural prey. But
it is odd that she does not devour it.'

"He smiled in a ghastly manner, and said faintly. 'It is not yet time!' As
he spoke, the stork flew away. My eyes followed it for a moment Ñ it could
hardly be longer than ten might be counted. I felt Darvell's weight, as it
were, increase upon my shoulder, and, turning to look upon his face,
perceived that he was dead!

"I was shocked with the sudden certainty which could not be mistaken Ñ his
countenance in a few minutes became nearly black. I should have attributed
so rapid a change to poison, had I not been aware that he had no opportunity
of receiving it unperceived. The day was declining, the body was rapidly
altering, and nothing remained but to fulfil his request. With the aid of
Suleiman's ataghan and my own sabre, we scooped a shallow grave upon the
spot which Darvell had indicated: the earth easily gave way, having already
received some Mahometan tenant. We dug as deeply as the time permitted us,
and throwing the dry earth upon all that remained of the singular being so
lately departed, we cut a few sods of greener turf from the less withered
soil around us, and laid them upon his sepulchre.

"Between astonishment and grief, I was tearless."

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