The Strand Magazine/Volume 4/Issue 20/Shafts from an Eastern Quiver
Shafts from an Eastern Quiver.
II.—THE JASPER VALE OF THE FALLING STAR.
By Charles J. Mansford, B.A.
I turned my glance in the direction indicated by my companion, and, for a moment, could not give utterance to my surprise at the strange sight.
"The woman must be mad," I blurted out at last; "one false step, or even a breath of wind, will send her headlong down to the valley beneath, a shapeless and lifeless mass."
"Yet that fate would bring her rest and forgetfulness," said Hassan, who stood with us gazing from the height of the Aftcha Pass. There was a strange pathos in the Arab's voice as he spoke, and Denviers, knowing that Hassan had uttered the truth concerning our recent visit to Petra, was silent.
Leaving Petra, we had travelled eastward again, and at last found ourselves traversing this grand pass; for we were now in the heart of Persia, a country which we knew would amply repay us for the long, dreary journey which led from the scene of our last adventure in Arabia.
Owing to the intense heat of the day, we travelled only between sunset and sunrise, passing the rest of the time within the beautifully woven tent which Hassan had procured for us on entering Persia, in place of the rough camel-skin covering which had sheltered us from the sun in Arabia.
At the foot of the pass we had bargained with a nomadic Hilyat for the possession of two black Afghan horses on which we rode, Hassan leading the sumpter mules laden with our baggage.
It was a weird spectacle which met our eyes as we stood gazing at the snow-clad crest of Demavend in the distance, the silvery Lar winding its way down in the valley beneath, while around us were mountain tops, separated by the precipices on either side of the spot on which we stood. In the moonlight that streamed down and flooded the topmost ridge of the mountain before us, stood a woman with her hair hanging in tangled masses, framing the beauty of her olive complexion and lustrous eyes as it fell over her shoulders in wild profusion. The white garment which clothed her was encircled at the waist by a belt, which flashed as the rays of the moon fell upon the jewels which studded it. The expression of an infinite sadness which stamped her features seemed well in accord with Hassan's remark.
"Do you know her history?" asked Denviers, in response to the vague words of Hassan.
"The child of Arabia's desert, to whom the lore of these Eastern countries is known, has indeed heard her story, but it ill becomes the Sunnee, as a true worshipper and a believer in Mahomet, to speak of the hateful Sheahs." I knew how deep the jealousy of the Arabs and Persians was, as to the merits of their respective claims as true followers of the Prophet, but Hassan had never before refused to satisfy our curiosity whenever able. Indeed, as Denviers often hinted, when facts failed him, Hassan was quite able to narrate some story of which we could only conclude he was the originator.
"Come, Hassan," said Denviers, "I don't suppose the Prophet will object to our hearing what brings this woman here, far away from the haunts of her race." The Arab's face only seemed to become more resolute at this remark.
"I will not speak of the false Sheahs," he responded almost angrily; "seek from the woman herself the information which you desire." I looked in surprise, first at Hassan, then into Denviers' face.
"Don't rouse his fanatical prejudices, whatever you do," I whispered; "we cannot afford to quarrel with him just now; after all, Hassan has been more faithful to us by far than most of his fraternity would have been."
I stopped suddenly. The woman had observed us, and, uttering a plaintive cry, as of some hunted animal, began to descend the mountain side. My head grew dizzy as I saw her clinging with her delicate hands to projections of the mountain to steady herself as she made her way down the almost perpendicular slope. We sprang from our horses and stood watching her with astonishment.
"Look here, Harold," said Denviers, "I feel certain that there is something very strange recorded with regard to this woman. Hassan is not usually so reticent; I have a good mind to scale the precipice on this side, and to meet her as she reaches the valley below."
I moved close to the edge of the rocky path which formed the pass along which we had journeyed, and then looked shudderingly down.
"I doubt whether you would reach the bottom alive or not," I responded; "there are possibly plenty of adventures in store for us without risking this descent. Still, I too feel a strange desire to learn this woman's history, and if you run the risk of climbing down I will certainly follow." Denviers turned to Hassan, who seemed to take little interest in the conversation.
"You can wait here till we have reached the valley below, then make for the road towards Demavend. After proceeding a farsakh (four miles), pitch the tent, there we will endeavour to rejoin you at daybreak to-morrow." The Arab bent his head obediently, and stood with folded arms to watch the mad attempt which we were about to make. A minute afterwards Denviers was cautiously making his way down the side of the precipice. I gave one glance at the white-clad figure of the woman, who was now two hundreds yards below, then, with a determination to abide by Denviers in the hazardous attempt, began to follow him.
In spite of the utmost caution we slipped and tumbled time after time, while the jagged projections tore our garments and lacerated our hands and feet badly, for we had bared the later for the purpose of obtaining a firmer foothold than we might otherwise have done. How long the descent really occupied we could scarcely tell; but, with death so imminent, each minute seemed to us an eternity.
Half way down we stopped for a moment, and, resting on a shelving piece of the mountain, looked across to where the woman was. She still outdistanced us in the descent, but we were surely though slowly gaining upon her.
"We shall reach the valley as soon as she does," said Denviers. "It is a terrible strain, but we must go on now, to return would be impossible." He scrambled down the side of the rock on which we had rested, and when he had descended about twenty yards I followed.
Exhausted, and with every bone in our bodies aching, we reached the valley at last, and, like two men who had just escaped death, we grasped each other's hand firmly for a moment. Then we crossed the valley and hastened in the direction where we observed the woman had just descended.
The silence which she had hitherto maintained, save for that one solitary cry, was broken; for, on seeing us in pursuit of her, she gave utterance to wild, weird screams of fear, and fled down the valley. We followed closely, saw her disappear in a long jagged fissure which seemed as if it had been made by a shaft of lightning quivering through the solid rock. Through this gap we went, and in a few minutes emerged into a second valley, led thither by the fugitive.
As soon as she reached this spot, the woman stopped, and seemed to have forgotten altogether that we were pursuing her. So strange were the surroundings, and so brilliant was the scene which met our gaze, that we hesitated to approach her, and, hiding in a slight hollow, shadowed partly from the moon's rays, we looked closely at the woman's face—beautiful even amid the wonders which the valley disclosed.
We held a whispered conversation as to the best method in which we might get her to converse with us without fear, and finally we determined to await the course of events, which we thought might help on our desire.
The valley which we had entered was entirely composed of a wondrous jasper of a yellowish tinge, which seemed at intervals to become blue or crimson, while from its sides, which were elaborately carved with Eastern designs, there arose at the far end what appeared to us to be the remains of a gigantic portal, fully a hundred feet in height. Above was the blue sky, spangled with stars, among which one, larger than the rest, seemed to shed its silver rays upon the valley below, not less intense than did the crescent moon.
The form of the woman seemed to move about as if it were the ghost of some one risen from the grave to haunt the scene of its former joys or sorrows. Presently from out of a small embrasure was drawn some material which she kindled, and then, lying partly prone before it, she fixed her gaze intently on the glowing embers, glancing occasionally at the star shining in splendour above. As her eyes seemed to become yet more fixed upon the fire, Denviers cautiously advanced, and motioned to me to follow. He moved to where the woman was, and, reaching the place, quietly seated himself opposite to her. I followed his example, and was surprised to observe that, in spite of our presence, the woman's eyes were not directed towards us. I felt a strange nervous feeling run through me at the silence which reigned around us, unbroken by any of the three beings gathered round the fire.
Glancing at the woman's face again, I observed that her features seemed to be wrapped in trance-like repose, although her eyes still shone full and lustrous.
"We would know why it is that you wander here alone, nor fear the terrors of the night?" Denviers ventured to say, in a tone which seemed to me strangely subdued and calm. The woman's lips parted, and she answered in Arabic:—
"Why seek ye to learn? Are not the sorrows of one sufficient for that one to bear?"
"I know not," responded Denviers, "but thou, fair as a flower, surely hast no cause for sorrow."
"Listen and decide," answered the woman, "then will ye know what troubles my spirit, for I am destined to wander without rest because of the deed which was mine when Prince Kasmir lived in this land." She paused and glanced again at the star above, while, for a moment, the deep impress of sorrow returned to her countenance as she did so. Then, looking once more into the glowing embers, she continued:—
"Years ago, when this glittering valley was the courtyard of a prince's palace, I was the beloved of Prince Kasmir. In his presence the hours would fly as if they were minutes, while without him time passed drearily indeed. There was a law in Persia that prince and peasant must not wed, but my lover heeded it not; he knew that one day he would rule over this country, and such a law he vowed should not be suffered to exist.
"Every night, when those within the palace were asleep, he would steal out and wander side by side with me through the valleys down to the lotus-kissed waters of the Lar, which flows not far from here. Beneath the shade of a friendly tree was hidden a boat, and, entering it, we voyaged together, his oars keeping time to the melodies which we sang together of love and its eternity.
"Before the grey dawn came stealing with ghostly raiment up the vale, we would return; he to the palace and I to the humble tent wherefrom I nightly stole. Happy indeed were we, until in an evil hour the queen of a country on the far borders of Arabia came to visit the Persian land. Standing among the crowd of peasants and nomads that thronged the palace gate, I saw the long retinue pass in, and lastly a regal woman was borne upon a sumptuous litter, and by her side walked my adored, Prince Kasmir.
"He had told me of the expected coming of this Eastern queen, but had laughed when I murmured that perhaps his love would fly from me to her. He promised to come from his palace the next night as usual, but hour after hour passed and yet he did not appear. Never again did he meet me as of old, for a new love had filled his breast, and then there came to me strange rumours that Kasmir was to wed the queen, in order that the two countries might in this way be united, and ruled as if they were but one. At first I could not believe it, then I began to wander at nightfall alone; and once, when I ventured into this valley of jasper, I saw two lovers come forth from yonder archway. They talked and laughed together, and the maiden leant her head upon the shoulder of the man at her side. I crept close to them, hidden by the shadow of yonder wall.
"The maiden had come from Eastern lands, and, by the rich pearls of mystic hue which she wore, I knew that this must be the queen whom I had seen once before. At first the man's face was partly hidden from me, but he raised it, and, gazing into his companion's eyes, their lips met in a lover's kiss; but I, wretched beyond measure, fell prostrate in the friendly shadow, for in that moment I recognised Prince Kasmir, and I knew that the rumour was true, and that my lover was lost to me for ever!
"I lay there, still and silent, until the two passed through the archway once more; then I went slowly back to the tent, dejected and alone.
"In the tribe of the Hilyats there dwelt one who was famous for charms of great potency, and to him I went and told, with many a sigh, that my lover was false. He was kind to me, and promised aid. When I went to him again he said that the stars had agreed to help me to regain the Prince's affection.
"By his commands I made a fire of glowing embers upon this spot, such as the one ye now see, and waited for the coming of night. Sitting beside it, I was told to watch the lovers, and, when they passed into the jasper vale, to blow the embers, that they might glow redder still, as the charm which was given me was mingled with them. Then should my lover be restored to me, and the queen who had stolen his love should perish. So said the great magician.
"When the stars came out I heard the sound of voices, as before; then the lovers appeared from under the archway. I placed the charm upon the embers, and, fanning them with my breath, next looked up at the great star which shone brighter than the others, and begged it to be pitiful and to restore to me my beloved.
"As I did so, a sudden light appeared above, for the star burst and fell upon the lovers! I hastened forward, for the magician had told me that the Prince would be uninjured. Alas! when I reached the spot nothing was there, for the Prince and his adored one had disappeared. I looked up to the sky once more, but the great star was no longer to be seen; while in its place were two others, smaller, but shining together, as if the twain had become stars set in the blue heaven to abide for ever side by side.
"I ran shrieking from the valley, and wandered aimlessly for days on the mountain slopes. I could not die, and now my spirit urges me ever to visit this valley at nightfall. Years have passed since then; the palace of the Prince has disappeared, but amid the ruins of this jasper vale I wander sadly, or climb the desolate mountain peaks.
"When the great star which ye see above appears, I kindle a fire, as I did of old, for then do I see the star fall again and the lovers perish. The magician deceived me, for he hated the Prince, and used me as the means of destroying him."
Throughout the narrative neither of us had interrupted; on its conclusion I glanced uneasily at my companion.
"What do you think about this star?" I whispered. For reply, Denviers pointed towards the woman, who had partly raised herself, and was engaged in endeavouring to make the embers glow brighter. After remaining silent for some minutes before answering my question, Denviers at last said—
"If there is any truth in what we have been told, I think the proof of it will soon be forthcoming."
"The woman seems to be strangely moved," I continued; "would it not be better for us to move away to the spot from where we watched her as she kindled the fire?" To this question Denviers assented, and we took up a position from which we could observe clearly whatever happened in the valley.
"Do you think she is mad?" I asked. Then, without waiting for my companion to answer, I grasped his arm firmly to enjoin silence.
He glanced in the direction in which he saw I was eagerly looking, and which was towards the jasper gateway.
A thin film of mist seemed to me to have arisen, and in the midst of it the face of a woman apparently arose. Clearer and more distinct it seemed to become, and then the form of the Queen appeared clad in a flowing robe, and adorned with strings of pearls about her neck and arms, while upon her head there glittered a diamond tiara.
As the star above her seemed to shine still brighter, a man, tall and majestic, was to be seen at her side, and the lovers were bathed in a silvery light that streamed down upon them.
"Frank!" I whispered, in an awestruck tone, "are they living beings upon whom we gaze, or are they spirits risen from the dead?"
"Hush, Harold!" he answered, quietly, "your sight must be keener than mine, for at present I see nothing there."
The woman by the embers rose, the calm expression vanished from her countenance, and she staggered forward with outstretched arms. We watched the scene intently. When she reached the jasper gate, she flung herself wildly on her knees, as she exclaimed—
"Kasmir, my beloved one, once again art thou come from the sleeping shades that my eyes may rest upon thee, and that I may lament the love which all unknowingly destroyed thee."
The man seemed to turn coldly from her, then bent forward, and glanced passionately into the eyes of the form at his side.
The star above seemed for a moment to cleave the sky, then, bursting into myriads, fell in a shower like a silver sea, and enveloped what appeared to me to be the forms of the lovers and the woman kneeling vainly at their feet!
Almost immediately the vale assumed its former appearance, and we rushed forward, but found only the woman, to whose story we had listened, kneeling with clasped hands and that look of infinite sorrow upon her face which we had seen before.
Our presence roused her, for she instantaneously started up, and, darting through the portal of the jasper gate, disappeared. We followed her at a headlong pace, and, after traversing the ruins of a stately palace, saw her flying in the distance before us at an almost incredible pace. At last we stopped, exhausted with our vain efforts to overtake her, and saw her mounting a fantastic ridge that stood out rugged and desolate against the starlit sky. Then she disappeared, and nothing remained to us but the recollection of her dreamy yet troubled face!
As we rested, before proceeding to attempt to find a way which might lead to where Hassan had encamped, I asked Denviers again whether he thought the forms which I had seen were real. To my surprise he declared that nothing had passed before his eyes save the woman to whom he had spoken.
"But," I persisted, "I saw them distinctly."
He smiled as he answered—
"No doubt you did, in imagination, Harold. The fact is the woman's story was so impressed upon your mind that, when you looked towards the jasper arch, you expected to see such a vision—"
"And the falling star," I interrupted, "was that imaginary, too?"
He turned towards me as he responded:
"No, you saw something then. What the true story of the cause of this woman's insanity may be, we are not likely to learn, but the explanation of the falling star, or rather shower of stars, is simple enough. On certain known days in each year the earth crosses the orbit of a stream of meteorites above here. When this occurs a shower of falling stars may be seen, and the woman has accustomed herself to connect a purely natural event with the highly imaginative reappearance of her lover. However, we have had a strange adventure. I hope we shall soon find our way out of this valley."
And, rising, we resumed our journey, and before long fortunately reached the spot where Hassan was encamped.
"Will the Englishmen forgive me?" he asked. "I could not speak to them of the one who, in a jealous moment, despoiled one kingdom of its prince and another of the queen who reigned over it."
We made a suitable reply, and, entering the tent, worn out with the events of the night, sought repose amid the words of Hassan, in which he declared himself the dust of our feet, and expressed his determination to ask the felicities to abide with us for so readily forgiving him.