This fantastic story, written in imitation of the One Thousand and One Nights, is not only an extraordinary story in itself but was written in extraordinary circumstances. The author, a wealthy, highly cultivated, and much traveled young Englishman of twenty, wrote it at one sitting: “It took me,” he says, “three days and two nights of hard labor. I never took my clothes off the whole time. The severe application made me very ill.” Vathek was originally written in French, and was so admirable in style and idiom that it was considered by many the work of a Frenchman. It was first published in 1786, as a translation from the French, said to have been made by Dr. Henley, who also supplied the notes. The original edition in the British Museum, however, does not bear the title Vathek ; it is simply entitled: “An Arabian Tale from an unpublished MS., with notes, etc.” (London, 1786). The original French copy was published at Lausanne in 1787. Lord Byron said of it: “As an Eastern tale, even Rasselas must bow before it; the Happy Valley will not bear a comparison with the Hall of Eblis.” One critic, fifty years after the publication of Vathek, said: “In the Hall of Eblis, the figure of Soliman on his throne, showing his heart enveloped in flame; the impressive sentences he utters; the awful forms of the pre-Adamite kings; the innumerable multitudes whirled around in eternal motion, each hand pointing to the heart on fire, leave an impression on the mind more human, more startling and awakening than any drawn from the hell of Milton.”
THE Caliph Vathek, grandson of Haroun-al-Raschid, possessed a pleasing and majestic figure, but when angry one of his eyes became so terrible that no one could bear its glance. He was exceedingly generous, and his greatest pleasures were woman and wine. He was especially addicted to the pleasures of the table, and denied that it was necessary to make a hell of this world to make a paradise of the next. In magnificence he surpassed his predecessors: he considered his father’s palace far too cramped, and therefore added five palatial wings for the gratification of each of the senses. In the first of these The Eternal, or Unsatiating Banquet, tables were kept spread with the most exquisite dainties and liquors. The Temple of Melody, or The Nectar of the Soul, was inhabited by the most skilful musicians and admired poets of the day, who provided perpetual entertainment. The Delight of the Eyes, or The Support of Memory, was a vast museum. The Palace of Perfumes, or The Incentive to Pleasure, consisted of various halls in which all the perfumes in the world were kept burning in golden censers and torches, and aromatic lamps flamed day and night. This was surrounded by an immense garden, planted with every known fragrant flower and herb. The Retreat of Mirth, or The Dangerous, was inhabited by women as beautiful and seductive as the houris.
Notwithstanding Vathek’s love of everything that ministered to the senses, he was a great student and lover of the sciences, particularly the occult. He was fond of arguing with the doctors, and when the zealots opposed him he persecuted them in return, so as to have reason on his side, at least.
Mahomet naturally viewed the irreligious conduct of his vicegerent on earth with some indignation; but he told the genii to leave him alone and see how far he would go before punishing him. He told them to help Vathek to complete the tower which he had begun for the purpose of insolently penetrating the secrets of heaven. The result was that for one cubit the workmen raised in the daytime two were added in the night, and this immensely tickled Vathek’s vanity. He was extremely proud, finally, when he mounted the fifteen hundred steps and surveyed the entire city of Samarah spread below him. On the summit he spent many nights in astrological studies, and learned that he was to have the most extraordinary adventures accomplished by a wonderful personage from an unknown country. He made a proclamation, there-fore, that every stranger should be brought into his presence. Soon afterward a hideous being arrived whose appearance terrified the guards that brought him into the Caliph’s presence. He had with him marvelous wares; but what particularly attracted the Caliph’s admiration were some sabers that dealt automatically a blow at the person they were desired to strike. The dazzling blades were engraved with unknown characters. He told the stranger to take what gold he wanted for them, and then asked him whence he came. To all inquiries, he showed his hideous teeth and laughed horribly. He was ordered to prison. When Vathek went to dinner, he was so disturbed that he could eat only thirty-two dishes of the three hundred that daily supplied his table. His anger was further inflamed in the morning when, on visiting the prison, he found it empty and the guards dead. His mother, Carathis, who was an adept in astrology, did her best to comfort him, and suggested that proclamation should be made that anyone who would decipher the inscriptions on the swords should be richly rewarded, and that those who failed should have their beards burned off. News of the stranger was to be rewarded with fifty beautiful slaves and fifty jars of Kirmith apricots, Though this made their mouths water, the Caliph’s subjects were not able to gratify their longings. Finally an old man appeared who deciphered the inscriptions; but the next day, on examining the swords, he found that the words had changed to those of totally different import; and thereafter Vathek noticed that the characters changed daily. Though he consulted the stars from the top of his tower, he gained no satisfaction, He lost his appetite, ceased to administer justice, and shut up the Palace of the Five Senses. Sometimes his attendants would carry him to a high flower-carpeted plateau within a few miles of the city to breathe the pure air and drink at the four fountains there, One day while there the hideous stranger reappeared and gave him a potion that immediately restored his health and spirits. Vathek took him home, opened the palace, and magnificently entertained him.
At the divan next morning Vathek received a message from Carathis saying that the stars portended danger, and that the potion was probably poison. The stranger’s mocking laughter so ‘enraged Vathek that he kicked him off the steps of the throne, in which act he was imitated by all the bystanders, The stranger, being short and plump, immediately rolled him-self up into a ball and was kicked through the streets of the city by the whole population, headed by Vathek, out to the plain of Catoul and into the valley at the foot of the mountain of the four fountains, where he disappeared over a precipice into an abyss. On the edge of the precipice Vathek ordered his tents to be pitched and spent many nights in vigils. At length a terrible voice addressed him: “Wouldst thou devote thyself to me? adore the terrestrial influences, and abjure Mahomet. On these conditions I will bring thee to the Palace of Subterranean Fire. There shalt thou behold in immense depositories the treasures which the stars have promised thee, and which will be conferred by those intelligences whom thou shalt thus render propitious. It was from thence I brought my sabers, and it is there that Soliman-Ben-Daoud reposes, surrounded by the talismans that control the world.”
Vathek promised, and immediately the earth opened, and Vathek saw the stranger standing with a golden key in his hand before an ebony portal. Before admitting Vathek, however, he demanded the blood of fifty beautiful children as a libation. Vathek returned to Samarah and organized a splendid festival on the plain, during which he managed to throw the necessary number of children into the gulf. To his amazement, though, the chasm immediately closed against him, and he was left alone to the execration of his subjects. It required the utmost exertions of his vizier, Morakanabad, and Bababalouk, the head of the eunuchs, to get him to his palace in safety. Carathis somewhat appeased the angry crowd by haranguing them from her window, while Bababalouk showered Vathek’s stores of gold upon them. By a secret passage Vathek reached his tower and ascended to the top, where he was joined by Carathis, who there built an altar for sacrifice to the subterranean genii. A pile of mummies’ bones and vases of serpents’ oil was raised to a height of twenty cubits. The blaze terrified the inhabitants of Samarah, who broke into the tower with buckets of water to quench the flames. Those who reached the top, half suffocated, were seized by Carathis’s mutes and negresses and thrown into the flames, which immediately changed from swarthy crimson to bright rose, while mephitic vapors changed to others of most exquisite fragrance, and the marble columns rang with harmonious sounds. Cara-this was delighted at the success of her sacrifice. A table appeared loaded with dainties, and on it was an urn containing a parchment, on which was written the satisfaction of the infernal powers and a command for Vathek to set out to Istakhar with his wives, slaves, richest laden camels and most magnificent litters. The document read: “Beware how thou enterest any dwelling on thy route; or thou shalt feel the effects of my anger.” Vathek and his mother then caroused, ironically toasting Mahomet and blaspheming Balaam’s Ass, the Dog of the Seven Sleepers, and all the other animals in Paradise.
At this juncture, an embassy returned from Mecca bringing with it a precious besom used to sweep the sacred Kaaba. Vathek received the pious moullahs with the utmost indignity. On taking leave of Vathek, Carathis expressed her desire to visit the subterranean palace, and she said: “There is nothing so pleasing as retiring to caverns: my taste for dead bodies and everything like mummy is decided; and, I am confident, thou wilt see the most exquisite of their kind. Forget me not, then, but the moment thou art in possession of the talismans which are to open the way to the mineral kingdoms, and the center of the earth itself, fail not to despatch some trusty genius to take me and my cabinet; for the oil of serpents I have pinched to death will be a pretty present to the Giaour.”
On the night before this, Vathek had ascended the tower with his mother to see whether everything was propitious: the planets appeared in their most favorable aspects. They supped gaily on the roof, and during the repast Vathek thought he heard shouts of laughter in the sky, which inspired the fullest assurance.
At moonrise the great standard of the Califat was displayed: twenty thousand lances shone around it, and the Caliph, treading royally on the cloth of gold, ascended his litter amid general acclamation.
For three clays all went well; but on the fourth angry skies inclined Vathek to take shelter in Ghulchissar, whose governor greeted him with refreshments and invitations. How-ever, he consulted his tablets and refused. He sent for his geographers, but the maps were all soaked and nobody knew which way to turn; so, with curses and mutterings of the bowstring for his useless advisers, he determined to cross the heights under guidance of a peasant, who undertook to bring him to Rocnabad in four days. The wailings and shrieks of the eunuchs and the women at the terrors of the precipices did not deter him, nor did a terrible tempest. Worse was to come, however, for Vathek was aroused in his capacious cushioned litter by Bababalouk, who cried: “Misfortune is arrived at its height; wild beasts, who entertain no more reverence for your sacred person than for a dead ass, have beset your camels and their drivers; thirty of the most richly laden are already become their prey, as well as your confectioners, your cooks and purveyors; and unless our holy Prophet should protect us, we have all eaten our last meal.”
This was too much: everybody, including the ladies, had to seize torches. Vathek himself, with a thousand blasphemies, was compelled to touch with his sacred feet the naked earth. One of the cedar forests took fire, which was communicated to the ladies’ litters, and there was great lamentation when the women had to descend and expose themselves to the vulgar gaze. One of Vathek’s Ethiopian wives (he was catholic in his tastes) shouldered her lord like a sack of dates and carried him out of danger.
When the tents were finally pitched and Vathek called for his evening meal, nothing was forthcoming. All the provisions and cooking utensils had been lost. Those delicate cakes baked in silver ovens for his royal mouth, those rich manchets, amber comfits, flagons of Shiraz wine, porcelain vases of snow, and grapes from the banks of the Tigris, were all lost. Bababalouk could present nothing but roasted wolf, vultures a la daube, acrid herbs, rotten truffles, boiled thistles. In the morning his diet stimulated Vathek to imprecations against the Giaour and some soothing expressions toward Mahomet. He was in a desolate gorge, with no help in sight. The timely arrival of two dwarfs from the Emir Fakreddin, with a present of fruits and offers of hospitality, gladdened his heart. Before their address was finished, the fruits had disappeared. As for Vathek, his piety increased, and in the same breath he recited his prayers and called for the Koran and sugar. However, he paled on consulting his tablets, on which Carathis had written: “Beware of puny messengers.”
Nevertheless, he determined to accept the hospitality of Fakreddin, who soon arrived and conducted Vathek to his magnificent palace. The ladies were taken into the harem and delightfully entertained by the Emir’s daughter, Nouronihar, who was as sprightly as an antelope and full of wanton gayety. She assisted the mischievous ladies to give poor Bababalouk a good ducking in the bath, and left him there vainly seeking an exit till the morning. The Emir gave a great festival in honor of the Caliph, which was attended by all the holy men of the neighborhood, and there Vathek saw and was deeply smitten by the charms of Nouronihar, who was betrothed to her cousin, Gulchenrouz, an effeminate boy of her own age. On her way home in the moonlight, Nouronihar got separated from her eunuch escort and her maidens, and was attracted to a grotto in the mountains that was brilliantly lighted. It was decorated with the appendages of royalty : diadems and heron feathers, all sparkling with carbuncles. After soft music, a voice asked : “For what monarch are these torches kindled, this bath prepared, and these habiliments which belong to the talismanic powers?” “For the charming daughter of Fakreddin,” another voice replied. “What? For that trifler, who consumes her time with a giddy child? Can she be amused with such empty toys, whilst he who is destined to enjoy the treasures of the pre-Adamite sultans is inflamed with love?” “For her? No! she will be wise enough to answer that passion alone that can aggrandize her glory. Then all the riches this place contains, as well as the carbuncle of Giamschid, shall be hers.” “You judge right, and I haste to Istakhar to prepare the Palace of Subterranean Fire for the reception of the bridal pair.”
Nouronihar awoke in her father’s harem, and found everybody in despair at having missed her. The next day she received a visit from Vathek with much graciousness. Fakreddin appealed to Vathek to respect the laws of hospitality, and, when he found that his remonstrances were of no avail, he gave Nouronihar and Gulchenrouz a drug which produced a death-like trance; he then held a splendid funeral, meanwhile sending the pair to a hidden lake in the hills, where they were tended by the two dwarfs, who told them that they were now in Paradise.
Vathek was in despair. He renounced the perfidious Giaour and supplicated the pardon of Mahomet, and the Emir congratulated himself on having performed so admirable a con-version. Vathek visited Nouronihar’s tomb, and declared his intention of doing so daily.
One day the adventurous Nouronihar scaled the rocks around the lake and met the disconsolate Vathek, and yielded to his entreaties. He left the Emir’s palace and pitched his tents in a neighboring valley, where Bababalouk supplied him with every luxury that could please his palate and Nouronihar delighted him with her songs and love.
His neglected Dilara, now sheltered by Fakreddin, sent messengers to Carathis, informing her of present conditions. Vathek’s mother immediately mounted her great camel, Alboufaki, and, attended only by her one-eyed slaves, the hideous Nerkes and the relentless Cafour, she departed, telling the Vizier to fleece the people well in her absence, for she would need large sums. Alboufaki inhaled malignant fogs with de-light, and was glad to stop at a miasmatic marsh for Carathis and her two negresses to cull venomous plants for the benefit of whosoever might retard the expedition to Istakhar. At dusk, Alboufaki stopped and stamped so that Carathis knew they were near a cemetery, and on examination she discovered two thousand graves, and determined to consult the ghouls who must haunt it, supplying them with fresh provisions in the bodies of her two guides. Having obtained the information she required, she proceeded; and, on the sixth day, Vathek was awakened by the rough trot of Alboufaki. After a stormy interview between mother and son, Vathek consented to pursue his original quest, only stipulating that he should be accompanied by his beloved Nouronihar, who was “enamored of carbuncles, especially that of Giamschid.” The latter dropped a tender tear over the memory of Gulchenrouz, which aroused the jealousy of Vathek, who told the tale to his mother. Cara-this then retired to her tent, where her negresses informed her that Alboufaki, in search of some sufficiently venomous moss, had run across some blue fish in a lake. Carathis immediately proceeded thither and pronounced incantations, whereupon the fish supplied her with the desired information. She discovered the retreat of Gulchenrouz, and during a battle between the negresses and the dwarfs, the boy escaped and was picked up by a good old genius, who had also rescued the fifty little victims which the impiety of Vathek had devoted to the voracity of the cruel Giaour in the horrible chasm. The genius brought them all up in nests higher than the clouds, and fixed his own abode in a larger nest, from which he had driven the rocs that had built it.
The enraged Carathis returned to vent her spleen upon Vathek and Nouronihar; but in the evening the sky toward Samarah turned fiery red; and, on consulting her magic instruments, she found that a great rebellion had broken out at Samarah and that her wonderful tower was invested. Before returning, therefore, in hot haste she sought her son and conjured him to strike tent at once and set forward, because, though he had broken the conditions of the parchment, she was not yet without hope; “for it cannot be denied that thou hast violated to admiration the laws of hospitality by seducing the daughter of the Emir, after having partaken of his bread and his salt. Such a conduct cannot but be delightful to the Giaour; and if, on thy march, thou canst signalize thyself by an additional crime, all will still go well and thou shalt enter the palace of Soliman in triumph. Adieu! Alboufaki and my negresses are waiting at the door!”
The Caliph wished his mother a prosperous journey, and finished his supper. At midnight he broke camp, and in four days reached the spacious valley of Rocnabad, where he was welcomed by a colony of pious santons. Suspecting that their oratories might be deemed a habitation by the Giaour, he ordered them to be leveled and the gardens devastated. A deputation of the ‘mullahs, sheiks, cadis, and imans of Shiraz arrived with presents, and with an invitation to visit their city and mosques. The presents were accepted, and, in order to make sure that the dignitaries should retire from the Caliph’s presence deferentially backward, they were bound on their asses with their faces to their tails, and driven with nettles out of the Caliph’s presence. Two days later, the mountains of Istakhar came into view, and the Caliph and Nouronihar were unable to repress their transports. The good genii now hastened to Mahomet in the seventh heaven, and begged him to prevent Vathek’s impending ruin at the hand of the dives.
Mahomet indignantly replied that Vathek richly deserved retribution, but he was willing to allow them one more effort. One of them, therefore, assumed the form of a shepherd, and on the slope of a hill played pathetic melody on his flute. His music melted the hearts of the whole caravan. Even Vathek and his partner felt remorse for their misdeeds, and all approached the shepherd, who reproved Vathek in the severest terms and warned him that this was his last hour of grace, at the same time exhorting him to repent and make amends. Vathek, however, hardened his heart, and pressed forward with Nouronihar, although most of his followers deserted him. Finally the pair, alone, arrived at the foot of a vast staircase, which they mounted and saw before them an inscription in fiery letters on the darkness to the effect that though Vathek had violated the conditions of the parchment, yet in view of his other services Eblis would permit the portals of his palace to be opened, and the subterranean fire to receive him into the number of its adorers.
The rock yawned, revealing a staircase of polished marble, down which the pair hastened. At the bottom, before a vast portal of ebony, they were welcomed by the Giaour, before whose golden key the doors flew open. Vathek and Nouronihar were amazed to find themselves in a vast hall with a vaulted roof supported by rows upon rows of columns and arcades extending into infinite distances. The pavement was strewn with gold dust and saffron, exhaling overpowering odors. As they passed along, they noticed an infinity of censers in which ambergris and aloes-wood were burning. Tables spread with rich viands and every kind of wine in crystal vases stood between the columns, and a throng of genii of both sexes were dancing lasciviously to barbarous strains. A vast multitude incessantly passed by, holding their hands over their hearts, pale as death and taking no notice of one another. Some stalked slowly along, some rushed about shrieking with agony, some grinding their teeth in fury foamed more frantically than the wildest maniac. They all avoided each other. The Giaour would answer no questions, but hurried his charges along. At length they entered, through long curtains brocaded with crimson and gold, a vast tabernacle hung with leopard-skins. An infinity of bearded elders and armored afrits were prostrate before an eminence, on the top of which upon a globe of fire sat the dread Eblis. He was youthful in appearance, but his noble features seemed to have been corroded with malignant vapors. His eyes were full of pride and despair; his hair resembled that of an angel of light; an iron scepter was in his hand. Vathek was daunted; Nouronihar was greatly interested. Eblis welcomed the creatures of clay: “Enjoy whatever this palace affords–the treasures of the pre-Adamite sultans, their fulminating sabers, and those talismans that compel the dives to open the subterranean expanses of the mountain of Kaf.” Everything was open for their inspection.
Eagerly following their guide, they reached a vast domed hall with fifty bronze doors in the walls. Here lay the fleshless forms of the pre-Adamite kings, who still retained enough life to be conscious of their condition. With their hands on their hearts they gazed upon one another. At their feet were inscribed stories of their exploits, their power, their pride, and their crimes. Highest of all, and immediately under the dome, lay Soliman-Ben-Daoud. A range of brazen vases surrounded the elevation. Remove the covers,” said the Giaour to Vathek, ” and avail thyself of the talismans which will break asunder all these gates of bronze and render thee master of the treasures contained within, and of the spirits that guard them.”
Vathek was about to obey, when Soliman addressed him and recited the glories, pleasures, and crimes of his career and his present torments. Vathek was horrified to see that Soli-man’s heart was in flames, and reproached the Giaour for having brought him there, calling on Mahomet for mercy.
The Giaour replied : “Know, miserable Prince ! thou art now in the abode of vengeance and despair. Thy heart also will be kindled like those of the other votaries of Eblis. A few days are allotted thee previous to this fatal period: employ them as thou wilt; recline on these heaps of gold; command the infernal potentates; range, at thy pleasure, through these immense subterranean domains: no barrier shall be shut against thee. As for me, I have fulfilled my mission: I now leave thee to thyself.” At these words he vanished.
Hand in hand the couple tottered from the fatal hall.
Every portal opened and the dives fell prostrate at their approach. Every reservoir of riches was open to them,, but they felt neither curiosity, pride, nor avarice. Apathetically they listened to the music and gazed on the banquet. They wandered from chamber to chamber, hall to hall, and gallery to gallery, all traversed by beings in vain search of repose and consolation. They awaited in dread suspense the moment that should render them to each other the like objects of terror. Occasionally also they reproached each other. Finally Vathek ordered an afrit to fetch Carathis, as the author of all his woes. When she arrived on the back of the groaning afrit, Vathek reproached her for her teachings. She informed him of the vengeance she had wreaked on Samarah before leaving. Cara-this then entered the dome of Soliman, opened the vases, seized the talismans, and penetrated into the most secret recesses of the realm of Eblis. Nothing appalled her fearless soul. Even when Eblis confronted her, she was not daunted. She even attempted to dethrone one of the Solimans, to usurp his place, when she was halted by a voice from the abyss of death, proclaiming: “All is accomplished!” At that moment, she laid her right hand upon her heart, which had become a receptacle of eternal fire. At the same moment Vathek and Nouronihar were struck. Their hearts also took fire, and they recoiled from one another with looks of the most furious distraction. All plunged into the cursed multitude, there to wander in an eternity of unabating anguish.