(Plus: 125-year-old criticism of American culture by an American writer sounds curiously familiar.)
⁓The Voice before the Void
The Last American
John Ames Mitchell
Hotter than yesterday.
In the afternoon we were rowed up the river and landed for a short walk. It is unsafe to brave the sun.
The more I learn of these Mehrikans the less interesting they become. Nofuhl is of much the same mind, judging from our conversation to-day, as we walked along together. It was in this wise:
Khan-li: How alike the houses! How monotonous!
Nofuhl: So, also, were the occupants. They thought alike, worked alike, ate, dressed and conversed alike. They read the same books; they fashioned their garments as directed, with no regard for the size or figure of the individual, and copied to a stitch the fashions of Europeans.
Khan-li: But the close-fitting apparel of the European must have been sadly uncomfortable in the heat of a Mehrikan summer.
Nofuhl: So probably it was. Stiff boxes of varying patterns adorned the heads of men. Curious jackets with tight sleeves compressed the body. The feet throbbed and burned in close-fitting casings of un-yielding leather, and linen made stiff by artificial means was drawn tightly about the neck.
Khan-li: Allah! What idiots!
Nofuhl: Even so are they considered.
Khan-Ii: To what quality of their minds do you attribute such love of needless suffering?
Nofuhl: It was their desire to be like others. A natural feeling in a vulgar people.
A fair wind from the West to-day. We weighed anchor and sailed up the Eastern side of the city. I did this as Nofuhl finds the upper portion of the town much richer in relics than the lower, which seems to have been given up to commercial purposes. We sailed close under one of the great monuments in the river, and are at a loss to divine its meaning. Many iron rods still dangle from the tops of each of the structures. As they are in a line, one with the other, we thought at first they might have been once connected and served as a bridge, but we soon saw they were too far apart.
Came to anchor about three miles from the old mooring. Up the river and down, North, South, East, and West, the ruins stretch away indefinitely, seemingly without end.
Am anxious about El-Hedyd. He went ashore and has not returned. It is now after midnight.
Praise Allah! My dear comrade is alive! This morning we landed early and began our search for him. As we passed before the building which bears the inscription
. . . DORF ASTORIA
upon its front, we heard his voice from within in answer to our calls. We entered, and after climbing the ruined stairway found him seated upon the floor above. He had a swollen leg from an ugly sprain, and various bruises were also his. While our friends were constructing a litter on which to bear him hence we conversed together. The walls about us bore traces of having once enclosed a hall of some beauty. In idling about I pulled open the decaying door of an old closet and saw upon the rotting shelves many pieces of glass and earthenware of fine workmanship. Taking one in my hand, a small wine-cup of glass, I approached my comrade calling his attention to its slender stem and curious form. As his eyes fell upon it they opened wide in amazement. I also observed a trembling of his hand as he reached forth to touch it. He then recounted to me his marvellous adventure of the night before, but saying before he began: “Thou knowest, O Prince, I am no believer in visions, and I should never tell the tale but for thy discovery of this cup. I drank from such an one last night, proffered by a ghostly hand.”
I would have smiled, but he was much in earnest. As I made a movement to sit beside him, he said: “Taste first, O my master, of the grapes hanging from yonder wall.”
I did so, and to my great surprise found them of an exquisite flavor, finer even than the cultivated fruit of Persia, sweeter and more delicate, of a different nature from the wild grapes we have been eating. My astonishment appeared to delight him, and he said with a laugh: “The grapes are impossible, but they exist; even more absurd is my story!” and he then narrated his adventure.
It was this:
WHAT EL-HEDYD SAW
Yesterday, after nightfall, as he was hastening toward the Zlotuhb he fell violently upon some blocks of stone, wrenching his ankle and much bruising himself. Unable to walk upon his foot he limped into this building to await our coming in the morning. The howling of wolves and other wild beasts as they prowled about the city drove him, for safety, to crawl up the ruins of the stairway to the floor above. As he settled himself in a corner of this hall his nostrils were greeted with the delicious odor from the grapes about his head. He found them surprisingly good, and ate heartily. He soon after fell into a sleep which lasted some hours, for when he awoke the moon was higher in the heavens, the voices of the wolves were hushed and the city was silent.
As he lay in a revery, much absorbed in his own thoughts, he gradually became aware of mysterious changes taking place, as if by stealth, about him. A decorated ceiling appeared to be closing over the hall. Mirrors and tinted walls slowly crept in place of ivy and crumbling bricks. A faint glow grew stronger and more intense until it filled the great room with a dazzling light. Then came softly into view a table of curious form, set out with flowers and innumerable dishes of glass and porcelain, as for a feast.
Standing about the room he saw solemn men with beardless faces, all in black attire, whose garments bore triangular openings upon the chest to show the shirt beneath. These personages he soon discovered were servants.
As he gazed in bewilderment, there entered other figures, two by two, who took their seats about the table. These later comers, sixty or more, were men and women walking arm in arm, the women in rich attire of unfamiliar fashion and sparkling with precious stones. The men were clad like the servants.
They ate and drank and laughed, and formed a brilliant scene. El-Hedyd rose to his feet, and moved by a curiosity he made no effort to resist,—for he is a reckless fellow and knows no fear—he hobbled out into the room.
They looked upon him in surprise, and seemed much amused at his presence. One of the guests, a tall youth with yellow mustaches, approached him, offering a delicate crystal vessel filled with a sparkling fluid.
El-Hedyd took it.
The youth raised another from the table and with a slight gesture as if in salutation, he said in words which my comrade understood, though he swears it was a language unknown to him: “We may meet again the fourth of next month.”
He then drank the wine, and so did El-Hedyd.
Hereupon the others smiled as if at their comrade’s wit, all save the women, whose tender faces spoke more of pity than of mirth. The wine flew to his brain as he drank it, and things about him seemed to reel and spin. Strains of fantastic music burst upon his ears: then, all in rhythm, the women joined their partners and whirled about him with a lightsome step. And, moving with it, his throbbing brain seemed dancing from his head. The room itself, all swaying and quivering with the melody, grew dim and stole from view. The music softly died away.
Again was silence, the moon above looking calmly down upon the ivied walls.
He fell like a drunken man upon the floor, and did not wake till our voices called him.
Such his tale.
He has a clear head and is no liar, but so many grapes upon an empty stomach with the fever from his swollen limb might well explain it.
* * * * *
Bear’s meat for dinner.
This morning toward noon Kuzundam, the second officer, wandered on ahead of us, and entered a large building in pursuit of a rabbit. He was about descending to the basement below, when he saw, close before him, a bear leisurely mounting the marble stairs. Kuzundam is no coward, but he turned and ran as he never ran before. The bear, who seemed of a sportive nature, also ran, and in close pursuit. Luckily for my friend we happened to be near, otherwise instead of our eating bear’s meat, the bear might have lunched quietly off Kuzundam in the shady corridors of the “FIFTH AVENUE HOTEL.”
Continued in part 4.