Chapter XXXIX. The Adventures of Pekuah Continued

CHAP. XXXVIII.

The adventures of Pekuah continued.

“We wandered about in this manner
for some weeks, whether,
as our chief pretended, for my gratification,
or, as I rather suspected, for
some convenience of his own. I endeavoured
to appear contented where
sullenness and resentment would have
been of no use, and that endeavour conduced
much to the calmness of my mind;
but my heart was always with Nekayah, [91]

and the troubles of the night much
overbalanced the amusements of the day.
My women, who threw all their cares
upon their mistress, set their minds at ease
from the time when they saw me treated
with respect, and gave themselves up to
the incidental alleviations of our fatigue
without solicitude or sorrow. I was
pleased with their pleasure, and animated
with their confidence. My condition had
lost much of its terrour, since I found
that the Arab ranged the country merely
to get riches. Avarice is an uniform
and tractable vice: other intellectual distempers
are different in different constitutions
of mind; that which sooths the
pride of one will offend the pride of
another; but to the favour of the covetous
there is a ready way, bring money
and nothing is denied. [92]

“At last we came to the dwelling of
our chief, a strong and spacious house
built with stone in an island of the Nile,
which lies, as I was told under the tropick.
“Lady, said the Arab, you shall
rest after your journey a few weeks in
this place, where you are to consider
yourself as sovereign. My occupation
is war: I have therefore chosen this obscure
residence, from which I can issue
unexpected, and to which I can retire
unpersued. You may now repose in security:
here are few pleasures, but here
is no danger.” He then led me into
the inner apartments, and seating me on
the richest couch, bowed to the ground.
His women, who considered me as a
rival, looked on me with malignity;
but being soon informed that I was a
great lady detained only for my ransome, [93]

they began to vie with each other in
obsequiousness and reverence.
Being again comforted with new assurances
of speedy liberty, I was for
some days diverted from impatience by
the novelty of the place. The turrets
overlooked the country to a great distance,
and afforded a view; of many
windings of the stream. In the day I
wandered from one place to another as
the course of the sun varied the splendour
of the prospect, and saw many things
which I had never seen before. The
crocodiles and river-horses are common
in this unpeopled region, and I often looked
upon them with terrour, though I
knew that they could not hurt me.
For some time I expected to see mermaids
and tritons, which, as Imlac has told [94]

me, the European travellers have stationed
in the Nile, but no such beings
ever appeared, and the Arab, when I
enquired after them, laughed at my credulity.
“At night the Arab always attended
me to a tower set apart for celestial
observations where he endeavoured to teach
me the names and courses of the stars.
I had no great inclination to this study,
but an appearance of attention was necessary
to please my instructor, who valued
himself for his skill, and, in a little
while, I found some employment requisite
to beguile the tediousness of time, which
was to be passed always amidst the same
objects. I was weary of looking in the
morning on things from which I had
turned away weary in the evening: I [95]

therefore was at last willing to observe the
stars rather than do nothing, but could
not always compose my thoughts, and
was very often thinking on Nekayah
when others imagined me contemplating
the sky. Soon after the Arab went upon
another expedition, and then my only
pleasure was to talk with my maids about
the accident by which we were carried
away, and the happiness that we
should all enjoy at the end of our captivity.”
“There were women in your Arab’s
fortress, said the princess, why did you
not make them your companions, enjoy
their conversation, and partake their diversions?
In a place where they found
business or amusement, why should you
alone sit corroded with idle melancholy? [96]

or why could not you bear for a few
months that condition to which they
were condemned for life?”
“The diversions of the women, answered
Pekuah, were only childish play,
by which the mind accustomed to stronger
operations could not be kept busy. I
could do all which they delighted in
doing by powers merely sensitive, while
my intellectual faculties were flown to Cairo.
They ran from room to room as a bird
hops from wire to wire in his cage.
They danced for the sake of motion, as
lambs frisk in a meadow. One sometimes
pretended to be hurt that the rest
might be alarmed, or hid herself that another
might seek her. Part of their time
passed in watching the progress of light
bodies that floated on the river, and part [97]

in marking the various forms into which
clouds broke in the sky.
“Their business was only needlework,
in which I and my maids sometimes
helped them; but you know that
the mind will easily straggle from the
fingers, nor will you suspect that captivity
and absence from Nekayah could
receive solace from silken flowers.
“Nor was much satisfaction to be
hoped from their conversation: for of
what could they be expected to talk?
They had seen nothing; for they had
lived from early youth in that narrow
spot: of what they had not seen they
could have no knowledge, for they could
not read. They had no ideas but of the
few things that were within their view, [98]

and had hardly names for any thing but
their cloaths and their food. As I bore
a superior character, I was often called
to terminate their quarrels, which I decided
as equitably as I could. If it could
have amused me to hear the complaints
of each against the rest, I might have
been often detained by long stories, but
the motives of their animosity were so
small that I could not listen without
intercepting the tale.”
“How, said Rasselas can the Arab,
whom you represented as a man of more
than common accomplishments, take
any pleasure in his seraglio when it is
filled only with women like these. Are
they exquisitely beautiful?” [99]

“They do not, said Pekuah, want
that unaffecting and ignoble beauty which
may subsist without spriteliness or sublimity,
without energy of thought or
dignity of virtue. But to a man like
the Arab such beauty was only a flower
casually plucked and carelessly thrown
away. Whatever pleasures he might find
among them, they were not those of
friendship or society. When they were
playing about him he looked on them
with inattentive superiority: when they
vied for his regard he sometimes turned
away disgusted. As they had no know-
ledge, their talk could take nothing from
the tediousness of life: as they had no
choice, their fondness, or appearance of
fondness, excited in him neither pride
nor gratitude; he was not exalted in his
own esteem by the smiles of a woman [100]

who saw no other man, nor was much
obliged by that regard, of which he
could never know the sincerity, and
which he might often perceive to be exerted
not so much to delight him as to
pain a rival. That which he gave, and
they received, as love, was only a
careless distribution of superfluous time, such
love as man can bestow upon that which
he despises, such as has neither hope nor
fear, neither joy nor sorrow.”
“You have reason, lady, to think
yourself happy, said Imlac, that you
have been thus easily dismissed. How
could a mind, hungry for knowledge,
be willing, in an intellectual famine, to
lose such a banquet as Pekuah’s conversation?” [101]

“I am inclined to believe, answered
Pekuah, that he was for some time in
suspense; for, notwithstanding his promise,
whenever I proposed to dispatch a
messenger to Cairo, he found some excuse
for delay. While I was detained in
his house he made many incursions into
the neighbouring countries, and, perhaps,
he would have refused to discharge me,
had his plunder been equal to his wishes.
He returned always courteous, related
his adventures, delighted to hear my
observations, and endeavoured to advance
my acquaintance with the stars. When I
importuned him to send away my letters,
he toothed me with professions of honour
and sincerity; and, when I could be no
longer decently denied, put his troop
again in motion, and left me to govern
in his absence. I was much afflicted by [102]

this studied procrastination, and was sometimes
afraid that I should be forgotten;
that you would leave Cairo, and I must
end my days in an island of the Nile.
“I grew at last hopeless and dejected,
and cared so little to entertain him, that
he for a while more frequently talked
with my maids. That he should fall
in love with them, or with me, might
have been equally fatal, and I was not
much pleased with the growing friendship.
My anxiety was not long; for,
as I recovered some degree of chearfulness,
he returned to me, and I could not
forbear to despise my former uneasiness.
“He still delayed to send for my ransome,
and would, perhaps, never have
determined, had not your agent found [103]

his way to him. The gold, which he
would not fetch, he could not reject
when it was offered. He hastened to
prepare for our journey hither, like a
man delivered from the pain of an intestine conflict.
I took leave of my companions
in the house, who dismissed me
with cold indifference.”
Nekayah, having heard her favourite’s
relation, rose and embraced her, and
Rasselas gave her an hundred ounces of
gold, which she presented to the Arab
for the fifty that were promised. [104]

         

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A Digital Anthology of Writing in English, 1660-1783