The Adventures of Mr. Maximillian Bacchus and His Travelling Circus 7

  "We'll see," said Angelo, and he turned to the rest of the Circus. "Hero, Malachi, Bathsheba, Domingo, Ophelia, Bacchus—are you with me?"

  "Of course we are, my dear boy," said Mr. Bacchus. "I was about to suggest the self-same plan myself."

  "I salute your bravery," said the Khan. "Though I am sure the task is beyond even my finest generals. To battle, on an open plain, under the sun, that can be done. But in darkness, with only a flame to strike by, all is confusion."

  "We have always performed by torchlight," replied Mr. Bacchus. "Darkness has its place, great Khan. It is where we may suppose the Mysteries dwell. Let us have shadow, then, to remind us of home."

  The Khan nodded, and clapped twice. Immediately there came a shrieking of ill-oiled chains, and in the floor of the throne-room a trapdoor appeared, revealing a stairway that sank down into the entrails of the earth.

  "Fare thee well," said the Khan, and he bowed as deeply as he was able, in recognition of the company's valour. Then the crowd parted, like the Red Sea, and they made their way to the maw of the earth.

  Angelo stood for a moment on the top step, until the light came into his eyes, and then led the way down into the caves, illuminating the way before them.

  Indeed they were measureless, the caves below Xanadu. Measureless and treacherous. The steps, which had been cut into the ice, were slippery with slime, and the darkness forever danced around Angelo's eyes, threatening to extinguish them. Only Malachi was enjoying the journey, chiefly because of the water that dripped from the roof. For, unknown to the great Khans, the measureless caves were melting, and, in some future age, would collapse, pitching all the glory of Xanadu into the Abyss.

  Deeper and deeper Angelo led the heroes, the roar of the river Alph growing louder in their heads all the time, until the air shook with sound. To left and right, like the pillars of ancient temples rose the bones of fabulous beasts, the Mantichora, the Shrike and the Baiste-na-scoghaigh, who had battled to their deaths in the measureless caves. At length, they stepped out into a cavern so large that they could discern no walls, and there, by the dim light of Angelo's eyes, they saw the great river itself, white with the fury of its majesty, as it rushed to throw itself endlessly into the open air, and to fall away into the sunless cavern below. To trespass further into the caves, they would have to cross the river, and the only means was a bridge of rotting wood.

  "I'll go first," volunteered Bathsheba. "I'm the lightest and an acrobat," and she began to edge across the rotting bridge. She was only about half way across, however, when, on the other side of the river an awful figure appeared. It was Kuyuk, the Khan's brother, dressed in his filthied ceremonial robes, the bird-mask upon his head. The Princess was beside him, and when her eyes alighted on the company and upon Angelo's especially, she ran to the bridge. But her father was there before her, and with an inhuman screech he seized the rotting planks and began to tear at them.

  "Bathsheba," everyone yelled in unison. "Look out!" The orang-outang heeded the warning. In a moment she had bounded back along the bridge to the safety of the bank, just as Kuyuk, with one heave, sent the decaying planks tumbling into the Alph - where they were swiftly carried off by the roaring water. Now there was no way across the river, and with a cry of triumph, the Khan's brother picked up his daughter in his arms and disappeared into the caves once more.

  "What do we do?" asked Ophelia.

  "Simple," said Malachi, throwing off his sheet. "Ophelia, do you have your trapeze wire with you?"

  "Of course," said Ophelia. "How else can I practice?" And she dragged the wire from her pockets with a welter of dead flowers.

  "Hero," said Malachi, taking complete command of the situation. "Take one end of the wire and hold on for Aten's sake."

  "What are you going to do?" said Domingo.

  "The Nile runs far faster than this sluggish trickle," said Malachi. "It will be simplicity itself to swim across." With that he scuttled down the bank into the icy water, the other end of the trapeze wire held fast in his teeth, and disappeared. The river swept on, irrevocably, and for a long while there was no sign of Malachi. After a few minutes everyone began to suspect that the current or the bitter cold had overcome him and that he had been swept down the river to the waterfall. Perhaps, even now, they thought, he is swimming in the sunless sea, lost and boast-less. Then, when it seemed certain he would never be seen in this world again, he appeared on the other side of the river, and scaled the muddy bank. He then proceeded to tie the wire to a vast rib-bone that rose from the ice. Once it was made secure, Hero took the strain and Ophelia walked across, followed by Bathsheba. Both of them were used to heights, and the crossing was quite easy.

  "Well, that's three," said Mr. Bacchus. "But I really can't cross myself, because, to be honest, my feet aren't big enough."

  "I can cross," said Domingo. "After all, I can balance on my ball with no trouble."

  "Go on then, my boy," said Mr. Bacchus, and inch by inch Domingo began to cross the river.

  Angelo watched intently. "I must go too," he said when the clown had crossed.

  "No heroism, dear boy," said Mr. Bacchus. "You're not a tight rope walker, and it takes years of practice."

  "But I love her," said Angelo.

  "And will you love her still, as you are swept down-river to your doom?" said Bacchus. "Or when they dredge you from the coral at the bottom of the sunless sea?"

  "I shall always love her," said Angelo passionately, and before Mr. Bacchus could prevent him, he had his bare feet on the wire, and was swaying back and forth dramatically. The river seemed to hush in expectancy of a victim, swirling and eddying beneath him, and throwing up columns of spray to snatch him down.

  Suddenly, he slipped, and a moment later was dangling, like a droplet from a thread, above the river. All he could do was edge along the wire, hand over hand, though his palms became bloody and the water swelled up to pull at his feet. Every moment it seemed he would slip again and that this time the eager river would claim him for the chasm and the sunless sea beyond. But, after an age of breathless moments, he reached the other side. Everyone applauded, and he bowed and laughed, despite his bleeding hands.

  "Good luck," Mr. Bacchus shouted across the river, as they disappeared into the caves. "And be careful! We shall be waiting for you!"

  Once again Angelo led the way as they descended, the light from his eyes flickering eerily on the wet walls of the tunnels they followed. After a few minutes, however, another source of light began to filter through the ice passages.

  "What's that?" said Domingo.

  "Where? I can't see anything," said Malachi.

  "A light," said the Clown. "There's a light ahead."

  "Sssh!" said Angelo. "It will be the fragment of the sun that's burning. Bathsheba, when we face him it will be your task to wrench the bird's head off him. Once his mask is removed, perhaps his sanity will be restored."

  "Unlikely," said Malachi. "The man is mad and there's an end to it. Like Akhenaton. Now he thought he was the sun."

  "Silence, crocodile," said Angelo. "For once be silent."

  "Such gratitude," said Malachi. "Were I not a Nile crocodile you would be on the other side of the river with a lovelorn look on your pitiful face."

  Angelo was not listening, however, but inching along the tunnel wall towards the light, followed by Bathsheba and Ophelia. Malachi considered turning back for sheer spite, but could not face the journey in the dark, so scuttled after them.

  Quite abruptly they turned the corner and found themselves in the most measureless of measureless caverns, vast as a god's cathedral, lit from ice-paved floor to vaulted roof with almost blinding light.

  In the middle of the gleaming cavern sat the Princess, her high cheeks tear-stained and her eyes red. A few yards from her lay the silver box, from which the sun's light was pouring.

  "The fragment of the sun," breathed Bathsheba in amazement. "It can be no larger than an egg."

  "Forget the sun," said Ange
lo. "It's the Princess we must save."

  "Where's the bird-man?" warned Domingo. "We must be careful of him."

  But his words were lost on Angelo, who was already running and sliding across the cavern floor towards the Princess, showers of crystal flying into the air as his feet scored the ice. As soon as she saw him she stood up, and a look of love and panic came into her eyes.

  "Back!" she screamed. "Go back! Forget me!"

  "Never!" said Angelo, grabbing her slender wrists. "Never!" The princess cried out at his roughness, and tears sprang to her eyes. "Leave me! Please!" she begged.

  Then the bird-man's shriek of wrath was heard once more in the caves below Xanadu. More inhuman and horrifying than any sound those cold walls had echoed hitherto. From the roof of the cavern, like a gargoyle toppling from its dizzy perch, the bird-man leapt, the air swelling his robes around him as he descended, as if he were floating in a sea of burning light.

  "Above you!" cried Domingo. "He's above you!" and he ran towards Angelo. Bathsheba jumped onto Malachi's back and they pursued the Clown.

  With another shriek, more horrible, if that were possible, than the last, the birdman fell upon Angelo, his hands becoming claws as they fastened around the youth's bare neck.

  "Sing!" shouted Bathsheba.

  "What?" said Malachi. "Are you mad too?"

  "Oh, what a noble mind" began Ophelia, but her speech was drowned as Malachi burst into the final act of "Gotterdammerung." His voice echoed around and around the great cavern, becoming not one but a thousand voices. The ice walls trembled and stalactites plummeted from the roof like spears, to shatter on the floor. To this cacophony for splintering ice and choir, Ophelia harmonized a melancholy song about St. Valentine's Day and Domingo shouted jokes at the top of his voice.

  Living, as he had, in the absolute silence of the caves, the Khan's brother was unused to such a din, and let out another cry, this time of pain and bewilderment. He toppled from Angelo's back, holding his head in his hands. Angelo fell to the floor, wounded, and in the confusion, Kuyuk's eyes alighted upon the silver box. Seizing it, he fled down the tunnel leading back to the river, plunging the others into the radiance of Angelo's eyes.

  "Catch him!" yelled Bathsheba. "He has the sun!" and she pushed him down the tunnel upon Malachi's back, with Domingo dancing behind.

  In the dim cavern, all was abruptly silent. Angelo lay sprawled on the ice, nursing his clawed and bleeding throat. The Princess sat weeping and shivering beside him. Suddenly everything was desolation in the ice-caves.

  On the far side of the river, Mr. Bacchus and Hero saw the figure of the birdman emerge from the tunnel, bearing the silver box.

  "Quickly," said Mr. Bacchus. "It's him! It's him! Go and fetch a few soldiers, Hero my boy. He may be dangerous."

  As Hero raced up the steps six at a time, Malachi, Bathsheba and Domingo appeared, still shouting and singing.

  Kuyuk was trapped.

  The bridge had been destroyed by his own hands and the river ran too fast and icy for any man to swim. So the bird-man turned to face his pursuers, still clinging to the precious silver box.

  "Tom O'Bedlam!" cried Mr. Bacchus,

  "Forth from my sad and darksome cell, "Or from the deep Abyss of Hell,

  "Mad Tom is coming to view the world again."

  Mr. Bacchus' booming cry was too much for the Khan's brother. Agonized, he drew from his belt an ice dagger, and aimed it at Bacchus. Even as the blade left his hand, Bathsheba, seeing her opportunity, leapt from Malachi's tail onto the bird-man's back. He shrieked horribly as the orang-outang tugged at the mask. With a tearing of hessian and feathers the head came free from the face of the Khan's brother. The dagger, meanwhile, was flying unerringly towards its victim's head. But it did not reach its target. Mr. Bacchus merely stretched out his hand and caught it. At his touch, the ice turned to rain.

  By now Kuyuk had fallen to his knees, and as he did so, he let the box and its burning fragment drop into the Alph, where with a great deal of hissing, it was borne away down to the waterfall, to light, at last, the sunless sea beyond. As for the Khan's brother, he knelt at the edge of the river by the fading light of the sun, sobbing pitifully. The scene was frozen for an instant. Bacchus mopping his brow, the Clown, crocodile and Orang-outang standing gazing at their feet, and the agonized tears of the Khan's brother falling onto the unmelting ice. Then, accompanied by Angelo, his neck bound with silk bandages torn from her robes, the Princess emerged from the tunnel, and though Kuyuk was turned from her he raised his head as if knowing she was there. Though his face was gaunt, and his beard long and filthy, the Princess recognized him immediately.

  "Father!" she cried. "Father!"

  Kuyuk drew his hands from his face and gazed upon his daughter, as if seeing her for the first time. At that moment the look of madness sank from his eyes and he embraced her. Even as he put his cracked lips upon the Princess' forehead, from down the tunnel there rose a thunder. The great cavern, its walls cracked by the tumult, at last collapsed upon itself, and all Xanadu shook with the violence of its death. Even as the thunder died, Hero returned with a dozen of the Khan's soldiers and a makeshift bridge was hurriedly constructed across the river, by which the company crossed the roaring Alph. Then, amid great celebration, they climbed the stairway up into the throne-room, still lit by bonfires, where Kublai Khan sat in state. The brothers embraced each other with many tears, and Angelo, speechless, now and forever, because of his wounded throat, embraced the Princess.

  The Khan spoke, his voice severe. "Youth," he said to Angelo. "She is the daughter of the Khan's brother. She cannot belong to anyone."

  "He is not anyone," replied the Princess.

  "Are you an Inquisitor then?" demanded the Khan. Angelo shook his head. "An archbishop, perhaps, or a son of an arch-bishop?" Once more Angelo had to shake his head. Then, bowing, he pointed to the door, and walked down the throne-room and out into the cold night air. "What is the youth intending?" said Khan.

  "Your Majesty," replied Mr. Bacchus. "The fragment you broke from the sun is now lighting some nether-sea, and Xanadu is in darkness. When you have burned all your willow-screens and felled all the trees in the pleasure dome, the darkness will be eternal."

  "Indeed," said the Khan.

  "Then follow the youth, Your Magnificence," said Mr. Bacchus. "We may yet see a miracle."

  Unsmiling, the Khan rose from his throne, but his heavy robes prevented him from taking a step.

  "Allow me," said Hero, lifting the Khan onto his shoulders, and led the way outside, followed by the performers and courtiers.

  Out in the bleak night the Khan addressed Angelo from Hero's shoulders.

  "Youth," he said. "Your miracle."

  So Angelo threw back his head, and from out of his eyes two pillars of light poured into the sky, and as they touched the dismal clouds that seethed above Xanadu, the vapours threw back to reveal the white orb of the moon.

  The courtiers hid their eyes, and on the seven walls the guards let out shouts of fear and confusion. But the Khan smiled.

  Light fell again on Xanadu, and in place of the dreaming day, there began, at that moment, a perpetual waking night.

  The wedding of Angelo to the Princess, daughter of the Khan's brother, was a magnificent affair. In a pavilion built of bamboo, supported by columns of gold, the great wedding feast took place. A wind had sprung up from the Northwest and the pavilion's two hundred silk cords sang as it wove its way between them.

  Of course the highlight of the feast was the performance by Mr. Bacchus' Travelling Circus, and when at last it came to Angelo's act, and he gathered about his head the moths from the rice fields and from under the tongues of the great jade lions, everyone believed that there was nobody in the world so worthy of the Princess' hand as Angelo the Silent.

  When the performance was finished and one by one the courtiers of Kublai Khan had retired to sleep amid the frost-touched leaves under the moon, the Khan brought from the sleeves of hi
s robes six crystals mined from the caves of ice, and gave one to each of them.

  "These are to remind you of Xanadu," he explained. "To remind you to return when I am gone and the silent youth rules in Xanadu. Good luck on your journey, each of you. The love of Kublai Khan goes with you."

  They said goodbye, with many tears, to Angelo, to the Princess and her father, and of course to the Khan himself, at the sardonyx gate of Xanadu, and set off down the precarious road, led by the helmeted rider. When finally they came to the great waterfall, Hero stopped the caravan, and they stepped out to look at it. It roared on, silver in the moonlight.

  "We must be on our way," said Mr. Bacchus.

  "Oh, why?" said Ophelia.

  "The untold want," declaimed Mr. Bacchus.

  "Of life and land ne'er granted,

  "Now voyager, seek thou forth and find."

  "More adulation, more applause!" laughed Domingo. "All those people waiting for me! My audience!" and while everybody climbed back into the caravan, he turned ecstatic cartwheels for the moon. Then they rattled on down the road again, Mr. Bacchus sitting in his chair as usual, head bowed. Eventually, the roar of the waterfall faded, and, at the very place where they had first spotted him, the rider turned his horse, and without a word, galloped back along the narrow road to Xanadu.

  Its towers were quite lost in the mist.

  "Where shall we go now?" called Hero from the driver's seat. "Anywhere you like, my boy," said Bacchus. "Anywhere, I don't know. To the Feast of Fools!"

  Then Ophelia gave a cry. "In the crystals," she said. "Look." In each of the six crystals could be seen the seven walls of Xanadu, against the perfect circle of the moon.

  "It's all done by mirrors," said Malachi.

  "I shall miss Xanadu," said Ophelia wistfully.

  "oh, civilization is a fine place to visit," said Mr. Bacchus. "But who'd want to live there?" and he began to laugh until tears rolled down his cheeks.

  And a few months later, early in March of the next year, when the spring sun was melting the frost on the puddles, the six crystals melted, leaving in their place only pools of murky water. But that was not before, one night in January, when the caravan stood in a hundred mile queue of babbling pilgrims waiting to cross the Sand Bridge into Chaleds, that it seemed as though the company heard, far off, the great fall of the waterfall, and the soft, piping music drifting on the wind from the lunar towers of the fabled Xanadu.