A HISTORY OF THE CALIPH VATHEK (1786)

WILLIAM BECKFORD (1759–1844)


William Beckford, whom Byron dubbed ‘England’s wealthiest son’, devoted his enormous fortune to building an enormous Gothic mansion, Fonthill Abbey, which he filled with one of England’s finest private collections of paintings, books, and exquisite objets d’art. Ostracized by society because of his homosexuality, he became a kind of Gothic type, noted for his decadence, extravagance, and perversity. As reported by an American traveller in the 1820s, ‘notwithstanding the curiosity which the building of it [Fonthill Abbey] excited in the country around, the proprietor has chosen to keep it entirely concealed from the public; and according to report, he lives a solitary and a depraved life; taking no pains to secure the esteem of his neighbours, and being despised by most of them’ (John Griscom, A Year in Europe, 1823). Vathek (originally written in French), his best and most famous work, is part of the Oriental/Arabic tradition that includes Walter Savage Landor’s Gebir (1798), Robert Southey’s Thalaba the Destroyer (1801) and The Curse of Kehama (1810), Shelley’s ‘Zeinab and Kathema’ (1811-12), Byron’s The Giaour (1813) and other Turkish tales, and a large body of Middle Eastern travel writing from which Beckford drew his inspiration. I have included it in this section on the Historical Gothic partly to avoid the inconvenience of having a small isolated section on the Oriental Gothic, and partly because it has as much antiquarian underpinning as the medieval feudalism of the other works in this section (though I have omitted its superabundance of footnotes about Arabic religion and culture). The Oriental despot is an easy parallel to the feudal tyrant. Beckford read and translated Arabic originals, and a series of Oriental ‘Episodes’ meant to accompany Vathek were never published during Beckford’s lifetime. Despite Vathek’s surrealism, the work is also a novel à clef, for the Princess Carathis is a satiric portrait of Beckford’s Methodist mother, Gulchenrouz is his boyfriend William Courtenay, Nouronihar is his cousin Louisa, and the Caliph is Beckford’s fantastic portrait of himself. Beckford was also probably the anonymous author rather than translator of Popular Tales of the Germans (1791), a collection of German-inspired tales such as the fine ‘The Nymph of the Fountain’, and two novels parodying the Gothic genre.

Copyright © 2000, 2012 Rictor Norton


Prayer at break of day was announced, when Carathis and Vathek ascended the steps, which led to the summit of the tower; where they remained for some time though the weather was lowering and wet. This impending gloom corresponded with their malignant dispositions; but when the sun began to break through the clouds, they ordered a pavilion to be raised, as a screen against the intrusion of his beams. The Caliph, overcome with fatigue, sought refreshment from repose; at the same time, hoping that significant dreams might attend on his slumbers; whilst the indefatigable Carathis, followed by a part of her mutes, descended to prepare whatever she judged proper, for the oblation of the approaching night.
          By secret stairs, contrived within the thickness of the wall, and known only to herself and her son, she first repaired to the mysterious recesses in which were deposited the mummies that had been wrested from the catacombs of the ancient Pharaohs. Of these she ordered several to be taken. From thence, she resorted to a gallery; where, under the guard of fifty female negroes mute and blind of the right eye, were preserved the oil of the most venomous serpents; rhinoceros’ horns; and woods of a subtile and penetrating odour, procured from the interior of the Indies, together with a thousand other horrible rarities. This collection had been formed for a pupose like the present, by Carathis herself; from a presentiment, that she might one day, enjoy some intercourse with the infernal powers: to whom she had ever been passionately attached, and to whose taste she was no stranger.
          To familiarize herself the better with the horrors in view, the Princess remained in the company of her negresses, who squinted in the most amiable manner from the only eye they had; and leered with exquisite delight, at the sculls and skeletons which Carathis had drawn forth from her cabinets; all of them making the most frightful contortions and uttering such shrill chatterings, that the Princess stunned by them and suffocated by the potency of the exhalations, was forced to quit the gallery, after stripping it of a part of its abominable treasures.
          Whilst she was thus occupied, the Caliph, who instead of the visions he expected, had acquired in these unsubstantial regions a voracious appetite, was greatly provoked at the mutes. For having totally forgotten their deafness, he had impatiently asked them for food; and seeing them regardless of his demand, he began to cuff, pinch, and bite them, till Carathis arrived to terminate a scene so indecent, to the great content of these miserable creatures: ‘Son! what means all this?’ said she, panting for breath. ‘I thought I heard as I came up, the shrieks of a thousand bats, torn from their crannies in the recesses of a cavern; and it was the outcry only of these poor mutes, whom you were so unmercifully abusing. In truth, you but ill deserve the admirable provision I have brought you.’ – ‘Give it me instantly,’ exclaimed the Caliph; ‘I am perishing for hunger!’ *#150; ‘As to that,’ answered she, ‘you must have an excellent stomach if it can digest what I have brought.’ – ‘Be quick,’ replied the Caliph; – ‘but, oh heavens! what horrors! what do you intend?’ ‘Come; come;’ returned Carathis, ‘be not so squeamish; but help me to arrange every thing properly; and you shall see that, what you reject with such symptoms of disgust, will soon complete your felicity. Let us get ready the pile, for the sacrifice of to-night; and think not of eating, till that is performed: know you not, that all solemn rites ought to be preceded by a rigorous abstinence?’
          The Caliph, not daring to object, abandoned himself to grief and the wind that ravaged his entrails, whilst his mother went forward with the requisite operations. Phials of serpents’ oil, mummies, and bones, were soon set in order on the balustrade of the tower. The pile began to rise; and in three hours was twenty cubits high. At length darkness approached, and Carathis, having stripped herself to her inmost garment, clapped her hands in an impulse of ecstacy; the mutes followed her example; but Vathek, extenuated with hunger and impatience, was unable to support himself, and fell down in a swoon. The sparks had already kindled the dry wood; the venomous oil burst into a thousand blue flames; the mummies, dissolving, emitted a thick dun vapour; and the rhinoceros’ horns, beginning to consume; all together diffused such a stench, that the Caliph, recovering, started from his trance, and gazed wildly on the scene in full blaze around him. The oil gushed forth in a plenitude of streams; and the negresses, who supplied it without intermission, united their cries to those of the Princess. At last, the fire became to violent, and the flames reflected from the polished marble so dazzling, that the Caliph, unable to withstand the heat and the blaze, effected his escape; and took shelter under the imperial standard.
          In the mean time, the inhabitants of Samarah, scared at the light which shone over the city, arose in haste; ascended their roofs; beheld the tower on fire, and hurried, half naked to the square. Their love for their sovereign immediately awoke; and, apprehending him in danger of perishing in his tower, their whole thoughts were occupied with the means of his safety. Morakanabad flew from his retirement, wiped away his tears, and cried out for water like the rest. Bababalouk, whose olfactory nerves were more familiarized to magical odours, readily conjecturing, that Carathis was engaged in her favourite amusements, strenuously exhorted them not to be alarmed. Him, however, they treated as an old poltroon, and styled him a rascally traitor. The camels and dromedaries were advancing with water; but, no one knew by which way to enter the tower. Whilst the populace was obstinate in forcing the doors, a violent north-east wind drove an immense volume of flame against them. At first, they recoiled, but soon came back with redoubled zeal. At the same time, the stench of the horns and mummies increasing, most of the crowd fell backward in a state of suffocation. Those that kept their feet, mutually wondered at the cause of the smell; and admonished each other to retire. Morakanabad, more sick than the rest, remained in a piteous condition. Holding his nose with one hand, every one persisted in his efforts with the other to burst open the doors and obtain admission. A hundred and forty of the strongest and most resolute, at length accomplished their purpose. Having gained the stair-case, by their violent exertions, they attained a great height in a quarter of an hour.
          Carathis, alarmed at the signs of her mutes, advanced to the stair-case; went down a few steps, and heard several voices calling out from below: ‘You shall, in a moment have water!’ Being rather alert, considering her age, she presently regained the top of the tower; and bade her son suspend the sacrifice for some minutes; adding, – ‘We shall soon be enabled to render it more grateful. Certain dolts of your subjects, imagining no doubt that we were on fire, have been rash enough to break through those doors, which had hitherto remained inviolate; for the sake of bringing up water. They are very kind, you must allow, so soon to forget the wrongs you have done them; but that is of little moment. Let us offer them to the Giaour [i.e. ‘infidel’, the agent of Eblis, Prince of Darkness], – let them come up; our mutes, who neither want strength nor experience, will soon dispatch them; exhausted as they are, with fatigue.’ – ‘Be it so,’ answered the Caliph, ‘provided we finish, and I dine.’ In fact, these good people, out of breath from ascending fifteen hundred stairs in such haste; and chagrined, at having spilt by the way, the water they had taken, were no sooner arrived at the top, than the blaze of the flames, and the fumes of the mummies, at once overpowered their senses. It was a pity! for they beheld not the agreeable smile, with which the mutes and negresses adjusted the cord to their necks: these amiable personages rejoiced, however, no less at the scene. Never before had the ceremony of strangling been performed with so much facility. They all fell, without the least resistance or struggle: so that Vathek, in the space of a few moments, found himself surrounded by the dead bodies of the most faithful of his subjects; all which were thrown on the top of the pile. Carathis, whose presence of mind never forsook her, perceiving that she had carcasses sufficient to complete her oblation, commanded the chains to be stretched across the stair-case, and the iron doors barricadoed, that no more might come up.
          No sooner were these orders obeyed, than the tower shook; the dead bodies vanished in the flames; which, at once, changed from a swarthy crimson, to a bright rose colour: an ambient vapour emitted the most exquisite fragrance; the marble columns rang with harmonious sounds, and the liquified horns diffused a delicious perfume. Carathis, in transports, anticipated the success of her enterprize; whilst her mutes and negresses, to whom these sweets had given the cholic, retired grumbling to their cells.
          Scarcely were they gone, when, instead of the pile, horns, mummies and ashes, the Caliph both saw and felt, with a degree of pleasure which he could not express, a table, covered with the most magnificent repast: flaggons of wine, and vases of exquisite sherbet reposing on snow. He availed himself, without scruple, of such an entertainment; and had already laid hands on a lamb stuffed with pistachios, whilst Carathis was privately drawing from a fillagreen urn, a parchment that seemed to be endless; and which had escaped the notice of her son. Totally occupied in gratifying an importunate appetite, he left her to peruse it without interruption; which having finished, she said to him, in an authoritative tone, ‘Put an end to your gluttony, and hear the splendid promises with which you are favoured!’ She then read, as follows: ‘Vathek, my well-beloved, thou has surpassed my hopes: my nostrils have been regaled by the savour of thy mummies, thy horns; and, still more by the lives, devoted on the pile. At the full of the moon, cause the bands of thy musicians, and thy tymbals, to be heard; depart from thy palace, surrounded by all the pageants of majesty; thy most faithful slaves; thy best beloved wives; thy most magnificent litters; thy richest loaded camels; and set forward on thy way to Istakhar. There, I await thy coming: that is the region of wonders: there shalt thou receive the diadem of Gian Ben Gian; the talismans of Soliman; and the treasures of the pre-adamite sultans: there shalt thou be solaced with all kinds of delight. – But beware how thou enterest any dwelling on thy route; or thou shalt feel the effects of my anger.’
          The Caliph, notwithstanding his habitual luxury, had never before dined with so much satisfaction. He gave full scope to the joy of these golden tidings; and betook himself to drinking anew. Carathis, whose antipathy to wine was by no means insuperable, failed not to pledge him at every bumper he ironically quaffed to the health of Mahomet. This infernal liquor completed their impious temerity, and prompted them to utter a profusion of blasphemies. They gave a loose to their wit, at the expense of the ass of Balaam, the dog of the seven sleepers, and the other animals admitted into the paradise of Mahomet. In this sprightly humour, they descended the fifteen hundred stairs, diverting themselves as they went, at the anxious faces they saw on the square, through the barbacans [sic] and loop-holes of the tower; and, at length, arrived at the royal apartments, by the subterranean passage. Bababalouk was parading to and fro, and issuing his mandates, with great pomp to the eunuchs; who were snuffing the lights and painting the eyes of the Circassians. No sooner did he catch sight of the Caliph and his mother, than he exclaimed, ‘Hah! you have, then, I perceive, escaped from the flames: I was not, however, altogether out of doubt.’ – ‘Of what moment is it to us what you thought, or think?’ cried Carathis: ‘go; speed; tell Morakanabad that we immediately want him: and take care, not to stop by the way, to make your insipid reflections.’
          Morakanabad delayed not to obey the summons; and was received by Vathek and his mother, with great solemnity. They told him, with an air of composure and commiseration, that the fire at the top of the tower was extinguished; but that it had cost the lives of the brave people who sought to assist them.
          ‘Still more misfortunes!’ cried Morakanabad, with a sigh. ‘Ah, commander of the faithful, our holy prophet is certainly irritated against us! it behoves you to appease him.’ – ‘We will appease him, hereafter!’ replied the Caliph, with a smile that augured nothing of good. ‘You will have leisure sufficient for your supplications, during my absence: for this country is the bane of my health. I am disgusted with the mountain of the four fountains, and am resolved to go and drink of the stream of Rocnabad. I long to refresh myself, in the delightful valleys which it waters. Do you, with the advice of my mother, govern my dominions, and take care to supply whatever her experiments may demand; for, you well know, that our tower abounds in materials for the advancement of science.’
          The tower but ill suited Morakanabad’s taste. Immense treasures had been lavished upon it; and nothing had he ever seen carried thither but female negroes, mutes and abominable drugs. Nor did he know well what to think of Carathis, who, like a cameleon, could assume all possible colours. Her cursed eloquence had often driven the poor mussulman to his last shifts. He considered, however, that if she possessed but few good qualities, her son had still fewer; and that the alternative, on the whole, would be in her favour. Consoled, therefore, with this reflection; he went, in good spirits, to soothe the populace, and make the proper arrangements for his master’s journey.


[SOURCE: William Beckford, Vathek. Translated from the Original French. Fourth Edition, Revised and Corrected (London: W. Clarke, 1823), pp. 57–72]

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