VATHEK. This wonderful tale of the East has a curious history. It was written by William Beckford, when a young man, at the suggestion of the Rev. Samuel Henley, then an assistant master at Harrow, one of the great public schools of England. There is a tradition that Beckford wrote it out in three days and two nights, never leaving his room or taking off his clothes in the meantime. The correspond ence between Beckford and Henley, however, shows that the author was engaged upon the book for several years. As a boy Beckford was fascinated by The Arabian Nights,) and subsequently read several learned books upon Mohammedan life, customs and beliefs. In a word, all the details of his story were closely studied. Rather capriciously, he composed the tale in French and gave Henley a copy of his manuscript to translate into English. Owing to a misunderstanding between author and translator, the English version was published first. It appeared in the summer of 1786, with a preface and notes by Henley, who suppressed the author's name and claimed that the tale was translated directly from the Arabic. At this treatment by his translator Beckford was very angry and the next year he published the original French at Lausanne (where he was staying) and at Paris. Three subordinate tales which were to form a part of were not published until the 20th century. In their complete form, both French and English, they may now be read in The Episodes of Vathek,) translated by Sir Frank T. Marzials, with an introduction by Lewis Melville (Lon don 1912). But the whom countless readers know, the romance which Byron often praised and rated far above Dr. Johnson's (Ras selas,) is Henley's version, one of the best translations ever made of a foreign classic. So .natural, flexible and idiomatic is the style that the book reads as if it were originally composed in English.
The History of the Caliph Vathek) is a story of mingled horror, burlesque and sublim ity, varied by scenes of great beauty; and the whole is organized as a study in retribution. Vathek, a grandson of Haroun-al-Raschid, rules the Mohammedan world from his splendid palace overlooking the Babylonian city of Samarah. When we first see him he is a young monarch indulging himself in all the sensual delights of exquisite dishes, voluptuous music, delirious perfumes and troops of girls as beautiful as the houris. He has an eye so terrible that any
wretch who looks upon its steadfast gaze falls to the ground and sometimes expires. He grows cruel; he imprisons on whimsical charges his most faithful subjects and in general ad ministers justice in a most haphazard manner. He comes under the influence of Carathis, his mother, magician and necromancer in league with the most malignant spirits, with ghouls even, whom she summons from the grave to do her bidding. She is surrounded by negresses with one eye, who aid her in her wicked de signs; and she is so ceaseless in the pursuit of the powers of darkness that she would never sleep but for the visions of evil that then come to her. Instigated by this mother, Vathek commits the most heinous crimes. In defiance of Mohammed and Allah, he erects a lofty tower of 11,000 stairs in a vain endeavor to penetrate, by the most obscene rites, the mys teries of heaven. At length he abjures his re ligion and sells his soul to Eblis, the Moham medan Satan, in the hope of obtaining the throne of the pre-Adamite sultans.
The agent of the transaction is a giaour, who appears in the form of a man so hideous that people shut their eyes at the first sight of him. Vathek, in one of his fits of madness, kicks him down the palace steps; other feet join in the entertainment and the intruder is kicked through the palace and streets of Samarah. The giaour nevertheless wins over Vathek, who obtains for his harem Nouronihar, the most beautiful and sensuous of Oriental women. The last scene is in the magnificent hall of Eblis, where, disappointed of all their hopes, Vathek and Nouromhar and Carathis are consigned to eternal pain. With right hands upon hearts kindled by Eblis into flames, they must there tread a never-ending round of agony. No neater punishment was ever de vised for the damned. Nor were there ever any better pieces of extravagance than the sport which Samarab has with the giaour, or the tricks which Nouronihar and the girls of the harem play upon Bababalouk, the chief of the eunuchs.