Bethmoora, by Lord Dunsany
There is a faint freshness in the London night as though some strayed
reveler of a breeze had left his comrades in the Kentish uplands and had
entered the town by stealth. The pavements are a little damp and shiny.
Upon one's ears that at this late hour have become very acute there hits
the tap of a remote footfall. Louder and louder grow the taps, filling the
whole night. And a black cloaked figure passes by, and goes tapping into
the dark. One who has danced goes homewards. Somewhere a ball has closed
its doors and ended. Its yellow lights are out, its musicians are silent,
its dancers have all gone into the night air, and Time has said of it,
"Let it be past and over, and among the things that I have put away."
Shadows begin to detach themselves from their great gathering places. No
less silently than those shadows that are thin and dead move homewards the
stealthy cats. Thus have we even in London our faint forebodings of the
dawn's approach, which the birds and the beasts and the stars are crying
aloud to the untrammeled fields.
At what moment I know not I perceive that the night itself is irrevocably
overthrown. It is suddenly revealed to me by the weary pallor of the
street lamps that the streets are silent and nocturnal still, not because
there is any strength in night, but because men have not yet arisen from
sleep to defy him. So have I seen dejected and untidy guards still bearing
antique muskets in palatial gateways, although the realms of the monarch
that they guard have shrunk to a single province which no enemy yet has
troubled to overrun.
And it is now manifest from the aspect of the street lamps, those abashed
dependants of night, that already English mountain peaks have seen the
dawn, that the cliffs of Dover are standing white to the morning, that the
sea-mist has lifted and is pouring inland.
And now men with a hose have come and are sluicing out the streets.
Behold now night is dead.
What memories, what fancies throng one's mind! A night but just now
gathered out of London by the horrific hand of Time. A million common
artificial things all cloaked for a while in mystery, like beggars robed
in purple, and seated on dread thrones. Four million people asleep,
dreaming perhaps. What worlds have they gone into? Whom have they met? But
my thoughts are far off with Bethmoora in her loneliness, whose gates
swing to and fro. To and fro they swing, and creak and creak in the wind,
but no one hears them. They are of green copper, very lovely, but no one
sees them now. The desert wind pours sand into their hinges, no watchman
comes to ease them. No guard goes round Bethmoora's battlements, no enemy
assails them. There are no lights in her houses, no footfall on her
streets, she stands there dead and lonely beyond the Hills of Hap, and I
would see Bethmoora once again, but dare not.
It is many a year, they tell me, since Bethmoora became desolate.
Her desolation is spoken of in taverns where sailors meet, and certain
travellers have told me of it.
I had hoped to see Bethmoora once again. It is many a year ago, they say,
when the vintage was last gathered in from the vineyards that I knew,
where it is all desert now. It was a radiant day, and the people of the
city were dancing by the vineyards, while here and there one played upon
the kalipac. The purple flowering shrubs were all in bloom, and the snow
shone upon the Hills of Hap.
Outside the copper gates they crushed the grapes in vats to make the
syrabub. It had been a goodly vintage.
In the little gardens at the desert's edge men beat the tambang and the
tittibuk, and blew melodiously the zootibar.
All there was mirth and song and dance, because the vintage had been
gathered in, and there would be ample syrabub for the winter months, and
much left over to exchange for turquoises and emeralds with the merchants
who come down from Oxuhahn. Thus they rejoiced all day over their vintage
on the narrow strip of cultivated ground that lay between Bethmoora and
the desert which meets the sky to the South. And when the heat of the day
began to abate, and the sun drew near to the snows on the Hills of Hap,
the note of the zootibar still rose clear from the gardens, and the
brilliant dresses of the dancers still wound among the flowers. All that
day three men on mules had been noticed crossing the face of the Hills of
Hap. Backwards and forwards they moved as the track wound lower and lower,
three little specks of black against the snow. They were seen first in the
very early morning up near the shoulder of Peol Jagganoth, and seemed to
be coming out of Utnar Véhi. All day they came. And in the evening, just
before the lights come out and colours change, they appeared before
Bethmoora's copper gates. They carried staves, such as messengers bear in
those lands, and seemed sombrely clad when the dancers all came round them
with their green and lilac dresses. Those Europeans who were present and
heard the message given were ignorant of the language, and only caught the
name of Utnar Véhi. But it was brief, and passed rapidly from mouth to
mouth, and almost at once the people burnt their vineyards and began to
flee away from Bethmoora, going for the most part northwards, though some
went to the East. They ran down out of their fair white houses, and
streamed through the copper gate; the throbbing of the tambang and the
tittibuk suddenly ceased with the note of the Zootibar, and the clinking
kalipac stopped a moment after. The three strange travellers went back the
way they came the instant their message was given. It was the hour when a
light would have appeared in some high tower, and window after window
would have poured into the dusk its lion-frightening light, and the cooper
gates would have been fastened up. But no lights came out in windows there
that night and have not ever since, and those copper gates were left wide
and have never shut, and the sound arose of the red fire crackling in the
vineyards, and the pattering of feet fleeing softly. There were no cries,
no other sounds at all, only the rapid and determined flight. They fled as
swiftly and quietly as a herd of wild cattle flee when they suddenly see a
man. It was as though something had befallen which had been feared for
generations, which could only be escaped by instant flight, which left no
time for indecision.
Then fear took the Europeans also, and they too fled. And what the message
was I have never heard.
Many believe that it was a message from Thuba Mleen, the mysterious
emperor of those lands, who is never seen by man, advising that Bethmoora
should be left desolate. Others say that the message was one of warning
from the gods, whether from friendly gods or from adverse ones they know
And others hold that the Plague was ravaging a line of cities over in
Utnar Véhi, following the South-west wind which for many weeks had been
blowing across them towards Bethmoora.
Some say that the terrible gnousar sickness was upon the three travellers,
and that their very mules were dripping with it, and suppose that they
were driven to the city by hunger, but suggest no better reason for so
terrible a crime.
But most believe that it was a message from the desert himself, who owns
all the Earth to the southwards, spoken with his peculiar cry to those
three who knew his voice—men who had been out on the sand-wastes without
tents by night, who had been by day without water, men who had been out
there where the desert mutters, and had grown to know his needs and his
malevolence. They say that the desert had a need for Bethmoora, that he
wished to come into her lovely streets, and to send into her temples and
her houses his storm-winds draped with sand. For he hates the sound and
the sight of men in his old evil heart, and he would have Bethmoora silent
and undisturbed, save for the weird love he whispers to her gates.
If I knew what that message was that the three men brought on mules, and
told in the copper gate, I think that I should go and see Bethmoora once
again. For a great longing comes on me here in London to see once more
that white and beautiful city, and yet I dare not, for I know not the
danger I should have to face, whether I should risk the fury of unknown
dreadful gods, or some disease unspeakable and slow, or the desert's curse
or torture in some little private room of the Emperor Thuba Mleen, or
something that the travelers have not told—perhaps more fearful still.