THERE WERE BLOCKS OF ICE carved into peacocks, gods, galleons in full sail. There were mounds of peeled shrimp and caviar, whole lambs roasted with their forepaws crossed like crusaders, suckling pigs cradled in lilies-of-the-valley and watercress. There were doves of whipped cream and meringue, a huge silver cake in the shape of a six-pointed star. Dwarfs and Nubians waited on a thousand guests. The sound of cymbals shivered across the teak floor, where a sixteen-year-old virgin disported herself with a Barbary ape, while the flames from basins of scented oil threw their shadows on the whitewashed walls of Belshazzar's palace.
It was all for the Persian ambassadors, who sat there with their absurd bonnets and their beards stiff with pomade. Belshazzar tried to read some clue to their secret thoughts in their little wedge-shaped smiles, but the smiles were as hard to decipher as their cuneiform inscriptions. He hadn't had a decent sleep for a week. His head was splitting. One of the eunuchs was nickering behind him like a mare in heat.
When the handwriting started to appear on the flame-lit wall, most people thought it was more of the floor show, and when Belshazzar offered an extravagant reward to anyone who could translate it properly, several senior ministers proposed various comic obscenities before they saw the king was serious as death. So finally he had them summon Daniel, his late father's pet Jew and an expert on evil omens.
Daniel pointed out that, among other things, the tables were laden with sacred vessels that had been looted from the Temple in Jerusalem. Some of them were clogged with cigarette butts. A big golden one inscribed with a name too holy to be spoken had been used by a concubine who had made herself sick on too much shrimp. A magenta-wigged creature of indeterminate sex was wearing another as a hat.
Like worshiping gods made of wood and stone, Daniel said, all this was another example of Belshazzar's fatal habit of getting the sacred and the profane hopelessly confused. Pointing to the ice-carved idols whose faces had already started running down their shirtfronts, Daniel said that what the handwriting on the wall meant in a nutshell was: the party is over.
Sure enough, that very night, not long after the last guest had staggered home, Belshazzar was stabbed to death in sight of the Persian ambassadors with their wedge-shaped smiles, and just as the dwarfs were leading the exhausted ape home, Darius the Great, King of Persia, took Belshazzar's Babylon the way Grant took Richmond.