"Well," I said, humouring his whim, "what is it?"
"I'm thinking," said Tob, "that my Lord Deucalion will remember me only as a very rude fellow when he steps ashore amongst all this fine gentility."
"You don't think," said I, "anything of the kind."
"Then I must prove my refinement," said Tob, "and not contradict." He picked up my hand in his huge, hard fist, and pressed it. "By the Gods, Deucalion, you may be a great prince, but I've only known you as a man. You're the finest fighter of beasts and men that walks this world to-day, and I love you for it. That spear-stroke of yours on the lizard is a thing the singers in the taverns shall make chaunts about."
We drew rapidly into the harbour, the soldiers in the entrance castle blowing their trumpets in welcome as we passed between them. The captain of the port had run up my banner to the masthead of his boat, having been provided with one apparently for this purpose of announcement, and from the quays, across the vast basin of the harbour, there presently came to us the noises of musicians, and the pale glow of welcoming fires, dancing under the sunlight. I was almost awed to think that an Empress of Atlantis had come to such straits as to feel an interest like this in any mere returning subject.
It was clear that nothing was to be done by halves. The port-captain's boat led, and we had no choice but to follow. Our galley was run up alongside the royal quay and moored to its posts and rings of gold, all of which are sacred to the reigning house.
"If Dason could only have foreseen this honour," said Tob, with grisly jest, "I'm sure he'd have laid in a silken warp to make fast on the bollards instead of mere plebeian hemp. I'm sure there'd be a frown on Dason's head this minute, if the sun hadn't scorched it stiff. My Lord Deucalion, will you pick your way with niceness over this common ship and tread on the genteel carpet they've spread for you on the quay yonder?"
The port-captain heard Tob's rude banter and looked up with a face of horror, and I remembered, with a small sigh, that colonial freedom would have no place here in Atlantis. Once more I must prepare myself for all the dignity of rank, and make ready to tread the formalities of vast and gorgeous ceremonial.
But, be these things how they may, a self-respecting man must preserve his individuality also, and though I consented to enter a pavilion of crimson cloth, specially erected to shelter me till the Empress should deign to arrive, there my complaisance ended. Again the matter of clothes was harped upon. The three gorgeously caparisoned chamberlains, who had inducted me to the shelter, laid before me changes of raiment bedecked with every imaginable kind of frippery, and would have me transform myself into a popinjay in fashion like their own.
Curtly enough, I refused to alter my garb, and when one of them stammeringly referred to the Empress's tastes I asked him with plainness if he had got any definite commands on this paltry matter from her mightiness.
Of course, he had to confess that there were none.
Upon which I retorted that Phorenice had commanded Deucalion, the man, to attend before her, and had sent no word of her pleasure as to his outer casing.
"This dress," I said, "suits my temper well. It shields my poor body from the heat and the wind, and, moreover, it is clean. It seems to me, sirs," I added, "that your interfering savours somewhat of an impertinence."
With one accord the chamberlains drew their swords and pushed the hilts towards me.
"It would be a favour," said their spokesman, "if the great Lord Deucalion would take his vengeance now, instead of delivering us to the tormentors hereafter."
"Poof," I said, "the matter is forgotten. You make too much of a little."
Nevertheless, their action gave me some enlightenment. They were perfectly in earnest in offering me the swords, and I recognised that this was a different Atlantis that I had come home to, where a man had dread of the torture for a mere difference concerning the cut of a coat.
There was a bath in the pavilion, and in that I regaled myself gladly, though there was some paltry scent added to the water that took away half its refreshing power; and then I set myself to wait with all outward composure and placidity. The chamberlains were too well-bred to break into my calm, and I did not condescend to small talk. So there we remained, the four of us, I sitting, they standing, with our Lord the Sun smiting heavily on the scarlet roof of the pavilion, whilst the music blared, and the welcoming fires dispersed their odours from the great paved square without, which faced upon the quay.
It has been said that the great should always collect dignity by keeping those of lesser degree waiting their pleasure, though for myself I must say I have always thought the stratagem paltry and beneath me. Phorenice also seemed of this opinion, for (as she herself told me later) at the moment that Tob's galley was reported as having its flank against the marble of the royal quay, at that precise moment did she start out from the palace. The gorgeous procession was already marshalled, bedecked, and waiting only for its chiefest ornament, and as soon as she had mounted to her steed, trumpets gave the order, and the advance began.
Sitting in the doorway of the pavilion, I saw the soldiery who formed the head of this vast concourse emerge from the great broad street where it left the houses. They marched straight across to give me the salute, and then ranged themselves on the farther side of the square. Then came the Mariners' Guild, then more soldiers, all making obeisance in their turn, and passing on to make room for others. Following were the merchants, the tanners, the spear-makers and all the other acknowledged Guilds, deliberately attired (so it seemed to me) that they might make a pageant; and whilst most walked on foot, there were some who proudly rode on beasts which they had tamed into rendering them this menial service.
But presently came the two wonders of all that dazzling spectacle. From out of the eclipse of the houses there swung into the open no less a beast than a huge bull mammoth. The sight had sufficient surprise in it almost to make me start. Many a time during my life had I led hunts to kill the mammoth, when a herd of them had raided some village or cornland under my charge. I had seen the huge brutes in the wild ground, shaggy, horrid, monstrous; more fierce than even the cave-tiger or the cave-bear; most dangerous beast of all that fight with man for dominion of the earth, save only for a few of the greater lizards. And here was this creature, a giant even amongst mammoths, yet tame as any well-whipped slave, and bearing upon its back a great half-castle of gold, stamped with the outstretched hand, and bedecked with silver snakes. Its murderous tusks were gilded, its hairy neck was garlanded with flowers, and it trod on in the procession as though assisting at such pageantry was the beginning and end of its existence. Its tameness seemed a fitting symbol of the masterful strength of this new ruler of Atlantis.
Simultaneously with the mammoth, there came into sight that other and greater wonder, the mammoth's mistress, the Empress Phorenice. The beast took my eye at the first, from its very uncouth hugeness, from its show of savage power restrained; but the lady who sat in the golden half-castle on its lofty back quickly drew away my gaze, and held it immovable from then onwards with an infinite attraction.
I stood to my feet when the people first shouted at Phorenice's approach, and remained in the porchway of my scarlet pavilion till her vast steed had halted in the centre of the square, and then I advanced across the pavement towards her.
"On your knees, my lord," said one of the chamberlains behind me, in a scared whisper.
"At least with bent head," urged another.
But I had my own notions of what is due to one's own self-respect in these matters, and I marched across the bare open space with head erect, giving the Empress gaze for gaze. She was clearly summing me up. I was frankly doing the like by her. Gods! but those few short seconds made me see a woman such as I never imagined could have lived.
I know I have placed it on record earlier in this writing that, during all the days of a long official life, women have had no influence over me. But I have been quick to see that they often had a strong swaying power over the policies of others, and as a consequence I have made it my business to study them even as I have studied men. But this woman who sat under the sacred snakes in her golden half-castle on the mammoth's back, fairly baffled me. Of her thoughts I could read no single syllable. I could see a body slight, supple, and beautifully moulded; in figure rather small. Her face was a most perfect book of cleverness, yet she was fair, too, beyond belief, with hair of a lovely ruddiness, cut short in the new fashion, and bunching on her shoulders. And eyes! Gods! who could plumb the depths of Phorenice's eyes, or find in mere tint a trace of their heaven-made colour?
It was plain, also, that she in her turn was searching me down to my very soul, and it seemed that her scrutiny was not without its satisfaction. She moved her head in little nods as I drew near, and when I did the requisite obeisance permitted to my rank, she bade me in a voice loud and clear enough for all at hand to hear, never to put forehead on the ground again on her behalf so long as she ruled in Atlantis.
"For others," she said, "it is fitting that they should do so, once, twice, or several times, according to their rank and station, for I am Empress, and they are all so far beneath me; but you are Deucalion, my lord, and though till to-day I knew you only from pictures drawn with tongues, I have seen you now, and have judged for myself. And so I make this decree: Deucalion is above all other men in Atlantis, and if there is one who does not render him obedience, that man is enemy also of Phorenice, and shall feel her anger."
She made a sign, and a stair was brought, and then she called to me, and I mounted and sat beside her in the golden half-castle under the canopy of royal snakes. The girl who stood behind in attendance fanned us both with perfumed feathers, and at a word from Phorenice the mammoth was turned, bearing us back towards the royal pyramid by the way through which it had come. At the same time also all the other machinery of splendour was put in motion. The soldiers and the gaudily bedecked civil traders fell into procession before and behind, and I noted that a body of troops, heavily armed, marched on each of the mammoth's flanks.
Phorenice turned to me with a smile. "You piqued me," she said, "at first."
"Your Majesty overwhelms me with so much notice."
"You looked at my steed before you looked at me. A woman finds it hard to forgive a slight like that."
"I envied you the greatest of your conquests, and do still. I have fought mammoths myself, and at times have killed, but I never dared even to think of taking one alive and bringing it into tameness."
"You speak boldly," she said, still smiling, "and yet you can turn a pretty compliment. Faugh! Deucalion, the way these people fawn on me gives me a nausea. I am not of the same clay as they are, I know; but just because I am the daughter of Gods they must needs feed me on the pap of insincerity."
So Tatho was right, and the swineherd was forgotten. Well, if she chose to keep up the fiction she had made, it was not my part to contradict her. Rightly or wrongly I was her servant.
"I have been pining this long enough for a stronger meat than they can give," she went on, "and at last I have sent for you. I have been at some pains to procure my tongue-pictures of you, Deucalion, and though you do not know me yet, I may say I knew you with all thoroughness even before we met. I can admire a man with a mind great enough to forego the silly gauds of clothes, or the excesses of feasts, or the pamperings of women." She looked down at her own silks and her glittering jewels. "We women like to carry colours upon our persons, but that is a different matter. And so I sent for you here to be my minister, and bear with me the burden of ruling."
"There should be better men in broad Atlantis."
"There are not, my lord, and I who know them all by heart tell you so. They are all enamoured of my poor person; they weary me with their empty phrases and their importunities; and, though they are always brimming with their cries of service, their own advancement and the filling of their own treasuries ever comes first with them. So I have sent for you, Deucalion, the one strong man in all the world. You at least will not sigh to be my lover?"
I saw her watching for my answer from the corner of her eyes. "The Empress," I said, "is my mistress, and I will be an honest minister to her. With Phorenice, the woman, it is likely that I shall have little enough to do. Besides, I am not the sort that sports with this toy they call love."
"And yet you are a personable man enough," she said rather thoughtfully. "But that still further proves your strength, Deucalion. You at least will not lose your head through weak infatuation for my poor looks and graces."—She turned to the girl who stood behind us.—"Ylga, fan not so violently."
Our talk broke off then for the moment, and I had time to look about me. We were passing through the chief street in the fairest, the most wonderful city this world has ever seen. I had left it a score of years before, and was curious to note its increase.
In public buildings the city had certainly made growth; there were new temples, new pyramids, new palaces, and statuary everywhere. Its greatness and magnificence impressed me more strongly even than usual, returning to it as I did from such a distance of time and space, for, though the many cities of Yucatan might each of them be princely, this great capital was a place not to be compared with any of them. It was imperial and gorgeous beyond descriptive words.
Yet most of all was I struck by the poverty and squalor which stood in such close touch with all this magnificence. In the throngs that lined the streets there were gaunt bodies and hungry faces everywhere. Here and there stood one, a man or a woman, as naked as a savage in Europe, and yet dull to shame. Even the trader, with trumpery gauds on his coat, aping the prevailing fashion for display, had a scared, uneasy look to his face, as though he had forgotten the mere name of safety, and hid a frantic heart with his tawdry outward vauntings of prosperity.
Phorenice read the direction of my looks.
"The season," she said, "has been unhealthy of recent months. These lower people will not build fine houses to adorn my city, and because they choose to live on in their squalid, unsightly kennels, there have been calentures and other sicknesses amongst them, which make them disinclined for work. And then, too, for the moment, earning is not easy. Indeed, you may say trade is nearly stopped this last half-year, since the rebels have been hammering so lustily at my city gates."
I was fairly startled out of my decorum.
"Rebels!" I cried. "Who are hammering at the gates of Atlantis? Is the city in a state of siege?"
"Of their condescension," said Phorenice lightly, "they are giving us holiday to-day, and so, happily, my welcome to you comes undisturbed. If they were fighting, your ears would have told you of it. To give them their due, they are noisy enough in all their efforts. My spies say they are making ready new engines for use against the walls, which you may sally out to-morrow and break if it gives you amusement. But for to-day, Deucalion, I have you, and you have me, and there is peace round us, and some prettiness of display. If you ask for more I will give it you."
"I did not know of this rebellion," I said, "but as Your Majesty has made me your minister, it is well that I should know all about its scope at once. This is a matter we should be serious upon."
"And do you think I cannot take it seriously also?" she retorted. "Ylga," she said to the girl that stood behind, "set loose my dress at the shoulder."
And when the attendant had unlinked the jewelled clasp (as it seemed to me with a very ill grace), she herself stripped down the fabric, baring the pure skin beneath, and showing me just below the curve of the left breast a bandage of bloodstained linen.
"There is a guarantee of my seriousness yesterday, at any rate," she said, looking at me sidelong. "The arrow struck on a rib and that saved me. If it had struck between, Deucalion would have been standing beside my funeral pyre to-day instead of riding on this pretty steed of mine which he admires so much. Your eye seems to feast itself most on the mammoth, Deucalion. Ah, poor me. I am not one of your shaggy creatures, and so it seems I shall never be able to catch your regard. Ylga," she said to the girl behind, "you may link my dress up again with its clasp. My Lord Deucalion has seen wounds before, and there is nothing else here to interest him."
5. ZAEMON'S CURSE
It appeared that for the present at any rate I was to have my residence in the royal pyramid. The glittering cavalcade drew up in the great paved square which lies before the building, and massed itself in groups. The mammoth was halted before the doorway, and when a stair had been brought, the trumpets sounded, and we three who had ridden in the golden half-castle under the canopy of snakes, descended to the ground.
It was plain that we were going from beneath the open sky to the apartments which lay inside the vast stone mazes of the pyramid, and without thinking, the instinct of custom and reverence that had become part of my nature caused me to turn to where the towering rocks of the Sacred Mountain frowned above the city, and make the usual obeisance, and offer up in silence the prescribed prayer. I say I did this thing unthinking, and as a matter of common custom, but when I rose to my feet, I could have sworn I heard a titter of laughter from somewhere in that fancifully bedecked crowd of onlookers.
I glanced in the direction of the scoffers, frowningly enough, and then I turned to Phorenice to demand their prompt punishment for the disrespect. But here was a strange thing. I had looked to see her in the act and article of rising from an obeisance; but there she was, standing erect, and had clearly never touched her forehead to the ground. Moreover, she was regarding me with a queer look which I could not fathom.
But whatever was in her mind, she had no plan to bawl about it then before the people collected in the square. She said to me, "Come," and, turning to the doorway, cried for entrance, giving the secret word appointed for the day. The ponderous stone blocks, which barred the porch, swung back on their hinges, and with stately tread she passed out of the hot sunshine into the cool gloom beyond, with the fan-girl following decorously at her heels. With a heaviness beginning to grow at my heart, I too went inside the pyramid, and the stone doors, with a sullen thud, closed behind us.
We did not go far just then. Phorenice halted in the hall of waiting. How well I remembered the place, with the pictures of kings on its red walls, and the burning fountain of earth-breath which blazed from a jet of bronze in the middle of the flooring and gave it light. The old King that was gone had come this far of his complaisance when he bade me farewell as I set out twenty years before for my vice-royalty in Yucatan. But the air of the hall was different to what it had been in those old days. Then it was pure and sweet. Now it was heavy with some scent, and I found it languid and oppressive.
"My minister," said the Empress, "I acquit you of intentional insult; but I think the colonial air has made you a very simple man. Such an obeisance as you showed to that mountain not a minute since has not been made since I was sent to reign over this kingdom."
"Your Majesty," I said, "I am a member of the Priests' Clan and was brought up in their tenets. I have been taught, before entering a house, to thank the Gods, and more especially our Lord the Sun, for the good air that He and They have provided. It has been my fate more than once to be chased by streams of fire and stinking air amongst the mountains during one of their sudden boils, and so I can say the prescribed prayer upon this matter straight from my heart."
"Circumstances have changed since you left Atlantis," said Phorenice, "and when thanks are given now, they are not thrown at those old Gods."
I saw her meaning, and almost started at the impiety of it. If this was to be the new rule of things, I would have no hand in it. Fate might deal with me as it chose. To serve truly a reigning monarch, that I was prepared for; but to palter with sacrilege, and accept a swineherd's daughter as a God, who should receive prayers and obeisances, revolted my manhood. So I invited a crisis.
"Phorenice," I said, "I have been a priest from my childhood up, revering the Gods, and growing intimate with their mysteries. Till I find for myself that those old things are false, I must stand by that allegiance, and if there is a cost for this faithfulness I must pay it."
She looked at me with a slow smile. "You are a strong man, Deucalion," she said.
"I have heard others as stubborn," she said, "but they were converted." She shook out the ruddy bunches of her hair, and stood so that the light of the burning earth-breath might fall on the loveliness of her face and form. "I have found it as easy to convert the stubborn as to burn them. Indeed, there has been little talk of burning. They have all rushed to conversion, whether I would or no. But it seems that my poor looks and tongue are wanting in charm to-day."
"Phorenice is Empress," I said stolidly, "and I am her servant. To-morrow, if she gives me leave, I will clear away this rabble which clamours outside the walls. I must begin to prove my uses."
"I am told you are a pretty fighter," said she. "Well, I hold some small skill in arms myself, and have a conceit that I am something of a judge. To-morrow we will take a taste of battle together. But to-day I must carry through the honourable reception I have planned for you, Deucalion. The feast will be set ready soon, and you will wish to make ready for the feast. There are chambers here selected for your use, and stored with what is needful. Ylga will show you their places."
We waited, the fan-girl and I, till Phorenice had passed out of the glow of the light-jet, and had left the hall of waiting through a doorway amongst the shadows of its farther angle, and then (the girl taking a lamp and leading) we also threaded our way through the narrow mazes of the pyramid.
Everywhere the air was full of perfumes, and everywhere the passages turned and twisted and doubled through the solid stone of the pyramid, so that strangers might have spent hours—yes, or days—in search before they came to the chamber they desired. There was a fine cunningness about those forgotten builders who set up this royal pyramid. They had no mind that kings should fall by the hand of vulgar assassins who might come in suddenly from outside. And it is said also that the king of the time, to make doubly sure, killed all that had built the pyramid, or seen even the lay of its inner stones.
But the fan-girl led the way with the lamp swinging in her hand, as one accustomed to the mazes. Here she doubled, there she turned, and here she stopped in the middle of a blank wall to push a stone, which swung to let us pass. And once she pressed at the corner of a flagstone on the floor, which reared up to the thrust of her foot, and showed us a stair steep and narrow. That we descended, coming to the foot of an inclined way which led us upward again; and so by degrees we came unto the chamber which had been given for my use.
"There is raiment in all these chests which stand by the walls," said the girl, "and jewels and gauds in that bronze coffer. They are Phorenice's first presents, she bid me say, and but a small earnest of what is to come. My Lord Deucalion can drop his simplicity now, and fig himself out in finery to suit the fashion."
"Girl," I said sharply, "be more decorous with your tongue, and spare me such small advice."
"If my Lord Deucalion thinks this a rudeness, he can give a word to Phorenice, and I shall be whipped. If he asks it, I can be stripped and scourged before him. The Empress will do much for Deucalion just now."
"Girl," I said, "you are nearer to that whipping than you think for."
"I have got a name," she retorted, looking at me sullenly from under her black brows. "They call me Ylga. You might have heard that as we rode here on the mammoth, had you not been so wrapped up in Phorenice."
I gazed at her curiously. "You have never seen me before," I said, "and the first words you utter are those that might well bring trouble to yourself. There is some object in all this."
She went and pushed to the massive stone that swung in the doorway of the chamber. Then she put her little jewelled fingers on my garment and drew me carefully away from the airshaft into the farther corner. "I am the daughter of Zaemon," she said, "whom you knew."
"You bring me some message from him?"
"How could I? He lives in the priests' dwellings on the Mountain you did obeisance to. I have not put eyes on him these two years. But when I saw you first step out from that red pavilion they had pitched at the harbour side, I—I felt a pity for you, Deucalion. I remembered you were my father's, Zaemon's, friend, and I knew what Phorenice had in store. She has been plotting it all these two months."
"I cannot hear words against the Empress."
She stamped her sandal upon the stone of the floor. "You must be a very blind man, Deucalion, or a very daring one. But I shall not interfere further; at least not now. Still, I shall watch, and if at any time you seem to want a friend I will try and serve you."
"I thank you for your friendship."
"You seem to take it lightly enough. Why, sir, even now I do not believe you know my power, any more than you guess my motive. You may be first man in this kingdom, but let me tell you I rank as second lady. And remember, women stand high in Atlantis now. Believe me, my friendship is a commodity that has been sought with frequence and industry."
"And as I say, I am grateful for it. You seem to think little enough of my gratitude, Ylga; but, credit me, I never have bestowed it on a woman before, and so you should treasure it for its rarity."
"Well," she said, "my lord, there is an education before you." She left me then, showing me how to call slaves when I wished for their help, and for a full minute I stood wondering at the words I had spoken to her. Who was the daughter of Zaemon that she should induce me to change the habit of a lifetime?
The slaves came at my bidding, and showed themselves anxious to deck me with a thousand foolishnesses in the matter of robes and gauds, and (what seemed to be the modern fashion of their class) holding out the virtues of a score of perfumes and unguents. Their manner irritated me. Clean I was already, and shaved; my hair was trim, and my robe was unsoiled; and, considering these pressing attentions of theirs something of an impertinence, I set them to beat one another as a punishment, promising that if they did not do it with thoroughness, I would hand them on to the brander to be marked with stripes which would endure. It is strange, but a common menial can often surpass even a rebellious general in power of ruffling one.
I had seen many strange sights that day, and undergone many new sensations; but of all the things which came to my notice, Phorenice's manner of summoning the guests to her feast surprised me most. Nay, it did more; it shocked me profoundly; and I cannot say whether amazement at her profanity, or wonder at her power, was for the moment strongest in my breast. I sat in my chamber awaiting the summons, when gradually, growing out of nothing, a sound fell upon my ear which increased in volume with infinitely small graduations, till at last it became a clanging din which hurt the ear with its fierceness; and then (I guessed what was coming) the whole massive fabric of the pyramid trembled and groaned and shook, as though it had been merely a child's wooden toy brushed about by a strong man's sandal.
It was the portent served out yearly by the chiefs of the Priests' Clan on the Sacred Mountain, when they bade all the world take count of their sins. It was the sacred reminder that from roaring, raging fire, and from the agony of monstrous earth-tremors, man had been born, and that by these same agencies he would eventually be swallowed up—he and the sins within his breast. And here the Empress was prostituting its solemnities into a mere call to gluttony, and sign for ribald laughter and sensuous display.
But how had she acquired the authority to do this thing? Who was she that she should tamper with those dimly understood powers, the forces that dwell within the liquid heart of our mother earth? Had there been treachery? Had some member of the Priests' Clan forgotten his sacred vows, and babbled to this woman matters concerning the holy mysteries? Or had Phorenice discovered a key to these mysteries with her own agile brain?
If that last was the case, I could continue to serve her with silent conscience. Though she might be none of my making, at least she was Empress, and it was my duty to give her obedience. But if she had suborned some weaker member of the Clan on the Sacred Mount, that would be a different matter. For be it remembered that it was one of the elements of our constitution to preserve our secrets and mysteries inviolate, and to pursue with undying hatred both the man who had dared to betray them, and the unhappy recipient of his confidence.
It was with very undecided feelings, then, that I obeyed the summons of the earth-shaking, and bade the slaves lead me through the windings of the pyramid to the great banqueting-hall. The scene there was dazzling. The majestic chamber with its marvellous carvings was filled with a company decked out with all the gauds and colours that fancy could conceive. Little recked they of the solemn portent which had summoned them to the meal, of the death and misery that stalked openly through the city wards without, of the rebels which lay in leaguer beyond the walls, of the neglected Gods and their clan of priests on the Sacred Mountain. They were all gluttonous for the passions of the moment; it was their fashion and conceit to look at nothing beyond.
Flaming jets of earth-breath lit the great hall to the brightness of midday; and when I stepped out upon the pavement, trumpets blared, so that all might know of my coming. But there was no roar of welcome. "Deucalion," they lisped with mincing voices, bowing themselves ridiculously to the ground so that all their ornaments and silks might jangle and swish. Indeed, when Phorenice herself appeared, and all sent up their cries and made lawful obeisance, there was the same artificiality in the welcome. They meant well enough, it is true; but this was the new fashion. Heartiness had come to be accounted a barbarism by this new culture.
A pair of posturing, smirking chamberlains took me in charge, and ushered me with their flimsy golden wands to the dais at the farther end. It appeared that I was to sit on Phorenice's divan, and eat my meat out of her dish.
"There is no stint to the honour the Empress puts upon me," I said, as I knelt down and took my seat.
She gave me one of her queer, sidelong looks. "Deucalion may have more beside, if he asks for it prettily. He may have what all the other men in the known world have sighed for, and what none of them will ever get. But I have given enough of my own accord; he must ask me warmly for those further favours."
"I ask," I said, "first, that I may sweep the boundaries clear of this rabble which is clamouring against the city walls."
"Pah," she said, and frowned. "Have you appetite only for the sterner pleasures of life? My good Deucalion, they must have been rustic folk in that colony of yours. Well, you shall give me news now of the toothsomeness of this feast."
Dishes and goblets were placed before us, and we began to eat, though I had little enough appetite for victual so broken and so highly spiced. But if this finicking cookery and these luscious wines did not appeal to me, the other diners in that gorgeous hall appreciated it all to the full. They sat about in groups on the pavement beneath the light-jets like a tangle of rainbows for colour, and according to the new custom they went into raptures and ecstasies over their enjoyment. Women and men both, they lingered over each titillation of the palate as though it were a caress of the Gods.
Phorenice, with her quick, bright eyes, looked on, and occasionally flung one or another a few words between her talk with me, and now and again called some favoured creature up to receive a scrap of viand from the royal dish. This the honoured one would eat with extravagant gesture, or (as happened twice) would put it away in the folds of his clothes as a treasure too dear to be profaned by human lips.
To me, this flattery appeared gross and disgustful, but Phorenice, through use, perhaps, seemed to take it as merely her due. There was, one had to suppose, a weakness in her somewhere, though truly to the outward seeing none was apparent. Her face was strong enough, and it was subtle also, and, moreover, it was wondrous comely. All the courtiers in the banqueting-hall raved about Phorenice's face and the other beauties of her body and limbs, and though not given to appreciation in these matters, I could not but see that here at least they had a groundwork for their admiration, for surely the Gods have never favoured mortal woman more highly. Yet lovely though she might be, for myself I preferred to look upon Ylga, the girl, who, because of her rank, was privileged to sit on the divan behind us as immediate attendant. There was an honesty in Ylga's face which Phorenice's lacked.
They did not eat to nutrify their bodies, these feasters in the banqueting-hall of the royal pyramid, but they all ate to cloy themselves, and they strutted forth new usages with every platter and bowl that the slaves brought. To me some of their manners were closely touching on disrespect. At the halfway of the meal, a gorgeous popinjay—he was a governor of an out-province driven into the capital by a rebellion in his own lands—this gorgeous fop, I say, walked up between the groups of feasters with flushed face and unsteady gait, and did obeisance before the divan. "Most astounding Empress," cried he, "fairest among the Goddesses, Queen regnant of my adoring heart, hail!"
Phorenice with a smile stretched him out her cup. I looked to see him pour respectful libation, but no such thing. He set the drink to his lips and drained it to the final drop. "May all your troubles," he cried, "pass from you as easily, and leave as pleasant a flavour."
The Empress turned to me with one of her quick looks. "You do not like this new habit?"
To which I replied bluntly enough that to pour out liquor at a person's feet had grown through custom to be a mark of respect, but that drinking it seemed to me mere self-indulgence, which might be practised anywhere.
"You still keep to the old austere teachings," she said. "Our newer code bids us enjoy life first, and order other things so as not to meddle with our more immediate pleasure."
And so the feast went on, the guests practising their gluttonies and their absurdities, and the guards standing to their arms round the circuit of the walls as motionless and as stern as the statues carven in the white stone beyond them. But a term was put to the orgy with something of suddenness. There was a stir at the farther doorway of the banqueting-hall, and a clash, as two of the guards joined their spears across the entrance. But the man they tried to stop—or perhaps it was to pin—passed them unharmed, and walked up over the pavement between the lights, and the groups of feasters. All looked round at him; a few threw him ribald words; but none ventured to stop his progress. A few, women chiefly, I could see, shuddered as he passed them by, as though a wintry chill had come over them; and in the end he walked up and stood in front of Phorenice's divan, and gazed fixedly on her, but without making obeisance.
He was a frail old man, with white hair tumbling on his shoulders, and ragged white beard. The mud of wayfaring hung in clots on his feet and legs. His wizened body was bare save for a single cloth wound about his shoulders and his loins, and he carried in his hand a wand with the symbol of our Lord the Sun glowing at its tip. That wand went to show his caste, but in no other way could I recognize him.
I took him for one of those ascetics of the Priests' Clan, who had forsworn the steady nurtured life of the Sacred Mountain, and who lived out in the dangerous lands amongst the burning hills, where there is daily peril from falling rocks, from fire streams, from evil vapours, from sudden fissuring of the ground, and from other movements of those unstable territories, and from the greater lizards and other monstrous beasts which haunt them. These keep constant in the memory the might of the Holy Gods, and the insecurity of this frail earth on which we have our resting-place, and so the sojourners there become chastened in the spirit, and gain power over mysteries which even the most studious and learned of other men can never hope to attain.
A silence filled the room when the old man came to his halt, and Phorenice was the first to break it. "Those two guards," she said, in her clear, carrying voice, "who held the door, are not equal to their work. I cannot have imperfect servants; remove them."
The soldiers next in the rank lifted their spears and drove them home, and the two fellows who had admitted the old man fell to the ground. One shrieked once, the other gave no sound: they were clever thrusts both.
The old man found his voice, thin, and high, and broken. "Another crime added to your tally, Phorenice. Not half your army could have hindered my entrance had I wished to come, and let me tell you that I am here to bring you your last warning. The Gods have shown you much favour; they gave you merit by which you could rise above your fellows, till at last only the throne stood above you. It was seen good by those on the Sacred Mountain to let you have this last ambition, and sit on this throne that has as long and honourably been filled by the ancient kings of Atlantis."
The Empress sat back on the divan smiling. "I seemed to get these things as I chose, and in spite of your friends' teeth. I may owe to you, old man, a small parcel of thanks, though that I offered to repay; but for my lords the priests, their permission was of small enough value when it came. I would have you remember that I was as firm on the throne of Atlantis as this pyramid stands upon its base when your worn-out priests came up to give their tottering benediction."
The old man waved aside her interruption. "Hear me out," he said. "I am here with no trivial message. There is nothing paltry about the threat I can throw at you, Phorenice. With your fire-tubes, your handling of troops, and your other fiendish clevernesses, you may not be easy to overthrow by mere human means, though, forsooth, these poor rebels who yap against your city walls have contrived to hold their ground for long enough now. It may be that you are becoming enervated; I do not know. It may be that you are too wrapped up in your feastings, your dressings, your pomps, and your debaucheries, to find leisure to turn to the art of war. It may be that the man's spirit has gone out from your arm and brain, and you are a woman once more—weak, and pleasure-loving; again I do not know.
"But this must happen: You must undo the evil you have done; you must give bread to the people who are starving, even if you take it from these gluttons in this hall; you must restore Atlantis to the state in which it was entrusted to you: or else you must be removed. It cannot be permitted that the country should sink back into the lawlessness and barbarism from which its ancient kings have digged it. You hear, Phorenice. Now give me true answer."
"Speak him fair. Oh! For the sake of your fortune, speak him fair," came Ylga's voice in a hurried whisper from behind us. But the Empress took no notice of it. She leaned forward on the cushions of the divan with a knit brow.
"Do you dare to threaten me, old man, knowing what I am?"
"I know your origin," he said gravely, "as well as you know it yourself. As for my daring, that is a small matter. He need be but a timid man who dares to say words that the High Gods put on his lips."
"I shall rule this kingdom as I choose. I shall brook interference from no creature on this earth, or beneath it, or in the sky above. The Gods have chosen me to be Their regent in Atlantis, and They do not depose me through such creatures as you. Go away, old man, and play the fanatic in another court. It is well that I have an ancient kindliness for you, or you would not leave this place unharmed."
"Now, indeed, you are lost," I heard Ylga murmur from behind, and the old man in front of us did not move a step. Instead, he lifted up the Symbol of our Lord the Sun, and launched his curse. "Your blasphemy gives the reply I asked for. Hear me now make declaration of war on behalf of Those against whom you have thrown your insults. You shall be overthrown and sent to the nether Gods. At whatever cost the land shall be purged of you and yours, and all the evil that has been done to it whilst you have sullied the throne of its ancient kings. You will not amend, neither will you yield tamely. You vaunt that you sit as firm on your throne as this pyramid reposes on its base. See how little you know of what the future carries. I say to you that, whilst you are yet Empress, you shall see this royal pyramid which you have polluted with your debaucheries torn tier from tier, and stone from stone, and scattered as feathers spread before a wind."
"You may wreck the pyramid," said Phorenice contemptuously. "I myself have some knowledge of the earth forces, as I have shown this night. But though you crumble every stone above us now and grind it into grit and dust, I shall still be Empress. What force can you crazy priests bring against me that I cannot throw back and destroy?"
"We have a weapon that was forged in no mortal smithy," shrilled the old man, "whereof the key is now lodged in the Ark of the Mysteries. But that weapon can be used only as a last resource. The nature of it even is too awful to be told in words. Our other powers will be launched against you first, and for this poor country's sake I pray that they may cause you to wince. Yet rest assured, Phorenice, that we shall not step aside once we have put a hand to this matter. We shall carry it through, even though the cost be a universal burning and destruction. For know this, daughter of the swineherd, it is agreed amongst the most High Gods that you are too full of sin to continue unchecked."
"Speak him fairly," Ylga urged from behind. "He has a power at which you cannot even guess."
The Empress made to rise, but Ylga clung to her skirt. "For the sake of your fame," she urged, "for the sake of your life, do not defy him." But Phorenice struck her fiercely aside, and faced the old man in a tumult of passion. "You dare call me a blasphemer, who blaspheme yourself? You dare cast slurs upon my birth, who am come direct from the most high Heaven? Old man, your craziness protects you in part, but not in all. You shall be whipped. Do you hear me? I say, whipped. The lean flesh shall be scourged from your scraggy bones, and you shall totter away from this place as a red and bleeding example for those who would dare traduce their Empress. Here, some of you, I say, take that man, and let him be whipped where he stands."
Her cry went out clearly enough. But not a soul amongst those glittering feasters stirred in his place. Not a soldier amongst the guards stepped from his rank. The place was hung in a terrible silence. It seemed as though no one within the hall dared so much as to draw a breath. All felt that the very air was big with fate.
Phorenice, with her head crouched forward, looked from one group to another. Her face was working. "Have I no true servants," she asked, "amongst all you pretty lip-servers?"
Still no one moved. They stood, or sat, or crouched like people fascinated. For myself, with the first words he had uttered, I had recognized the old man by his voice. It was Zaemon, the weak governor who had given the Empress her first step towards power; that earnest searcher into the mysteries, who knew more of their powers, and more about the hidden forces, than any other dweller on the Sacred Mountain, even at that time when I left for my colony. And now, during his strange hermit life, how much more might he not have learned? I was torn by warring duties. I owed much to the Priests' Clan, by reason of my oath and membership; it seemed I owed no less to Phorenice. And, again, was Zaemon the truly accredited envoy of the high council of the priests of the Sacred Mountain? And was the Empress of a truth deposed by the High Gods above, or was she still Empress, and still the commander of my duty? I could not tell, and so I sat in my seat awaiting what the event would sow.
Phorenice's fury was growing. "Do I stand alone here?" she cried. "Have I pampered you creatures out of all touch with gratitude? It seems that at last I want a new chief to my guards. Ho! Who will be chief of the guards of the Empress?"
There was a shifting of eyes, a hesitation. Then a great burly form strode up from the farther end of the hall, and a perceptible shudder went up from all the others as they watched him.
"So, Tarca, you prefer to take the risks, and remain chief of the guard yourself?" she said with an angry scoff. "Truly there did not seem to be many thrusting forward to strip you of the office. I shall have a fine sorting up of places in payment for this night's work. But for the present, Tarca, do your duty."
The man came up, obviously timorous. He was a solidly made fellow, but not altogether unmartial, and though but little of his cheek showed above his decorated beard, I could see that he paled as he came near to the priest. "My lord," he said quietly, "I must ask you to come with me."
"Stand aside," said the old man, thrusting out the Symbol in front of him. I could see his eyes gather on the soldier and his brows knit with a strain of will.
Tarca saw this too, and I thought he would have fallen, but with an effort he kept his manhood, and doggedly repeated his summons. "I must obey the command of my mistress, and I would have you remember, my lord, that I am but a servant. You must come with me to the whip."
"I warn you!" cried the old man. "Stand from out of my path, you!"
It must have been with the courage of desperation that the soldier dared to use force. But the hand he stretched out dropped limply back to his side the moment it touched the old man's bare shoulder, as though it had been struck by some shock. He seemed almost to have expected some such repulse; yet when he picked up that hand with the other, and looked at it, and saw its whiteness, he let out of him a yell like a wounded beast. "Oh, Gods!" he cried. "Not that. Spare me!"
But Zaemon was glowering at him still. A twitching seized the man's face, and he put up his sound hand to it and plucked at his beard, which was curled and plaited after the new fashion of the day. A woman standing near screamed as the half of the beard came off in his fingers. Beneath was silver whiteness over half his face. Zaemon had smitten him with a sudden leprosy that was past cure.
Yet the punishment was not ended even then. Other twitchings took him on other parts of the body, and he tore off his armour and his foppish clothes, and always where the bare flesh showed, there had the horrid plague written its white mark; and in the end, being able to endure no more, the man fell to the pavement and lay there writhing.
Zaemon said no further word. He lifted the Symbol before him, set his eyes on the farther door of the banqueting-hall and walked for it directly, all those in his path shrinking away from him with open shudders. And through the valves of the door he passed out of our sight, still wordless, still unchecked.
I glanced up at Phorenice. The loveliness of her face was drawn and haggard. It was the first great reverse, this, she had met with in all her life, and the shock of it, and the vision of what might follow after, dazed her. Alas, if she could only have guessed at a tenth of the terrors which the future had in its womb, Atlantis might have been saved even then.
6. THE BITERS OF THE CITY WALLS
Here then was the manner of my reception back in the capital of Atlantis, and some first glimpse at her new policies. I freely confess to my own inaction and limpness; but it was all deliberate. The old ties of duty seemed lost, or at least merged in one another. Beforetime, to serve the king was to serve the Clan of the Priests, from which he had been chosen, and whose head he constituted. But Phorenice was self-made, and appeared to be a rule unto herself; if Zaemon was to be trusted, he was the mouthpiece of the Priests, and their Clan had set her at defiance; and how was a mere honest man to choose on the instant between the two?
But cold argument told me that governments were set up for the good of the country at large, and I said to myself that there would be my choice. I must find out which rule promised best of Atlantis, and do my poor best to prop it into full power. And here at once there opened up another path in the maze: I had heard some considerable talk of rebels; of another faction of Atlanteans who, whatever their faults might be, were at any rate strong enough to beleaguer the capital; and before coming to any final decision, it would be as well to take their claims in balance with the rest. So on the night of that very same day on which I had just re-planted my foot on the old country's shores, I set out to glean for myself tidings on the matter.
No one inside the royal pyramid gainsaid me. The banquet had ended abruptly with the terrible scene that I have set down above on these tablets, for with Tarca writhing on the floor, and thrusting out the gruesome scars of his leprosy, even the most gluttonous had little enough appetite for further gorging. Phorenice glowered on the feasters for a while longer in silent fury, but saying no further word; and then her eyes turned on me, though softened somewhat.
"You may be an honest man, Deucalion," she said, at length, "but you are a monstrous cold one. I wonder when you will thaw?" And here she smiled. "I think it will be soon. But for now I bid you farewell. In the morning we will take this country by the shoulders, and see it in some new order."
She left the banqueting-hall then, Ylga following; and taking precedence of my rank, I went out next, whilst all others stood and made salutation. But I halted by Tarca first, and put my hand on his unclean flesh. "You are an unfortunate man," I said, "but I can admire a brave soldier. If relief can be gained for your plague, I will use interest to procure it for you."
The man's thanks came in a mumble from his wrecked mouth, and some of those near shuddered in affected disgust. I turned on them with a black brow: "Your charity, my lords, seems of as small account as your courage. You affected a fine disbelief of Zaemon's sayings, and a simpering contempt for his priesthood, but when it comes to laying a hand on him, you show a discretion which, in the old days, we should have called by an ugly name. I had rather be Tarca, with all his uncleanness, than any of you now as you stand."
With which leave-taking I waited coldly till they gave me my due salutation, and then walked out of the banqueting-hall without offering a soul another glance. I took my way to the grand gate of the pyramid, called for the officer of the guard, and demanded exit. The man was obsequious enough, but he opened with some demur.
"My lord's attendants have not yet come up?"
"I have none."
"My lord knows the state of the streets?"
"I did twenty years back. I shall be able to pick my way."
"My lord must remember that the city is beleaguered," the fellow persisted. "The people are hungry. They prowl in bands after nightfall, and—I make no question that my lord would conquer in a fight against whatever odds, but—"
"Quite right. I covet no street scuffle to-night. Lend me, I pray you, a sufficiency of men. You will know best what are needed. For me, I am accustomed to a city with quiet streets."
A score of sturdy fellows were detailed off for my escort, and with them in a double file on either hand, I marched out from the close perfumed air of the pyramid into the cool moonlight of the city. It was my purpose to make a tour of the walls and to find out somewhat of the disposition of these rebels.
But the Gods saw fit to give me another education first. The city, as I saw it during that night walk, was no longer the old capital that I had known, the just accretion of the ages, the due admixture of comfort and splendour. The splendour was there, vastly increased. Whole wards had been swept away to make space for new palaces, and new pyramids of the wealthy, and I could not but have an admiration for the skill and the brain which made possible such splendid monuments.
And, indeed, gazing at them there under the silver of the moonlight, I could almost understand the emotions of the Europeans and other barbarous savages which cause them to worship all such great buildings as Gods, since they deem them too wonderful and majestic to be set up by human hands unaided.
Still, if it was easy to admire, it was simple also to see plain advertisement of the cost at which these great works had been reared. From each grant of ground, where one of these stately piles earned silver under the moon, a hundred families had been evicted and left to harbour as they pleased in the open; and, as a consequence, now every niche had its quota of sleepers, and every shadow its squad of fierce wild creatures, ready to rush out and rob or slay all wayfarers of less force than their own.
Myself, I am no pamperer of the common people. I say that, if a man be left to hunger and shiver, he will work to gain him food and raiment; and if not, why then he can die, and the State is well rid of a worthless fellow. But here beside us, as we marched through many wards, were marks of blind oppression; starved dead bodies, with the bones starting through the lean skin, sprawled in the gutter; and indeed it was plain that, save for the favoured few, the people of the great capital were under a most heavy oppression.
But at this, though I might regret it abominably, I could make no strong complaint. By the ancient law of the land all the people, great and small, were the servants of the king, to be put without question to what purposes he chose; and Phorenice stood in the place of the king. So I tried to think no treason, but with a sigh passed on, keeping my eyes above the miseries and the squalors of the roadway, and sending out my thoughts to the stars which hung in the purple night above, and to the High Gods which dwelt amongst them, seeking, if it might be, for guidance for my future policies. And so in time the windings of the streets brought us to the walls, and, coursing beside these and giving fitting answer to the sentries who beat their drums as we passed, we came in time to that great gate which was a charge to the captain of the garrison.
Here it was plain there was some special commotion. A noise of laughter went up into the still night air, and with it now and again the snarl and roar of a great beast, and now and again the shriek of a hurt man. But whatever might be afoot, it was not a scene to come upon suddenly. The entrance gates of our great capital were designed by their ancient builders to be no less strong than the walls themselves. Four pairs of valves were there, each a monstrous block of stone two man-heights square, and a man-height thick, and the wall was doubled to receive them, enclosing an open circus between its two parts. The four gates themselves were set one at the inner, one at the outer side of each of these walls, and a hidden machinery so connected them, that of each set one could not open till the other was closed; and as for forcing them without war engines, one might as foolishly try to push down the royal pyramid with the bare hand.
My escort made outcry with the horn which hung from the wall inviting such a summons, and a warder came to an arrow-slit, and did inspection of our persons and business. His survey was according to the ancient form of words, which is long, and this was made still more tedious by the noise from within, which ever and again drowned all speech between us entirely.
But at last the formalities had been duly complied with, and he shot back the massive bars and bolts of stone, and threw ajar one monstrous stone valve of the door. Into the chamber within—a chamber made from the thickness of the wall between the two doors—I and my fellows crowded, and then the warder with his machines pulled to the valve which had been opened, and came to me again through the press of my escort, bowing low to the ground.
"I have no vail to give you," I said abruptly. "Get on with your duty. Open me that other door."
"With respect, my lord, it would be better that I should first announce my lord's presence. There is a baiting going forward in the circus, and the tigers are as yet mere savages, and no respecters of persons."
"The tigers, if my lord will permit them the name. They are baiting a batch of prisoners with the two great beasts which the Empress (whose name be adored) has sent here to aid us keep the gate. But if my lord will, there are the ward rooms leading off this passage, and the galleries which run out from them commanding the circus, and from there my lord can see the sport undisturbed."
Now, the mere lust for killing excites only disgust in me, but I suspected the orders of the Empress in this matter, and had a curiosity to see her scheme. So I stepped into the warder's lodge, and on into the galleries which commanded the circus with their arrow-slits. The old builders of the place had intended these for a second line of defence, for, supposing the outer doors all forced, an enemy could be speedily shot down in the circus, without being able to give a blow in return, and so would only march into a death-trap. But as a gazing-place on a spectacle they were no less useful.
The circus was bright lit by the moonlight, and the air which came in to me from it was acrid with the reek of blood. There was no sport in what was going forward: as I said, it was mere killing, and the sight disgusted me. I am no prude about this matter. Give a prisoner his weapons, put him in a pit with beasts of reasonable strength, and let him fight to a finish if you choose, and I can look on there and applaud the strokes. The war prisoner, being a prisoner, has earned death by natural law, and prefers to get his last stroke in hot blood than to be knocked down by the headsman's axe. And it is any brave man's luxury either to help or watch a lusty fight. But this baiting in the circus between the gates was no fair battle like that.
To begin with, the beasts were no fair antagonists for single men. In fact, twenty men armed might well have fled from them. When the warder said tigers, I supposed he meant the great cats of the woods. But here, in the circus, I saw a pair of the most terrific of all the fur-bearing land beasts, the great tigers of the caves—huge monsters, of such ponderous strength that in hunger they will oftentimes drag down a mammoth, if they can find him away from his herd.
How they had been brought captive I could not tell. Hunter of beasts though I had been for all my days, I take no shame in saying that I always approached the slaying of a cave-tiger with stratagem and infinite caution. To entrap it alive and bring it to a city on a chain was beyond my most daring schemes, and I have been accredited with more new things than one. But here it was in fact, and I saw in these captive beasts a new certificate for Phorenice's genius.
The purpose of these two cave-tigers was plain: whilst they were in the circus, and loose, no living being could cross from one gate to the other. They were a new and sturdy addition to the defences of the capital. A collar of bronze was round the throat of each, and on the collar was a massive chain which led to the wall, where it could be payed out or hauled in by means of a windlass in one of the hidden galleries. So that at ordinary moments the two huge beasts could be tethered, one close to either end of the circus, as the litter of bones and other messes showed, leaving free passage-way between the two sets of doors.
But when I stood there by the arrow-slit, looking down into the moonlight of the circus, these chains were slackened (though men stood by the windlass of each), and the great striped brutes were prowling about the circus with the links clanking and chinking in their wake. Lying stark on the pavement were the bodies of some eight men, dead and uneaten; and though the cave-tigers stopped their prowlings now and again to nuzzle these, and beat them about with playful paw-blows, they made no pretence at commencing a meal. It was clear that this cruel sport had grown common to them, and they knew there were other victims yet to be added to the tally.
Presently, sure enough, as I watched, a valve of the farther gate swung back an arm's length, and a prisoner, furiously resisting, was thrust out into the circus. He fell on his face, and after one look around him he lay resolutely still, with eyes on the ground passively awaiting his fate. The ponderous stone of the gate clapped to in its place; the cave-tigers turned in their prowlings; and a chatter of wagers ran to and fro amongst the watchers behind the arrow-slits.
It seemed there were niceties of cruelty in this wretched game. There was a sharp clank as the windlasses were manned, and the tethering chains were drawn in by perhaps a score of links. One of the cave-tigers crouched, lashed its tail, and launched forth on a terrific spring. The chain tautened, the massive links sang to the strain, and the great beast gave a roar which shook the walls. It had missed the prone man by a hand's breadth, and the watchers behind the arrow-slits shrieked forth their delight. The other tiger sprang also and missed, and again there were shouts of pleasure, which mingled with the bellowing voices of the beasts. The man lay motionless in his form. One more cowardly, or one more brave, might have run from death, or faced it; but this poor prisoner chose the middle course—he permitted death to come to him, and had enough of doggedness to wait for it without stir.
The great cave-tigers were used, it appeared, to this disgusting sport. There were no more wild springs, no more stubbings at the end of the massive chains. They lay down on the pavement, and presently began to purr, rolling on to their sides and rubbing themselves luxuriously. The prisoner still lay motionless in his form.
By slow degrees the monstrous brutes each drew to the end of its chain and began to reach at the man with out-stretched forepaw. The male could not touch him; the female could just reach him with the far tip of a claw; and I saw a red scratch start up in the bare skin of his side at every stroke. But still the prisoner would not stir. It seemed to me that they must slack out more links of one of the tigers' chains, or let the vile play linger into mere tediousness.
But I had more to learn yet. The male tiger, either taught by his own devilishness, or by those brutes that were his keepers, had still another ruse in store. He rose to his feet and turned round, backing against the chain. A yell of applause from the hidden men behind the arrow-slits told that they knew what was in store; and then the monstrous beast, stretched to the utmost of its vast length, kicked sharply with one hind paw.
I heard the crunch of the prisoner's ribs as the pads struck him, and at that same moment the poor wretch's body was spurned away by the blow, as one might throw a fruit with the hand. But it did not travel far. It was clear that the she-tiger knew this manoeuvre of her mate's. She caught the man on his bound, nuzzling over him for a minute, and then tossing him high into the air, and leaping up to the full of her splendid height after him.
Those other onlookers thought it magnificent; their gleeful shouts said as much. But for me, my gorge rose at the sight. Once the tigers had reached him, the man had been killed, it is true, without any unnecessary lingering. Even a light blow from those terrific paws would slay the strongest man living. But to see the two cave-tigers toying with the poor body was an insult to the pride of our race.
However, I was not there to preach the superiority of man to the beasts, and the indecency and degradation of permitting man to be unduly insulted. I had come to learn for myself the new balance of things in the kingdom of Atlantis, and so I stood at my place behind the arrow-slit with a still face. And presently another scene in this ghastly play was enacted.
The cave-tigers tired of their sport, and first one and then the other fell once more to prowling over the littered pavements, with the heavy chains scraping and chinking in their wake. They made no beginning to feast on the bodies provided for them. That would be for afterwards. In the present, the fascination of slaughter was big in them, and they had thought that it would be indulged further. It seemed that they knew their entertainers.
Again the windlass clanked, and the tethering chains drew the great beasts clear of the doorway; and again a valve of the farther door swung ajar, and another prisoner was thrust struggling into the circus. A sickness seized me when I saw that this was a woman, but still, in view of the object I had in hand, I made no interruption.
It was not that I had never seen women sent to death before. A general, who has done his fighting, must in his day have killed women equally with men; yes, and seen them earn their death-blow by lusty battling. Yet there seemed something so wanton in this cruel helpless sacrifice of a woman prisoner, that I had a struggle with myself to avoid interference. Still it is ever the case that the individual must be sacrificed to a policy, and so as I say, I watched on, outwardly cold and impassive.
I watched too (I confess it freely) with a quickening heart. Here was no sullen submissive victim like the last. She may have been more cowardly (as some women are), she may have been braver (as many women have shown themselves); but, at any rate, it was clear that she was going to make a struggle for her life, and to do vicious damage, it might be, before she yielded it up. The watchers behind the arrow-slits recognized this. Their wagers, and the hum of their appreciation, swept loudly round the ring of the circus.
They stripped their prisoners, before they thrust them out to this death, of all the clothes they might carry, for clothes have a value; and so the woman stood there bare-limbed in the moonlight.
She clapped her back to the great stone door by which she had entered, and faced fate with glowing eye. Gods! there have been times in early years when I could have plucked out sword and jumped down, and fought for her there for the sheer delight of such a battle. But now policy restrained me. The individual might want a helping hand, but it was becoming more and more clear that Atlantis wanted a minister also; and before these great needs, the lesser ones perforce must perish. Still, be it noted that, if I did not jump down, no other man there that night had sufficient manhood remaining to venture the opportunity.
My heart glowed as I watched her. She picked a bone from the litter on the pavement and beat off its head by blows against the wall. Then with her teeth she fashioned the point to still further sharpness. I could see her teeth glisten white in the moonrays as she bit with them.
The huge cave-tigers, which stood as high as her head as they walked, came nearer to her in their prowlings, yet obviously neglected her. This was part of their accustomed scheme of torment, and the woman knew it well. There was something intolerable in their noiseless, ceaseless paddings over the pavement. I could see the prisoner's breast heave as she watched them. A terror such as that would have made many a victim sick and helpless.
But this one was bolder than I had thought. She did not wait for a spring: she made the first attack herself. When the she-tiger made its stroll towards her, and was in the act of turning, she flung herself into a sudden leap, striking viciously at its eye with her sharpened bone. A roar from the onlookers acknowledged the stroke. The cave-tiger's eye remained undarkened, but the puny weapon had dealt it a smart flesh wound, and with a great bellow of surprise and pain it scampered away to gain space for a rush and a spring.
But the woman did not await its charge. With a shrill scream she sped forward, running at the full of her speed across the moonlight directly towards that shadowed part of the encircling wall within whose thickness I had my gazing place; and then, throwing every tendon of her body into the spring, made the greatest leap that surely any human being ever accomplished, even when spurred on by the utmost of terror and desperation. In an after day I measured it, and though of a certainty she must have added much to the tally by the sheer force of her run, which drove her clinging up the rough surface of the wall, it is a sure thing that in that splendid leap her feet must have dangled a man-height and a half above the pavement.
I say it was prodigious, but then the spur was more than the ordinary, and the woman herself was far out of the common both in thews and intelligence; and the end of the leap left her with five fingers lodged in the sill of the arrow-slit from which I watched. Even then she must have slipped back if she had been left to herself, for the sill sloped, and the stone was finely smooth; but I shot out my hand and gripped hers by the wrist, and instantly she clambered up with both knees on the sills, and her fingers twined round to grip my wrist in her turn.
And now you will suppose she gushed out prayers and promises, thinking only of safety and enlargement. There was nothing of this. With savage panting wordlessness she took fresh grip on the sharpened bone with her spare hand, and lunged with it desperately through the arrow-slit. With the hand that clutched mine she drew me towards her, so as to give the blows the surer chance, and so unprepared was I for such an attack, and with such fierce suddenness did she deliver it, that the first blow was near giving me my quietus. But I grappled with the poor frantic creature as gently as might be—the stone of the wall separating us always—and stripped her of her weapon, and held her firmly captive till she might calm herself.
"That was an ungrateful blow," I said. "But for my hand you'd have slipped and be the sport of a tiger's paw this minute."
"Oh, I must kill some one," she panted, "before I am killed myself."
"There will be time enough to think upon that some other day; but for now you are far enough off meeting further harm."
"You are lying to me. You will throw me to the beasts as soon as I loose my grip. I know your kind: you will not be robbed of your sport."
"I will go so far as to prove myself to you," said I, and called out for the warder who had tended the doors below. "Bid those tigers be tethered on a shorter chain," I ordered, "and then go yourself outside into the circus, and help this lady delicately to the ground."
The word was passed and these things were done; and I too came out into the circus and joined the woman, who stood waiting under the moonlight. But the others who had seen these doings were by no means suited at the change of plan. One of the great stone valves of the farther door opened hurriedly, and a man strode out, armed and flushed. "By all the Gods!" he shouted. "Who comes between me and my pastime?"
I stepped quietly to the advance. "I fear, sir," I said, "that you must launch your anger against me. By accident I gave that woman sanctuary, and I had not heart to toss her back to your beasts."
His fingers began to snap against his hilt.
"You have come to the wrong market here with your qualms. I am captain here, and my word carries, subject only to Phorenice's nod. Do you hear that? Do you know too that I can have you tossed to those striped gate-keepers of mine for meddling in here without an invitation?" He looked at me sharp enough, but saw plainly that I was a stranger. "But perhaps you carry a name, my man, which warrants your impertinence?"
"Deucalion is my poor name," I said, "but I cannot expect you will know it. I am but newly landed here, sir, and when I left Atlantis some score of years back, a very different man to you held guard over these gates." He had his forehead on my feet by this time. "I had it from the Empress this night that she will to-morrow make a new sorting of this kingdom's dignities. Perhaps there is some recommendation you would wish me to lay before her in return for your courtesies?"
"My lord," said the man, "if you wish it, I can have a turn with those cave-tigers myself now, and you can look on from behind the walls and see them tear me."
"Why tell me what is no news?"
"I wish to remind my lord of his power; I wish to beg of his clemency."
"You showed your power to these poor prisoners; but from what remains here to be seen, few of them have tasted much of your clemency."
"The orders were," said the captain of the gate, as though he thought a word might be said here for his defence, "the orders were, my lord, that the tigers should be kept fierce and accustomed to killing."
"Then, if you have obeyed orders, let me be the last to chide you. But it is my pleasure that this woman be respited, and I wish now to question her."
The man got to his feet again with obvious relief, though still bowing low.
"Then if my lord will honour me by sitting in my room that overlooks the outer gate, the favour will never be forgotten."
"Show the way," I said, and took the woman by the fingers, leading her gently. At the two ends of the circus the tigers prowled about on short chains, growling and muttering.
We passed through the door into the thickness of the outer wall, and the captain of the gate led us into his private chamber, a snug enough box overlooking the plain beyond the city. He lit a torch from his lamp and thrust it into a bracket on the wall, and bowing deeply and walking backwards, left us alone, closing the door in place behind him. He was an industrious fellow, this captain, to judge from the spoil with which his chamber was packed. There could have come very few traders in through that gate below without his levying a private tribute; and so, judging that most of his goods had been unlawfully come by, I had little qualm at making a selection. It was not decent that the woman, being an Atlantean, should go bereft of the dignity of clothes, as though she were a mere savage from Europe; and so I sought about amongst the captain's spoil for garments that would be befitting.
But, as I busied myself in this search for raiment, rummaging amongst the heaps and bales, with a hand and eye little skilled in such business, I heard a sound behind which caused me to turn my head, and there was the woman with a dagger she had picked from the floor, in the act of drawing it from the sheath.
She caught my eye and drew the weapon clear, but seeing that I made no advance towards her, or move to protect myself, waited where she was, and presently was took with a shuddering.
"Your designs seem somewhat of a riddle," I said. "At first you wished to kill me from motives which you explained, and which I quite understood. It lay in my power next to confer some small benefit upon you, in consequence of which you are here, and not—shall we say?—yonder in the circus. Why you should desire now to kill the only man here who can set you completely free, and beyond these walls, is a thing it would gratify me much to learn. I say nothing of the trifle of ingratitude. Gratitude and ingratitude are of little weight here. There is some far greater in your mind."
She pressed a hand hard against her breasts. "You are Deucalion," she gasped; "I heard you say it."
"I am Deucalion. So far, I have known no reason to feel shame for my name."
"And I come of those," she cried, with a rising voice, "who bite against this city, because they have found their fate too intolerable with the land as it is ordered now. We heard of your coming from Yucatan. It was we who sent the fleet to take you at the entrance to the Gulf."
"Your fleet gave us a pretty fight."
"Oh, I know, I know. We had our watchers on the high land who brought us the tidings. We had an omen even before that. Where we lay with our army before the walls here, we saw great birds carrying off the slain to the mountains. But where the fleet failed, I saw a chance where I, a woman, might—"
"Where you might succeed?" I sat me down on a pile of the captain's stuffs. It seemed as if here at last that I should find a solution for many things. "You carry a name?" I asked.
"They call me Nais."
"Ah," I said, and signed to her to take the clothes that I had sought out. She was curiously like, so both my eyes and hearing said, to Ylga, the fan-girl of Phorenice, but as she had told me of no parentage I asked for none then. Still her talk alone let me know that she was bred of none of the common people, and I made up my mind towards definite understanding. "Nais," I said, "you wish to kill me. At the same time I have no doubt you wish to live on yourself, if only to get credit from your people for what you have done. So here I will make a contract with you. Prove to me that my death is for Atlantis' good, and I swear by our Lord the Sun to go out with you beyond the walls, where you can stab me and then get you gone. Or the—"
"I will not be your slave."
"I do not ask you for service. Or else, I wished to say, I shall live so long as the High Gods wish, and do my poor best for this country. And for you—I shall set you free to do your best also. So now, I pray you, speak."
7. THE BITERS OF THE WALLS (FURTHER ACCOUNT)
"You will set me free," she said, regarding me from under her brows, "without any further exactions or treaty?"
"I will set you free exactly on those terms," I answered, "unless indeed we here decide that it is better for Atlantis that I should die, in which case the freedom will be of your own taking."
"My lord plays a bold game."
"Tut, tut," I said.
"But I shall not hesitate to take the full of my bond, unless my theories are most clearly disproved to me."
"Tut," I said, "you women, how you can play out the time needlessly. Show me sufficient cause, and you shall kill me where and how you please. Come, begin the accusation."
"You are a tyrant."
"At least I have not paraded my tyrannies in Atlantis these twenty years. Why, Nais, I did but land yesterday."
"You will not deny you came back from Yucatan for a purpose."
"I came back because I was sent for. The Empress gives no reasons for her recalls. She states her will; and we who serve her obey without question."
"Pah, I know that old dogma."
"If you discredit my poor honesty at the outset like this, I fear we shall not get far with our unravelling."
"My lord must be indeed simple," said this strange woman scornfully, "if he is ignorant of what all Atlantis knows."
"Then simple you must write me down. Over yonder in Yucatan we were too well wrapped up in our own parochial needs and policies to have leisure to ponder much over the slim news which drifted out to us from Atlantis—and, in truth, little enough came. By example, Phorenice (whose office be adored) is a great personage here at home; but over there in the colony we barely knew so much as her name. Here, since I have been ashore, I have seen many new wonders; I have been carried by a riding mammoth; I have sat at a banquet; but in what new policies there are afoot, I have yet to be schooled."
"Then, if truly you do not know it, let me repeat to you the common tale. Phorenice has tired of her unmated life."
"Stay there. I will hear no word against the Empress."
"Pah, my lord, your scruples are most decorous. But I did no more than repeat what the Empress had made public by proclamation. She is minded to take to herself a husband, and nothing short of the best is good enough for Phorenice. One after another has been put up in turn as favourite—and been found wanting. Oh, I tell you, we here in Atlantis have watched her courtship with jumping hearts. First it was this one here, then it was that one there; now it was this general just returned from a victory, and a day later he had been packed back to his camp, to give place to some dashing governor who had squeezed increased revenues from his province. But every ship that came from the West said that there was a stronger man than any of these in Yucatan, and at last the Empress changed the wording of her vow. 'I'll have Deucalion for my husband,' said she, 'and then we will see who can stand against my wishes.'"
"The Empress (whose name be adored) can do as she pleases in such matters," I said guardedly; "but that is beside the argument. I am here to know how it would be better for Atlantis that I should die?"
"You know you are the strongest man in the kingdom."
"It pleases you to say so."
"And Phorenice is the strongest woman."
"That is beyond doubt."
"Why, then, if the Empress takes you in marriage, we shall be under a double tyranny. And her rule alone is more cruelly heavy than we can bear already."
"I pass no criticism on Phorenice's rule. I have not seen it. But I crave your mercy, Nais, on the newcomer into this kingdom. I am strong, say you, and therefore I am a tyrant, say you. Now to me this sequence is faulty."
"Who should a strong man use strength for, if not for himself? And if for himself, why that spells tyranny. You will get all your heart's desires, my lord, and you will forget that many a thousand of the common people will have to pay for them."
"And this is all your accusation?"
"It seems to be black enough. I am one that has a compassion for my fellow-men, my lord, and because of that compassion you see me what I am to-day. There was a time, not long passed, when I slept as soft and ate as dainty as any in Atlantis."
I smiled. "Your speech told me that much from the first."
"Then I would I had cast the speech off, too, if that is also a livery of the tyrant's class. But I tell you I saw all the oppression myself from the oppressor's side. I was high in Phorenice's favour then."
"That, too, is easy of credence. Ylga is the fan-girl to the Empress now, and second lady in the kingdom, and those who have seen Ylga could make an easy guess at the parentage of Nais."
"We were the daughters of one birth; but I do not count with either Zaemon or Ylga now. Ylga is the creature of Phorenice, and Phorenice would have all the people of Atlantis slaves and in chains, so that she might crush them the easier. And as for Zaemon, he is no friend of Phorenice's; he fights with brain and soul to drag the old authority to those on the Sacred Mountain; and that, if it come down on us again, would only be the exchange of one form of slavery for another."
"It seems to me you bite at all authority."
"In fact," she said simply, "I do. I have seen too much of it."
"And so you think a rule of no-rule would be best for the country?"
"You have put it plainly in words for me. That is my creed to-day. That is the creed of all those yonder, who sit in the camp and besiege this city. And we number on our side, now, all in Atlantis save those in the city and a handful on the priests' Mountain."
I shook my head. "A creed of desperation, if you like, Nais, but, believe me, a silly creed. Since man was born out of the quakings and the fevers of this earth, and picked his way amongst the cooler-places, he has been dependent always on his fellow-men. And where two are congregated together, one must be chief, and order how matters are to be governed—at least, I speak of men who have a wish to be higher than the beasts. Have you ever set foot in Europe?"
"I have. Years back I sailed there, gathering slaves. What did I see? A country without rule or order. Tyrants they were, to be sure, but they were the beasts. The men and the women were the rudest savages, knowing nothing of the arts, dressing in skins and uncleanness, harbouring in caves and the tree-tops. The beasts roamed about where they would, and hunted them unchecked."
"Still, they fought you for their liberty?"
"Never once. They knew how disastrous was their masterless freedom. Even to their dull, savage brains it was a sure thing that no slavery could be worse; and to that state you, and your friends, and your theories, will reduce Atlantis, if you get the upper hand. But, then, to argue in a circle, you will never get it. For to conquer, you must set up leaders, and once you have set them up, you will never pull them down again."
"Aye," she said with a sigh, "there is truth in that last."
The torch had filled the captain's room with a resinous smoke, but the flame was growing pale. Dawn was coming in greyly through a slender arrow-slit, and with it ever and again the glow from some mountain out of sight, which was shooting forth spasmodic bursts of fire. With it also were mutterings of distant falling rocks, and sullen tremblings, which had endured all the night through, and I judged that earth was in one of her quaking moods, and would probably during the forthcoming day offer us some chastening discomforts.
On this account, perhaps, my senses were stilled to certain evidences which would otherwise have given me a suspicion; and also, there is no denying that my general wakefulness was sapped by another matter. This woman, Nais, interested me vastly out of the common; the mere presence of her seemed to warm the organs of my interior; and whilst she was there, all my thoughts and senses were present in the room of the captain of the gate in which we sat.
But of a sudden the floor of the chamber rocked and fell away beneath me, and in a tumult of dust, and litter, and bales of the captain's plunder, I fell down (still seated on the flagstone) into a pit which had been digged beneath it. With the violence of the descent, and the flutter of all these articles about my head, I was in no condition for immediate action; and whilst I was still half-stunned by the shock, and long before I could get my eyes into service again, I had been seized, and bound, and half-strangled with a noose of hide. Voices were raised that I should be despatched at once out of the way; but one in authority cried out that, killing me at leisure, and as a prisoner, promised more genteel sport; and so I was thrust down on the floor, whilst a whole army of men trod in over me to the attack.
What had happened was clear to me now, though I was powerless to do anything in hindrance. The rebels with more craft than any one had credited to them, had driven a galley from their camp under the ground, intending so to make an entrance into the heart of the city. In their clumsy ignorance, and having no one of sufficient talent in mensuration, they had bungled sadly both in direction and length, and so had ended their burrow under this chamber of the captain of the gate. The great flagstone in its fall had, it appeared, crushed four of them to death, but these were little noticed or lamented. Life was to them a bauble of the slenderest price, and a horde of others pressed through the opening, lusting for the fight, and recking nothing of their risks and perils.
Half-choked by the foul air of the galley, and trodden on by this great procession of feet, it was little enough I could do to help my immediate self much less the more distant city. But when the chief mass of the attackers had passed through, and there came only here and there one eager to take his share at storming the gate, a couple of fellows plucked me up out of the mud on the floor, and began dragging me down through the stinking darkness of the galley towards the pit that gave it entrance.
Twenty times we were jostled by others hastening to the attack, either from hunger for fight, or from appetite for what they could steal. But we came to the open at last, and half-suffocated though I was, I contrived to do obeisance, and say aloud the prescribed prayer to the most High Gods in gratitude for the fresh, sweet air which They had provided.
Our Lord the Sun was on the verge of rising for His day, and all things were plainly shown. Before me were the monstrous walls of the capital, with the heads of its pyramids and higher buildings showing above them. And on the walls, the sentries walked calmly their appointed paces, or took shelter against arrows in the casemates provided for them.