"I suppose it is that. But I am letting you see how it is done. Just have the head to work out a little sum, and see what an effect can be gained. You will be a God yet yourself, Deucalion, with these silly Atlanteans, if only you will use your wit and cleverness."
Was she laughing at me? Was she in earnest? I could not tell. Sometimes she pointed out that her success and triumphs were merely the reward of thought and brilliancy, and next moment she gave me some impossible explanation and left me to deduce that she must be more than mortal or the thing could never have been found. In good truth, this little woman with her supple mind and her supple body mystified me more and more the longer I stayed by her side; and more and more despairing did I grow that Atlantis could ever be restored by my agency to peace and the ancient Gods, even after I had carried out the commands of the High Council, and taken her to wife.
Only one plan seemed humanly possible, and that was to curb her further mischievousness by death and then leave the wretched country naturally to recover. It was just a dagger-stroke, and the thing was done. Yet the very idea of this revolted me, and when the desperate thought came to my mind (which it did ever and anon), I hugged to myself the answer that if it were fitting to do this thing, the High Gods in Their infinite wisdom would surely have put definite commands upon me for its carrying out.
Yet, such was the fascination of Phorenice, that when presently we left her gold collectors, and stumbled into such peril, that a little withholding of my hand would have gained her a passage to the nether Gods, I found myself fighting when she called upon me, as seldom I have fought before. And though, of course, some blame for this must be laid upon that lust of battle which thrills even the coldest of us when blows begin to whistle and war-cries start to ring, there is no doubt also that the pleasure of protecting Phorenice, and the distaste for seeing her pulled down by those rude, uncouth fishers put special nerve and vehemence into my blows.
The cause of the matter was the unrest and the prevalency to street violence which I have spoken of above, and the desperate poverty of the common people, which led them to take any risk if it showed them a chance of winning the wherewithal to purchase a meal. We had once more mounted the litter, and once more the bearers, with their heads beneath the pole, bore us on at their accustomed swinging trot. Phorenice was telling me about her new supplies of gold. She had made fresh sumptuary laws, it appeared.
"In the old days," said she, "when yellow gold was tediously dredged up grain by grain from river gravels in the dangerous lands, a quill full would cost a rich man's savings, and so none but those whose high station fitted them to be so adorned could wear golden ornaments. But when the sea-water gave me gold here by the double handful a day, I found that the price of these river hoards decreased, and one day—could you credit it?—a common fellow, who was one of my smiths, came to me wearing a collar of yellow gold on his own common neck. Well, I had that neck divided, as payment for his presumption; and as I promised to repeat the division promptly on all other offenders, that special species of forwardness seems to be checked for the time. There are many exasperations, Deucalion, in governing these common people."
She had other things to say upon the matter, but at this point I saw two clumsy boats of fishers paddling to us from over the ripples, and at the same time amongst the narrow lanes which led between the houses on the other side of us, savage-faced men were beginning to run after the litter in threatening clusters.
"With permission," I said, "I will step out of the conveyance and scatter this rabble."
"Oh, the people always cluster round me. Poor ugly souls, they seem to take a strange delight in coming to stare at my pretty looks. But scatter them. I have said I did not wish to be followed. I am taking holiday now, Deucalion, am I not, whilst you learn to woo me?"
I stepped to the ground. The rough fishers in the boats were beginning to shout to those who dodged amongst the houses to see to it that we did not escape, and the numbers who hemmed us in on the shore side were increasing every moment. The prospect was unpleasant enough. We had come out beyond the merchants' quarters, and were level with those small huts of mud and grass which the fishing population deem sufficient for shelter, and which has always been a spot where turbulence might be expected. Indeed, even in those days of peace and good government in the old King's time, this part of the city had rarely been without its weekly riot.
The life of the fisherman is the most hard that any human toilers have to endure. Violence from the wind and waves, and pelting from firestones out of the sky are their daily portion; the great beasts that dwell in the seas hunt them with savage persistence, and it is a rare day when at least some one of the fishers' guild fails to come home to answer the tally.
Moreover, the manner which prevails of catching fish is not without its risks.
To each man there is a large sea-fowl taken as a nestling, and trained to the work. A ring of bronze is round its neck to prevent its swallowing the spoil for which it dives, and for each fish it takes and flies back with to the boat, the head and tail and inwards are given to it for a reward, the ring being removed whilst it makes the meal.
The birds are faithful, once they have got a training, and are seldom known to desert their owners; but, although the fishers treat them more kindly than they do their wives, or children of their own begetting, the life of the birds is precarious like that of their masters. The larger beasts and fish of the sea prey on them as they prey on the smaller fish, and so whatever care may be lavished upon them, they are most liable to sudden cutting off.
And here is another thing that makes the life of the fisher most precarious: if his fishing bird be slain, and the second which he has in training also come by ill fortune, he is left suddenly bereft of all utensils of livelihood, and (for aught his guild-fellows care) he may go starve. For these fishers hold that the Gods of the sea regulate their craft, and that if one is not pleasing to Them They rob him of his birds; after which it would be impious to have any truck or dealing with such a fellow; and accordingly he is left to starve or rob as he chooses.
All of which circumstances tend to make the fishers rude, desperate men, who have been forced into the trade because all other callings have rejected them. They are fellows, moreover, who will spend the gains of a month on a night's debauch, for fear that the morrow will rob them of life and the chance of spending; and, moreover, it is their one point of honour to be curbed in no desire by an ordinary fear of consequences. As will appear.
I went quickly towards the largest knot of these people, who were skulking behind the houses, leaving the litter halted in the path behind me, and I bade them sharply enough to disperse. "For an employment," I added, "put your houses in order, and clean the fish offal from the lanes between them. To-morrow I will come round here to inspect, and put this quarter into a better order. But for to-day the Empress (whose name be adored) wishes for a privacy, so cease your staring."
"Then give us money," said a shrill voice from amongst the huts.
"I will send you a torch in an hour's time," I said grimly, "and rig you a gallows, if you give me more annoyance. To your kennels, you!"
I think they would have obeyed the voice of authority if they had been left to themselves. There was a quick stir amongst them. Those that stood in the sunlight instinctively slipped into the shadow, and many dodged into the houses and cowered in dark corners out of sight. But the men in the two hide-covered fisher-boats that were paddling up, called them back with boisterous cries.
I signed to the litter-bearers to move on quickly along their road. There was need of discipline here, and I was minded to deal it out myself with a firm hand. I judged that I could prevent them following the Empress, but if she still remained as a glittering bait for them to rob, and I had to protect her also, it might be that my work would not be done so effectively.
But it seems I was presumptuous in giving an order which dealt with the person of Phorenice. She bade the bearers stand where they were, and stepped out, and drew her weapons from beneath the cushions. She came towards me strapping a sword on to her hip, and carrying a well-dinted target of gold on her left forearm. "An unfair trick," cries she, laughing. "If you will keep a fight to yourself now, Deucalion, where will your greediness carry you when I am your shrinking, wistful little wife? Are these fools truly going to stand up against us?"
I was not coveting a fight, but it seemed as if there would be no avoidance of it now. The robe and the glittering gauds of which Phorenice had recently despoiled the merchant, drew the eyes of these people with keen attraction. The fishers in the boats paddled into the surf which edged the beach, and leaped overside and left the frail basket-work structures to be spewed up sound or smashed, as chance ordered. And from the houses, and from the filthy lanes between them, poured out hordes of others, women mixed with the men, gathering round us threateningly.
"Have a care," shouted one on the outskirts of the crowd. "She called down fire for the sacrifice once to-day, and she can burn up others here if she chooses."
"So much the more for those that are left," retorted another. "She cannot burn all."
"Nay, I will not burn any," said Phorenice, "but you shall look upon my sword-play till you are tired."
I heard her say that with some malicious amusement, knowing (as one of the Seven) how she had called down the fires of the sky to burn that cloven-hoofed horse offered in sacrifice, and knowing too, full well, that she could bring down no fire here. But they gave us little enough time for wordy courtesies. Their Empress never went far unattended, and, for aught the wretches knew, an escort might be close behind. So what pilfering they did, it behoved them to get done quickly.
They closed in, jostling one another to be first, and the reek of their filthy bodies made us cough. A grimy hand launched out to seize some of the jewels which flashed on Phorenice's breast, and I lopped it off at the elbow, so that it fell at her feet, and a second later we were engaged.
"Your back to mine, comrade," cried she, with a laugh, and then drew and laid about her with fine dexterity. Bah! but it was mere slaughter, that first bout.
The crowd hustled inwards with such greediness to seize what they could, that none had space to draw back elbow for a thrust, and we two kept a circle round us by sheer whirling of steel. It is necessary to do one's work cleanly in these bouts, as wounded left on the ground unnoticed before one are as dangerous as so many snakes. But as we circled round in our battling I noted that all of Phorenice's quarry lay peaceful and still. By the Gods! but she could play a fine sword, this dainty Empress. She touched life with every thrust.
Yes, it was plain to see, now an example was given, that the throne of Atlantis had been won, not by a lovely face and a subtle tongue alone; and (as a fighter myself) I did not like Phorenice the less for the knowledge. I could but see her out of the corner of my eye, and that only now and again, for the fishers, despite their ill-knowledge of fence, and the clumsiness of their weapons, had heavy numbers, and most savage ferocity; and as they made so confident of being able to pull us down, it required more than a little hard battling to keep them from doing it. Ay, by the Gods! it was at times a fight my heart warmed to, and if I had not contrived to pluck a shield from one fool who came too vain-gloriously near me with one, I could not swear they would not have dragged me down by sheer ravening savageness.
And always above the burly uproar of the fight came very pleasantly to my ears Phorenice's cry of "Deucalion!" which she chose as her battle shout. I knew her, of course, to be a past-mistress of the art of compliment, and it was no new thing for me to hear the name roared out above a battle din, but it was given there under circumstances which were peculiar, and for the life of me I could not help being tickled by the flattery.
Condemn my weakness how you will, but I came very near then to liking the Empress of Atlantis in the way she wished. And as for that other woman who should have filled my mind, I will confess that the stress of the moment, and the fury of the engagement, had driven both her and her strait completely out beyond the marches of my memory. Of such frail stuff are we made, even those of us who esteem ourselves the strongest.
Now it is a temptation few men born to the sword can resist, to throw themselves heart and soul into a fight for a fight's sake, and it seems that women can be bitten with the same fierce infection. The attack slackened and halted. We stood in the middle of a ring of twisted dead, and the rest of the fishers and their women who hemmed us in shrank back out of reach of our weapons.
It was the moment for a truce, and the moment when a few strong words would have sent them back cowering to their huts, and given us free passage to go where we chose. But no, this Phorenice must needs sing a hymn to her sword and mine, gloating over our feats and invulnerability; and then she must needs ask payment for the bearers of her litter whom they had killed, and then speak balefully of the burnings, and the skinnings, and the sawings asunder with which this fishers' quarter would be treated in the near future, till they learned the virtues of deportment and genteel manners.
"It makes your backs creep, does it?" said Phorenice. "I do not wonder. This severity must have its unpleasant side. But why do you not put it beyond my power to give the order? Either you must think yourselves Gods or me no Goddess, or you would not have gone on so far. Come now, you nasty-smelling people, follow out your theory, and if you make a good fight of it, I swear by my face I will be lenient with those who do not fall."
But there was no pressing up to meet our swords. They still ringed us in, savage and sullen, beyond the ring of their own dead, and would neither run back to the houses, nor give us the game of further fight. There was a certain stubborn bravery about them that one could not but admire, and for myself I determined that next time it became my duty to raise troops, I would catch a handful of these men, and teach them handiness with the utensils of war, and train them to loyalty and faithfulness. But presently from behind their ranks a stone flew, and though it whizzed between the Empress and myself, and struck down a fisher, it showed that they had brought a new method into their attack, and it behoved us to take thought and meet it.
I looked round me up and down the beach. There was no sign of a rescue. "Phorenice," I said in the court tongue, which these barbarous fishers would know little enough of, "I take it that a whiff of the sea-breeze would come very pleasant after all this warm play. As you can show such pretty sword work, will you cut me a way down to the beach, and I will do my poor best to keep these creatures from snapping at our heels?"
"Oh!" cried she. "Then I am to have a courtier for a husband after all. Why have you kept back your flattering speeches till now? Is that your trick to make me love you?"
"I will think out the reason for it another time."
"Ah, these stern, commanding husbands," said she, "how they do press upon their little wives!" and with that leaped over the ring of dead before her, and cut and stabbed a way through those that stood between her and the waters which creamed and crashed upon the beach. Gods! what a charge she made. It made me tingle with admiration as I followed sideways behind her, guarding the rear. And I am a man that has spent so many years in battling, that it takes something far out of the common to move me to any enthusiasm in this matter.
There were two boats creaking and washing about in the edge of the surf, but in one, happily, the wicker-work which made its frame was crushed by the weight of the waves into a shapeless bundle of sticks, and would take half a day to replace. So that, let us but get the other craft afloat, and we should be free from further embroiling. But the fishers were quick to see the object of this new manoeuvre. "Guard the boat," they shouted. "Smash her; slit her skin with your knives! Tear her with your fingers! Swim her out to sea! Oh, at least take the paddles!"
But, if these clumsy fishers could run, Phorenice was like a legged snake for speed. She was down beside the boat before any could reach it, laughing and shouting out that she could beat them at every point. Myself, I was slower of foot; and, besides, there was some that offered me a fight on the road, and I was not wishful to baulk them; and moreover, the fewer we left clamouring behind, the fewer there would be to speed our going with their stones. Still I came to the beach in good order, and laid hands on the flimsy boat and tipped her dry.
"Fighting is no trade for, me," I cried, "whilst you are here, Phorenice. Guard me my back and walk out into the water."
I took the boat, thrusting it afloat, and wading with it till two lines of the surf were past. The fishers swarmed round us, active as fish in their native element, and strove mightily to get hands on the boat and slit the hides which covered it with their eager fingers. But I had a spare hand, and a short stabbing-knife for such close-quarter work, and here, there, and everywhere was Phorenice the Empress, with her thirsty dripping sword. By the Gods! I laughed with sheer delight at seeing her art of fence.
But the swirl of a great fish into the shallows, and the squeal of a fisher as he was dragged down and home away into the deep, made me mindful of foes that no skill can conquer, and no bravery avoid. Without taking time to give the Empress a word of warning, I stooped, and flung an arm round her, and threw her up out of the water into the boat, and then thrust on with all my might, driving the flimsy craft out to sea, whilst my legs crept under me for fear of the beasts which swam invisible beneath the muddied waters.
To the fishers, inured to these horrid perils by daily association, the seizing of one of their number meant little, and they pressed on, careless of their dull lives, eager only to snatch the jewels which still flaunted on Phorenice's breast. Of the vengeance that might come after they recked nothing; let them but get the wherewithal for one night's good debauch, and they would forget that such a thing as the morning of a morrow could have existence.
Two fellows I caught and killed that, diving down beneath, tried to slit the skin of the boat out of sight under the water; and Phorenice cared for all those that tried to put a hand on the gunwales. Yes, and she did more than that. A huge long-necked turtle that was stirred out of the mud by the turmoil, came up to daylight, and swung its great horn-lipped mouth to this side and that, seeking for a prey. The fishers near it dodged and dived. I, thrusting at the stern of the boat, could only hope it would pass me by and so offered an easy mark. It scurried towards me, champing its noisy lips, and beating the water into spray with its flippers.
But Phorenice was quick with a remedy and a rescue. She passed her sword through one of the fishers that pressed her, and then thrust the body towards the turtle. The great neck swooped towards it; the long slimy feelers which protruded from its head quivered and snuffled; and then the horny green jaws crunched on it, and drew it down out of sight.
The boat was in deep water now, and Phorenice called upon me to come in over the side, she the while balancing nicely so that the flimsy thing should not be overset. The fishers had given up their pursuit, finding that they earned nothing but lopped-off arms and split faces by coming within swing of this terrible sword of their Empress, and so contented themselves with volleying jagged stones in the hopes of stunning us or splitting the boat. However, Phorenice crouched in the stern, holding the two shields—her own golden target, and the rough hide buckler I had won—and so protected both of us whilst I paddled, and though many stones clattered against the shields, and hit the hide covering of the boat, so that it resounded like a drum, none of them did damage, and we drew quickly out of their range.
12. THE DRUG OF OUR LADY THE MOON
Our Lord the Sun was riding towards the end of His day, and the smoke from a burning mountain fanned black and forbidding before His face. Phorenice wrung the water from her clothes and shivered. "Work hard with those paddles, Deucalion, and take me in through the water-gate and let me be restored to my comforts again. That merchant would rue if he saw how his pretty garments were spoiled, and I rue, too, being a woman, and remembering that he at least has no others I can take in place of these." She looked at me sidelong, tossing back the short red hair from her eyes. "What think you of my wisdom in coming where we have come without an escort?"
"The Empress can do no wrong," I quoted the old formula with a smile.
"At least I have shown you that I can fight. I caught you looking your approval of me quite pleasantly once or twice. You were a difficult man to thaw, Deucalion, but you warm perceptibly as you keep on being near me. La, sir, we shall be a pair of rustic sweethearts yet, if this goes on. I am glad I thought of the device of going near those smelly fishers."
So she had taken me out in the litter unattended for the plain purpose of inviting a fight, and showing me her skill at arms, and perhaps, too, of seeing in person how I also carried myself in a moment of stress. Well, if we were to live on together as husband and wife, it was good that each should know to a nicety the other's powers; and also, I am too much of an old battler and too much enamoured with the glorious handling of arms to quarrel very deeply with any one who offers me a tough upstanding fight. Still for the life of me, I could not help comparing Phorenice with another woman. With a similar chance open before us, Nais had robbed me of the struggle through a sheer pity for those squalid rebels who did not even call her chieftain; whilst here was this Empress frittering away two score of the hardiest of her subjects merely to gratify a whim.
Yet, loyal to my vow as a priest, and to the commands set upon me by the high council on the Sacred Mountain, I tried to put away these wayward thoughts and comparisons. As I rowed over the swingings of the waves towards the forts which guard the harbour's mouth, I sent prayers to the High Gods to give my tongue dexterity, and They through Their love for the country of Atlantis, and the harassed people, whom it was my deep wish to serve, granted me that power of speech which Phorenice loved. Her eyes glowed upon me as I talked.
This beach of the fishers where we had had our passage at arms is safe from ship attack from without, by reason of a chain of jagged rocks which spring up from the deep, and run from the harbour side to the end of the city wall. The fishers know the passes, and can oftentimes get through to the open water beyond without touching a stone; or if they do see a danger of hitting on the reef, leap out and carry their light boats in their hands till the water floats them again. But here I had neither the knowledge nor the dexterity, and, thought I, now the High Gods will show finally if They wish this woman who has defiled them to reign on in Atlantis, and if also They wish me to serve as her husband.
I cried these things in my heart, and waited to receive the omen. There was no half-answer. A great wave rose in the lagoon behind us, a wave such as could have only been caused by an earth tremor, and on its sleek back we were hurled forward and thrown clear of the reefs with their seaweeds licking round us, without so much as seeing a stone of the barrier. I bowed my head as I rowed on towards the harbour forts. It was plain that not yet would the High Gods take vengeance for the insults which this lovely woman had offered Them.
The sentries in the two forts beat drums at one another in their accustomed rotation, and in the growing dusk were going to pay little enough attention to the fishingboat which lay against the great chain clamouring to have it lowered. But luckily a pair of officers were taking the air of the evening in a stone-dropping turret of the roof of the nearer fort, and these recognised the tone of our shouts. They silenced the drums, torches were lowered to make sure of our faces, and then with a splash the great chain was dropped into the water to give us passage.
A galley lay inside, nuzzling the harbour wall, and presently the ladder of ropes was let down from the top of the nearest fort, and a crew came down to man the oars. There were the customary changes of raiment too, given as presents by the officers of the fort, and these we put on in the cabin of the galley in place of the sodden clothes we wore. There are fevers to be gained by carrying wet clothes after sunset, and though from personal experience I have learned that these may be warded off with drugs, I noticed with some grim amusement that the Empress had sufficiently little of the Goddess about her to fear very much the ailments which are due to frail humanity.
The galley rowed swiftly across the calm waters of the harbour, and made fast to the rings of gold on the royal quay, and whilst we were waiting for litters to be brought, I watched a lantern lit in the boat which stood guard over Phorenice's mammoth. The huge red beast stood shoulder-deep in the harbour water, with trunk up-turned. It was tamed now, and the light of the boat's lantern fell on the little ripples sent out by its tremblings. But I did not choose to intercede or ask mercy for it. If the mammoth sank deeper in the harbour mud, and was swallowed, I could have borne the loss with equanimity.
To tell the truth, that ride on the great beast's back had impressed me unfavourably. In fact, it put into me a sense of helplessness that was wellnigh intolerable. Perhaps circumstances have made me unduly self-reliant: on that others must judge. But I will own to having a preference for walking on my own proper feet, as the Gods in fashioning our shapes most certainly intended. On my own feet I am able to guard my own head and neck, and have done on four continents, throughout a long and active life, and on many a thousand occasions. But on the back of that detestable mammoth, pah! I grew as nervous as a child or a dastard.
However, I had little enough leisure for personal megrims just then. Whilst we waited, Phorenice asked the port-captain (who must needs come up officiously to make his salutations) after the disposal of Nais, and was told that she had been clapped into a dungeon beneath the royal pyramid, and the officer of the guard there had given his bond for her safe-keeping.
"It is to be hoped he understands his work," said the Empress. "That pretty Nais knows the pyramid better than most, and it may be he will be sent to the tormentors for putting her in a cell which had a secret outlet. You would feel pleasure if the girl escaped, Deucalion?"
"Assuredly," said I, knowing how useless it would be to make a secret of the matter. "I have no enmity against Nais."
"But I have," said she viciously, "and I am still minded to lock your faith to me by that wedding gift you know of."
"The thing shall be done," I said. "Before all, the Empress of Atlantis."
"Poof! Deucalion, you are too stiff and formal. You ought to be mightily honoured that I condescend to be jealous of your favours. Your hand, sir, please, to help me into the litter. And now come in beside me, and keep me warm against the night air. Ho! you guards there with the torches! Keep farther back against the street walls. The perfume you are burning stifles me."
Again there was a feast that night in the royal banqueting-hall; again I sat beside Phorenice on the raised dais which stands beneath the symbols of the snake and the out-stretched hand. What had been taken for granted before about our forthcoming relationship was this time proclaimed openly; the Empress herself acknowledged me as her husband that was to be; and all that curled and jewelled throng of courtiers hailed me as greater than themselves, by reason of this woman's choice. There was method, too, in their salutation. Some rumour must have got about of my preference for the older and simpler habits, and there was no drinking wine to my health after the new and (as I considered) impertinent manner. Decorously, each lord and lady there came forward, and each in turn spilt a goblet at my feet; and when I called any up, whether man or woman, to receive tit-bits from my platter, it was eaten simply and thankfully, and not kissed or pocketed with any extravagant gesture.
The flaring jets of earth-breath showed me, too, so I thought, a plainer habit of dress, and a more sober mien amongst this thoughtless mob of banqueters. And, indeed, it must have been plain to notice, for Phorenice, leaning over till the ruddy curls on her shoulder brushed my face, chided me in a playful whisper as having usurped her high authority already.
"Oh, sir," she pleaded mockingly, "do not make your rule over us too ascetic. I have given no orders for this change, but to-night there are no perfumes in the air; the food is so plain and I have half a mind to burn the cook; and as for the clothes and gauds of these diners, by my face! they might have come straight from the old King's reign before I stepped in here to show how tasteful could be colours on a robe, or how pretty the glint of a jewel. It's done by no orders of mine, Deucalion. They have swung round to this change by sheer courtier instinct. Why, look at the beards of the men! There is not half the curl about many of them to-day that they showed with such exquisiteness yesterday. By my face! I believe they'd reap their chins to-morrow as smooth as yours, if you go on setting the fashions at this prodigious rate and I do not interfere."
"Why hinder them if they feel more cleanly shaven?"
"No, sir. There shall be only one clean chin where a beard can grow in all Atlantis, and that shall be carried by the man who is husband to the Empress. Why, my Deucalion, would you have no sumptuary laws? Would you have these good folk here and the common people outside imitate us in every cut of the hair and every fold of a garment which it pleases us to discover? Come, sir, if you and I chose to say that our sovereignty was marked only by our superior strength of arm and wit, they would hate us at once for our arrogance; whereas, if we keep apart to ourselves a few mere personal decorations, these become just objects to admire and pleasantly envy."
"You show me that there is more in the office of a ruler than meets the eye."
"And yet they tell me, and indeed show me, that you have ruled with some success."
"I employed the older method. It requires a Phorenice to invent these nicer flights."
"Flatterer!" said she, and smote me playfully with the back of her little fingers on my arm. "You are becoming as great a courtier as any of them. You make me blush with your fine pleasantries, Deucalion, and there is no fan-girl here to-night to cool my cheek. I must choose me another fan-girl. But it shall not be Ylga. Ylga seems to have more of a kindness for you than I like, and if she is wise she will go live in her palace at the other side of the city, and there occupy herself with the ordering of her slaves, and the makings of embroideries. I shall not be hard on Ylga unless she forces me, but I will have no woman in this kingdom treat you with undue civility."
"And how am I to act," said I, falling in with her mood, "when I see and hear all the men of Atlantis making their protestations before you? By your own confession they all love you as ardently as they seem to have loved you hopelessly."
"Ah, now," she said, "you must not ask me to do impossibilities. I am powerful if you will. But I have no force which will govern the hearts of these poor fellows on matters such as that. But if you choose, you make proclamation that I am given now body and inwards to you, and if they continue to offend your pride in this matter, you may take your culprits, and give them over to the tormentors. Indeed, Deucalion, I think it would be a pretty attention to me if you did arrange some such ceremony. It seems to me a present," she added with a frown, "that the jealousy is too much on one side."
"You must not expect that a man who has been divorced from love for all of a busy life can learn all its niceties in an instant. Myself, I was feeling proud of my progress. With any other schoolmistress than you, Phorenice, I should not be near so forward. In fact (if one may judge by my past record), I should not have begun to learn at all."
"I suppose you think I should be satisfied with that? Well, I am not. I can be finely greedy over some matters."
The banquet this night did not extend to inordinate length. Phorenice had gone through much since last she slept, and though she had declared herself Goddess in the meantime, it seemed that her body remained mortal as heretofore. The black rings of weariness had grown under her wondrous eyes, and she lay back amongst the cushions of the divan with her limbs slackened and listless. When the dancers came and postured before us, she threw them a jewel and bade them begone before they had given a half of their performance, and the poet, a silly swelling fellow who came to sing the deeds of the day, she would not hear at all.
"To-morrow," she said wearily, "but for now grant me peace. My Lord Deucalion has given me much food for thought this day, and presently I go to my chamber to muse over the future policies of this State throughout the night. To-morrow come to me again, and if your poetry is good and short, I will pay you surprisingly. But see to it that you are not long-winded. If there are superfluous words, I will pay you for those with the stick."
She rose to her feet then, and when the banqueters had made their salutation to us, I led her away from the banqueting-hall and down the passages with their secret doors which led to her private chambers. She clung on my arm, and once when we halted whilst a great stone block swung slowly ajar to let us pass, she drooped her head against my shoulder. Her breath came warm against my cheek, and the loveliness of her face so close at hand surpasses the description of words. I think it was in her mind that I should kiss the red lips which were held so near to mine, but willing though I was to play the part appointed, I could not bring myself to that. So when the stone block had swung, she drew away with a sigh, and we went on without further speech.
"May the High Gods treat you tenderly," I said, when we came to the door of her bed-chamber.
"I am my own God," said she, "in all things but one. By my face! you are a tardy wooer, Deucalion. Where do you go now?"
"To my own chamber."
"Oh, go then, go."
"Is there anything more I could do?"
"Nothing that your wit or your will would prompt you to. Yes, indeed, you are finely decorous, Deucalion, in your old-fashioned way, but you are a mighty poor wooer. Don't you know, my man, that a woman esteems some things the more highly if they are taken from her by rude force?"
"It seems I know little enough about women."
"You never said a truer word. Bah! And I believe your coldness brings you more benefit in a certain matter than any show of passion could earn. There, get you gone, if the atmosphere of a maiden's bed-chamber hurts your rustic modesty, and your Gods keep you, Deucalion, if that's the phrase, and if you think They can do it. Get you gone, man, and leave me solitary."
I had taken the plan of the pyramid out of the archives before the banquet and learned it thoroughly, and so was able to thread my way through its angular mazes without pause or blunder. I, too, was heavily wearied with what I had gone through since my last snatch of sleep, but I dare set apart no time for rest just then. Nais must be sacrificed in part for the needs of Atlantis; but a plan had come to me by which it seemed that she need not be sacrificed wholly; and to carry this through there was need for quick thought and action.
Help came to me also from a quarter I did not expect. As I passed along the tortuous way between the ponderous stones of the pyramid, which led to the apartments that had been given me by Phorenice, a woman glided up out of the shadows of one of the side passages, and when I lifted my hand lamp, there was Ylga.
She regarded me half-sullenly. "I have lost my place," she said, "and it seems I need never have spoken. She intended to have you all along, and it was not a thing like that which could put her off. And you—you just think me officious, if, indeed, you have ever given me another thought till now."
"I never forget a kindness."
"Oh, you will learn that trick soon now. And you are going to marry her, you! The city is ringing with it. I thought at least you were honest, but when there is a high place to be got by merely taking a woman with it, you are like the rest. I thought, too, that you would be one of those men who have a distrust for ruddy hair. And, besides she is little."
"Ylga," I said, "you have taught me that these walls are full of crannies and ears. I will listen to no word against Phorenice. But I would have further converse with you soon. If you still have a kindness for me, go to the chamber that is mine and wait for me there. I will join you shortly."
She drooped her eyes. "What do you want of me, Deucalion?"
"I want to say something to you. You will learn who it concerns later."
"But is it—is it fitting for a maiden to come to a man's room at this hour?"
"I know little of your conventions here in this new Atlantis. I am Deucalion, girl, and if you still have qualms, remembering that, do not come."
She looked up at me with a sneer. "I was foolish," she said. "My lord's coldness has grown into a proverb, and I should have remembered it. Yes; I will come."
"Go now, then," said I, and waited till she had passed on ahead and was out of sight and hearing. With Ylga to help me, my tasks were somewhat lightened, and their sequence changed. In the first instance, now, I had got to make my way with as little delay and show as possible into a certain sanctuary which lay within the temple of our Lady the Moon. And here my knowledge as one of the Seven stood me in high favour.
All the temples of the city of Atlantis are in immediate and secret connection with the royal pyramid, but the passages are little used, seeing that they are known only to the Seven and to the Three above them, supposing that there are three men living at one time sufficiently learned in the highest of the highest mysteries to be installed in that sublime degree of the Three. And, even by these, the secret ways may only be used on occasions of the greatest stress, so that a generation well may pass without their being trodden by a human foot.
It was with some trouble, and after no little experiment that I groped my way into this secret alley; but once there, the rest was easy. I had never trodden it before certainly, but the plan of it had been taught me at my initiation as one of the Seven, and the course of the windings came back to me now with easy accuracy. I walked quickly, not only because the air in those deep crannies is always full of lurking evils, but also because the hours were fleeting, and much must be done before our Lord the Sun again rose to make another day.
I came to the spy-place which commands the temple, and found the holy place empty, and, alas! dust-covered, and showing little trace that worshippers ever frequented it these latter years. A vast stone of the wall swung outwards and gave me entrance, and presently (after the solemn prayer which is needful before attempting these matters), I took the metal stair from the place where it is kept, and climbed to the lap of the Goddess, and then, pulling the stair after me, climbed again upwards till my length lay against her calm mysterious face.
A shivering seized me as I thought of what was intended, for even a warrior hardened to horrid sights and deeds may well have qualms when he is called upon to juggle with life and death, and years and history, with the welfare of his country in one hand, and the future of a woman who is as life to him in the other. But again I told myself that the hours flew, and laid hold of the jewel which is studded into the forehead of the image with one hand, and then stretching out, thrust at a corner of the eyebrow with the other. With a faint creak the massive eyeball below, a stone that I could barely have covered with my back, swung inwards. I stepped off the stair, and climbed into the gap. Inside was the chamber which is hollowed from the head of the Goddess.
It was the first time I had seen this most secret place, but the aspect of it was familiar to me from my teaching, and I knew where to find the thing which would fill my need. Yet, occupied though I might be with the stress of what was to befall, I could not help having a wonder and an admiration for the cleverness with which it was hidden.
High as I was in the learning and mysteries of the Priestly Clan, the structure of what I had come to fetch was hidden from me. Beforetime I had known only of their power and effect; and now that I came to handle them, I saw only some roughly rounded balls, like nut kernels, grass green in colour, and in hardness like the wax of bees. There were three of these balls in the hidden place, and I took the one that was needful, concealing the others as I had found them. It may have been a drug, it may have been something more; what exactly it was I did not know; only of its power and effect I was sure, as that was set forth plainly in the teaching I had learned; and so I put it in a pouch of my garment, returning by the way I had come, and replacing all things in due order behind me.
One look I took at the image of the Goddess before I left the temple. The jet of earth-breath which burns eternally from the central altar lit her from head to toe, and threw sparkles from the great jewel in her forehead. Vast she was, and calm and peaceful beyond all human imaginings, a perfect symbolism of that rest and quietness which many sigh for so vainly on this rude earth, but which they will never attain unless by their piety they earn a place in the hereafter, where our Lady the Moon and the rest of the High Ones reign in Their eternal glorious majesty.
It was with tired dragging limbs that I made my way back again to the royal pyramid, and at last came to my own private chamber. Ylga awaited me there, though at first I did not see her. The suspicions of these modern days had taken a deep hold of the girl, and she must needs crouch in hiding till she made sure it was I who came to the chamber, and, moreover, that I came alone.
"Oh, frown at me if you choose," said she sullenly, "I am past caring now for your good opinion. I had heard so much of Deucalion, and I thought I read honesty in you when first you came ashore; but now I know that you are no better than the rest. Phorenice offers you a high place, and you marry her blithely to get it. And why, indeed, should you not marry her? People say she is pretty, and I know she can be warm. I have seen her warm and languishing to scores of men. She is clever, too, with her eyes, is our great Empress; I grant her that. And as for you, it tickles you to be courted."
"I think you are a very silly woman," I said.
"If you flatter yourself it matters a rap to me whom you marry, you are letting conceit run away with you."
"Listen," I said. "I did not ask you here to make foolish speeches which seem largely beyond my comprehension. I asked you to help me do a service to one of your own blood-kin."
She stared at me wonderingly. "I do not understand."
"It rests largely with you as to whether Nais dies to-morrow, or whether she is thrown into a sleep from which she may waken on some later and more happy day."
"Nais!" she gasped. "My twin, Nais? She is not here. She is out in the camp with those nasty rebels who bite against the city walls, if, indeed, still she lives."
"Nais, your sister is near us in the royal pyramid this minute, and under guard, though where I do not know." And with that I told her all that had passed since the girl was brought up a prisoner in the galley of that foolish, fawning captain of the port. "The Empress has decreed that Nais shall be buried alive under a throne of granite which I am to build for her to-morrow, and buried she will assuredly be. Yet I have a kindness for Nais, which you may guess at if you choose, and I am minded to send her into a sleep such as only we higher priests know of, from which at some future day she may possibly awaken."
"So it is Nais; and not Phorenice, and not—not any other?"
"Yes; it is Nais. I marry the Empress because Zaemon, who is mouthpiece to the High Council of the Priests, has ordered it, for the good of Atlantis. But my inwards remain still cold towards her."
"Almost I hate poor Nais already."
"Your vengeance would be easy. Do not tell me where she is gaoled, and I shall not dare to ask. Even to give Nais a further span of life I cannot risk making inquiries for her cell, when there is a chance that those who tell me might carry news to the Empress, and so cause more trouble for this poor Atlantis."
"And why should I not carry the news, and so bring myself into favour again? I tell you that being fan-girl to Phorenice and second woman in the kingdom is a thing that not many would cast lightly aside."
I looked her between eyes and smiled. "I have no fear there. You will not betray me, Ylga. Neither will you sell Nais."
"I seem to remember very small love for this same Nais just now," she said bitterly. "But you are right about that other matter. I shall not buy myself back at your expense. Oh, I am a fool, I know, and you can give me no thanks that I care about, but there is no other way I can act."
"Then let us fritter no more time. Go you out now and find where Nais is gaoled, and bring me news how I can say ten words to her, and press a certain matter into her clasp."
She bowed her head and left the chamber, and for long enough I was alone. I sat down on the couch, and rested wearily against the wall. My bones ached, my eyes ached, and most of all, my inwards ached. I had thought to myself that a man who makes his life sufficiently busy will find no leisure for these pains which assault frailer folk; but a philosophy like this, which carried one well in Yucatan, showed poorly enough when one tried it here at home. But that there was duty ahead, and the order of the High Council to be carried into effect, the bleakness of the prospect would have daunted me, and I would have prayed the Gods then to spare me further life, and take me unto Themselves.
Ylga came back at last, and I got up and went quickly after her as she led down a maze of passages and alleyways. "There has been no care spared over her guarding," she whispered, as we halted once to move a stone. "The officer of the guard is an old lover of mine, and I raised his hopes to the burning point again by a dozen words. But when I wanted to see his prisoner, there he was as firm as brass. I told him she was my sister, but that did not move him. I offered him—oh, Deucalion, it makes me blush to think of the things I did offer to that man, but there was no stirring him. He has watched the tormentors so many times, that there is no tempting him into touch of their instruments."
"If you have failed, why bring me out here?"
"Oh, I am not inveigling you into a lover's walk with myself, sir. You tickle yourself when you think your society is so pleasant as that."
"Come, girl, tell me then what it is. If my temper is short, credit it against my weariness."
"I have carried out my lord's commands in part. I know the cell where Nais lives, and I have had speech with her, though not through the door. And moreover, I have not seen her or touched her hand."
"Your riddles are beyond me, Ylga, but if there is a chance, let us get on and have this business done."
"We are at the place now," said she, with a hard little laugh, "and if you kneel on the floor, you will find an airshaft, and Nais will answer you from the lower end. For myself, I will leave you. I have a delicacy in hearing what you want to say to my sister, Deucalion."
"I thank you," I said. "I will not forget what you have done for me this night."
"You may keep your thanks," she said bitterly, and walked away into the shadows.
I knelt on the floor of the gallery, and found the air passage with my hand, and then, putting my lips to it, whispered for Nais.
The answer came on the instant, muffled and quiet. "I knew my lord would come for a farewell."
"What the Empress said, has to be. You understand, my dear? It is for Atlantis."
"Have I reproached my lord, by word or glance?"
"I myself am bidden to place you in the hollow between the stones, and I must do it."
"Then my last sleep will be a sweet one. I could not ask to be touched by pleasanter hands."
"But it mayhap that a day will come when she whom you know of will be suffered by the High Gods to live on this land of Atlantis no longer."
"If my lord will cherish my poor memory when he is free again, I shall be grateful. He might, if he chose, write them on the stones: Here was buried a maid who died gladly for the good of Atlantis, even though she knew that the man she so dearly loved was husband to her murderess."
"You must not die," I whispered. "My breast is near broken at the very thought of it. And for respite, we must trust to the ancient knowledge, which in its day has been sent out from the Ark of the Mysteries."—I took the green waxy ball in my fingers, and stretched them down the crooked air-shaft to the full of my span.—"I have somewhat for you here. Reach up and try to catch it from me."
I heard the faint rustle of her arm as it swept against the masonry, and then the ball was taken over into her grasp. Gods! what a thrill went through me when the fingers of Nais touched mine! I could not see her, because of the crookedness of the shaft, but that faint touch of her was exquisite.
"I have it," she whispered. "And what now, dear?"
"You will hide the thing in your garment, and when to-morrow the upper stone closes down upon you and the light is gone, then you will take it between your lips and let it dissolve as it will. Sleep will take you, my darling, then, and the High Gods will watch over you, even though centuries pass before you are roused."
"If Deucalion does not wake me, I shall pray never again to open an eye. And now go, my lord and my dear. They watch me here constantly, and I would not have you harmed by being brought to notice."
"Yes, I must go, my sweetheart. It will not do to have our scheme spoiled by a foolish loitering. May the most High Gods attend your rest, and if the sacrifice we make finds favour, may They grant us meeting here again on earth before we meet—as we must—when our time is done, and They take us up to Their own place."
"Amen," she whispered back, and then: "Kiss your fingers, dear, and thrust them down to me."
I did that, and for an instant felt her fondle them down the crook of the airshaft out of sight, and then heard her withdraw her little hand and kiss it fondly. Then again she kissed her own fingers and stretched them up, and I took up the virtue of that parting kiss on my finger-tips and pressed it sacredly to my lips.
"Living, sleeping, or dead, always my darling," she whispered. And then, before I could answer, she whispered again: "Go, they are coming for me." And so I went, knowing that I could do no more to help her then, and knowing that all our schemes would be spilt if any eye spied upon me as I lay there beside the air shaft. But my chest was like to have split with the dull, helpless anguish that was in it, as I made my way back to my chamber through the mazy alleys of the pyramid.
"Do not look upon mine eyes, dear, when the time comes," had been her last command, "or they will tell a tale which Phorenice, being a woman, would read. Remember, we make these small denials, not for our own likings, but for Atlantis, which is mother to us all."
13. THE BURYING ALIVE OF NAIS
There is no denying that the wishes of Phorenice were carried into quick effect in the city of Atlantis. Her modern theory was that the country and all therein existed only for the good of the Empress, and when she had a desire, no cost could possibly be too great in its carrying out.
She had given forth her edict concerning the burying alive of Nais, and though the words were that I was to build the throne of stone, it was an understood thing that the manual labour was to be done for me by others. Heralds made the proclamation in every ward of the city, and masons, labourers, stonecutters, sculptors, engineers, and architects took hands from whatever was occupying them for the moment, and hastened to the rendezvous. The architects chose a chief who gave directions, and the lesser architects and the engineers saw these carried into effect. Any material within the walls of the city on which they set their seal, was taken at once without payment or compensation; and as the blocks of stone they chose were the most monstrous that could be got, they were forced to demolish no few buildings to give them passage.
I have before spoken of the modern rage for erecting new palaces and pyramids, and even though at the moment an army of rebels was battering with war engines at the city walls, the building guilds were steadily at work, and their skill (with Phorenice's marvellous invention to aid them) was constantly on the increase. True, they could not move such massive blocks of stone as those which the early Gods planted for the sacred circle of our Lord the Sun, but they had got rams and trucks and cranes which could handle amazing bulks.
The throne was to be erected in the open square before the royal pyramid. Seven tiers of stone were there for a groundwork, each a knee-height deep, and each cut in the front with three steps. In the uppermost layer was a cavity made to hold the body of Nais, and above this was poised the vast block which formed the seat of the throne itself.
Throughout the night, to the light of torches, relay after relay of the stonecutters, and the masons, and the sweating labourers had toiled over bringing up the stone and dressing it into fit shape, and laying it in due position; and the engineers had built machines for lifting, and the architects had proved that each stone lay in its just and perfect place. Whips cracked, and men fainted with the labour, but so soon as one was incapable another pressed forward into his place. No delay was brooked when Phorenice had said her wish.
And finally, as the square began to fill with people come to gape at the pageant of to-day, the chippings and the scaffolding were cleared away, and with it the bodies of some half-score of workmen who had died from accidents or their exertions during the building, and there stood the throne, splendid in its carvings, and all ready for completion. The lower part stood more than two man-heights above the ground, and no stone of its courses weighed less than twenty men; the upper part was double the weight of any of these, and was carved so that the royal snake encircled the chair, and the great hooded head overshadowed it. But at present the upper part was not on its bed, being held up high by lifting rams, for what purposes all men knew.
It was to face this scene, then, that I came out from the royal pyramid at the summons of the chamberlains in the cool of next morning. Each great man who had come there before me had banner-bearers and trumpeters to proclaim his presence; the middle classes were in all their bravery of apparel; and even poor squalid creatures, with ribs of hunger showing through their dusty skins, had turbans and wisps of colour wrapped about their heads to mark the gaiety of the day.
The trumpets proclaimed my coming, and the people shouted welcome, and with the gorgeous chamberlains walking backwards in advance, I went across to a scarlet awning that had been prepared, and took my seat upon the cushions beneath it.
And then came Phorenice, my bride that was to be that day, fresh from sleep, and glorious in her splendid beauty. She was borne out from the pyramid in an open litter of gold and ivory by fantastic savages from Europe, her own refinement of feature being thrown up into all the higher relief by contrast with their brutish ugliness. One could hear the people draw a deep breath of delight as their eyes first fell upon her; and it is easy to believe there was not a man in that crowd which thronged the square who did not envy me her choice, nor was there a soul present (unless Ylga was there somewhere veiled) who could by any stretch imagine that I was not overjoyed in winning so lovely a wife.
For myself, I summoned up all the iron of my training to guard the expression of my face. We were here on ceremonial to-day; a ghastly enough affair throughout all its acts, if you choose, but still ceremonial; and I was minded to show Phorenice a grand manner that would leave her nothing to cavil at. After all that had been gone through and endured, I did not intend a great scheme to be shattered by letting my agony and pain show themselves, in either a shaking hand or a twitching cheek. When it came to the point, I told myself, I would lay the living body of my love in the hollow beneath the stone as calmly, and with as little outward emotion, as though I had been a mere priest carrying out the burial of some dead stranger. And she, on her part, would not, I knew, betray our secret. With her, too, it was truly "Before all Atlantis."
I think it spared a pang to find that there was to be no mockery or flippancy in what went forward. All was solemn and impressive; and, though a certain grandeur and sombreness which bit deep into my breast was lost to the vulgar crowd, I fancy that the outward shape of the double sacrifice they witnessed that day would not be forgotten by any of them, although the inner meaning of it all was completely hidden from their minds. When it suited her fancy, none could be more strict on the ritual of a ceremony than this many-mooded Empress, and it appeared that on this occasion she had given command that all things were to be carried out with the rigid exactness and pomp of the older manner.
So she was borne up by her Europeans to the scarlet awning, and I handed her to the ground. She seated herself on the cushions, and beckoned me to her side, entwining her fingers with mine as has always been the custom with rulers of Atlantis and their consorts. And there before us as we sat, a body of soldiery marched up, and opening out showed Nais in their midst. She had a collar of metal round her neck, with chains depending from it firmly held by a brace of guards, so that she should not run in upon the spears of the escort, and thus get a quick and easy death, which is often the custom of those condemned to the more lingering punishments.
But it was pleasant to see that she still wore her clothing. Raiment, whether of fabric or skin, has its value, and custom has always given the garments of the condemned to the soldiers guarding them. So as Nais was not stripped, I could not but see that some one had given moneys to the guards as a recompense, and in this I thought I saw the hand of Ylga, and felt a gratitude towards her.
The soldiers brought her forward to the edge of the pavilion's shade, and she was bidden prostrate herself before the Empress, and this she wisely did and so avoided rough handling and force. Her face was pale, but showed neither fear nor defiance, and her eyes were calm and natural. She was remembering what was due to Atlantis, and I was thrilled with love and pride as I watched her.
But outwardly I, too, was impassive as a man of stone, and though I knew that Phorenice's eye was on my face, there was never anything on it from first to last that I would not have had her see.
"Nais," said the Empress, "you have eaten from my platter when you were fan-girl, and drunk from my cup, and what was yours I gave you. You should have had more than gratitude, you should have had knowledge also that the arm of the Empress was long and her hand consummately heavy. But it seems that you have neither of these things. And, moreover, you have tried to take a certain matter that the Empress has set apart for herself. You were offered pardon, on terms, and you rejected it. You were foolish. But it is a day now when I am inclined to clemency. Presently, seated on that carved throne of granite which he has built me yonder, I shall take my Lord Deucalion to husband. Give me a plain word that you are sorry, girl, and name a man whom you would choose, and I will remember the brightness of the occasion, you shall be pardoned and wed before we rise from these cushions."
"I will not wed," she said quietly.
"Think for the last time, Nais, of what is the other choice. You will be taken, warm, and quick, and beautiful as you stand there this minute, and laid in the hollow place that is made beneath the throne-stone. Deucalion, that is to be my husband, will lay you in that awful bed, as a symbol that so shall perish all Phorenice's enemies, and then he will release the rams and lower the upper stone into place, and the world shall see your face no more. Look at the bright sky, Nais, fill your chest with the sweet warm air, and then think of what this death will mean. Believe me, girl, I do not want to make you an example unless you force me."
"I will not wed," said the prisoner quietly.
The Empress loosed her fingers from my arm, and lay back against the cushions. "If the girl presumes on our old familiarity, or thinks that I jest, show her now, Deucalion, that I do not."
"The Empress is far from jesting," I said. "I will do this thing because it is the wish of the Empress that it should be done, and because it is the command of the Empress that a symbol of it shall remain for ever as an example for others. Lead your prisoner to the place."
The soldiers wheeled, and the two guards with the chains of the collar which was on the neck of Nais prepared to put out force to drag her up the steps. But she walked with them willingly, and with a colour unchanged, and I rose from my seat, and made obeisance to the Empress and followed them.
Before all those ten thousand eyes, we two made no display of emotion then, not only for Atlantis' sake, but also because both Nais and I had a nicety and a pride in our natures. We were not as Phorenice to flaunt endearments before others.
Yet, when I had bidden the guards unhasp the collar which held the prisoner's neck, and clapped my arms around her, showing all the roughness of one who has no mind that his captive shall escape or even unduly struggle, a thrill gushed through me so potent that I was like to have fainted, and it was only by supreme strain of will that I held unbrokenly on with the ceremonial. I, who had never embraced a woman with aught but the arm of roughness before, now held pressed to me one whom I loved with an infinite tenderness, and the revelation of how love can come out and link with love was almost my undoing. Yet, outwardly, Nais made so sign, but lay half-strangled in my arms, as any woman does that is being borne away by a spoiler.
I trod with her to the uppermost step, the vast throne-stone overhanging us, and then so that all of those who were gazing from the sides of the pyramids and the roofs of the buildings round might see, though we were beyond Phorenice's view, I used a force that was brutal in dragging her across the level, and putting her down into the hollow. And yet the girl resisted me with no one effort whatever.
So that the victim might not struggle out and be crushed, and so gain an easy death when the stone descended, there were brazen clamps to fit into grooves of the stones above the hollow where she lay, and these I fitted in place above her, and fastened one by one, doing this butcher's work with one hand, and still fiercely holding her down by the other. Gods! and the sweat of agony dripped from me on to the thirsty stone as I worked. I could not keep that in.
I clamped and locked the last two bars in place, and took my brute's hand away from her throat.
The hateful fingermarks showed as bloodless furrows in the whiteness of her skin. For the life of me, yes, even for the fate of Atlantis, I could not help dropping my glance upon her face. But she was stronger than I. She gave me no last look. She kept her eyes steadfastly fixed on the cruel stone above, and so I left her, knowing that it was best not to tarry longer.
I came out from under the stone, and gave the sign to the engineers who stood by the rams. The fires were taken away from their sides, and the metal in them began to contract, and slowly the vast bulk of the throne-stone began to creep down towards its bed.
But ah, so slowly! Gods! how my soul was torn as I watched and waited.
Yet I kept my face impassive, overlooking as any officer might a piece of work which others were carrying out under his direction, and on which his credit rested; and I stood gravely in my place till the rams had let the stone come down on its final resting place, and had been carried away by the engineers; and then I went round with the master architect with his plumbline and level, whilst he tested this last piece of the building and declared it perfect.
It was a useless form, this last, seeing that by calculation they knew exactly how the stone must rest; but the guilds have their forms and customs, and on these occasions of high ceremonial, they are punctiliously carried out, because these middle-class people wish always to appear mysterious and impressive to the poor vulgar folk who are their inferiors. But perhaps I am hard there on them. A man who is needlessly taken round to plumb and duly level the tomb where his love lies buried living, may perhaps be excused by the assessors on high a little spirit of bitterness.
I had gone up the steps to do my hateful work a man full of grief, though outwardly unmoved. As I came down again I had a feeling of incompleteness; it seemed as though half my inwards had been left behind with Nais in the hollow of the stone, and their place was taken by a void which ached wearily; but still I carried a passive face, and memory that before all these private matters stood the command of the High Council, which sat before the Ark of the Mysteries.
So I went and stood before Phorenice, and said the words which the ancient forms prescribed concerning the carrying out of her wish.
"Then, now," she said, "I will give myself to you as wife. We are not as others, you and I, Deucalion. There is a law and a form set down for the marrying of these other people, but that would be useless for our purposes. We will have neither priest nor scribe to join us and set down the union. I am the law here in Atlantis, and you soon will be part of me. We will not be demeaned by profaner hands. We will make the ceremony for ourselves, and for witnesses, there are sufficient in waiting. Afterwards, the record shall be cut deep in the granite throne you have built for me, and the lettering filled in with gold, so that it shall endure and remain bright for always."
"The Empress can do no wrong," I said formally, and took the hand she offered me, and helped her to rise. We walked out from the scarlet awning into the glare of the sunshine, she leaning on me, flushing, and so radiantly lovely that the people began to hail her with rapturous shouts of "A Goddess; our Goddess Phorenice." But for me they had no welcoming word. I think the set grimness of my face both scared and repelled them.
We went up the steps which led to the throne, the people still shouting, and I sat her in the royal seat beneath the snake's outstretched head, and she drew me down to sit beside her.
She raised her jewelled hand, and a silence fell on that great throng, as though the breath had been suddenly cut short for all of them.
Then Phorenice made proclamation:
"Hear me, O my people, and hear me, O High Gods from whom I am come. I take this man Deucalion, to be my husband, to share with me the prosperity of Atlantis, and join me in guarding our great possession. May all our enemies perish as she is now perishing above whom we sit." And then she put her arms around my neck, and kissed me hotly on the mouth.
In turn I also spoke: "Hear me, O most High Gods, whose servant I am, and hear me also, O ye people. I take this Empress, Phorenice, to wife, to help with her the prosperity of Atlantis, and join with her in guarding the welfare of that great possession. May all the enemies of this country perish as they have perished in the past."
And then, I too, who had not been permitted by the fate to touch the lips of my love, bestowed the first kiss I had ever given woman to Phorenice, that was now being made my wife.
But we were not completely linked yet.
"A woman is one, and man is one," she proclaimed, following for the first time the old form of words, "but in marriage they merge, so that wife and husband are no more separate, but one conjointly. In token of this we will now make the symbolic joining together, so that all may see and remember." She took her dagger, and pricking the brawn on my forearm till a head of blood appeared, set her red lips to it, and took it into herself.
"Ah," she said, with her eyes sparkling, "now you are part of me indeed, Deucalion, and I feel you have strengthened me already." She pulled down the neck of her robe. "Let me make you my return."
I pricked the rounded whiteness of her shoulder. Gods! when I remembered who was beneath us as we sat on that throne, I could have driven the blade through to her heart! And then I, too, put down my lips, and took the drop of her blood that was yielded to me.
My tongue was dry, my throat was parched, and my face suffused, and I thought I should have choked.
But the Empress, who was ordinarily so acute, was misled then. "It thrills you?" she cried. "It burns within you like living fire? I have just felt it. By my face! Deucalion, if I had known the pleasure it gives to be made a wife, I do not think I should have waited this long for you. Ah, yes; but with another man I should have had no thrill. I might have gone through the ceremony with another, but it would have left me cold. Well, they say this feeling comes to a woman but once in her time, and I would not change it for the glory of all my conquests and the whirl of all my power." She leaned in close to me so that the red curls of her hair swept my cheek, and her breath came hot against my mouth. "Tasted you ever any sweet so delicious as this knowledge that we are made one now, Deucalion, past all possible dissolving?"
I could not lie to her any more just then. The Gods know how honestly I had striven to play the part commanded me for Atlantis' good, but there is a limit to human endurance, and mine was reached. I was not all anger towards her. I had some pity for this passion of hers, which had grown of itself certainly, but which I had done nothing to check; and the indecent frankness with which it was displayed was only part of the livery of potentates who flaunt what meaner folk would coyly hide. But always before my eyes was a picture of the girl on whom her jealousy had taken such a bitter vengeance, and to invent spurious lover's talk then was a thing my tongue refused to do.
"Words are poor things," I said, "and I am a man unused to women, and have but a small stock of any phrases except the dryest. Remember, Phorenice, a week agone, I did not know what love was, and now that I have learned the lesson, somewhat of the suddenest, the language remains still to come to me. My inwards speak; indeed they are full of speech; but I cannot translate into bald cold words what they say."
And here, surely the High Gods took pity on my tied tongue and my misery, and made an opportunity for bringing the ceremony to an end. A man ran into the square shouting, and showing a wound that dripped, and presently all that vast crowd which stood on the pavements, and the sides of the pyramids, and the roofs of the temples, took up the cry, and began to feel for their weapons.
"The rebels are in!" "They have burrowed a path into the city!" "They have killed the cave-tigers and taken a gate!" "They are putting the whole place to the storm!" "They will presently leave no poor soul of us here alive!"
There then was a termination of our marriage cooings. With rebels merely biting at the walls, it was fine to put strong trust in the defences, and easy to affect contempt for the besiegers' powers, and to keep the business of pageants and state craft and marryings turning on easy wheels. But with rebel soldiers already inside the city (and hordes of others doubtless pressing on their heels), the affairs took a different light. It was no moment for further delay, and Phorenice was the first to admit it. The glow that had been in her eyes changed to the glare of the fighter, as the fellow who had run up squalled out his tidings.
I stood and stretched my chest. I seemed in need of air. "Here," I said, "is work that I can understand more clearly. I will go and sweep this rabble back to their burrows, Phorenice."
"But not alone, sir. I come too. It is my city still. Nay, sir, we are too newly wed to be parted yet."
"Have your will," I said, and together we went down the steps of the throne to the pavement below. Under my breath I said a farewell to Nais.
Our armour-bearers met us with weapons, and we stepped into litters, and the slaves took us off hot foot. The wounded man who had first brought the news had fallen in a faint, and no more tidings was to be got from him, but the growing din of the fight gave us the general direction, and presently we began to meet knots of people who dwelt near the place of irruption, running away in wild panic, loaded down with their household goods.
It was useless to stop these, as fight they could not, and if they had stayed they would merely have been slaughtered like flies, and would in all likelihood have impeded our own soldiery. And so we let them run screaming on their blind way, but forced the litters through them with but very little regard for their coward convenience.
Now the advantage of the rebels, when it came to be looked upon by a soldier's eye, was a thing of little enough importance. They had driven a tunnel from behind a covering mound, beneath the walls, and had opened it cleverly enough through the floor of a middle-class house. They had come through into this, collecting their numbers under its shelter, and doubtless hoping that the marriage of the Empress (of which spies had given them information) would sap the watchfulness of the city guards. But it seems they were discovered and attacked before they were thoroughly ready to emerge, and, as a fine body of troops were barracked near the spot, their extermination would have been merely a matter of time, even if we had not come up.
It did not take a trained eye long to decide on this, and Phorenice, with a laugh, lay back on the cushions of the litter, and returned her weapons to the armour-bearer who came panting up to receive them. "We grow nervous with our married life, my Deucalion," she said. "We are fearful lest this new-found happiness be taken from us too suddenly."
But I was not to be robbed of my breathing-space in this wise. "Let me crave a wedding gift of you," I said.
"It is yours before you name it."
"Then give me troops, and set me wide a city gate a mile away from here."
"You can gather five hundred as you go from here to the gate, taking two hundred of those that are here. If you want more, they must be fetched from other barracks along the walls. But where is your plan?"
"Why, my poor strategy teaches me this: these foolish rebels have set all their hopes on this mine, and all their excitement on its present success. If they are kept occupied here by a Phorenice, who will give them some dainty fighting without checking them unduly, they will press on to the attack and forget all else, and never so much as dream of a sortie. And meanwhile, a Deucalion with his troop will march out of the city well away from here, without tuck of drum or blare of trumpet, and fall most unpleasantly upon their rear. After which, a Phorenice will burn the house here at the mine's head, which is of wood, and straw thatched, to discourage further egress, and either go to the walls to watch the fight from there, or sally out also and spur on the rout as her fancy dictates."
"Your scheme is so pretty, I would I could rob you of it for my own credit's sake, and as it is, I must kiss you for your cleverness. But you got my word first, you naughty fellow, and you shall have the men and do as you ask. Eh, sir, this is a sad beginning of our wedded life, if you begin to rob your little wife of all the sweets of conquest from the outset."
She took back the weapons and target she had given to the armour-bearer, and stepped over the side of the litter to the ground. "But at least," she said, "if you are going to fight, you shall have troops that will do credit to my drill," and thereupon proceeded to tell off the companies of men-at-arms who were to accompany me. She left herself few enough to stem the influx of rebels who poured ceaselessly in through the tunnel; but as I had seen, with Phorenice, heavy odds added only to her enjoyment.
But for the Empress, I will own at the time to have given little enough of thought. My own proper griefs were raw within me, and I thirsted for that forgetfulness of all else which battle gives, so that for awhile I might have a rest from their gnawings.
It made my blood run freer to hear once more the tramp of practised troops behind me, and when all had been collected, we marched out through a gate of the city, and presently were charging through and through the straggling rear of the enemy. By the Gods! for the moment even Nais was blotted from my wearied mind. Never had I loved more to let my fierceness run madly riot. Never have I gloated more abundantly over the terrible joy of battle.
Nais must forgive my weakness in seeking to forget her even for a breathing-space. Had that opportunity been denied me, I believe the agony of remembering would have snapped my brain-strings for always.
14. AGAIN THE GODS MAKE CHANGE
Now it would be tedious to tell how with a handful of highly trained fighting men, I charged and recharged, and finally broke up that horde of rebels which outnumbered us by fifteen times. It must be remembered that they grew suddenly panic-stricken in finding that of all those who went in under the city walls by the mine on which they had set such great store, none came back, and that the sounds of panic which had first broken out within the city soon gave way to cries of triumph and joy. And it must be carried in memory also that these wretched rebels were without training worthy of the name, were for the most part weaponed very vilely, and, seeing that their silly principles made each the equal of his neighbour, were practically without heads or leaders also.
So when the panic began, it spread like a malignant murrain through all their ragged ranks, and there were none to rally the flying, none to direct those of more desperate bravery who stayed and fought.
My scheme of attack was simple. I hunted them without a halt. I and my fellows never stopped to play the defensive. We turned one flank, and charged through a centre, and then we were harrying the other flank, and once more hacking our passage through the solid mass. And so by constantly keeping them on the run, and in ignorance of whence would come the next attack, panic began to grow amongst them and ferment, till presently those in the outer lines commenced to scurry away towards the forests and the spoiled corn-lands of the country, and those in the inner packs were only wishful of a chance to follow them.
It was no feat of arms this breaking up of the rebel leaguer, and no practised soldier would wish to claim it as such. It was simply taking advantage of the chances of the moment, and as such it was successful. Given an open battle on their own ground, these desperate rebels would have fought till none could stand, and by sheer ferocious numbers would have pulled down any trained troops that the city could have sent against them, whether they had advanced in phalanx or what formation you will. For it must be remembered they were far removed from cowards, being Atlantean all, just as were those within the city, and were, moreover, spurred to extraordinary savageness and desperation by the oppression under which they had groaned, and the wrongs they had been forced to endure.
Still, as I say, the poor creatures were scattered, and the siege was raised from that moment, and it was plain to see that the rebellion might be made to end, if no unreasonable harshness was used for its final suppression. Too great severity, though perhaps it may be justly their portion, only drives such malcontents to further desperations.
Now, following up these fugitives, to make sure that there was no halt in their retreat, and to send the lesson of panic thoroughly home to them, had led us a long distance from the city walls; and as we had fought all through the burning heat of the day and my men were heavily wearied, I decided to halt where we were for the night amongst some half-ruined houses which would make a temporary fortification. Fortunately, a drove of little cloven-hoofed horses which had been scared by some of the rebels in their flight happened to blunder into our lines, and as we killed five before they were clear again, there was a soldier's supper for us, and quickly the fires were lit and cooking it.
Sentries paced the outskirts and made their cries to one another, and the wounded sat by the fires and dressed their hurts, and with the officers I talked over the engagements of the day, and the methods of each charge, and the other details of the fighting. It is the special perquisite of soldiers to dally over these matters with gusto, though they are entirely without interest for laymen.
The hour drew on for sleep, and snores went up from every side. It was clear that all my officers were wearied out, and only continued the talk through deference to their commander. Yet I had a feverish dread of being left alone again with my thoughts, and pressed them on with conversation remorselessly. But in the end they were saved the rudeness of dropping off into unconsciousness during my talk. A sentry came up and saluted. "My lord," he reported, "there is a woman come up from the city whom we have caught trying to come into the bivouac."
"How is she named?"
"She will not say."
"Has she business?'
"She will say none. She demands only to see my lord."
"Bring her here to the fire," I ordered, and then on second thoughts remembering that the woman, whoever she might be, had news likely enough for my private ear (or otherwise she would not have come to so uncouth a rendezvous), I said to the sentry: "Stay," and got up from the ground beside the fire, and went with him to the outer line.
"Where is she?" I asked.
"My comrades are holding her. She might be a wench belonging to these rebels, with designs to put a knife into my lord's heart, and then we sentries would suffer. The Empress," he added simply, "seems to set good store upon my lord at present, and we know the cleverness of her tormentors."
"Your thoughtfulness is frank," I said, and then he showed me the woman. She was muffled up in hood and cloak, but one who loved Nais as I loved could not mistake the form of Ylga, her twin sister, because of mere swathings. So I told the sentries to release her without asking her for speech, and then led her out from the bivouac beyond earshot of their lines.
"It is something of the most pressing that has brought you out here, Ylga?"
"You know me, then? There must be something warmer than the ordinary between us two, Deucalion, if you could guess who walked beneath all these mufflings."
I let that pass. "But what's your errand, girl?"
"Aye," she said bitterly, "there's my reward. All your concern's for the message, none for the carrier. Well, good my lord, you are husband to the dainty Phorenice no longer."
"This is news."
"And true enough, too. She will have no more of you, divorces you, spurns you, thrusts you from her, and, after the first splutter of wrath is done, then come pains and penalties."
"The Empress can do no wrong. I will have you speak respectful words of the Empress."
"Oh, be done with that old fable! It sickens me. The woman was mad for love of you, and now she's mad with jealousy. She knows that you gave Nais some of your priest's magic, and that she sleeps till you choose to come and claim her, even though the day be a century from this. And if you wish to know the method of her enlightenment, it is simple. There is another airshaft next to the one down which you did your cooing and billing, and that leads to another cell in which lay another prisoner. The wretch heard all that passed, and thought to buy enlargement by telling it.
"But his news came a trifle stale. It seems that with the pressure of the morning's ceremonies, they forgot to bring a ration, and when at last his gaoler did remember him, it was rather late, seeing that by then Phorenice had tied herself publicly to a husband, and poor Nais had doubtless eaten her green drug. However, the fools must needs try and barter his tale for what it would fetch; and, as was natural, had such a silly head chopped off for his pains; and after that your Phorenice behaved as you may guess. And now you may thank me, sir, for coming to warn you not to go back to Atlantis."
"But I shall go back. And if the Empress chooses to cut my head also from its proper column, that is as the High Gods will."
"You are more sick of life than I thought. But I think, sir, our Phorenice judges your case very accurately. It was permitted me to hear the outbursting of this lady's rage. 'Shall I hew off his head?' said she. 'Pah! Shall I give him over to my tormentors, and stand by whilst they do their worst? He would not wrinkle his brow at their fiercest efforts. No; he must have a heavier punishment than any of these, and one also which will endure. I shall lop off his right hand and his left foot, so that he may be a fighting man no longer, and then I shall drive him forth crippled into the dangerous lands, where he may learn Fear. The beasts shall hunt him, the fires of the ground shall spoil his rest. He shall know hunger, and he shall breathe bad air. And all the while he shall remember that I have Nais near me, living and locked in her coffin of stone, to play with as I choose, and to give over to what insults may come to my fancy.' That is what she said, Deucalion. Now I ask you again will you go back to meet her vengeance?"
"No," I said, "it is no part of my plan to be mutilated and left to live."
"So, being a woman of some sense, I judged. And, moreover, having some small kindness still left for you, I have taken it upon myself to make a plan for your further movement which may fall in with your whim. Does the name of Tob come back to your memory?"
"One who was Captain of Tatho's navy?"
"That same Tob. A gruff, rude fellow, and smelling vile of tar, but seeming to have a sturdy honesty of his own. Tob sails away this night for parts unknown, presumably to found a kingdom with Tob for king. It seems he can find little enough to earn at his craft in Atlantis these latter days, and has scruples at seeing his wife and young ones hungry. He told me this at the harbour side when I put my neck under the axe by saying I wanted carriage for you, sir, and so having me under his thumb, he was perhaps more loose-lipped than usual. You seem to have made a fine impression on Tob, Deucalion. He said—I repeat his hearty disrespect—you were just the recruit he wanted, but whether you joined him or not, he would go to the nether Gods to do you service."