"By the fellow's side, I gained some experience in fighting the greater sea beasts."
"Well, go and do it again. Believe me, sir, it is your only chance. It would grieve me much to hear the searing-iron hiss on your stumps. I bargained with Tob to get clear of the harbour forts before the chain was up for the night, and as he is a very daring fellow, with no fear of navigating under the darkness, he himself said he would come to a point of the shore which we agreed upon, and there await you. Come, Deucalion, let me lead you to the place."
"My girl," I said, "I see I owe you many thanks for what you have done on my poor behalf."
"Oh, your thanks!" she said. "You may keep them. I did not come out here in the dark and the dangers for mere thanks, though I knew well enough there would be little else offered."—She plucked at my sleeve.—"Now show me your walking pace, sir. They will begin to want your countenance in the camp directly, and we need hanker after no too narrow inquiries for what's along."
So thereon we set off, Ylga and I, leaving the lights of the bivouac behind us, and she showed the way, whilst I carried my weapons ready to ward off attacks whether from beasts or from men. Few words were passed between us, except those which had concern with the dangers natural to the way. Once only did we touch one another, and that was where a tree-trunk bridged a rivulet of scalding water which flowed from a boil-spring towards the sea.
"Are you sure of footing?" I asked, for the night was dark, and the heat of the water would peel the flesh from the bones if one slipped into it.
"No," she said, "I am not," and reached out and took my hand. I helped her over and then loosed my grip, and she sighed, and slowly slipped her hand away. Then on again we went in silence, side by side, hour after hour, and league after league.
But at last we topped a rise, and below us through the trees I could see the gleam of the great estuary on which the city of Atlantis stands. The ground was soggy and wet beneath us, the trees were full of barbs and spines, the way was monstrous hard. Ylga's breath was beginning to come in laboured pants. But when I offered to take her arm, and help her, as some return against what she had done for me, she repulsed me rudely enough. "I am no poor weakling," said she, "if that is your only reason for wanting to touch me."
Presently, however, we came out through the trees, and the roughest part of our journey was done. We saw the ship riding to her anchors in shore a mile away, and a weird enough object she was under the faint starlight. We made our way to her along the level beaches.
Tob was keeping a keen watch. We were challenged the moment we came within stone or arrow shot, and bidden to halt and recite our business; but he was civil enough when he heard we were those whom he expected. He called a crew and slacked out his anchor-rope till his ship ground against the shingle, and then thrust out his two steering oars to help us clamber aboard.
I turned to Ylga with words of thanks and farewell. "I will never forget what you have done for me this night; and should the High Gods see fit to bring me back to Atlantis and power, you shall taste my gratitude."
"I do not want to return. I am sick of this old life here."
"But you have your palace in the city, and your servants, and your wealth, and Phorenice will not disturb you from their possession."
"Oh, as for that, I could go back and be fan-girl tomorrow. But I do not want to go back."
"Let me tell you it is no time for a gently nurtured lady like yourself to go forward. I have been viceroy of Yucatan, Ylga, and know somewhat of making a foothold in these new countries. And that was nothing compared with what this will be. I tell you it entails hardships, and privations, and sufferings which you could not guess at. Few survive who go to colonise in the beginning, and those only of the hardiest, and they earn new scars and new batterings every day."
"I do not care, and, besides, I can share the work. I can cook, I can shoot a good arrow, and I can make garments, yes, though they were cut from the skins of beasts and had to be sewn with backbone sinews. Because you despise fine clothes, and because you have seen me only decked out as fan-girl, you think I am useless. Bah, Deucalion! Never let people prate to me about your perfection. You know less about a woman than a boy new from school."
"I have learned all I care to know about one woman, and because of the memory of her, I could not presume to ask her sister to come with me now."
"Aye," she said bitterly, "kick my pride. I knew well enough it was only second place to Nais I could get all the time I was wanting to come. Yet no one but a boor would have reminded me of it. Gods! and to think that half the men in Atlantis have courted me, and now I am arrived at this!"
"I must go alone. It would have made me happier to take your esteem with me. But as it is, I suppose I shall carry only your hate."
"That is the most humiliating thing of all; I cannot bring myself to hate you. I ought to, I know, after the brutal way you have scorned me. But I do not, and there is the truth. I seem to grow the fonder of you, and if I thought there was a way of keeping you alive, and unmutilated, here in Atlantis, I do not think I should point out that Tob is tired of waiting, and will probably be off without you." She flung her arms suddenly about my neck, and kissed me hotly on the mouth. "There, that is for good-bye, dear. You see I am reckless. I care not what I do now, knowing that you cannot despise me more than you have done all along for my forwardness."
She ran back from me into the edge of the trees.
"But this is foolishness," I said. "I must take you through the dangers that lie between here and some gate of the city, and then come back to the ship."
"You need not fear for me. The unhappy are always safe. And, besides, I have a way. It is my solace to know that you will remember me now. You will never forget that kiss."
"Fare you well, Ylga," I cried. "May the High Gods keep you entirely in their holy care."
But no reply came back. She had gone off into the forest. And so I turned down to the beach, and splashed into the water, and climbed on board the ship up the steering oars. Tob gave the word to haul-to the anchor, and get her away from the beach.
"Greeting, my lord," said he, "but I'd have been pleased to see you earlier. We've small enough force and slow enough heels in this vessel, and it's my idea that the sooner we're away from here and beyond range of pursuit, the safer it will be for my woman and brats who are in that hutch of an after-castle. It's long enough since I sailed in such a small old-fashioned ship as this. She's no machines, and she's not even a steering mannikin. Look at the meanness of her furniture and (in your ear) I've suspicions that there's rottenness in her bottom. But she's the best I'd the means to buy, and if she reaches the place at the farther end I've got my eye on, we shall have to make a home there, or be content to die, for she'll never have strength to carry us farther or back. She's been a ship in the Egypt trade, and you know what that is for getting worm and rot in the wood."
"You'd enough hands for your scheme before I came?"
"Oh yes. I've fifty stout lads and eight women packed in the ship somehow, and trouble enough I've had to get them away from the city. That thief of a port-captain wellnigh skinned us clean before he could see it lawful that so many useful fighting men might go out of harbour. Times are not what they were, I tell you, and the sea trade's about done. All sailor men of any skill have taken a woman or two and gone out in companies to try their fortunes in other lands. Why, I'd trouble enough to get half a score to help me work this ship. All my balance are just landsmen raw and simple, and if I land half of them alive at the other end, we shall be doing well."
"Still with luck and a few good winds it should not take long to get across to Europe."
Tob slapped his leg. "No savage Europe for me, my lord. Now, see the advantage of being a mariner. I found once some islands to the north of Europe, separated from the main by a strait, which I called the Tin Islands, seeing that tin ore litters many of the beaches. I was driven there by storm, and said no word of the find when I got back, and here you see it comes in useful. There's no one in all Atlantis but me knows of those Tin Islands to-day, and we'll go and fight honestly for our ground, and build a town and a kingdom on it."
"With Tob for king?"
"Well, I have figured it out as such for many a day, but I know when I meet my better, and I'm content to serve under Deucalion. My lord would have done wiser to have brought a wife with him, though, and I thought it was understood by the good lady that spoke to me down at the harbour, or I'd have mentioned it earlier. The savages in my Tin Islands go naked and stain themselves blue with woad, and are very filthy and brutish to look upon. They are sturdy, and should make good slaves, but one would have to get blunted in the taste before one could wish to be father to their children."
"I am still husband to Phorenice."
Tob grinned. "The Gods give you joy of her. But it is part of a mariner's creed—and you will grow to be a mariner here—that wedlock does not hold across the seas. However, that matter may rest. But, coming to my Tin Islands again: they'll delight you. And I tell you, a kingdom will not be so hard to carve out as it was in Egypt, or as you found in Yucatan. There are beasts there, of course, and no one who can hunt need ever go hungry. But the greater beasts are few. There are cave-bears and cave-tigers in small numbers, to be sure, and some river-horses and great snakes. But the greater lizards seem to avoid the land; and as for birds, there is rarely seen one that can hurt a grown man. Oh, I tell you, it will be a most desirable kingdom."
"Tob seems to have imagined himself king of the Tin Islands with much reality."
He sighed a little. "In truth I did, and there is no denying it, and I tell you plain, there is not another man living that I would have broken this voyage for but Deucalion. But don't think I regret it, and don't think I want to push myself above my place. This breeze and the ebb are taking the old ship finely along her ways. See those fire baskets on the harbour forts? We're abreast of them now. We'll have dropped them and the city out of sight by daylight, and the flood will not begin to run up till then. But I fear unless the wind hardens down with the dawn we'll have to bring up to an anchor when the flood makes. Tides run very hard in these narrow seas. Aye, and there are some shrewdish tide-rips round my Tin Islands, as you shall see when we reach them."
There were many fearful glances backwards when day came and showed the waters, and the burning mountains that hemmed them in beyond the shores. All seemed to expect some navy of Phorenice to come surging up to take them back to servitude and starvation in the squalid wards of the city; and I confess ingenuously that I was with them in all truth when they swore they would fight the ship till she sank beneath them, before they would obey another of the commands of Phorenice. However, their brave heroics were displayed to no small purpose. For the full flow of the tide we hung in our place, barely moving past the land, but yet not seeing either oar or sail; and then, when the tide turned, away we went once more with speed, mightily comforted.
Tob's woman must needs bring drink on deck, and bid all pour libations to her as a future queen. But Tob cuffed her back into the after-castle, slamming to the hatch behind her heels, and bidding the crew send the liquor down their dusty throats. "We are done with that foolery," said he. "My Lord Deucalion will be king of this new kingdom we shall build in the Tin Islands, and a right proper king he'll make, as you untravelled ones would know, if you'd sailed the outer seas with him as I have done." Beneath which I read a regret, but said nothing, having made my plans from the moment of stepping on board, as will appear on a later sheet.
So on down the great estuary we made our way, and though it pleasured the others on board when they saw that the seas were desolate of sails, it saddened me when I recalled how once the waters had been whitened with the glut of shipping.
They had started off on their voyage with a bare two days' provision in their equipment, and so, of necessity even after leaving the great estuary, we were forced to voyage coastwise, putting into every likely river and sheltered beach to slay fish and meat for future victualling. "And when the winter comes," said Tob, "as its gales will be heavier than this old ship can stomach, I had determined to haul up and make a permanent camp ashore, and get a crop of grain grown and threshed before setting sail again. It is the usual custom in these voyages. And I shall do it still, subject to my lord's better opinion."
So here, having by this time completed a two months' leisurely journey from the city, I saw my opportunity to speak what I had always carried in my mind. "Tob," I said, "I am a poor, weak, defenceless man, and I am quite at your mercy, but what if I do not voyage all the way to the Tin Islands, and oust you of this kingship?"
He brightened perceptibly. "Aye," he grunted, "you are very weak, my lord, and mighty defenceless. We know all about that. But what's else? You must tell all your meaning plain. I'm a common mariner, and understand little of your fancy talk."
"Why, this. That it is not my wish to leave the continent of Atlantis. If you will put me down on any part of this side that faces Europe, I will commend you strongly to the Gods. I would I could give you money, or (better still) articles that would be useful to you in your colonising; but as it is, you see me destitute."
"As to that, you owe me nothing, having done vastly more than your share each time we have put in shore for the hunting. But it will not do, this plan of yours. I will shamedly confess that the sound of that kingship in my Tin Islands sounds sweet to me. But no, my lord, it will not do. You are no mariner yet, and understand little of geography, but I must tell you that the part of Atlantis there"—he jerked his thumb towards the line of trees, and the mountains which lay beyond the fringe of surf—"is called the Dangerous Lands, and a man must needs be a salamander and be learned in magic (so I am told) before he can live there."
I laughed. "We of the Priests' Clan have some education, Tob, though it may not be on the same lines as your own. In fact, I may say I was taught in the colleges concerning the boundaries and the contents of our continent with a nicety that would surprise you. And once ashore, my fate will still be under the control of the most High Gods."
He muttered something in his profane seaman's way about preferring to keep his own fate under control of his own most strong right arm, but saying that he would keep the matter in his thoughts, he excused himself hurriedly to go and see to somewhat concerning the working of the ship, and there left me.
But I think the sweets of kingly rule were a strong argument in favour of letting me have my way (which I should have had otherwise if it had not been given peacefully), and on the third day after our talk he put the ship inshore again for re-victualling. We lurched into a river-mouth, half swamped over a roaring bar, and ran up against the bank and made fast there to trees, but booming ourselves a safe distance off with oars and poles, so that no beast could leap on board out of the thicket.
Fish-spearing and meat-hunting were set about with promptitude, and on the second day we were happy enough to slay a yearling river-horse, which gave provisions in all sufficiency. A space was cleared on the bank, fires were lit, and the meat hung over the smoke in strips, and when as much was cured as the ship would carry, the shipmen made a final gorge on what remained, filled up a great stack of hollow reeds with drinking water, and were ready to continue the voyage.
With sturdy generosity did Tob again attempt to make me sail on with them as their future king, and as steadfastly did I make refusal; and at last stood alone on the bank amongst the gnawed bones of their feast, with my weapons to bear me company, and he, and his men, and the women stood in the little old ship, ready to drop down river with the current.
"At least," said Tob, "we'll carry your memory with us, and make it big in the Tin Islands for everlasting."
"Forget me," I said, "I am nothing. I am merely an incident that has come in your way. But if you want to carry some memory with you that shall endure, preserve the cult of the most High Gods as it was taught to you when you were children here in Atlantis. And afterwards, when your colony grows in power, and has come to sufficient magnificence, you may send to the old country for a priest."
"We want no priest, except one we shall make ourselves, and that will be me. And as for the old Gods—well, I have laid my ideas before the fellows here, and they agree to this: We are done with those old Gods for always. They seem worn out, if one may judge from Their present lack of usefulness in Atlantis, and, anyway, there will be no room for Them on the Tin Islands.—Let go those warps there aft, and shove her head out.—We are under weigh now, my lord, and beyond recall, and so I am free to tell you what we have decided upon for our religious exercises. We shall set up the memory of a living Hero on earth, and worship that. And when in years to come the picture of his face grows dim, we shall doubtless make an image of him, as accurate as our art permits, and build him a temple for shelter, and bring there our offerings and prayers. And as I say, my lord, I shall be priest, and when I am dead, the sons of my body shall be priests after me, and the eldest a king also."
"Let me plead with you," I said. "This must not be."
The ship was drifting rapidly away with the current, and they were hoisting sail. Tob had to shout to make himself heard. "Aye, but it shall be. For I, too, am a strong man after my kind, and I have ordered it so. And if you want the name of our Hero that some day shall be God, you wear it on yourself. Deucalion shall be God for our children."
"This is blasphemy," I cried. "Have a care, fool, or this impiety will sink you."
"We will risk it," he bawled back, "and consider the odds against us are small. Regard! Here is thy last horn of wine in the ship, and my woman has treasured it against this moment. Regard, all men, together with Those above and Those below! I pour this wine as a libation to Deucalion, great lord that is to-day, Hero that shall be to-morrow, God that will be in time to come!" And then all those on the ship joined in the acclaim till they were beyond the reach of my voice, and were battling their way out to sea through the roaring breakers of the bar.
Solitary I stood at the brink of the forest, looking after them and musing sadly. Tob, despite his lowly station, was a man I cared for more than many. Like all seamen, I knew that he paid his devotions to one of the obscurer Gods, but till then I had supposed him devout in his worship. His new avowal came to me as a desolating shock. If a man like Tob could forsake all the older Gods to set up on high some poor mortal who had momentarily caught his fancy, what could be expected from the mere thoughtless mob, when swayed by such a brilliant tongue as Phorenice's? It seemed I was to begin my exile with a new dreariness added to all the other adverse prospects of Atlantis.
But then behind me I heard the rustle of some great beast that had scented me, and was coming to attack through the thicket, and so I had other matters to think upon. I had to let Tob and his ship go out over the rim of the horizon unwatched.
15. ZAEMON'S SUMMONS
Since the days when man was first created upon the earth by Gods who looked down and did their work from another place, there have always been areas of the land ill-adapted for his maintenance, but none more so than that part of Atlantis which lies over against the savage continents of Europe and Africa. The common people avoid it, because of a superstition which says that the spirits of the evil dead stalk about there in broad daylight, and slay all those that the more open dangers of the place might otherwise spare. And so it has happened often that the criminals who might have fled there from justice, have returned of their own free will, and voluntarily given themselves up to the tormentors, rather than face its fabulous terrors.
To the educated, many of these legends are known to be mythical; but withal there are enough disquietudes remaining to make life very arduous and stocked with peril. Everywhere the mountains keep their contents on the boil; earth tremors are every day's experience; gushes of unseen evil vapours steal upon one with such cunningness and speed, that it is often hard to flee in time before one is choked and killed; poisons well up into the rivers, yet leave their colour unchanged; great cracks split across the ground reaching down to the fires beneath, and the waters gush into these, and are shot forth again with devastating explosion; and always may be expected great outpourings of boiling mud or molten rock.
Yet with all this, there are great sombre forests in these lands, with trees whose age is unimaginable, and fires amongst the herbage are rare. All beneath the trees is water, and the air is full of warm steam and wetness. For a man to live in that constant hot damp is very mortifying to the strength. But strength is wanted, and cunning also beyond the ordinary, for these dangerous lands are the abode of the lizards, which of all beasts grow to the most enormous size and are the most fearsome to deal with.
There are countless families and species of these lizards, and with some of them a man can contend with prospect of success. But there are others whose hugeness no human force can battle against. One I saw, as it came up out of a lake after gaining its day's food, that made the wet land shake and pulse as it trod. It could have taken Phorenice's mammoth into its belly,* and even a mammoth in full charge could not have harmed it. Great horny plates covered its head and body, and on the ridge of its back and tail and limbs were spines that tore great slivers from the black trees as it passed amongst them.
* TRANSLATOR'S NOTE: Professor Reeder of the Wyoming State University has recently unearthed the skeleton of a Brontosaurus, 130 ft. in length, which would have weighed 50 tons when alive. It was 35 ft. in height at the hips, and 25 ft. at the shoulder, and 40 people could be seated with comfort within its ribs. Its thigh bone was 8 ft. long. The fossils of a whole series of these colossal lizards have been found.
Now and again these monsters would get caught in some vast fissuring of the ground, but not often. Their speed of foot was great, and their sagacity keen. They seemed to know when the worst boilings of the mountains might be expected, and then they found safety in the deeper lakes, or buried themselves in wallows of the mud. Moreover, they were more kindly constituted than man to withstand one great danger of these regions, in that the heat of the water did them no harm. Indeed, they will lie peacefully in pools where sudden steam-bursts are making the water leap into boiling fountains, and I have seen one run quickly across a flow of molten rock which threatened to cut it off, and not be so much as singed in the transit.
In the midst of such neighbours, then, was my new life thrown, and existence became perilous and hard to me from the outset. I came near to knowing what Fear was, and indeed only a fervent trust in the most High Gods, and a firm belief that my life was always under Their fostering care, prevented me from gaining that horrid knowledge. For long enough, till I learned somewhat of the ways of this steaming, sweltering land, I was in as miserable a case as even Phorenice could have wished to see me. My clothes rotted from my back with the constant wetness, till I went as naked as a savage from Europe; my limbs were racked with agues, and I could find no herbs to make drugs for their relief; for days together I could find no better food than tree-grubs and leaves; and often when I did kill beasts, knowing little of their qualities, I ate those that gave me pain and sickness.
But as man is born to make himself adaptable to his surroundings, so as the months dragged on did I learn the limitation of this new life of mine, and gather some knowledge of its resources. As example: I found a great black tree, with a hollow core, and a hole into its middle near the roots. Here I harboured, till one night some monstrous lizard, whose sheer weight made the tree rock like a sapling, endeavoured to suck me forth as a bird picks a worm from a hollow log. I escaped by the will of the Gods—I could as much have done harm to a mountain as injure that horny tongue with my weapons—but I gave myself warning that this chance must not happen again.
So I cut myself a ladder of footholes on the inside of the trunk till I had reached a point ten man-heights from the ground, and there cut other notches, and with tree branches made a floor on which I might rest. Later, for luxury, I carved me arrow-slit windows in the walls of my chamber, and even carried up sand for a hearth, so that I might cook my victual up there instead of lighting a fire in all the dangers of the open below.
By degrees, too, I began to find how the large-scaled fish of the rivers and the lesser turtles might be more readily captured, and so my ribs threatened less to start through their proper covering of skin as the days went on. But the lack of salads and gruels I could never overcome. All the green meat was tainted so powerfully with the taste of tars that never could I force my palate to accept it. And of course, too, there remained the peril of the greater lizards and the other dangers native to the place.
But as the months began to mount into years, and the brute part of my nature became more satisfied, there came other longings which it was less easy to provide for. From the ivory of a river horse's tooth I had endeavoured to carve me a representative of Nais as last I had seen her. But, though my fingers might be loving, and my will good, my art was of the dullest, and the result—though I tried time and time again—was always clumsy and pitiful. Still, in my eyes it carried some suggestion of the original—a curve here, an outline there, and it made my old love glow anew within me as I sat and ate it with my eyes. Yet it did little to satisfy my longings for the woman I had lost; rather it whetted my cravings to be with her again, or at least to have some knowledge of her fate.
Other men of the Priests' Clan have come out and made an abode in these Dangerous Lands, and by mortifying the flesh, have gained an intimacy with the Higher Mysteries which has carried them far past what mere human learning and repetition could teach. Indeed, here and there one, who from some cause and another has returned to the abodes of men, has carried with him a knowledge that has brought him the reputation amongst the vulgar for the workings of magic and miracles, which—since all arts must be allowed which aid so holy a cause—have added very materially to the ardour with which these common people pursue the cult of the Gods. But for myself I could not free my mind to the necessary clearness for following these abstruse studies. During that voyage home from Yucatan I had communed with them with growing insight; but now my mind was not my own. Nais had a lien upon it, and refused to be ousted; and, in truth, her sweet trespass was my chief solace.
But at last my longing could no further be denied. Through one of the arrow-slit windows of my tree-house I could see far away a great mountain top whitened with perpetual snow, which our Lord the Sun dyed with blood every night of His setting. Night after night I used to watch that ruddy light with wide straining eyes. Night after night I used to remember that in days agone when I was entering upon the priesthood, it had been my duty to adore our great Lord as He rose for His day behind the snows of that very mountain. And always the thought followed on these musings, that from that distant crest I could see across the continent to the Sacred Mount, which had the city below it where I had buried my love alive.
So at last I gave way and set out, and a perilous journey I made of it. In the heavy mists, which hung always on the lower ground, my way lay blind before me, and I was constantly losing it. Indeed, to say that I traversed three times the direct distance is setting a low estimate. Throughout all those swamps the great lizards hunted, and as the country was new to me I did not know places of harbour, and a hundred times was within an ace of being spied and devoured at a mouthful. But the High Gods still desired me for Their own purposes, and blinded the great beasts' eyes when I slunk to cover as they passed. Twice rivers of scalding water roared boiling across my path, and I had to delay till I could collect enough black timber from the forests to build rafts that would give me dry ferriage.
It will be seen then that my journey was in a way infinitely tedious, but to me, after all those years of waiting, the time passed on winged feet. I had been separated from my love till I could bear the strain no longer; let me but see from a distance the place where she lay, and feast my eyes upon it for a while, and then I could go back to my abode in the tree and there remain patiently awaiting the will of the Gods.
The air grew more chilly as I began to come out above the region of trees, on to that higher ground which glares down on the rest of the world, and I made buskins and a coat of woven grasses to protect my body from the cold, which began to blow upon me keenly. And later on, where the snow lay eternally, and was blown into gullies, and frozen into solid banks and bergs of ice, I had hard work to make any progress amongst its perilous mazes, and was moreover so numbed by the chill, that my natural strength was vastly weakened. Overhead, too, following me up with forbidding swoops, and occasionally coming so close that I had to threaten it with my weapons, was one of those huge man-eating birds which live by pulling down and carrying off any creature that their instincts tell them is weakly, and likely soon to die.
But the lure ahead of me was strong enough to make these difficulties seem small, and though the air of the mountain agreed with me ill, causing sickness and panting, I pressed on with what speed I could muster towards the elusive summit. Time after time I thought the next spurt would surely bring me out to the view for which my soul yearned, but always there seemed another bank of snow and ice yet to be climbed. But at last I reached the crest, and gave thanks to the most High Gods for Their protection and favour.
Far, far away I could see the Sacred Mountain with its ring of fires burning pale under the day, and although the splendid city which nestled at its foot could not be seen from where I stood, I knew its position and I knew its plan, and my soul went out to that throne of granite in the square before the royal pyramid, where once, years before, I had buried my love. Had Phorenice left the tomb unviolated?
I stood there leaning on my spear, filling my eye with the prospect, warming even to the smoke of mountains that I recognised as old acquaintances. Gods! how my love burned within me for this woman. My whole being seemed gone out to meet her, and to leave room for nothing beside. For long enough a voice seemed dimly to be calling me, but I gave it no regard. I had come out to that hoary mountain top for communion with Nais alone, and I wanted none others to interrupt.
But at length the voice calling my name grew too loud to be neglected, and I pulled myself out of my sweet musing with a start to think that here, for the first time since parting with Tob and his company, I should see another human fellow-being. I gripped my weapon and asked who called. The reply came clearly from up the slopes of mountain, and I saw a man coming towards me over the snows. He was old and feeble. His body was bent, and his hair and beard were white as the ground on which he trod, and presently I recognised him as Zaemon. He was coming towards me with incredible speed for a man of his years and feebleness, but he carried in his hand the glowing Symbol of our Lord the Sun, and holy strength from this would add largely to his powers.
He came close to me and made the sign of the Seven, which I returned to him, with its completion, with due form and ceremony. And then he saluted me in the manner prescribed as messenger appointed by the High Council of the Priests seated before the Ark of the Mysteries, and I made humble obeisance before him.
"In all things I will obey the orders that you put before me," I said.
"Such is your duty, my brother. The command is, that you return immediately to the Sacred Mountain, so that if human means may still prevail, you, as the most skilful general Atlantis owns within her borders, may still save the country from final wreck and punishment. The woman Phorenice persists in her infamies. The poor land groans under her heel. And now she has laid siege to our Sacred Mountain itself, and swears that not one soul shall be left alive in all Atlantis who does not bend humbly to her will."
"It is a command and I obey it. But let me ask of another matter that is intimate to both of us. What of Nais?"
"Nais rests where you left her, untouched. Phorenice knows by her arts—she has stolen nearly all the ancient knowledge now—that still you live, and she keeps Nais unharmed beneath the granite throne in the hopes that some time she may use her as a weapon against you. Little she knows the sternness of our Priests' creed, my brother. Why, even I, that am the girl's father, would sacrifice her blithely, if her death or ruin might do a tittle of good to Atlantis."
"You go beyond me with your devotion."
The old man leaned forward at me, with glowering brow. "What!"
"Or my old blind adherence to the ancient dogma has been sapped and weakened by events. You must buy my full obedience, Zaemon, if you want it. Promise me Nais—and your arts I know can snatch her—and I will be true servant to the High Council of the Priest, and will die in the last ditch if need be for the carrying out of order. But let me see Nais given over to the fury of that wanton woman, and I shall have no inwards left, except to take my vengeance, and to see Atlantis piled up in ruins as her funeral-stone."
Zaemon looked at me bitterly. "And you are the man the High Council thought to trust as they would trust one of themselves? Truly we are in an age of weak men and faithless now. But, my lord—nay, I must call you brother still: we cannot be too nice in our choosing to-day—you are the best there is, and we must have you. We little thought you would ask a price for your generalship, having once taken oath on the walls of the Ark of the Mysteries itself that always, come what might, you would be a servant of the High Council of the Clan without fee and without hope of advancement. But this is the age of broken vows, and you are going no more than trim with the fashion. Indeed, brother, perhaps I should thank you for being no more greedy in your demands."
"You may spare me your taunts. You, by self-denial and profound search into the highest of the higher Mysteries, have made yourself something wiser than human; I have preserved my humanity, and with it its powers and frailties; and it seems that each of us has his proper uses, or you would not be come now here to me. Rather you would have done the generalling yourself."
"You make a warm defence, my brother. But I have no leisure now to stand before you with argument. Come to the Sacred Mountain, fight me this wanton, upstart Empress, and by my beard you shall have your Nais as you left her as a reward."
"It is a command of the High Council which shall be obeyed. I will come with my brother now, as soon as he is rested."
"Nay," said the old man, "I have no tiredness, and as for coming with me, there you will not be able. But follow at what pace you may."
He turned and set off down the snowy slopes of the mountain and I followed; but gradually he distanced me; and so he kept on, with speed always increasing, till presently he passed out of my sight round the spur of an ice-cliff, and I found myself alone on the mountain side. Yes, truly alone. For his footmarks in the snow from being deep, grew shallower, and less noticeable, so that I had to stoop to see them. And presently they vanished entirely, and the great mountain's flank lay before me trackless, and untrodden by the foot of man since time began.
I was not shaken by any great amazement. Though it was beyond my poor art to compass this thing myself, having occupied my mind in exile more with memories of Nais than in study of those uppermost recesses of the Higher Mysteries in which Zaemon was so prodigiously wise, still I had some inkling of his powers.
Zaemon I knew would be back again in his dwelling on the Sacred Mountain, shaken and breathless, even before I had found an end to his tracks in the snow, and it behoved me to join him there in the quickest possible time. I had his promise now for my reward, and I knew that he would carry it into effect. Beforetime I had made an error. I had valued Atlantis most, and Nais, my private love, as only second. But now it was in my mind to be honest with others even as with myself. Though all the world were hanging on my choice, I could but love my Nais most, and serve her first and foremost of all.
16. SIEGE OF THE SACRED MOUNTAIN
Now, my passage across the great continent of Atlantis, if tedious and haunted by many dangers, need not be recounted in detail here. Only one halt did I make of any duration, and that was unavoidable. I had killed a stag one day, bringing it down after a long chase in an open savannah. I scented the air carefully, to see if there was any other beast which could do me harm within reach, and thinking that the place was safe, set about cutting my meat, and making a sufficiency into a bundle for carriage.
But underfoot amongst the grasses there was a great legged worm, a monstrous green thing, very venomous in its bite; and presently as I moved I brushed it with my heel, and like the dart of light it swooped with its tiny head and struck me with its fangs in the lower thigh. With my knife I cut through its neck and it fell to writhing and struggling and twining its hundred legs into all manner of contortions; and then, cleaning my blade in the ground, I stabbed with it deep all round the wound, so that the blood might flow freely and wash the venom from its lodgement. And then with the blood trickling healthily down from my heel, I shouldered the meat and strode off, thankful for being so well quit of what might have made itself a very ugly adventure.
As I walked, however, my leg began to be filled with a tightness and throbbing which increased every hour, and presently it began to swell also, till the skin was stretched like drawn parchment. I was taken, too, with a sickness, that racked me violently, and if one of the greater and more dangerous beasts had come upon me then, he would have eaten me without a fight. With the fall of darkness I managed to haul myself up into a tree, and there abode in the crutch of a limb, in wakefulness and pain throughout the night.
With the dawn, when the night beasts had gone to their lairs, I clambered down again, and leaning heavily on my spear, limped onwards through the sombre forests along my way. The moss which grows on the northern side of each tree was my guide, but gradually I began to note that I was seeing moss all round the trees, and, in fact, was growing light-headed with the pain and the swelling of the limb. But still I pressed onwards with my journey, my last instinct being to obey the command of the High Council, and so procure the enlargement of Nais as had been promised.
My last memory was of being met by someone in the black forest who aided me, and there my waking senses took wings into forgetfulness.
But after an interval, wit returned, and I found myself on a bed of leaves in a cleft between two rocks, which was furnished with some poor skill, and fortified with stakes and buildings against the entrance of the larger marauding beasts. My wound was dressed with a poultice of herbs, and at the other side of the cavern there squatted a woman, cooking a mess of wood-grubs and honey over a fire of sticks.
"How came I here?" I asked.
"I brought you," said she.
"And who are you?"
"A nymph, they call me, and I practise as such, collecting herbs and curing the diseases of those that come to me, telling fortunes, and making predictions. In return I receive what each can afford, and if they do not pay according to their means, I clap on a curse to make them wither. It's a lean enough living when wars and the pestilence have left so few poor folk to live in the land."
"Do you visit Atlantis?"
"Not I. Phorenice would have me boiled in brine, living, if she could lay easy hands on me. Our dainty Empress tolerates no magic but her own. They say she is for pulling down the Priests off their Mountain now."
"So you do get news of the city?"
"Assuredly. It is my trade to get good news, or otherwise how could I tell fortunes to the vulgar? You see, my lord, I detected your quality by your speech, and knowing you are not one of those that come to me for spells, and potions, I have no fear in speaking to you plainly."
"Tell me then: Phorenice still reigns?"
"As a maiden?"
"As the mother of twin sons. Tatho's her husband now, and has been these three years."
"Tatho! Who followed him as viceroy of Yucatan?"
"There is no Yucatan. A vast nation of little hairy men, so the tale goes, coming from the West overran the country. They had clubs of wood tipped with stone as their only arm, but numbers made their chief weapon. They had no desire for plunder, or the taking of slaves, or the conquering of cities. To eat the flesh of Atlanteans was their only lust, and they followed it prodigiously. Their numbers were like the bees in a swarm.
"They came to each of the cities of Yucatan in turn, and though the colonists slew them in thousands, the weight of numbers always prevailed. They ate clean each city they took, and left it to the beasts of the forest, and went on to the next. And so in time they reached the coast towns, and Tatho and the few that survived took ship, and sailed home. They even ate Tatho's wife for him. They must be curious persevering things, these little hairy men. The Gods send they do not get across the seas to Atlantis, or they would be worse plague to the poor country than Phorenice."
Now I had heard of these little hairy creatures before, and though indeed I had never seen them, I had gathered that they were a little less than human and a little more than bestial; a link so to speak between the two orders; and specially held in check by the Gods in certain forest solitudes. Also I had learned that on occasion, when punishment was needful, they could be set loose as a devastating army upon men, devouring all before them. But I said nothing of this to the nymph, she being but a vulgar woman, and indeed half silly, as is always the case with these self-styled sorceresses who gull the ignorant, common folk. But within myself I was bitterly grieved at the fate of that fine colony of Yucatan, in which I had expended such an infinity of pains to do my share of the building.
But it did not suit my purpose to have my name and quality blazoned abroad till the time was full, and so I said nothing to the nymph about Yucatan, but let the talk continue upon other matters. "What about Egypt?" I asked.
"In its accustomed darkness, so they say. Who cares for Egypt these latter years? Who cares for anyone or anything for that matter except for himself and his own proper estate? Time was when the country folk and the hunters hereabouts brought me offerings to this cave for sheer piety's sake. But now they never come near unless they see a way of getting good value in return for their gifts. And, by result, instead of living fat and hearty, I make lean meals off honey and grubs. It's a poor life, a nymph's, in these latter years I tell you, my lord. It's the fashion for all classes to believe in no kind of mystery now."
"What manner of pestilence is this you spoke of?"
"I have not seen it. Thank the Gods it has not come this way. But they do say that it has grown from the folk Phorenice has slain, and whose bodies remain unburied. She is always slaying, and so the bodies lie thicker than the birds and beasts can eat them. For which of our sins, I wonder, did the Gods let Phorenice come to reign? I wish that she and her twins were boiled alive in brine before they came between an honest nymph of the forest and her living.
"They say she has put an image of herself in all the temples of the city now, and has ordered prayers and sacrifices to be made night and morning. She has decreed all other Gods inferior to herself and forbidden their worship, and those of the people that are not sufficiently devout for her taste, have their hamstrings slit by their tormentors to aid them constantly into a devotional attitude.—Will you eat of my grubs and honey? There is nothing else. Your back was bloody with carrying meat when I met you, but you had lost your load. You must either taste this mess of mine now, or go without."
I harboured with that nymph in cave six days, she using her drugs and charms to cure my leg the while, and when I was recovered, I hunted the plains and killed her a fat cloven-hoofed horse as payment, and then went along my ways.
The country from there onwards had at one time carried a sturdy population which held its own firmly, and, as its numbers grew, took in more ground, and built more homesteads farther afield. The houses were perched in trees for the most part, as there they were out of reach of cave-bear and cave-tiger and the other more dangerous beasts. But others, and these were the better ones, were built on the ground, of logs so ponderous and so firmly clamped and dovetailed that the beasts could not pull them down, and once inside a house of this fashion its owners were safe, and could progue at any attackers through the interstices between the logs, and often wound, sometimes make a kill.
But not one in ten of these outlying settlers remained. The houses were silent when I reached them, the fire-hearth before the door weed-grown, and the patch of vegetables taken back by the greedy fingers of the forest into mere scrub and jungle. And farther on, when villages began to appear, strongly-walled as the custom is, to ward off the attacks of beasts, the logs which aforetime had barred the gateway lay strewn in a sprouting undergrowth, and naught but the kitchen middens remained to prove that once they had sheltered human tenants. Phorenice's influence seemed to have spread as though it were some horrid blight over the whole face of what was once a smiling and an easy-living land.
So far I had met with little enough interference from any men I had come across. Many had fled with their women into the depths of the forest at the bare sight of me; some stood their ground with a threatening face, but made no offer to attack, seeing that I did not offer them insult first; and a few, a very few, offered me shelter and provision. But as I neared the city, and began to come upon muddy beaten paths, I passed through governments that were more thickly populated, and here appeared strong chance of delay. The watcher in the tower which is set above each village would spy me and cry: "Here is a masterless man," and then the people that were within would rush out with intent to spoil me of my weapons, and afterwards to appoint me as a labourer.
I had no desire to slay these wretched folk, being filled with pity at the state to which they had fallen; and often words served me to make them stand aside from the path, and stare wonderingly at my fierceness, and let me go my ways. And when at other times words had no avail, I strove to strike as lightly as could be, my object being to get forward with my journey and leave no unnecessary dead behind me. Indeed, having found the modern way of these villages, it grew to be my custom to turn off into the forest, and make a circuit whenever I came within smell of their garbage.
Similarly, too, when I got farther on, and came amongst greater towns also, I kept beyond challenge of their walls, having no mind to risk delay from the whim of any new law which might chance to be set up by their governors. My progress might be slinking, but my pride did not upbraid me very loudly; indeed, the fever of haste burned within me so hot and I had little enough carrying space for other emotions.
But at last I found myself within a half-day's journey the city of Atlantis itself, with the Sacred Mountain and its ring of fires looming high beside it, and the call for caution became trebly accentuated. Everywhere evidences showed that the country had been drained of its fighting men. Everywhere women prayed that the battles might end with the rout of the Priests or the killing of Phorenice, so that the wretched land might have peace and time to lick its wounds.
An army was investing the sacred Mountain, and its one approach was most narrowly guarded. Even after having journeyed so far, it seemed as if I should have to sit hopelessly down without being able to carry out the orders which had been laid upon me by the High Council, and earn the reward which had been promised. Force would be useless here. I should have one good fight—a gorgeous fight—one man against an army, and my usefulness would be ended.... No; this was the occasion for guile, and I found covert in the outskirts of a wood, and lay there cudgelling my brain for a plan.
Across the plain before me lay the grim great walls of the city, with the heads of its temples, and its palaces, and its pyramids showing beyond. The step-sides of the royal pyramid held my eye. Phorenice had expended some of her new-found store of gold in overlaying their former whiteness with sheets of shining yellow metal. But it was not that change that moved me. I was remembering that, in the square before the pyramid, there stood a throne of granite carved with the snake and the outstretched hand, and in the hollow beneath the throne was Nais, my love, asleep these eight years now because of the drug that had been given to her, but alive still, and waiting for me, if only I on my part could make a way to the place where Zaemon defied the Empress, and announce my coming.
In that covert of the woods I lay a day and a night raging with myself for not discovering some plan to get within the defences of the Sacred Mountain, but in the morning which followed, there came a man towards me running.
"You need not threaten me with your weapons," he cried. "I mean no harm. It seems that you are Deucalion; though I should not have known you myself in those rags and skins, and behind that tangle of hair and beard. You will give me your good word I know. Believe me, I have not loitered unduly."
He was a lower priest whom I knew, and held in little esteem; his name was Ro, a greedy fellow and not overworthy of trust. "From whom do you come?" I asked.
"Zaemon laid a command on me. He came to my house, though how he got there I cannot tell, seeing that Phorenice's army blocks all possible passage to and from the Mountain. I told him I wished to be mixed with none of his schemings. I am a peaceful man, Deucalion, and have taken a wife who requires nourishment. I still serve in the same temple, though we have swept out the old Gods by order of the Empress, and put her image in their place. The people are tidily pious nowadays, those that are left of them, and the living is consequently easy. Yes, I tell you there are far more offerings now than there were in the old days. And so I had no wish to be mixed with matters which might well make me be deprived of a snug post, and my head to boot."
"I can believe it all of you, Ro."
"But there was no denying Zaemon. He burst into one of his black furies, and while he spoke at me, I tell you I felt as good as dead. You know his powers?"
"I have seen some of them."
"Well, the Gods alone know which are the true Gods, and which are the others. I serve the one that gives me employment. But those that Zaemon serves give him power, and that's beyond denying. You see that right hand of mine? It is dead and paralysed from the wrist, and that is a gift of Zaemon. He bestowed it, he said, to make me collect my attention. Then he said more hard things concerning what he was pleased to term my apostasy, not letting me put up a word in my own defence of how the change was forced upon me. And finally, said he, I might either do his bidding on a certain matter to the letter, or take that punishment which my falling away from the old Gods had earned. 'I shall not kill you,' said he, 'but I will cover all your limbs with a paralysis, such as you have tasted already, and when at length death reaches you in some gutter, you will welcome it.'"
"If Zaemon said those words, he meant them. So you accepted the alternative?"
"Had I, with a wife depending on me, any other choice? I asked his pleasure. It was to find you when you came in here from some distant part of the land, and deliver to you his message.
"'Then tell me where is the meeting place,' said I, 'and when.'
"'There is none appointed, nor is the day fixed,' said he. 'You must watch and search always for him. But when he comes, you will be guided to his place.' Well, Deucalion, I think I was guided, but how, I do not know. But now I have found you, and if there's such a thing as gratitude, I ask you to put in your word with Zaemon that this deadness be taken away from my hand. It's an awful thing for a man to be forced to go through life like this, for no real fault of his own. And Zaemon could cure it from where he sat, if he was so minded."
"You seem still to have a very full faith in some of the old Gods' priests," I said. "But so far, I do not see that your errand is done. I have had no message yet."
"Why, the message is so simple that I do not see why he could not have got some one else to carry it. You are to make a great blaze. You may fire the grasses of the plain in front of this wood if you choose. And on the night which follows, you are to go round to that flank of the Sacred Mountain away from the city where the rocks run down sheer, and there they will lower a rope and haul you up to their hands above."
"It seems easy, and I thank you for your pains. I will ask Zaemon that your hand may be restored to you."
"You shall have my prayers if it is. And look, Deucalion, it is a small matter, and it would be less likely to slip your memory if you saw to it at once on your landing. Later, you may be disturbed. Phorenice is bound to pull you down off your perch up there now she has made her mind to it. She never fails, once she has set her hand to a thing. Indeed, if she was no Goddess at birth, she is making herself into one very rapidly. She has got all the ancient learning of our Priests, and more besides. She has discovered the Secret of Life these recent months—"
"She has found that?" I cried, fairly startled. "How? Tell me how? Only the Three know that. It is beyond our knowledge even who are members of the Seven."
"I know nothing of her means. But she has the secret, and now she is as good an immortal (so she says) as any of them. Well, Deucalion, it is dangerous for me to be missing from my temple overlong, so I will go. You will carry that matter we spoke of in your mind? It means much to me."—His eye wandered over my ragged person—"And if you think my service is of value to you—"
"You see me poor, my man, and practically destitute."
"Some small coin," he murmured, "or even a link of bronze? I am at great expense just now buying nourishment for my wife. Well, if you have nothing, you cannot give. So I'll just bid you farewell."
He took himself off then, and I was not sorry. I had never liked Ro. But I wasted no more precious time then. The grass blazed up for a signal almost before his timorous heels were clear of it, and that night when the darkness gave me cover, I took the risk of what beasts might be prowling, and went to the place appointed. There was no rope dangling, but presently one came down the smooth cliff face like some slender snake. I made a loop, slipped it over a leg, and pulled hard as a signal. Those above began to haul, and so I went back to the Sacred Mountain after an absence of so many toilsome and warring years. There were none to disturb the ascent. Phorenice's troops had no thought to guard that gaunt, bare, seamless precipice.
The men who hauled me up were old, and panted heavily with their task, and, until I knew the reason, I wondered why a knot of younger priests had not been appointed for the duty. But I put no question. With us of the Priests' Clan on the Sacred Mountain, it is always taken as granted that when an order is given, it is given for the best. Besides, these priests did not offer themselves to question. They took me off at once to Zaemon, and that is what I could have wished.
The old man greeted me with the royal sign. "All hail to Deucalion," he cried, "King of Atlantis, duly called thereto by the High Council of the priests."
"Is Phorenice dead?" I asked.
"It remains for you to slay her, and take your kingdom, if, indeed, when all is done, there remains a man or a rood of land to govern. The sentence has gone out that she is to die, and it shall be carried into effect, even though we have to set loose the most dreadful powers that are stored in the Ark of the Mysteries, and wreck this continent in our effort. We have borne with her infamies all these years by command sent down by the most High Gods; but now she has gone beyond endurance, and They it is who have given the word for her cutting off."
"You are one of the highest Three; I am only one of the Seven; you best know the cost."
"There can be no counting the cost now, my brother, and my king. It is an order."
"It is an order," I repeated formally, "so I obey."
"If it were not impious to do so, it would be easy to justify this decision of the Gods. The woman has usurped the throne; yet she was forgiven and bidden rule on wisely. She has tampered with our holy religion; yet she was forgiven. She has killed the peoples of Atlantis in greedy useless wars, and destroyed the country's trade; yet she was forgiven. She has desecrated the old temples, and latterly has set up in them images of herself to be worshipped as a deity; yet she was forgiven. But at last her evil cleverness has discovered to her the tremendous Secret of Life and Death, and there she overstepped the boundary of the High Gods' forbearance.
"I myself went to carry a final warning, and once more faced her in the great banqueting-hall. Solemnly I recited to her the edict, and she chose to take it as a challenge. She would live on eternally herself and she would share her knowledge with those that pleased her. Tatho that was her husband should also be immortal. Indeed, if she thought fit, she would cry the secret aloud so that even the common people might know it, and death from mere age would become a legend.
"She cared no wit how she might upset the laws of Nature. She was Phorenice, and was the highest law of all. And finally she defied me there in that banqueting-hall and defied also the High Gods that stood behind my mouth. 'My magic is as strong as yours, you pompous fool,' she cried, 'and presently you shall see the two stand side by side upon their trial.'
"She began to collect an army from that moment, and we on our part made our preparations. It was discovered by our arts that you still lived, and King of Atlantis you were made by solemn election. How you were summoned, you know as nearly as it is lawful that one of your degree should know; how you came, you understand best yourself; but here you are, my brother, and being King now, you must order all things as you see best for the preservation of your high estate, and we others live only to give you obedience."
"Then being King, I can speak without seeming to make use of a threat. I must have my Queen first, or I am not strong enough to give my whole mind to this ruling."
"She shall be brought here."
"So! Then I will be a General now, and see to the defences of this place, and view the men who are here to stand behind them."
I went out of the dwelling then, Zaemon giving place and following me. It was night still but there is no darkness on the upper part of the Sacred Mountain. A ring of fires, fed eternally from the earth-breath which wells up from below, burns round one-half of the crest, lighting it always as bright as day, and in fact forming no small part of its fortification. Indeed, it is said that, in the early dawn of history, men first came to the Mountain as a stronghold because of the natural defence which the fires offered.
There is no bridging these flames or smothering them. On either side of their line for a hundred paces the ground glows with heat, and a man would be turned to ash who tried to cross it. Round full one-half the mountain slopes the fires make a rampart unbreakable, and on the other side the rock runs in one sheer precipice from the crest to the plain which spreads beyond its foot. But it is on this farther side that there is the only entrance way which gives passage to the crest of the Sacred Mountain from below. Running diagonally up the steep face of the cliff is a gigantic fissure, which succeeding ages (as man has grown more luxurious) have made more easy to climb.
Looking at the additions, in the ancient days, I can well imagine that none but the most daring could have made the ascent. But one generation has thrown a bridge over a bad gap here, and another has cut into the living stone and widened a ledge there, till in these latter years there is a path with cut steps and carved balustrade such as the feeblest or most giddy might traverse with little effort or exertion. But always when these improvers made smooth the obstacles, they were careful to weaken in no possible way the natural defences but rather to add to them.
Eight gates of stone there were cutting the pathway, each commanding a straight, steep piece of the ascent, and overhanging each gate was a gallery secure from arrow-shot, yet so contrived that great stones could be hurled through holes in the floor of it, in such a manner that they must irretrievably smash to a pulp any men advancing against it from below. And in caves dug out from the rock on either hand was a great hoard of these stones, so that no enemy through sheer expenditure of troops could hope to storm a gate by exhausting its ammunition.
But though there were eight of these granite gates in the series, we had the whole number to depend on no longer. The lowest gate was held by a garrison of Phorenice's troops, who had built a wall above them to protect their occupation. The gate had been gained by no brilliant feat of arms—it had been won by threats, bribery, and promises; or, in other words, it had been given up by the blackest treachery.
And here lay the keynote of the weakness in our defence. The most perfect ramparts that brain can invent are useless without men to line them, and it was men we lacked. Of students entering into the colleges of the Sacred Mountain, there had been none now for many a year. The younger generation thought little of the older Gods. Of the men that had grown up amongst the sacred groves, and filled offices there, many had become lukewarm in their faith and remained on only through habit, and because an easy living stayed near them there; and these, when the siege began, quickly made their way over to the other side.
Phorenice was no fool to fight against unnecessary strength. Her heralds made proclamation that peace and a good subsistence would be given to those who chose to come out to her willingly; and as an alternative she would kill by torture and mutilation those she caught in the place when she took it by storm, as she most assuredly would do before she had finished with it. And so great was the prestige of her name, that quite one-half of these that remained on the mountain took themselves away from the defence.
There was no attempt to hold back these sorry priests, nor was there any punishing them as they went. Zaemon, indeed, was minded (so he told me with grim meaning himself) to give them some memento of their apostasy to carry away which would not wear out, but the others of the High Council made him stay his vengeful hand. And so when I came to the place the garrison numbered no more than eighty, counting even feeble old dotards who could barely walk; and of men not past their prime I could barely command a score.
Still, seeing the narrowness of the passages which led to each of the gates, up which in no place could more than two men advance together, we were by no means in desperate straits for the defence as yet; and if my new-given kingdom was so far small, consisting as it did in effect of the Sacred Mountain and no other part of Atlantis, at any rate there seemed little danger of its being further contracted.
Another of the wise precautions of the men of old stood us in good stead then. In the ancient times, when grain first was grown as food, it came to be looked upon as the acme of wealth. Tribute was always paid from the people to their Priests, and presently, so the old histories say, it was appointed that this should take the form of grain, as this was a medium both dignified and fitting. And those of the people who had it not, were forced to barter their other produce for grain before they could pay this tribute.
On the Sacred Mountain itself vast storehouses were dug in the rock, and here the grain was teemed in great yellow heaps, and each generation of those that were set over it, took a pride in adding to the accumulation.
In more modern days it had been a custom amongst the younger and more forward of the Priests to scoff at this ancient provision, and to hold that a treasure of gold, or weapons, or jewels would have more value and no less of dignity; and more than once it has been a close thing lest these innovators should not be out-voted. But as it was, the old constitution had happily been preserved, and now in these years of trial the Clan reaped the benefit. And so with these granaries, and a series of great tanks and cisterns which held the rainfall, there was no chance of Phorenice reducing our stronghold by mere close investment, even though she sat down stubbornly before it for a score of years.
But it was the paucity of men for the defence which oppressed me most. As I took my way about the head of the Mountain, inspecting all points, the emptiness of the place smote me like a succession of blows. The groves, once so trim, were now shaggy and unpruned. Wind had whirled the leaves in upon the temple floors, and they lay there unswept. The college of youths held no more now than a musty smell to bear witness that men had once been grown there. The homely palaces of the higher Priests, at one time so ardently sought after, lay many of them empty, because not even one candidate came forward now to canvass for election.
Evil thoughts surged up within me as I saw these things, that were direct promptings from the nether Gods. "There must be something wanting," these tempters whispered, "in a religion from which so many of its Priests fled at the first pinch of persecution."
I did what I could to thrust these waverings resolutely behind me; but they refused to be altogether ousted from my brain; and so I made a compromise with myself: First, I would with the help that might be given me, destroy this wanton Phorenice, and regain the kingdom which had been given me to my own proper rule; and afterwards I would call a council of the Seven and council of the Three, and consider without prejudice if there was any matter in which our ancient ritual could be amended to suit the more modern requirements. But this should not be done till Phorenice was dead and I was firmly planted in her room. I would not be a party, even to myself, to any plan which smacked at all of surrender.
And there as I walked through the desolate groves and beside the cold altars, the High Gods were pleased to show their approval of my scheme, and to give me opportunity to bind myself to it with a solemn oath and vow. At that moment from His distant resting-place in the East, our Lord the Sun leaped up to begin another day. For long enough from where I stood below the crest of the Mountain, He Himself would be invisible. But the great light of His glory spread far into the sky, and against it the Ark of the Mysteries loomed in black outline from the highest crag where it rested, lonely and terrible.
For anyone unauthorised to go nearer than a thousand paces to this storehouse of the Highest Mysteries meant instant death. On that day when I was initiated as one of the Seven, I had been permitted to go near and once press my lips against its ample curves; and the rank of my degree gave me the privilege to repeat that salute again once on each day when a new year was born. But what lay inside its great interior, and how it was entered, that was hidden from the Seven, even as it was from the other Priests and the common people in the city below. Only those who had been raised to the sublime elevation of the Three had a knowledge of the dreadful powers which were stored within it.
I went down on my knees where I was, and Zaemon knelt beside me, and together we recited the prayers which had been said by the Priests from the beginning of time, giving thanks to our great Lord that He has come to brighten another day. And then, with my eyes fixed on the black outline of the Ark of Mysteries I vowed that, come what might, I at least would be true servant of the High Gods to my life's end, and that my whole strength should be spent in restoring Their worship and glory.
17. NAIS THE REGAINED
Now, from where we stood together just below the crest of the Sacred Mountain, we could see down into the city, which lay spread out below us like a map. The harbour and the great estuary gleamed at its farther side; and the fringe of hills beyond smoked and fumed in their accustomed fashion; the great stone circle of our Lord the Sun stood up grim and bare in the middle of the city; and nearer in reared up the great mass of the royal pyramid, the gold on its sides catching new gold from the Sun. There, too, in the square before the pyramid stood the throne of granite, dwarfed by the distance to the size of a mole's hill, in which these nine years my love had lain sleeping.
Old Zaemon followed my gaze. "Ay," he said with a sigh, "I know where your chief interest is. Deucalion when he landed here new from Yucatan was a strong man. The King whom we have chosen—and who is the best we have to choose—has his weakness."
"It can be turned into additional strength. Give me Nais here, living and warm to fight for, and I am a stronger man by far than the cold viceroy and soldier that you speak about."
"I have passed my word to that already, and you shall have her, but at the cost of damaging somewhat this new kingdom of yours. Maybe too at the same time we may rid you of this Phorenice and her brood. But I do not think it likely. She is too wily, and once we begin our play, she is likely to guess whence it comes, and how it will end, and so will make an escape before harm can reach her. The High Gods, who have sent all these trials for our refinement, have seen fit to give her some knowledge of how these earth tremors may be set a-moving."
"I have seen her juggle with them. But may I hear your scheme?"
"It will be shown you in good time enough. But for the present I would bid you sleep. It will be your part to go into the city to-night, and take your woman (that is my daughter) when she is set free, and bring her here as best you can. And for that you will need all a strong man's strength."—He stepped back, and looked me up and down.—"There are not many folk that would take you for the tidy clean-chinned Deucalion now, my brother. Your appearance will be a fine armour for you down yonder in the city to-night when we wake it with our earth-shaking and terror. As you stand now, you are hairy enough, and shaggy enough, and naked enough, and dirty enough for some wild savage new landed out of Europe. Have a care that no fine citizen down yonder takes a fancy to your thews, and seizes upon you as his servant."
"I somewhat pity him in his household if he does."
Old Zaemon laughed. "Why, come to think of it, so do I."
But quickly he got grave again. Laughter and Zaemon were very rare playmates. "Well, get you to bed, my King, and leave me to go into the Ark of Mysteries and prepare there with another of the Three the things that must be done. It is no light business to handle the tremendous powers which we must put into movement this night. And there is danger for us as there is for you. So if by chance we do not meet again till we stand up yonder behind the stars, giving account to the Gods, fare you well, Deucalion."
I slept that day as a soldier sleeps, taking full rest out of the hours, and letting no harassing thought disturb me. It is only the weak who permit their sleep to be broken on these occasions. And when the dark was well set, I roused and fetched those who should attend to the rope. Our Lady the Moon did not shine at that turn of the month: and the air was full of a great blackness. So I was out of sight all the while they lowered me.
I reached the tumbled rocks that lay at the deep foot of the cliff, and then commenced to use a nice caution, because Phorenice's soldiers squatted uneasily round their camp-fires, as though they had forebodings of the coming evil. I had no mind to further stir their wakefulness. So I crept swiftly along in the darkest of the shadows, and at last came to the spot where that passage ends which before I had used to get beneath the walls of the city.
The lamp was in place, and I made my way along the windings swiftly. The air, so it seemed to me, was even more noxious with vapours than it had been when I was down there before, and I judged that Zaemon had already begun to stir those internal activities which were shortly to convulse the city. But again I had difficulty in finding an exit, and this, not because there were people moving about at the places where I had to come out, but because the set of the masonry was entirely changed. In olden times the Priests' Clan oversaw all the architects' plans, and ruled out anything likely to clash with their secret passages and chambers. But in this modern day the Priests were of small account, and had no say in this matter, and the architects often through sheer blundering sealed up and made useless many of these outlets and hiding-places.
As it was then, I had to get out of the network of tunnels and galleries where I could, and not where I would, and in the event found myself at the farther side of the city, almost up to where the outer wall joins down to the harbour. I came out without being seen, careful even in this moment of extremity to preserve the ordinances, and closed all traces of exit behind me. The earth seemed to spring beneath my feet like the deck of a ship in smooth water; and though there was no actual movement as yet to disturb the people, and indeed these slept on in their houses and shelters without alarm, I could feel myself that the solid deadness of the ground was gone, and that any moment it might break out into devastating waves of movement.
Gods! Should I be too late to see the untombing of my love? Would she be laid there bare to the public gaze when presently the people swarmed out into the open spaces through fear at what the great earth tremor might cause to fall? I could see, in fancy, their rude, cruel hands thrust upon her as she lay there helpless, and my inwards dried up at the thought.
I ran madly down and down the narrow winding streets with the one thought of coming to the square which lay in front of the royal pyramid before these things came to pass. With exquisite cruelty I had been forced with my own hands to place her alive in her burying-place beneath the granite throne, and if thews and speed could do it, I would not miss my reward of taking her forth again with the same strong hands.
Few disturbed that furious hurry. At first here and there some wretch who harboured in the gutter cried: "A thief! Throw a share or I pursue." But if any of these followed, I do not know. At any rate, my speed then must have out-distanced anyone. Presently, too, as the swing of the earth underfoot became more keen, and the stonework of the buildings by the street side began to grate and groan and grit, and sent forth little showers of dust, people began to run with scared cries from out of their doors. But none of these had a mind to stop the ragged, shaggy, savage man who ran so swiftly past, and flung the mud from his naked feet.
And so in time I came to the great square, and was there none too soon. The place was filling with people who flocked away from the narrow streets, and it was full of darkness, and noise, and dust, and sickness. Beneath us the ground rippled in undulations like a sea, which with terrifying slowness grew more and more intense.
Ever and again a house crashed down unseen in the gloom, and added to the tumult. But the great pyramid had been planned by its old builders to stand rude shocks. Its stones were dovetailed into one another with a marvellous cleverness, and were further clamped and joined by ponderous tongues of metal. It was a boast that one-half the foundations could be dug from beneath it, and still the pyramid would stand four-square under heaven, more enduring than the hills.
Flickering torches showed that its great stone doors lay open, and ever and again I saw some frightened inmate scurry out and then be lost to sight in the gloom. But with the royal pyramid and its ultimate fate I had little concern; I did not even care then whether Phorenice was trapped, or whether she came out sound and fit for further mischief. I crouched by the granite throne which stood in the middle of that splendid square, and heard its stones grate together like the ends of a broken bone as it rocked to the earth-waves.
In that night of dust and darkness it was hard to see the outline of one's own hand, but I think that the Gods in some requital for the love which had ached so long within me, gave me special power of sight. As I watched, I saw the great carved rock which formed the capstone of the throne move slightly and then move again, and then again; a tiny jerk for each earth-pulse, but still there was an appreciable shifting; and, moreover, the stone moved always to one side.
There was method in Zaemon's desperate work, and this in my blind panic of love and haste, I had overlooked. So I went up the steps of the throne on the side from which the great capstone was moving, and clung there afire with expectation.
More and more violent did the earth-swing grow, though the graduations of its increase could not be perceived, and the din of falling houses and the shrieks and cries of hurt and frightened people went louder up into the night. Thicker grew the dust that filled the air, till one coughed and strangled in the breathing, and more black did the night become as the dust rose and blotted the rare stars from sight. I clung to an angle of the granite throne, crouching on the uppermost step but one below the capstone, and could scarcely keep my place against the violence of the earth tremors.
But still the huge capstone that was carved with the snake and the outstretched hand held my love fast locked in her living tomb, and I could have bit the cold granite at the impotence which barred me from her. The people who kept thronging into the square were mad with terror, but their very numbers made my case more desperate every moment. "Phorenice, Goddess, aid us now!" some cried, and when the prayer did not bring them instant relief, they fell to yammering out the old confessions of the faith which they had learned in childhood, turning in this hour of their dreadful need to those old Gods, which, through so many dishonourable years, they had spurned and deserted. It was a curious criticism on the balance of their real religion, if one had cared to make it.
Louder grew the crash of falling masonry; and from the royal pyramid itself, though indeed I could not even see its outline through the darkness, there came sounds of grinding stones and cracking bars of metal which told that even its superb majestic strength had a breaking strain. There came to my mind the threat that old Zaemon had thundered forth in that painted, perfumed banqueting-hall: "You shall see," he had cried to the Empress, "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!"
Still heavier grew the surging of the earth, and the pavement of the great square gaped and upheaved, and the people who thronged it screamed still more shrilly as their feet were crushed by the grinding blocks. And now too the great pyramid itself was commencing to split, and gape, and topple. The roofs of its splendid chambers gave way, and the ponderous masonry above shuttered down and filled them. In part, too, one could see the destruction now, and not guess at it merely from the fearful hearings of the darkness. Thunders had begun to roar through the black night above, and add their bellowings to this devil's orchestration of uproar, and vivid lightning splashes lit the flying dust-clouds.
It was perhaps natural that she should be there, but it came as a shock when a flare of the lightning showed me Phorenice safe out in the square, and indeed standing not far from myself.
She had taken her place in the middle of a great flagstone, and stood there swaying her supple body to the shocks. Her face was calm, and its loveliness was untouched by the years. From time to time she brushed away the dust as it settled on the short red hair which curled about her neck. There was no trace of fear written upon her face. There was some weariness, some contempt, and I think a tinge of amusement. Yes, it took more than the crumbling of her royal pyramid to impress Phorenice with the infinite powers of those she warred against.
Gods! How the sight of her cool indifference maddened me then. I had it in me to have strangled her with my hands if she had come within my reach. But as it was, she stood in her place, swaying easily to the earth-waves as a sailor sways on a ship's deck, and beside her, crouched on the same great flagstone, and overcome with nausea was Ylga, who again was raised to be her fan-girl. It came to my mind that Ylga was twin sister to Nais, and that I owed her for an ancient kindness, but I had leisure to do nothing for her then, and indeed it was little enough I could have done. With each shock the great capstone of the throne to which I clung jarred farther and farther from its bed place, and my love was coming nearer to me. It was she who claimed all my service then.
Once in their blind panic a knot of the people in the square thought that the granite stone was too solid to be overturned, and saw in it an oasis of safety. They flocked towards it, many of them dragging themselves up the steep deep high steps on hands and knees because their feet had been injured by the billowing flagstones of the square.
But I was in no mood to have the place profaned by their silly tremblings and stares: I beat at them with my hands, tearing them away, and hurling them back down the steepness of the steps. They asked me what was my title to the place above their own, and I answered them with blows and gnashing teeth. I was careless as to what they thought me or who they thought me. Only I wished them gone. And so they went, wailing and crying that I was a devil of the night, for they had no spirit left to defend themselves.
Farther and farther the great stone that made the top of the throne slid out from its bed, but its slowness of movement maddened me. A life's education left me in that moment, and I had no trace of stately patience left. In my puny fury I thrust at the great block with my shoulder and head, and clawed at it with my hands till the muscles rose on me in great ropes and knots, and the High Gods must have laughed at my helplessness as They looked. All was being ordered by the Three who were Their trusted servants, in Their good time. The work of the Gods may be done slowly, but it is done exceeding sure.
But at last, when all the people of the city were numb with terror, and incapable of further emotion (save only for Phorenice who still had nerve enough to show no concern), what had been threatened came to pass. The capstone of the throne slid out till it reached the balance, and the next shock threw it with a roar and a clatter to the ground. And then a strange tremor seized me.
After all the scheming and effort, what I had so ardently prayed for had come about; but yet my inwards sank at the thought of mounting on the stone where I had mounted before, and taking my dear from the hollow where my hands had laid her. I knew Phorenice's vengefulness, and had a high value for her cleverness. Had she left Nais to lie in peace, or had she stolen her away to suffer indignities elsewhere? Or had she ended her sleep with death, and (as a grisly jest) left the corpse for my finding? I could not tell; I dared not guess. Never during a whole hard-fighting life have my emotions been so wrenched as they were at that moment. And, for excuse, it must be owned that love for Nais had sapped my hardihood over a matter in which she was so privately concerned.
It began to come to my mind, however, that the infernal uproar of the earth tremor was beginning to slacken somewhat, as though Zaemon knew he had done the work that he had promised, and was minded to give the wretched city a breathing space. So I took my fortitude in hand, and clambered up on to the flat of the stone. The lightning flashes had ceased and all was darkness again and stifling dust, but at any moment the sky might be lit once more, and if I were seen in that place, shaggy and changed though I might be, Phorenice, if she were standing near, would not be slow to guess my name and errand.
So changed was I for the moment, that I will finely confess that the idea of a fight was loathsome to me then. I wanted to have my business done and get gone from the place.
With hands that shook, I fumbled over the face of the stone and found the clamps and bars of metal still in position where I had clenched them, and then reverently I let my fingers pass between these, and felt the curves of my love's body in its rest beneath. An exultation began to whirl within me. I did not know if she had been touched since I last left her; I did not know if the drug would have its due effect, and let her be awakened to warmth and sight again; but, dead or alive, I had her there, and she was mine, mine, mine, and I could have yelled aloud in my joy at her possession.
Still the earth shook beneath us, and masonry roared and crashed into ruin. I had to cling to my place with one hand, whilst I unhasped the clamps of metal that made the top of her prison with the other. But at last I swung the upper half of them clear, and those which pinned down her feet I let remain. I stooped and drew her soft body up on to the flat of the stone beside me, and pressed my lips a hundred times to the face I could not see.
Some mad thought took me, I believe, that the mere fierceness and heat of my kisses would bring her back again to life and wakefulness. Indeed I will own plainly, that I did but sorry credit to my training in calmness that night. But she lay in my arms cold and nerveless as a corpse, and by degrees my sober wits returned to me.
This was no place for either of us. Let the earth's tremors cease (as was plainly threatened), let daylight come, and let a few of these nerveless people round recover from their panic, and all the great cost that had been expended might be counted as waste. We should be seen, and it would not be long before some one put a name to Nais; and then it would be an easy matter to guess at Deucalion under the beard and the shaggy hair and the browned nakedness of the savage who attended on her. Tell of fright? By the Gods! I was scared as the veriest trembler who blundered amongst the dust-clouds that night when the thought came to me.
With all that ruin spread around, it would be hopeless to think that any of those secret galleries which tunnelled under the ground would be left unbroken, and so it was useless to try a passage under the walls by the old means. But I had heard shouts from that frightened mob which came to me through the din and the darkness, that gave another idea for escape. "The city is accursed," they had cried: "if we stay here it will fall on us. Let us get outside the walls where there are no buildings to bury us."
If they went, I could not see. But one gate lay nearest to the royal pyramid, and I judged that in their panic they would not go farther than was needful. So I put the body of Nais over my shoulder (to leave my right arm free) and blundered off as best I could through the stifling darkness.