The Lost Continent, by Cutcliffe Hyne, , at sacred-texts.com
NOW I can say it with all truth that, till the rival navy met us in the mouth of the gulf, I had thought little enough of my importance as a recruit for the Empress. But the laying in wait for us of those ships, and the wild ferocity with which they fought so that I might fall into their hands, were omens which the blindest could not fail to read. It was clear that I was expected to play a lusty part in the fortunes of the nation.
But if our coming had been watched for by enemies, it seemed that Phorenice also had her scouts; and these saw us from the mountains, and carried news to the capital. The arm of the sea at the head of which the vast city of Atlantis stands, varies greatly in width. In places where the mountains have overboiled, and sent their liquid contents down to form hard stone below, the channel has barely a river's wideness, and then beyond, for the next half-day's sail, it will widen out into a lake, with the sides barely visible. Moreover, its course is winding, and so a runner who knows his way across the flats and the swamps, and between the smoking hills which lie along the shore, and did not get overcome by fire-streams, or water, or wandering beasts, could carry
news overland from sea-coast to capital far speedier than even the most shrewdly whipped of galleys could ferry it along the water.
Of course there were heavy risks that a lone traveller would not make a safe passage by this land route, if he were bidden to sacrifice all precautions to speed. But Phorenice was no niggard with her couriers. She sent a corps of twenty to the headland that overlooks the sea-entrance to the straits; they started with the news, each on his own route; and it says much for their speed and cleverness, that no fewer than seven of these agile fellows came through scathless with their tidings, and of the others it was said that quite three were known to have survived.
Still, about this we had no means of knowing at the time, and pushed on in the fancy that our coming was quite unheralded. The slaves on the galley's row-banks were for the most part savages from Europe, and the smell of them was so offensive that the voyage lost all its pleasures; and as, moreover, the wind carried with it an infinite abundance of small grit from some erupting fire mountain, we were anxious to linger as little as possible. Besides, if I may confess to such a thing without being unduly degraded, although by my priestly training I had been taught stoicism, and knew that all the future was in the hands of the Gods, I was frailly human still to have a very vast curiosity as to what would be the form of my own reception at Atlantis. I could imagine myself taken a formal prisoner on landing, and set on a formal trial to answer for my cure of the colony of Yucatan; I could imagine myself
stepping ashore unknown and unnoticed, and after a due lapse being sent for by the Empress to take up new duties; but the manner of my real welcome was a thing I did not even guess at.
We came in sight of the peak of the sacred mountain, with its glare of eternal fires which stand behind the city, one morning with the day's break, and the whips of the boatswains cracked more vehemently, so that those offensive slaves should give the galley a final spurt. The wind was adverse, and no sail could be spread, but under oars alone we made a pretty pace, and the sides of the sacred mountain grew longer, and presently the peaks of the pyramids in the city, the towers of the higher buildings, began to show themselves as though they floated upon the gleaming water. It was twenty years since I had seen Atlantis last, and my heart glowed with the thought of treading again upon her paving stones.
The splendid city grew out of the sea as we approached, and to every throb of the oars the shores leaped nearer. I saw the temple where I had been admitted first to manhood; I saw the pyramid in whose heart I had been initiated to the small mysteries; and then (as the lesser objects became discernible) I made out the house where a father and a mother had reared me, and my eyes became dim as the memories rose.
We drew up outside the white walls of the harbor, as the law was, and the slaves panted and sobbed in quietude over the oar-looms. For vessels thus stationed there is, generally, a sufficiency of waiting, for a port-captain is apt to be so uncertain of his own
dignity that he must e’en keep folks waiting to prove it to them. But here for us it might have been that the port-captain's boat was waiting. The signal was sounded from the two castles at the harbor's entrance, the chain which hung between them was dropped, and a ten-oared boat shot out from behind the walls as fast as oars could drive her. She raced up alongside and the questions were put:
"That should be Dason's galley?"
"It was," said Tob.
"Oh, I saw Dason's head on your beak," said the port-captain. "You were Tatho's captain?"
"And am still. Tatho's fleet was sent by Dason and his friends to the sea-floor, and so we took this stinking galley to finish the voyage in, seeing that it was the only craft left afloat."
The port-captain was roving his eye over the group of us who stood on the after-deck. "I fear me, captain, that you'll have but a dangerous reception. I do not see my lord Deucalion. Or does he come with some other navy? Gods, captain, if you have let him get killed while under your charge, the Empress will have the skin torn slowly off you living."
"What with Phorenice and Tatho both so curious for his welfare," said Tob, "my lord Deucalion seems but a dangerous passenger. But I shall save my hide this voyage." He jerked at me with his thumb. "He's there to put in a word for me himself."
The port-captain stared for a moment as if unbelieving, and then, as though satisfied, made obeisance like a fellow well used to ceremonial. "I trust my lord, in his infinite strength, will pardon my sin
in not knowing him by his nobleness before. But truth to tell, I had looked to see my lord more suitably apparelled."
"Pish," I said; "if I choose to dress simply, I cannot object to being mistaken for a simple man. It is not my pleasure to advertise my quality by the gauds on my garb. If you think amends are due to me, I pray of your charity that this inquisition may end."
The fellow was all bows and obsequiousness. "I am the humblest of my lord's servants," he said. "It will be my exceeding honor to pilot my lord's galley into the berth appointed in harbor."
The boat shot ahead, and our galley-slaves swung into stroke again. Tob watched me with a dry smile as he stood directing the men at the helms.
"Well," I said, humoring his whim, "what is it?"
"I'm thinking," said Tob, "that my lord Deucalion will remember me only as a very rude fellow when he steps ashore among all this fine gentility."
"You don't think," said I, "anything of the kind."
"Then I must prove my refinement," said Tob, "and not contradict." He picked up my hand in his huge, hard fist, and pressed it. "By the Gods, Deucalion, you may be a great prince, but I've only known you as a man. You're the finest fighter of beasts and men that walks this world to-day, and I love you for it. That spear-stroke of yours on the lizard is a thing the singers in the taverns shall make chants about."
We drew rapidly into the harbor, the soldiers in
the entrance castle blowing their trumpets in welcome as we passed between them. The captain of the port had run up my banner to the mast-head of his boat, having been provided with one apparently for this purpose of announcement, and from the quays, across the vast basin of the harbor, there presently came to us the noises of musicians, and the pale glow of welcoming fires, dancing under the sunlight. I was almost awed to think that an Empress of Atlantis had come to such straits as to feel an interest like this in any mere returning subject.
It was clear that nothing was to be done by halves. The port-captain's boat led, and we had no choice but to follow. Our galley was run up alongside the royal quay and moored to its posts and rings of gold, all of which are sacred to the reigning house.
"If Dason could only have foreseen this honor," said Tob, with grisly jest, "I'm sure he'd have laid in a silken warp to make fast on the bollards instead of mere plebeian hemp. I'm sure there'd be a frown on Dason's head this minute, if the sun hadn't scorched it stiff. My lord Deucalion, will you pick your way with niceness over this common ship, and tread on the genteel carpet they've spread for you on the quay yonder?"
The port-captain heard Tob's rude banter and looked up with a face of horror, and I remembered, with a small sigh, that colonial freedom would have no place here in Atlantis. Once more I must prepare myself for all the dignity of rank, and make ready to tread the formalities of vast and gorgeous ceremonial.
But, be these things how they may, a self-respecting man must preserve his individuality also; and though I consented to enter a pavilion of crimson cloth, specially erected to shelter me till the Empress should deign to arrive, there my complaisance ended. Again the matter of clothes was harped upon. The three gorgeously caparisoned chamberlains, who had inducted me to the shelter, laid before me changes of raiment bedecked with every imaginable kind of frippery, and would have me transform myself into a popinjay in fashion like their own.
Curtly enough, I refused to alter my garb; and when one of them stammeringly referred to the Empress's tastes I asked him with plainness if he had got any definite commands on this paltry matter from her mightiness.
Of course he had to confess that there were none.
Upon which I retorted that Phorenice had commanded Deucalion, the man, to attend before her, and had sent no word of her pleasure as to his outer casing.
"This dress," I said, "suits my temper well. It shields my poor body from the heat and the wind, and, moreover, it is clean. It seems to me, sirs," I added, "that your interfering savors somewhat of an impertinence."
With one accord the chamberlains drew their swords and pushed the hilts towards me.
"It would be a favor," said their spokesman, "if the great lord Deucalion would take his vengeance now, instead of delivering us to the tormentors hereafter."
"Poof!" I said; "the matter is forgotten. You make too much of a little."
Nevertheless, their action gave me some enlightenment. They were perfectly in earnest in offering me the swords, and I recognized that this was a different Atlantis that I had come home to, where a man had dread of the torture for a mere difference concerning the cut of a coat.
There was a bath in the pavilion, and in that I regaled myself gladly, though there was some paltry scent added to the water that took away half its refreshing power; and then I set myself to wait with all outward composure and placidity. The chamberlains were too well-bred to break into my calm, and I did not condescend to small talk. So there we remained, the four of us, I sitting, they standing, with our Lord the Sun smiting heavily on the scarlet roof of the pavilion, while the music blared, and the welcoming fires dispersed their odors from the great paved square without, which faced upon the quay.
It has been said that the great should always collect dignity by keeping those of lesser degree waiting their pleasure, though for myself I must say I have always thought the stratagem paltry and beneath me. Phorenice also seemed of this same opinion, for (as she herself told me later) at the moment that Tob's galley was reported as having its flank against the marble of the royal quay, at that precise moment did she start out from the palace. The gorgeous procession was already marshalled, bedecked, and waiting only for its chiefest ornament; and as soon as she
had mounted to her steed, trumpets gave the order, and the advance began.
Sitting in the doorway of the pavilion, I saw the soldiery who formed the head of this vast concourse emerge from the great broad street where it left the houses. They marched straight across to give me the salute, and then ranged themselves on the farther side of the square. Then came the Mariners’ Guild, then more soldiers, all making obeisance in their turn, and passing on to make room for others. Following were the merchants, the tanners, the spear-makers, and all the other acknowledged guilds, deliberately attired (so it seemed to me) that they might make a pageant; and while most walked on foot, there were some who proudly rode on beasts which they had tamed into rendering them this menial service.
But presently came the two wonders of all that dazzling spectacle. From out of the eclipse of the houses there swung into the open no less a beast than a huge bull mammoth. The sight had sufficient surprise in it almost to make me start. Many a time during my life had I led hunts to kill the mammoth, when a herd of them had raided some village or corn-land under my charge. I had seen the huge brutes in the wild ground, shaggy, horrid, monstrous; more fierce than even the cave-tiger or the cave-bear; most dangerous beast of all that fight with man for dominion of the earth, save only for a few of the greater lizards. And here was this creature, a giant even among mammoths, yet tame as any well-whipped slave, and bearing upon its back a great half-castle of gold, stamped with the outstretched hand, and bedecked
with silver snakes. Its murderous tusks were gilded, its hairy neck was garlanded with flowers, and it trod on in the procession as though assisting at such pageantry was the beginning and end of its existence. Its tameness seemed a fitting symbol of the masterful strength of this new ruler of Atlantis.
Simultaneously with the mammoth there came into sight that other and greater wonder, the mammoth's mistress, the Empress Phorenice. The beast took my eye at the first, from its very uncouth hugeness, from its show of savage power restrained; but the lady who sat in the golden half-castle on its lofty back quickly drew away my gaze, and held it immovable from then onward with an infinite attraction.
I stood to my feet when the people first shouted at Phorenice's approach, and remained in the porch-way of my scarlet pavilion till her vast steed had halted in the centre of the square, and then I advanced across the pavement towards her.
"On your knees, my lord," said one of the chamberlains behind me, in a scared whisper.
"At least with bent head," urged another.
But I had my own notions of what is due to one's own self-respect in these matters, and I marched across the bare open space with head erect, giving the Empress gaze for gaze. She was clearly summing me up. I was frankly doing the like by her. Gods! but those few short seconds made me see a woman such as I never imagined could have lived.
I know I have placed it on record earlier in this writing that, during all the days of a long official
life, women have had no influence over me. But I have been quick to see that they often had a strong swaying power over the policies of others, and as a consequence I have made it my business to study them even as I have studied men. But this woman who sat under the sacred snakes in her golden half-castle on the mammoth's back fairly baffled me. Of her thoughts I could read no single syllable. I could see a body slight, supple, and beautifully moulded; in figure rather small. Her face was a most perfect book of cleverness, yet she was fair, too, beyond belief, with hair of a lovely ruddiness, cut short in the new fashion, and bunching on her shoulders. And eyes! Gods! who could plumb the depths of Phorenice's eyes, or find in mere tint a trace of their heaven-made color?
It was plain, also, that she in her turn was searching me down to my very soul, and it seemed that her scrutiny was not without its satisfaction. She moved her head in little nods as I drew near, and when I did the requisite obeisance permitted to my rank, she bade me, in a voice loud and clear enough for all at hand to hear, never to put forehead on the ground again on her behalf so long as she ruled in Atlantis.
"For others," she said, "it is fitting that they should do so, once, twice, or several times, according to their rank and station, for I am Empress, and they are all so far beneath me; but you are Deucalion, my lord; and though till to-day I knew you only from pictures drawn with tongues, I have seen you now, and have judged for myself. And so I make this decree: Deucalion is above all other men in
[paragraph continues] Atlantis, and if there is one who does not render him obedience, that man is enemy also of Phorenice, and shall feel her anger."
She made a sign, and a stair was brought, and then she called to me, and I mounted and sat beside her in the golden half-castle under the canopy of royal snakes. The girl who stood behind in attendance fanned us both with perfumed feathers, and at a word from Phorenice the mammoth was turned, bearing us back towards the royal pyramid by the way through which it had come. At the same time also all the other machinery of splendor was put in motion. The soldiers and the gaudily bedecked civil traders fell into procession before and behind, and I noted that a body of troops, heavily armed, marched on each of the mammoth's flanks.
Phorenice turned to me with a smile. "You piqued me," she said, "at first."
"Your majesty overwhelms me with so much notice."
"You looked at my steed before you looked at me. A woman finds it hard to forgive a slight like that."
"I envied you the greatest of your conquests, and do still. I have fought mammoths myself, and at times have killed, but I never dared even to think of taking one alive and bringing it into tameness."
"You speak boldly," she said, still smiling, "and yet you can turn a pretty compliment. Faugh! Deucalion, the way these people fawn on me gives me a nausea. I am not of the same clay as they are, I know; but just because I am the daughter of Gods they must needs feed me on the pap of insincerity."
So Tatho was right, and the swineherd was forgotten. Well, if she chose to keep up the fiction she had made, it was not my part to contradict her. Rightly or wrongly, she was Empress, and without competitor, and anyway I was her servant.
"I have been pining this long enough for a stronger meat than they can give," she went on, "and at last I have sent for you. I have been at some pains to procure my tongue-pictures of you, Deucalion, and though you do not know me yet, I may say I knew you with all thoroughness even before we met. I can admire a man with a mind great enough to forego the silly gauds of clothes, or the excesses of feasts, or the pamperings of women." She looked down at her own silks and her glittering jewels. "We women like to carry colors upon our persons, but that is a different matter. And so I sent for you here to be my minister, and bear with me the burden of ruling."
"There should be better men in broad Atlantis."
"There are not, my lord, and I who know them all by heart tell you so. They are all enamoured of my poor person; they weary me with their empty phrases and their importunities; and, though they are always brimming with their cries of service, their own advancement and the filling of their own treasuries ever comes first with them. So I have sent for you, Deucalion, the one strong man in all the world. You at least will not sigh to be my lover?"
I saw her watching for my answer from the corner of her eyes. "The Empress," I said, "is my mistress, and I will be an honest minister to her. With
[paragraph continues] Phorenice, the woman, it is likely that I shall have little enough to do. Besides, I am not the sort that sports with this toy they call love."
"And yet you are a personable man enough," she said, rather thoughtfully. "But that still further proves your strength, Deucalion. You at least will not lose your head through weak infatuation for my poor looks and graces." She turned to the girl who stood behind us. "Ylga, fan not so violently."
Our talk broke off then for the moment, and I had time to look about me. We were passing through the chief street in the fairest, the most wonderful city this world has ever seen. I had left it a score of years before, and was curious to note its increase.
In public buildings the city had certainly made growth; there were new temples, new pyramids, new palaces, and statuary everywhere. Its greatness and magnificence impressed me more strongly even than usual, returning to it as I did from such a distance of time and space, for, though the many cities of Yucatan might each of them be princely, this great capital was a place not to be compared with any of them. It was imperial and gorgeous beyond descriptive words.
Yet most of all was I struck by the poverty and squalor which stood in such close touch with all this magnificence. In the throngs that lined the streets there were gaunt bodies and hungry faces everywhere. Here and there stood one, a man or a woman, as naked as a savage in Europe, and yet dull to shame. Even the trader, with trumpery gauds on his coat,
aping the prevailing fashion for display, had a scared, uneasy look to his face, as though he had forgotten the mere name of safety, and hid a frantic heart with his tawdry outward vauntings of prosperity.
Phorenice read the direction of my looks.
"The season," she said, "has been unhealthy of recent months. These lower people will not build fine houses to adorn my city, and because they choose to live on in their squalid, unsightly kennels, there have been calentures and other sicknesses among them, which make them disinclined for work. And then, too, for the moment, earning is not easy. Indeed, you may say trade is nearly stopped this last half-year, since the rebels have been hammering so lustily at my city gates."
I was fairly startled out of my decorum.
"Rebels!" I cried, "who are hammering at the gates of Atlantis? Is the city in a state of siege?"
"Of their condescension," said Phorenice, lightly, "they are giving us holiday to-day, and so, happily, my welcome to you comes undisturbed. If they were fighting, your ears would have told you of it. To give them their due, they are noisy enough in all their efforts. My spies say they are making ready new engines for use against the walls, which you may sally out to-morrow and break if it gives you amusement. But for to-day, Deucalion, I have you, and you have me, and there is peace round us, and some prettiness of display. If you ask for more I will give it you."
"I did not know of this rebellion," I said, "but as your Majesty has made me your minister, it is
well that I should know all about its scope at once. This is a matter we should be serious upon."
"And do you think I cannot take it seriously also?" she retorted. "Ylga," she said to the girl that stood behind, "set loose my dress at the shoulder."
And when the attendant had unlinked the jewelled clasp (as it seemed to me with a very ill grace), she herself stripped down the fabric, baring the pure skin beneath, and showing me just below the curve of the left breast a bandage of blood-stained linen.
"There is a guarantee of my seriousness yesterday, at any rate," she said, looking at me sidelong. "The arrow struck on a rib, and that saved me. If it had struck between, Deucalion would have been standing beside my funeral-pyre to-day instead of riding on this pretty steed of mine which he admires so much. Your eye seems to feast itself most on the mammoth, Deucalion. Ah, poor me. I am not one of your shaggy creatures, and so it seems I shall never be able to catch your regard. Ylga," she said to the girl behind, "you may link my dress up again with its clasp. My lord Deucalion has seen wounds before, and there is nothing else here to interest him."