The Lost Continent, by Cutcliffe Hyne, , at sacred-texts.com
"YOU will set me free," she said, regarding me from under her brows, "without any further exactions or treaty?"
"I will set you free exactly on those terms," I answered, "unless indeed we here decide that it is better for Atlantis that I should die, in which case the freedom will be of your own taking."
"My lord plays a bold game."
"Tut, tut," I said.
"But I shall not hesitate to take the full of my bond, unless my theories are most clearly disproved to me."
"Tut," I said, "you women, how you play out the time needlessly. Show me sufficient cause, and you shall kill me where and how you please. Come, begin the accusation."
"You are a tyrant."
"At least I have not paraded my tyrannies in Atlantis these twenty years. Why, Naïs, I did but land yesterday."
"You will not deny you came back from Yucatan for a purpose?"
"I came back because I was sent for. The Empress gives no reasons for her recalls. She states
her will; and we who serve her obey without question."
"Pah! I know that old dogma."
"If you discredit my poor honesty at the outset like this, I fear we shall not get far with our unravelling."
"My lord must be indeed simple," said this strange woman, scornfully, "if he is ignorant of what all Atlantis knows."
"Then simple you must write me down. Over yonder in Yucatan we were too well wrapped up in our own parochial needs and policies to have leisure to ponder much over the slim news which drifted out to us from Atlantis—and, in truth, little enough came. By example, Phorenice (whose office be adored) is a great personage here at home; but over there in the colony we barely knew so much as her name. Here, since I have been ashore, I have seen many new wonders; I have been carried by a riding mammoth; I have sat at a banquet; but in what new policies there are afoot, I have yet to be schooled."
"Then, if truly you do not know it, let me repeat to you the common tale. Phorenice has tired of her unmated life—"
"Stay there. I will hear no word against the Empress."
"Pah! my lord, your scruples are most decorous. But I did no more than repeat what the Empress had made public by proclamation. She is minded to take to herself a husband, and nothing short of the best is good enough for Phorenice. One after another has been put up in turn as favorite—and
been found wanting. Oh, I tell you, we here in Atlantis have watched her courtship with jumping hearts. First it was this one here, then it was that one there; now it was this general just returned from a victory, and a day later he had been packed back to his camp, to give place to some dashing governor who had squeezed increased revenues from his province. But every ship that came from the west said that there was a stronger man than any of these in Yucatan, and at last the Empress changed the wording of her vow. 'I'll have Deucalion for my husband,' said she, 'and then we will see who can stand against my wishes.'"
"The Empress (whose name be adored) can do as she pleases in such matters," I said, guardedly; "but that is beside the argument. I am here to know how it would be better for Atlantis that I should die?"
"You know you are the strongest man in the kingdom."
"It pleases you to say so."
"And Phorenice is the strongest woman?"
"That is beyond doubt."
"Why, then, if the Empress takes you in marriage, we shall be under a double tyranny. And her rule alone is more cruelly heavy than we can bear already."
"I pass no criticism on Phorenice's rule. I have not seen it. But I crave your mercy, Naïs, on the new-comer into this kingdom. I am strong, say you, and therefore I am a tyrant, say you. Now to me this sequence is faulty."
"Who should a strong man use strength for, if not
for himself? And if for himself, why that spells tyranny. You will get all your heart's desires, my lord, and you will forget that many a thousand of the common people will have to pay for them."
"And this is all your accusation?"
"It seems to be black enough. I am one that has a compassion for my fellow-men, my lord, and because of that compassion you see me what I am today. There was a time, not long passed, when I slept as soft and ate as dainty as any in Atlantis."
I smiled. "Your speech told me that much from the first."
"Then I would I had cast the speech off, too, if that is also a livery of the tyrants’ class. But I tell you I saw all the oppression myself from the oppressor's side. I was high in Phorenice's favor then."
"That, too, is easy of credence. Ylga is the fan-girl to the Empress now, and second lady in the kingdom, and those who have seen Ylga could make an easy guess at the parentage of Naïs."
"We were the daughters of one birth; but I do not count with either Zaemon or Ylga now. Ylga is the creature of Phorenice, and Phorenice would have all the people of Atlantis slaves and in chains, so that she might crush them the easier. And as for Zaemon, he is no friend of Phorenice's; he fights with brain and soul to drag back the old authority to those on the Sacred Mountain; and that, if it come down on us again, would only be the exchange of one form of slavery for another."
"It seems to me you bite at all authority."
"In fact," she said, simply, "I do. I have seen too much of it."
"And so you think a rule of no-rule would be best for the country?"
You have put it plainly in words for me. That is my creed to-day. That is the creed of all those yonder, who sit in the camp and besiege this city. And we number on our side, now, all in Atlantis save those in the city and a handful on the priests' Mountain."
I shook my head. "A creed of desperation, if you like, Naïs, but, believe me, a silly creed. Since man was born out of the quakings and the fevers of this earth, and picked his way among the cooler places, he has been dependent always on his fellowmen. And where two are congregated together, one must be chief, and order how matters are to be governed—at least, I speak of men who have a wish to be higher than the beasts. Have you ever set foot in Europe?"
"I have. Years back I sailed there, gathering slaves. What did I see? A country without rule or order. Tyrants there were, to be sure, but they were the beasts. The men and the women were the rudest savages, knowing nothing of the arts, dressing in skins and uncleanness, harboring in caves and the tree-tops. The beasts roamed about where they would, and hunted them unchecked."
"Still, they fought you for their liberty?"
"Never once. They knew how disastrous was their masterless freedom. Even to their dull, savage
brains it was a sure thing that no slavery could be worse; and to that state you and your friends and your theories will reduce Atlantis, if you get the upper hand. But, then, to argue in a circle, you will never get it. For to conquer, you must set up leaders, and once you have set them up, you will never pull them down again."
"Aye," she said, with a sigh, "there is truth in that last."
The torch had filled the captain's room with a resinous smoke, but the flame was growing pale. Dawn was coming in grayly through a slender arrow-slit, and with it ever and again the glow from some mountain out of sight, which was shooting forth spasmodic bursts of fire. With it also were mutterings of distant falling rocks, and sullen tremblings, which had endured all the night through, and I judged that earth was in one of her quaking moods, and would probably during the forthcoming day offer us some chastening discomforts.
On this account, perhaps, my senses were stilled to certain evidences which would otherwise have given me a suspicion; and also, there is no denying that my general wakefulness was sapped by another matter. This woman, Naïs, interested me vastly out of the common; the mere presence of her seemed to warm the. organs of my interior; and while she was there, all my thoughts and senses were present in the room of the captain of the gate in which we sat.
But of a sudden the floor of the chamber rocked and fell away beneath me, and in a tumult of dust and litter and bales of the captain's plunder I fell
down (still seated on the flag-stone) into a pit which had been digged beneath it. With the violence of the descent, and the flutter of all these articles about my head, I was in no condition for immediate action; and while I was still half-stunned by the shock, and long before I could get my eyes into service again, I had been seized and bound and half-strangled with a noose of hide. Voices were raised that I should be despatched at once out of the way; but one in authority cried out that killing me at leisure, and as a prisoner, promised more genteel sport; and so I was thrust down on the floor, while a whole army of men trod in over me to the attack.
What had happened was clear to me now, though I was powerless to do anything in hinderance. The rebels, with more craft than any one had credited to them, had driven a galley from their camp under the ground, intending so to make an entrance into the heart of the city. In their clumsy ignorance, and having no one of sufficient talent in mensuration, they had bungled sadly both in direction and length, and so had ended their burrow under this chamber of the captain of the gate. The great flag-stone in its fall had, it appeared, crushed four of them to death, but these were little noticed or lamented. Life was to them a bauble of the slenderest price, and a horde of others pressed through the opening, lusting for the fight, and reeking nothing of their risks and perils.
Half-choked by the foul air of the galley, and trodden on by this great procession of feet, it was little enough I could do to help my immediate self much less the more distant city. But when the chief
mass of the attackers had passed through, and there came only here and there one eager to take his share at storming the gate, a couple of fellows plucked me up out of the mud on the floor, and began dragging me down through the stinking darkness of the galley towards the pit that gave it entrance.
Twenty times we were jostled by others hastening to the attack, either from hunger for fight, or from appetite for what they could steal. But we came to the open at last; and half-suffocated though I was, I contrived to do obeisance, and say aloud the prescribed prayer to the most High Gods in gratitude for the fresh air which They had provided.
Our Lord the Sun was on the verge of rising for His day, and all things were plainly shown. Before me were the monstrous walls of the capital, with the heads of its pyramids and higher buildings showing above them. And on the walls the sentries walked calmly their appointed paces, or took shelter against arrows in the casemates provided for them.
The din of fighting within the gate rose high into the air, and the heavy roaring of the cave-tigers told that they too were taking their share of the mêlée.
But the massive stonework of the walls hid all the actual engagement from our view, and which party was getting the upper hand we could not even guess.
But the sounds told how tight a fight was being hammered out in those narrow boundaries, and my veins tingled to be once more back at the old trade, and to be doing my share.
But there was no chivalry about the fellows who held me by my bonds. They thrust me into a small
temple near by, which once had been a fane in much favor with travellers, who wished to show gratitude for the safe journey to the capital, but which now was robbed and ruined; and they swung to the stone entrance gate and barred it, leaving me to commune with myself. Presently, they told me, I should be put to death by torments. Well, this seemed to be the new custom of Atlantis, and I should have to endure it as best I could. The High Gods, it appeared, had no further use for my services in Atlantis, and I was not in the mood then to bite very much at their decision. What I had seen of the country since my return had not enamoured me very much with its new conditions.
The little temple in which I was gaoled had been robbed and despoiled of all its furnishments. But the light-slits, where at certain hours of the day the rays of our Lord the Sun had fallen upon the image of the God, before this had been taken away, gave me vantage places from which I could see over the camp of these rebel besiegers, and a dreary prospect it was. The people seemed to have shucked off the culture of centuries in as many months, and to have gone back for the most part to sheer brutishness. The majority harbored on the bare ground. Few owned shelter, and these were merely bowers of mud and branches.
They fought and quarrelled among themselves for food, eating their meat raw, and their grain (when they had it) unground. Many who passed my vision I saw were even gnawing the soft inside of tree bark.
The dead lay where they fell. The sick and the wounded found no hand to tend them. Great man-eating birds hovered above the camp or skulked about, heavy with gorging, among the hovels, and no one had public spirit enough to give them battle. The stink of the place rose up to heaven as a foul incense inviting a pestilence. There was no order, no trace of strong command anywhere. With three hundred well-disciplined troops it seemed to me that I could have sent those poor desperate hordes flying in panic to the forest.
However, there was no very lengthy space of time granted me for thinking out the policy of this matter to any great depth. The attack on the gate had been delivered with suddenness; the repulse was not slow. Of what desperate fighting took place in the galleries, and in the circus between the two sets of gates, the detail will never be told in full.
At the first alarm the great cave-tigers were set loose, and these raged impartially against keeper and foe. Of those that went in through the tunnel, not one in ten returned, and there were few of these but what carried a bloody wound. Some, with the ruling passion still strong in them, bore back plunder; one trailed along with him the head of the captain of the gate; and among them they dragged out two of the warders who were wounded, and whom revenge had urged them to take as prisoners.
Over these two last a hubbub now arose, that seemed likely to boil over into blows. Every voice shouted out for them what he thought the most repulsive fate. Some were for burning, some for skinning,
some for impaling, some for other things: my flesh crept as I heard their ravenous yells. Those that had been to the trouble of making them captive were still breathless from the fight, and were readily thrust aside; and it seemed to me that the poor wretches would be hustled into death before any definite fate was agreed upon, which all would pass as sufficiently terrific. Never had I seen such a disorderly tumult, never such a leaderless mob. But, as always has happened, and always will, the stronger men by dint of louder voices and more vigorous shoulders got their plans agreed to at last, and the others perforce had to give way.
A band of them set off running, and presently returned at snail's-pace, dragging with them (with many squeals from ungreased wheels) one of those huge war engines with which besiegers are wont to throw great stones and other missiles into the cities they sit down against. They ran it up just beyond bowshot of the walls, and clamped it firmly down with stakes and ropes to the earth. Then setting their lean arms to the windlasses, they drew back the great tree which formed the spring till its tethering place reached the ground, and in the cradle at its head they placed one of the prisoners, bound helplessly, so that he could not throw himself over the side.
Then the rude, savage, skin-clad mob stood back, and one who had appointed himself engineer knocked back the catch that held the great spring in place.
With a whir and a twang the elastic wood flung upward, and the bound man was shot away from its
tip with the speed of a lightning flash. He sang through the air, spinning over and over with inconceivable rapidity, and the great crowd of rebels held their breath in silence as they watched. He passed high above the city wall, a tiny mannikin in the distance now, and then the trajectory of his flight began to lower. The spike of a new-built pyramid lay in the path of his terrific flight, and he struck it with a thud whose sound floated out to us afterwards, and then he toppled down out of our sight, leaving a red stain on the whiteness of the stone as he fell.
With a roar the crowd acknowledged the success of their device, and bellowed out insults to Phorenice, and insults to the Gods: a poor frantic crowd they showed themselves. And then with ravening shouts they fell upon the other captive warder, binding him also into a compact, helpless missile, and meanwhile getting the engine into gear again for another shot.
But for my part I saw nothing of this disgusting scene. I heard the bolt grate stealthily against the door of the little temple in which I was imprisoned, and was minded to give these brutish rebels somewhat of a surprise. I had rid myself of my bonds handily enough; I had rubbed my limbs to that perfect suppleness which is always desirable before a fight; and I had planned to rush out as soon as the door was swung, and kill those that came first with fist blows on the brow and chin.
They had not suspected my name, it was clear, for my stature and garb were nothing out of the ordinary; but if my bodily strength and fighting power had been sufficient to raise me to a viceroyalty like
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“THE BOUND MAN WAS SHOT AWAY”
that of Yucatan, and let me endure alive in that government throughout twenty hard-battling years, why, it was likely that this rabble of savages would see something that was new and admirable in the practice of arms before the crude weight of their numbers could drag me down. Nay, I did not even despair of winning free altogether. I must find me a weapon from those that came up to battle, with which I could write worthy signatures, and I must attempt no standing fight. Gods! but what a glow the prospect did send through me as I stood there waiting.
A vainer man, writing history, might have said that always, before everything else, he held in mind the greater interests before the less. But for me—I prefer to be honest, and own myself human. In my glee at that forthcoming fight—which promised to be the greatest and most furious I had known in all a long life of battling I will confess that Atlantis and her differing policies were clean forgot. I should go out an unknown man from that little cell of a temple, I should do my work, and then, whether I took freedom with me, or whether I came down at last myself on a pile of slain, these people would guess, without being told the name, that here was Deucalion. Gods! what a fight we would have made!
But the door did not open wide to give me space for my first rush. It creaked gratingly outward on its pivots, and a slim hand and a white arm slipped inside, beckoning me to quietude. Here was some woman. The door creaked wider, and she came inside.
"Naïs," I said.
"Silence, or they will hear you, and remember. At present those who brought you here are killed, and unless by chance some one blunders into this robbed shrine, you will not be found."
"Then if that is so, let me go out and walk among these people as one of themselves."
She shook her head.
"But, Naïs, I am not known here. I am merely a man in very plain and mud-stained robe. I should be in no ways remarkable."
A smile twitched her face. "My lord," she said, "wears no beard; and his is the only clean chin in the camp."
I joined in her laugh. "A pest on my want of foppishness then. But I am forgetting somewhat. It comes to my mind that we still have unfinished that small discussion of ours concerning the length of my poor life. Have you decided to cut it off from risk of further mischief, or do you propose to give me further span?"
She turned to me with a look of sharp distress. "My lord," she said, "I would have you forget that silly talk of mine. This last two hours I thought you were dead in real truth."
"And you were not relieved?"
"I felt that the only man was gone out of the world—I mean, my lord, the only man who can save Atlantis."
"Your words give me a confidence. Then you would have me go back and become husband to Phorenice?"
"If there is no other way."
"I warn you I shall do that, if she still so desires it, and if it seems to me that that course will be best. This is no hour for private likings or dislikings."
"I know it," she said, "I feel it. I have no heart now save only for Atlantis. I have schooled myself once more to that."
And at present I am in this lone little box of a temple. A minute ago, before you came, I had promised myself a pretty enough fight to signalize my changing of abode."
"There must be nothing of that. I will not have these poor people slaughtered unnecessarily. Nor do I wish to see my lord exposed to a hopeless risk. This poor place, such as it is, has been given to me as an abode, and if my lord can remain decorously till nightfall in a maiden's chamber, he may at least be sure of quietude. I am a person," she added, simply, "that in this camp has some respect. When darkness comes, I will take my lord down to the sea and a boat, and so he may come with ease to the harbor and the water-gate."