The Lost Continent, by Cutcliffe Hyne, , at sacred-texts.com
IT was long enough since I had found leisure for a parcel of sleep, and so during the larger part of that day I am free to confess that I slumbered soundly, Naïs watching me. Night fell, and still we remained within the privacy of the temple. It was our plan that I should stay there till the camp slept, and so I should have more chance of reaching the sea-beach without disturbance.
The night came down wet, with a drizzle of rain, and through the slits in the temple walls we could see the many fires in the camp well cared for, and men and women in skins and rags toasting before them, with steam rising as the heat fought with their wetness. Folk seated in discomfort like this are proverbially alert and cruel in the temper, and Naïs frowned as she looked on the inclemency of the weather.
"A fine night," she said, "and I would have sent my lord back to the city without a soul here being the wiser; but in this chill, people sleep sourly. We must wait till the hour drugs them sounder."
And so we waited, sitting there together on that pavement so long unkissed by worshippers, and it
was little enough we said aloud. But there can be good companionship without sentences of talk.
But as the hours drew on the night began to grow less quiet. From the distance some one began to blow on a horn or a shell, sending forth a harsh raucous note incessantly. The sound came nearer, as we could tell from its growing loudness, and the voices of those by the fires made themselves heard, railing at the blower for his disturbance. And presently it became stationary, and standing up we could see through the slits in the walls the people of the camp rousing up from their uneasy rest, and clustering together round one who stood and talked to them from the pedestal of a war engine.
What he was declaiming upon we could not hear, and our curiosity on the matter was not keen. Given that all who did not sleep went to weary themselves with this fellow, as Naïs whispered, it would be simple for me to make an exit in the opposite direction.
But here we were reckoning without the inevitable busybody. A dozen pairs of feet splashing through the wet came up to the side of the little temple, and cried loudly that Naïs should join the audience. She had eloquence of tongue, it appeared, and they feared lest this speaker who had taken his stand on the war engine should make schisms among their ranks unless some skilled person stood up also to refute his arguments.
Here, then, it seemed to me that I must be elbowed into my skirmish by the most unexpected of chances, but Naïs was firmly minded that there should be no
fight, if courage on her part could turn it. "Come out with me," she whispered, "and keep distant from the light of the fires."
"But how explain my being here?"
"There is no reason to explain anything," she said, bitterly. "They will take you for my lover. There is nothing remarkable in that: it is the mode here. But oh! why did not the Gods make you wear a beard, and curl it, even as other men? Then you could have been gone and safe these two hours."
"A smooth chin pleases me better."
"So it does me," I heard her murmur as she leaned her weight on the stone which hung in the doorway, and pushed it ajar; "your chin."
The ragged men outside—there were women with them also—did not wait to watch me very closely. A coarse jest or two flew (which I could have found good heart to have repaid with a sword-thrust) and they stepped off into the darkness, just turning from time to time to make sure we followed. On all sides others were pressing in the same direction—black shadows against. the night; the rain spat noisily on the camp-fires as we passed them; and from behind us came up others. There were no sleepers in the camp now; all were pressing on to hear this preacher who stood on the pedestal of the war engine; and if we had tried to swerve from the straight course, we should have been marked at once.
So we held on through the darkness, and presently came within earshot.
Still it was little enough of the preacher's words we could make out at first. "Who are your chiefs?"
came the question at the end of a fervid harangue, and immediately all further rational talk was drowned in uproar. "We have no chiefs," the people shouted; "we are done with chiefs; we are all equal here. Take away your silly magic. You may kill us with magic if you choose, but rule us you shall not. Nor shall the other priests rule. Nor Phorenice. Nor anybody. We are done with rulers."
The press had brought us closer and closer to the man who stood on the war engine. We saw him to be old, with white hair that tumbled on his shoulders, and a long white beard, untrimmed and uncurled. Save for a wisp of rag about the loins, his body was unclothed, and glistened in the wet.
But in his hand he held that which marked his caste. With it he pointed his sentences, and at times he whirled it about, bathing his wet, naked body in a halo of light. It was a wand whose tip burned with an unconsuming fire, which glowed and twinkled and blazed like some star lent down by the Gods from their own place in the high heaven. It was the Symbol of our Lord the Sun, a credential no one could forge, and one on which no civilized man would cast a doubt.
Indeed, the ragged frantic crew did not question for one moment that he was a member of the Clan of Priests, the Clan which from time out of numbering has given rulers for the land, and even in their loudest clamors they freely acknowledged his powers. "You may kill us with your magic, if you choose," they screamed at him. But stubbornly they refused to come back to their old allegiance. "We have suffered
too many things these later years," they cried. "We are done with rulers now for always."
But for myself I saw the old man with a different emotion. Here was Zaemon that was father to Naïs, Zaemon that had seen me yesterday seated on the divan at Phorenice's elbow, and who to-day could denounce me as Deucalion if so he chose. These rebels had expended a navy in their wish to kill me four days earlier, and if they knew of my nearness, even though Naïs were my advocate, her cold reasoning would have little chance of an audience now. The High Gods who keep the tether of our lives hide Their secrets well, but I did not think it impious to be sure that mine was very near the cutting then.
The beautiful woman saw this too. She even went so far as to twine her fingers in mine and press them as a farewell, and I pressed hers in return, for I was sorry enough not to see her more. Still, I could not help letting my thoughts travel with a grim gloating over the fine mound of dead I should build before these ragged, unskilled rebels pulled me down. And it was inevitable this should be so. For of all the emotions that can ferment in the human heart, the joy of strife is keenest, and none but an old fighter, face to face with what must necessarily be his final battle, can tell how deep this lust is embroidered into the very foundations of his being.
But for the time Zaemon did not see me, being too much wrapped in his outcry, and so I was free to listen to the burning words which he spread around him, and to determine their effect on the hearers.
The theme he preached was no new one. He told
that ever since the beginning of history, the Gods had set apart one Clan of the people to rule over the rest and be their priests, and until the coming of Phorenice these had done their duties with exactitude and justice. They had fought invaders, carried war against the beasts, and studied earth-movements so that they were able to foretell earthquakes and eruptions, and could spread warnings that the people might be able to escape their devastations. They are no self-seekers; their aim was always to further the interest of Atlantis, and so do honor to the kingdom on which the High Gods had set their special favor. Under the Priestly Clan Atlantis had reached the pinnacle of human prosperity and happiness.
"But," cried the old man, waving the Symbol till his wet body glistened in a halo of light, "the people grew fat and careless with their easy life. They began to have a conceit that their good fortune was earned by their own puny brains and thews, and was no gift from the Gods above; and presently the cult of these Gods became neglected, and Their temples were barren of gifts and worshippers. Followed a punishment. The Gods in Their inscrutable way decreed that a wife of one of the priests (that was a governor of no inconsiderable province) should see a woman child by the way-side, and take it for adoption. That child the Gods in their infinite wisdom fashioned into a scourge for Atlantis, and you who have felt the weight of Phorenice's hand, know with what completeness the High Gods can fashion their instruments.
"Yet, even as They set up, so can they throw
down, and those that shall debase Phorenice are even now appointed. The old rule is to be re-established; but not till you who have sinned are sufficiently chastened to cry to it for relief." He waved the mysterious glowing Symbol before him. "See," he cried, in his high, old, quavering voice, "you know the unspeakable Power of which that is the sign, and for which I am the mouthpiece. It is for you to make decision now. Are the Gods to throw down this woman who has scorned Them and so cruelly trodden on you? Or are you to be still further purged of your pride before you are ripe for deliverance?"
The old priest broke off with a gesture, and his ragged white beard sank on to his chest. Promptly a young man, skin clad and carrying his weapon, elbowed up through the press of listeners, and jumped on to the platform beside him. "Hear me, brethren!" he bellowed, in his strong young voice. "We are done with tyrants. Death may come, and we all of us here have shown how little we fear it. But own rulers again we will not, and that is our final say. My lord," he said, turning to the old man with a brave face, "I know it is in your power to kill me by magic if you choose, but I have said my say, and can stand the cost if needs be."
"I can kill you, but I will not," said Zaemon. "You have said your silliness. Now go you to the ground again."
"We have free speech here. I will not go till I choose."
"Aye, but you will," said the old man, and turned
on him with a sudden tightening of the brows. There was no blow passed; even the Symbol, which glowed like a star against the night, was not so much as lifted in warning; but the young man tried to retort, and, finding himself smitten with a sudden dumbness, turned with a spasm of fear, and jumped back whence he had come. The crowd of them thrilled expectantly, and when no further portent was given, they began to shout that a miracle should be shown them, and then perchance they would be persuaded back to the old allegiance.
The old man stooped and glowered at them in fury. "You dogs!" he cried, "you empty-witted dogs! do you ask that I should degrade the powers of the Higher Mysteries by dancing them out before you as though they were a mummers’ show? Do you tickle yourselves that you are to be tempted back to your allegiance? It is for you to woo the Gods who are so offended. Come in humility, and I take it upon myself to declare that you will receive fitting pardon and relief. Remain stubborn, and the scourge, Phorenice, may torment you into annihilation before she in turn is made to answer for the evil she has put upon the land. There is the choice for you to pick at."
The turmoil of voices rose again into the wetness of the night, and weapons were upraised menacingly. It was clear that the party for independence had by far the greater weight, both in numbers and lustiness; and those who might, from sheer weariness of strife, have been willing for surrender, withheld their word through terror of the consequence. It was a fine
comment on the freedom of speech, about which these unruly fools had made their boast, and, with a sly malice, I could not help whispering a word on this to Naïs as she stood at my elbow. But Naïs clutched at my hand, and implored me for caution. "Oh, be silent, my lord," she whispered back, "or they will tear you in pieces. They are on fire for mischief now."
"Yet a few hours back you were for killing me yourself," I could not help reminding her.
She turned on me with a hot look. "A woman can change her mind, my lord. But it becomes you little to remind her of her fickleness."
A man in the press beside me wrenched round with an effort, and stared at me searchingly through the darkness. "Oh!" he said, "a shaved chin. Who are you, friend, that you should cut a beard instead of curling it? I can see no wound on your face."
I answered him civilly enough that, with "freedom" for a watchword, the fashion of my chin was a matter of mere private concern. But as that did not satisfy him, and as he seemed to be one of those quarrelsome fellows that are the bane of every community, I took him suddenly by the throat and the shoulder, and bent his neck with the old, quick turn, till I heard it crack, and had unhanded him before any of his neighbors had seen what had befallen. The fierce press of the crowd held him from slipping to the ground, and so he stood on there where he was, with his head nodded forward, as though he had fallen asleep through heaviness, or had fainted
through the crushing of his fellows. I had no desire to begin that last fight of mine in a place like this, where there was no room to swing a weapon nor chance to clear a battle ring.
But all this time the lean preacher from the mountains was sending forth his angry anathemas, and still holding the strained attention of the people. And next he set forth before them the cult of the Gods in the ancient form as is prescribed, and they (with old habit coming back to them) made response in the words and in the places where the old ritual enjoins. It was a weird enough sight, that time- honored service of adoration, forced upon these wild people after so long a period of irreligion.
They warmed to the old words as the high shrill voice of the priest cried them forth, and as they listened, and as they realized how intimate was the care of the Gods for the travails and sorrows of their daily lives, so much warmer grew their responses.
". . . . Who stilled the burning of the mountains, and made cool places on the earth for us to live!—Praise to the most high gods.
"Who took away the poisonous vapors, and gave us sweet air that we might breathe!—Praise to the most high gods.
"Who gave us mastery over the lesser beasts and us sweet air that we might breathe!—Praise to the most high gods. . . ."
It thrilled one to hear their earnestness; it sorrowed one to know that they would yet be obdurate and not return to their old allegiance. For this is the way with these common people; they will work up
an enthusiasm one minute, and an hour later it will have fled away and left them cold and empty.
But Zaemon made no further calls upon their loyalty. He finished the prescribed form of sentences, and stepped down from off the platform of the war engine with the Symbol of our Lord the Sun thrust out resolutely before him. To all ordinary seeming the crowd had been Tacked so that no further compression was possible, but before the advance of the Symbol the people crushed back, leaving a wide lane for his passage.
And here came the turning point of my life. At first, like, I take it, every one else in that crowd, I imagined that the old man, having finished his mission, was making a way to return to the place from which he had come. But he held steadily to one direction, and as that was towards myself, it naturally came to my mind that, having dealt with greater things, he would now settle with the less; or, in plainer words, that having put his policy before the swarming people, he would now smite down the man he had seen but yesterday seated as Phorenice's minister. Well, I should lose that final fight I had promised myself, and that mound of slain for my funeral bed. It was clear that Zaemon was the mouth-piece of the Priests’ Clan, duly appointed; and I also was a priest. If the word had been given on the Sacred Mountain to those who sat before the Ark of the Mysteries that Atlantis would prosper more with Deucalion sent to the Gods, I was ready to bow to the sentence with submissiveness. That I had regret for this mode of cutting off, I will not deny. No man
who has practised the game of arms could abandon the promise of such a gorgeous final battle without a qualm of longing.
But I had been trained enough to show none of these emotions on my face, and when the old man came up to me, I stood my ground and gave him the salutation prescribed between our ranks, which he returned to me with circumstance and accuracy. The crowd fell back, being driven away by the ineffable force of the Symbol, leaving us alone in the middle of a ring. Even Naïs, though she was a priest's daughter, was ignorant of the Mysteries, and could not withstand its force. And so we two men stood there alone together, with the glow of the Symbol bathing us and lighting up the sea of ravenous faces that watched.
The people were quick to put their natural explanation on the scene. "A spy!" they began to roar out. "A spy! Zaemon salutes him as a priest!"
Zaemon faced round on them with a queer look on his grim old face. "Aye," he said, "this is a priest. If I give you his name, you might have further interest. This is the Lord Deucalion."
The word was picked up and yelled among them with a thousand emotions. But at least they were loyal to their policy; they had decided that Deucalion was their enemy; they had already expended a navy for his destruction; and now that he was ringed in by their masses, they lusted to tear him into rags with their fingers. But rave and rave though they might against me, the glare from the Symbol drove them shuddering back as though it had been a lava-stream;
and Zaemon was not the man to hand me over to their fury until he had delivered formal sentence as the emissary of our Clan on the Sacred Mount. So the end was not to be yet.
The old man faced me and spoke in the sacred tongue, which the common people do not know. "My brother," he said, "which have you come to serve—Deucalion or Atlantis?"
"Words are a poor thing to answer a question like that. You will know all of my record. According to the Law of the Priests, each ship from Yucatan will have carried home its sworn report to lay at the feet of their council, and before I went to that viceroyalty, what I did was written plain here on the face of Atlantis."
"We know your doings in the past, brother, and they have found approval. You have governed well, and you have lived austerely. You set up Atlantis for a mistress, and served her well; but then, you have had no Phorenice to tempt you into change and fickleness."
"You can send me where I shall see her no more, if you think me frail."
"Yes, and lose your usefulness. No, brother, you are the last hope which this poor land has remaining. All other human means that have been tried against Phorenice have failed. You have returned from over seas for the final duel. You are the strongest man we have, and you are our final champion. If you fail, then only those terrible Powers which are locked within the Ark of the Mysteries remain to us, and though it is not lawful to speak even in this
hidden tongue of their scope, you at least have full assurance of their potency."
I shrugged my shoulders. " It seems that you would save time and pains if you threw me to these wolves of rebels, and let them end me here and now."
The old man frowned on me angrily. "I am bidding you do your duty. What reason have you for wishing to evade it?"
"I have in my memory the words you spoke in the pyramid, when you came in among the banqueters. 'Phorenice,' was your cry, 'while you are yet Empress, you shall see this royal pyramid, which you have polluted with your debaucheries, torn tier from tier, and stone from stone, and scattered as feathers before a wind.' It seems that you foresee my defeat."
The old man shuddered. "I cannot tell what she may force us to do. I spoke then only what it was revealed to me must happen. Perhaps when matters have reached that pass she will repent and submit. But in the meanwhile, before we use the more desperate weapons of the Gods, it is fitting that we should expend all human power remaining to us. And so you must go, my brother, and play your part to the utmost."
"It is an order. So I obey."
"You shall be at Phorenice's side again by the next dawn. She has sent for you from Yucatan as a husband, and as one who (so she thinks, poor human conqueror) has the weight of arm necessary to prolong her tyrannies. You are a priest, brother, and you are a man of convincing tongue. It will
be your part to make her stubborn mind see the invincible power that can be loosed against her, to point out to her the utter hopelessness of prevailing against it."
"If it is ordered, I will do these things. But there is little enough chance of success. I have seen Phorenice, and can gauge her will. There will be no turning her once she has made a decision. Others have tried; you have tried yourself; all have failed."
"Words that were wasted on a maiden may go home to a wife. You have been brought here to be her husband. Well, take your place."
The order came to me with a pang. I had given little enough heed to women through all of a busy life, though when I landed, the taking of Phorenice to wife would not have been very repugnant to me if policy had demanded it. But the matters of the last two days had put things in a different shape. I had seen two other women who had strangely attracted me, and one of these had stirred within me a tumult such as I had never felt before among my economies.
To lead Phorenice in marriage would mean a severance from this other woman eternally, and I ached as I thought of it. But though these thoughts floated through my system and gave me harsh wrenches of pain, I did not thrust my puny likings before the command of the council of the priests. I bowed before Zaemon, and put his hand to my forehead. "It is an order," I said. "If our Lord the Sun gives me life, I will obey."
"Then let us begone from this place," said Zaemon,
and took me by the arm and waved a way for us with the Symbol. No further word did I have with Naïs, fearing to embroil her with these rebels who clustered round, but I caught one hot glance from her eyes, and that had to suffice for farewell. The dense ranks of the crowd opened, and we walked away between them scathless. Fiercely though they lusted for my life, brimming with hate though they made their cries, no man dared to rush in and raise a hand against me. Neither did they follow. When we reached the outskirts of the crowd, and the ranks thinned, they had a mind, many of them, to surge along in our wake; but Zaemon whirled the Symbol back before their faces with a blaze of lurid light, and they fell to their knees grovelling, and pressed on us no more.
The rain still fell, and in the light of the camp fires as we passed them the wet gleamed on the old man's wasted body. And far before us through the darkness loomed the vast bulk of the Sacred Mountain, with the ring of eternal fires encincturing its crest. I sighed as I thought of the old peaceful days I had spent in its temples and groves.
But there was to be no more of that studious leisure now. There was work to be done, work for Atlantis which did not brook delay. And so when we had progressed far out into the waste, and there was none near to view (save only the most High Gods), we found the place where the passage was, whose entrance is known only to the Seven among the priests; and there we parted, Zaemon to his hermitage in the dangerous lands, and I by this secret way back into the capital.