The Lost Continent, by Cutcliffe Hyne, , at sacred-texts.com
NOW the passage, though its entrance had been cunningly hidden by man's artifice, was one of those veins in which the fiery blood of our mother, the Earth, had aforetime coursed. Long years had passed since it carried lava streams, but the air in it was still warm and sulphurous, and there was no inducement to linger in transit. I lit me a lamp which I found in an appointed niche, and walked briskly along my ways, coughing, and wishing heartily I had some of those simples which ease a throat that has a tendency to catarrh. But, alas! all that packet of drugs which were my sole spoil from the viceroyalty of Yucatan were lost in the sea-fight with Dason's navy, and since landing in Atlantis there had been little enough time to think of the refinements of medicine.
The network of earth-veins branched prodigiously, and if any but one of us Seven Priests had found a way into its recesses by chance, he would have perished hopelessly in the windings, or have fallen into one of those pits which lead to the boil below. But I carried the chart of the true course clearly in my head, remembering it from that old initiation of twenty years back, when, as an appointed viceroy,
[paragraph continues] I was raised to the highest degree but one known to our Clan, and was given its secrets and working implements.
The way was long, the floor was monstrous uneven, and the air, as I have said, bad; and I knew that day would be far advanced before the signs told me that I had passed beneath the walls, and was well within the precincts of the city. And here the vow of the Seven hampered my progress; for it is ordained that under no circumstances, whatever the stress, shall egress be made from this passage before mortal eye. One branch after another did I try, but always found loiterers near the exits. I had hoped to make my emergence by that path which came up inside the royal pyramid. But there was no chance of coming up unobserved here; the place was humming like a hive. And so, too, with each of the five next outlets that I visited. The city was agog with some strange excitement.
But I came at last to a temple of one of the lesser Gods, and stood behind the image for a while making observation. The place was empty; nay, from the dust which robed all the floors and the seats of the worshippers, it had been empty long enough; so I moved all that was needful, stepped out, and closed all entry behind me. A broom lay unnoticed on one of the pews, and with this I soon disguised all route of footmark, and took my way to the temple door. It was shut, and priest though I was, the secret of its opening was beyond me.
Here was a pretty pass. No one but the attendant priests of the temple could move the mechanism
which closed and opened the massive stone which filled the doorway; and if all had gone out to attend. this spectacle, whatever it might be, that was stirring the city, why there I should be no nearer enlargement than before.
There was no sound of life within the temple precincts; there were evidences of decay and disuse spread broadcast on every hand; but according to the ancient law there should be eternally one at least on watch in the priests' dwellings; so down the passages which led to them I made my way. It would have surprised me little to have found even these deserted. That the old order was changed I knew, but I was only then beginning to realize the ruthlessness with which it had been swept away, and how much it had given place to the new.
However, there can be some faithful men remaining even in an age of general apostasy; and on making my way to the door of the dwelling (which lay in the roof of the temple) I gave the call, and presently it was opened to me. The man who stood before me, peering dully through the gloom, had at least remained constant to his vows, and I made the salutation before him with a feeling of respect.
His name was Ro, and I remembered him well. We had passed through the sacred college together, and always he had been known as the dullard. He had capacity for learning little of the cult of the Gods, less of the arts of ruling, less still of the handling of arms; and he had been appointed to some lowly office in this obscure temple, and had risen to being its second priest and one of its two custodians merely
through the desertion of all his colleagues. But it was not pleasant to think that a fool should remain true where cleverer men abandoned the old beliefs.
Ro did before me the greater obeisance. He wore his beard curled in the prevailing fashion, but it was badly done. His clothing was ill-fitting and un-brushed. He always had been a slovenly fellow. "The temple door is shut," he said, "and I only have the secret of its opening. My lord comes here, therefore, by the secret way, and as one of the Seven. I am my lord's servant."
"Then I ask this small service of you. Tell me, what stirs the city?"
"That impious Phorenice has declared herself Goddess, and declares that she will light the sacrifice with her own divine fire. She will do it, too. She does everything. But I wish the flames may burn her when she calls them down. This new Empress is the bane of our Clan, Deucalion, these latter days. The people neglect us; they bring no offerings; and now, since these rebels have been hammering at the walls, I might have gone hungry if I had not some small store of my own. Oh, I tell you, the cult of the true Gods is wellnigh oozed quite out of the land."
"My brother, it comes to my mind that the priests of our Clan have been limp in their service to let these things come to pass."
"I suppose we have done our best. At least, we did as we were taught. But if the people will not come to hear your exhortations, and neglect to adore the God, what hold have you over their religion?
[paragraph continues] But I tell you, Deucalion, that the High Gods try our own faith hard. Come into the dwelling here. Look there on my bed."
I saw the shape of a man, untidily swathed in reddened bandages.
"This is all that is left of the poor priest that was my immediate superior in this cure. It was his turn yesterday to celebrate the weekly sacrifice to our Lord the Sun within the circle of His great stones. Faugh! Deucalion, you should have seen how he was mangled when they brought him back to me here."
"Did the people rise on him? Has it come to that?"
"The people stayed passive," said Ro, bitterly, "what few of them had interest to attend; but our Lord the Sun saw fit to try His minister somewhat harshly. The wood was laid; the sacrifice was disposed upon it according to the prescribed rites; the procession had been formed round the altar, and the drums and the trumpets were speaking forth, to let all men know that presently the smoke of their prayer would be wafted up towards Those that sit in the great places in the heavens. But then, above the noise of the ceremonial, there came the rushing sound of wings, and from out of the sky there flew one of those great featherless man-eating birds, of a bigness such as seldom before has been seen."
"An arrow-shot in the eye or a long-shafted spear receives them best."
"Oh, all men know what they were taught as children, Deucalion; but these priests were unarmed,
according to the rubric, which ordains that they shall intrust themselves completely to the guardianship of the High Gods during the hours of sacrifice. The great bird swooped down, settling on the wood pyre, and attacked the sacrifice with beak and talon. My poor superior here, still strong in his faith, called loudly on our Lord the Sun to lend power to his arm, and sprang up on the altar with naught but his teeth and his bare hands for weapons. It may be that he expected a miracle—he has not spoken since, poor soul, in explanation—but all he met with were blows from leathery wings, and rakings from talons which went near to disembowelling him. The bird brushed him away as easily as we could sweep aside a fly, and there he lay bleeding on the pavement beside the altar, while the sacrifice was torn and eaten in the presence of all the people. And then when the bird was glutted, it flew away again to the mountains."
"And the people gave no help?"
"They cried out that the thing was a portent, that our Lord the Sun was a God no longer if He had not power or thought to guard His own sacrifice; and some cried that there was no God remaining now, and others would have it that there was a new God come to weigh on the country, which had chosen to take the form of a common man-eating bird. But a few began to shout that Phorenice stood for all the Gods now in Atlantis, and that cry was taken up till the stones of the great circle rang with it. Some may have made proclamation because they were convinced; many because the cry was new, and pleased them; but I am sure there were not a few who joined
in because it was dangerous to leave such an outburst unwelcomed. The Empress can be hard enough to those who neglect to give her adulation."
"The Empress is Empress," I said, formally, "and her name carries respect. It is not for us to question her doings."
"I am a priest," said Ro, "and I speak as I have been taught, and defend the Faith as I have been commanded. Whether there is a Faith any longer, I am beginning to doubt. But, anyway, it yields a poor enough livelihood nowadays. There have been no offerings at this temple this five months past, and if I had not a few jars of corn put by, I might have starved for anything the pious of this city cared. And I do not think that the affair of that sacrifice is likely to put new enthusiasm into our cold votaries."
"When did it happen?"
"Twenty hours ago. To-day Phorenice conducts the sacrifice herself. That has caused the stir you spoke about. The city is in the throes of getting ready one of her pageants."
"Then I must ask you to open the temple doors and give me passage. I must go and see this thing for myself."
"It is not for me to offer advice to one of the Seven," said Ro, doubtfully.
"It is not."
"But they say that the Empress is not overpleased at your absence," he mumbled. "I should not like harm to come in your way, Deucalion," he said, aloud.
"The future is in the hands of the most High Gods, Ro, and I at least believe that They will deal out our fates to each of us as They in their infinite wisdom see best, though you seem to have lost your faith. And now I must be your debtor for a passage out through the doors. Plagues! man, it is no use your holding out your hand to me. I do not own a coin in all the world."
He mumbled something about "force of habit," as he led the way down towards the door, and I responded tartly enough about the unpleasantness of his begging customs. "If it were not for your sort and your customs, the Priests’ Clan would not be facing this crisis to-day."
"One must live," he grumbled, as he pressed his levers, and the massive stone in the doorway swung ajar.
"If you had been a more capable man, I might have seen the necessity," said I, and passed into the open and left him. I could never bring myself to like Ro.
A motley crowd filled the street which ran past the front of this obscure temple, and all were hurrying one way. With what I had been told, it did not take much art to guess that the great stone circle of our Lord the Sun was their mark, and it grieved me to think of how many venerable centuries that great fane had upreared before the weather and the earth tremors, without such profanation as it would witness to-day. And also the thought occurred to me, "Was our Great Lord above drawing this woman on to her destruction? Would He take some vast and final act
of vengeance when she consummated her final sacrilege?"
But the crowd pressed on, thrilled and excited, and thinking little (as is a crowd's wont) on the deeper matters which lay beneath the bare spectacle. From one quarter of the city walls the din of an attack from the besiegers made itself clearly heard from over the houses, and the temples and the palaces intervening, but no one heeded it. They had grown callous, these townsfolk, to the battering of rams, and the flight of fire-darts, and the other emotions of a bombardment. Their nerves, their hunger, their desperation were strung to such a pitch that little short of an actual storm could stir them into new excitement over the siege.
All were weaponed. The naked carried arms in the hope of meeting some one whom they could overcome and rob; those that had a possession walked ready to do a battle for its ownership. There was no security, no trust; the lesson of civilization had dropped away from these common people as mud is washed from the feet by rain, and in their new habits and their thoughts they had gone back to the grade from which savages like those of Europe have never yet emerged. It was a grim commentary on the success of Phorenice's rule.
The crowd merged me into their ranks without question, and with them I pressed forward down the winding streets, once so clean and trim, now so foul and mud-strewn. Men and women had died of hunger in these streets these latter years, and rotted where they lay, and we trod their bones underfoot
as we walked. Yet rising out of this squalor and this misery were great pyramids and palaces, the like of which for splendor and magnificence had never been seen before. It was a jarring admixture.
In time we came to the open space in the centre of the city, which even Phorenice had not dared to encroach upon with her ambitious building schemes, and stood on the secular ground which surrounds the most ancient, the most grand, and the barest of all this world's temples
Since the beginning of time, when man first emerged among the beasts, our Lord the Sun has always been his chiefest God, and legend says that He raised this circle of stones Himself to be a place where votaries should offer Him worship. It is the fashion among us moderns not to take these old tales in a too literal sense; but for myself, this one satisfies me. By our wits we can lift blocks weighing six hundred men, and set them a the capstones of our pyramids. But to uprear the stones of that great circle would be beyond all our art, and much more would it be impossible to-day to transport them from their distant quarries across the rugged mountains.
There were nine-and-forty of the stones, alternating with spaces, and set in an accurate circle, and across the tops of them other stones were set, equally huge. The stones were undressed and rugged; but the huge massiveness of them impressed the eye more than all the temples and daintily tooled pyramids of our wondrous city. And in the centre of the circle was that still greater stone which formed the altar, and round which was carved, in the rude chiselling
of the ancients, the snake and the outstretched hand.
The crowd which bore me on came to a stand-still before the circle of stones. To trespass beyond this is death for the common people; and for myself, although I had the right of entrance, I chose to stay where I was for the present, unnoticed among the mob, and wait upon events.
For long enough we stood there, our Lord the Sun burning high and fiercely from the clear blue sky above our heads. The din of the rebels’ attack upon the walls came to us clearly, even above the gabble of the multitude; but no one gave attention to it. Excitement about what was to befall in the circle mastered every other emotion.
I learned afterwards that so pressing was the rebels’ attack, and so destructive the battering of their new war engines, that Phorenice had gone off to the wall s first to lend awhile her brilliant skill for its repulse, and to put heart into the defenders. But as it was, the day had burned out to its middle and scorched us intolerably, because the noise of the drums and horns gave advertisement that the pageant had formed in procession; and of those who waited in the crowd, many had fainted with exhaustion and the heat, and not a few had died. But life was cheap in the city of Atlantis now, and no one heeded the fallen.
Nearer and nearer drew the drums and the braying of the other music, and presently the head of a glittering procession began to arrive and dispose itself in the space which had been set apart. Many a thousand poor starving wretches sighed when they
saw the wanton splendor of it. But these lords and these courtiers of this new Atlantis had no concern beyond their own bellies and their own backs, except for their one alien regard—their simpering affection for Phorenice.
I think, though, their loyalty for the Empress was real enough; and it was not to be wondered at, since everything they had came from her lavish hands. Indeed, the woman had a charm that cannot be denied; for when she appeared, riding in the golden castle (where I also had ridden) on the back of her monstrous shaggy mammoth, the starved, sullen faces of the crowd brightened as though a meal and sudden prosperity had been bestowed upon them; and without a word of command, without a trace of compulsion, they burst into spontaneous shouts of welcome.
She acknowledged it with a smile of thanks. Her cheeks were a little flushed, her movements quick, her manner high-strung, as all well might be, seeing the horrible sacrilege she had in mind. But she was undeniably lovely; yes, more adorably beautiful than ever with her present thrill of excitement; and when the stair was brought, and she walked down from the mammoth's back to the ground, those near fell to their knees and gave her worship, out of sheer fascination for her beauty and charm.
Ylga, the fan-girl, alone of all that vast multitude round the Sun temple, contained herself within her formal paces and duties. She looked pained and troubled. It was plain to see, even from the distance where I stood, that she carried a heavy heart under the jewels of her robe. It was fitting, too, that this
should be so. Though she had been long enough divorced from his care and fostered by the Empress, Ylga was a daughter of Zaemon, and he was the chiefest of our Lord the Sun's ministers here on earth. She could not forget her upbringing now at this supreme moment when the highest of the old Gods was to be formally defied. And perhaps also (having a kindness for Phorenice) she was not a little dreadful of the consequences.
But the Empress had no eye for one sad look among all the sea of glowing faces. Boldly and proudly she strode out into the circle, as though she had been the duly appointed priest for the sacrifice. And after her came a knot of men, dressed as priests, and bearing the victim. Some of these were creatures of her own, and it was easy to forgive mere ignorant laymen, won over by the glamour of Phorenice's presence. But some, to their shame, were men born in the Priests’ Clan, and brought up in the groves and colleges of the Sacred Mountain, and for their apostasy there could be no palliation.
The wood had already been stacked on the altar-stone in the due form required by the ancient symbolism, and the Empress stood aside while those who followed did what was needful. As they opened out, I saw that the victim was one of the small, cloven-hoofed horses that roam the plains—a most acceptable sacrifice. They bound its feet with metal gyves, and put it on the pyre, where, for a while, it lay neighing. Then they stepped aside, and left it living. Here was an innovation.
The false priests went back to the farther side of
the circle, and Phorenice stood alone before the altar. She lifted up her voice, sweet, tuneful, and carrying, and though the din of the siege still came from over the city, no ear there lost a word of what was spoken.
She raised her glance aloft, and all other eyes followed it. The heaven was clear as the deep sea, a gorgeous blue. But as the words came from her, so a small mist was born in the sky, wheeling and circling like a ball, although the day was windless, and rapidly growing darker and more compact. So dense had it become that presently it threw a shadow on part of the sacred circle that soothed it into twilight, though all without, where the people stood, was still garish day. And in the ball of mist were little quick stabs and splashes of noiseless flame.
She spoke not in the priests’ sacred tongue—though such was her wicked cleverness that she may very well have learned it—but in the common speech of the people, so that all who heard might understand; and she told of her wondrous birth (as she chose to name it), and of the direct aid of the most High Gods, which had enabled her to work so many marvels. And in the end she lifted both of her fair white arms towards the blackness above, and with her lovely face set with the strain of will, uttered her final cry:
"O my high Father, the Sun, I pray You now to acknowledge me as Your very daughter. Give this people a sign that I am indeed a child of the Gods and no frail mortal. Here is sacrifice unlit, where mortal priests with their puny fires had weekly, since the foundation of this land, sent savory smoke towards
the sky. I pray You send down the heavenly fire to burn this beast here offered, in token that though You still rule on high, You have given me Atlantis to be my kingdom, and the people of the Earth to be my worshippers."
She broke off and strained towards the sky. Her face was contorted. Her limbs shook. "O mighty Father," she cried, "who hast made me a God and an equal, hear me! hear me!"
Out of the black cloud overhead there came a blinding flash of light, which spat downward on to the altar. The cloven-hoofed horse gave one shrill neigh, and one convulsion, and fell back dead. Flames crackled out from the wood-pile, and the air became rich with the smell of burning flesh. And lo! in another moment the cloud above had melted into nothingness, and the flames burned pale, and the smoke went up in a thin blue spiral towards the deeper blueness of the sky.
Phorenice the Empress stood there before the great stone, and before the snake and the outstretched hand of life which were inscribed upon it, flushed, exultant, and once more radiantly lovely; and the knot of priests within the circle, and the great mob of people without, fell to the ground adoring.
"Phorenice, Goddess!" they cried. "Phorenice, Goddess of all Atlantis!"
But for myself, I did not kneel. I would have no part in this apostasy, so I stood there awaiting fate.