The Lost Continent, by Cutcliffe Hyne, , at sacred-texts.com
SO this mighty Empress chose to be jealous of a mere woman prisoner!
Now my mind has been trained to work with a soldierly quickness in these moments of stress, and I decided on my proper course on the instant the words had left her lips. I was sacrificing myself for Atlantis by order of the high council of the priests, and, if needful, Naïs must be sacrificed also, although in the same flash a scheme came to me for saving her.
So I bowed gravely before the Empress, and said I, "In this, and in all other things where a mere human hand is potent, I will carry out your wishes, Phorenice." And she on her part patted my arm, and fresh waves of feeling welled up from the depths of her wondrous eyes. Surely the Gods won for her half her schemes and half her battles when they gave Phorenice her shape, and her voice, and the matters which lay within the outlines of her face.
By this time the merchants and the other dwellers adjacent to this part of the harbor, where the royal quay stands, had come down, offering changes of raiment and houses to retire into. Phorenice was all graciousness, and though it was little enough I
cared for mere wetness of my coat, still that part of the harbor into which we had been thrown by the mammoth was not over savory, and I was glad enough to follow her example. For myself, I said no further word to Naïs, and refrained even from giving her a glance of farewell. But a small sop like this was no meal for Phorenice, and she gave the port-captain strict orders for the guarding of his prisoner before she left him.
At the house into which I was ushered they gave me a bath, and I eased my host of the plainest garment in his store, and he was pleased enough at getting off so cheaply. But I had an hour to spend outside on the pavement listening to the distant din of bombardment before Phorenice came out to me again, and I could not help feeling some grim amusement at the face of the merchant who followed. The fellow was clearly ruined. He had a store of jewels and gauds of the most costly kind, which were only in fraction his own, seeing that he had bought them (as the custom is) in partnership with other merchants. These had pleased Phorenice's eye, and so she had taken all and disposed them on her person.
"Are they not pretty?" said she, showing them to me. "See how they flash under the sun. I am quite glad now, Deucalion, that the mammoth gave us that furious ride and that spill, since it has brought me such a bonny present. You may tell the fellow here that some day, when he has earned some more, I will come and be his guest again. Ah! they have brought us litters, I see. Well, send one away and do you share mine with me, sir. We must
play at being lovers to-day, even if love is a matter which will come to us both with more certainty tomorrow. No, do not order more bearers. My own slaves will carry us handily enough. I am glad you are not one of your gross, overfed men, Deucalion. I am small and slim myself, and I do not want to be husbanded by a man who will overshadow me."
"Back to the royal pyramid?" I asked.
"No, nor to the walls. I neither wish to fight nor to sit as Empress to-day, sir. As I have told you before, it is my whim to be Phorenice, the maiden, for a few hours, and if some one I wot of would woo me now, as other maidens are wooed, I should esteem it a luxury. Bid the slaves carry us round the harbor's rim, and give word to these starers that, if they follow, I will call down fire upon them as I did upon the sacrifice."
Now I have seen something of the unruliness of the streets myself, and I had gathered a hint also from the officer at the gate of the royal pyramid that night of Phorenice's welcoming banquet. But as whatever there was in the matter must be common knowledge to the Empress, I did not bring it to her memory then. So I dismissed the guard which had come up, and drove away with a few sharp words the throng of gaping sight-seers who always, silly creatures, must needs come to stare at their betters; and then I sat in the litter in the place where I was invited, and the bearers put their heads to the pole.
They swung away with us along the wide pavement which runs between the houses of the merchants and the mariner folk and the dimpling waters of
the harbor; and I thought somewhat sadly of the few ships that floated on that splendid basin now, and of the few evidences of business that showed themselves on the quays. Time was when the ships were berthed so close that many had to wait in the estuary outside the walls, and memorials had been sent to the King that the port should be doubled in size to hold the glut of trade. And that, too, in the old days of oar and sail, when machines drawing power from our Lord the Sun were but rarely used to help a vessel speedily along her course.
The Egypt voyage and a return was a matter of a year then, as against a brace of months now; and of three ships that set out, one at least could be reckoned upon succumbing to the dangers of the wide waters and the terrible beasts that haunt them. But in those old days trade roared with lusty life, and was ever growing wider and more heavy. Your merchant then was a portly man and gave generously to the Gods. But now all the world seemed to be in arms, and, moreover, trade was vulgar. Your merchant, if he was a man of substance, forgot his merchandise, swore that chaffering was more indelicate than blasphemy, and curled his beard after the new fashion, and became a courtier. Where his father had spent anxious days with cargo tally and shipmaster, the son wasted hours in directing sewing men as they adorned a coat, and nights in vaporing at banquets.
Of the smaller merchants who had no substance laid by, taxes and the constant bickerings of war had wellnigh ground them into starvation. Besides,
with the country in constant uproar, there were few markets left for most merchandise, nor was there aught made now which could be carried abroad. If your weaver is pressed as a fire-tube man he does not make cloth, and if your farmer is playing at rebellion, he does not buy slaves to till his fields. Indeed, they told me that a month before my return, as fine a cargo of slaves had been brought into harbor as ever came out of Europe, and there was nothing for it but to set them ashore across the estuary, and leave them free to starve or live in the wild ground there as they chose. There was no man in all Atlantis who would hold so much as one more slave at a gift.
But though I was grieved at this falling away, all schemes for remedy would be for afterwards. It would only make ill worse to speak of it as we rode together in the litter. I was growing to know Phorenice's moods enough for that. Still, I think that she too had studied mine, and did her best to interest me between her bursts of trifling. We went out to where the westernmost harbor wall joins the land, and there the panting bearers set us down. She led me into a little house of stone which stood by itself, built out on a promontory where there is a constant run of tide; and when we had been given admittance, after much unbarring, she showed me her new gold collectors.
In the dry knowledge taught in the colleges and groves of the Sacred Mountain it had been a common fact to us that the metal gold was present in a dissolved state in all sea-water, but of plans for dragging
it forth into yellow hardness none had ever been discussed. But here this field-reared upstart of an Empress had stumbled upon the trick as though it had been written in a book.
She patted my arm laughingly as I stared curiously round the place. "I tell all others in Atlantis that only the Gods have this secret," said she, "and that They gave it to me as one of Themselves. But I am no Goddess to you, am I, Deucalion? And, by my face! I have no other explanation of how this plan was invented. We'll suppose I must have dreamed it. Look! the sea-water sluices in through that culvert, and passes over these rough metal plates set in the floor, and then flows out again yonder in its natural course. You see the yellow metal caught in the ridges of the plates? That is gold. And my fellows here melt it with fire into bars, and take it to my smiths in the city. The tides vary constantly, as you priests know well, as the quiet moon draws them; and it does not take much figuring to know how much of the sea passes through these culverts in a month, and how much gold to a grain should be caught in the plates. My fellows here at first thought to cheat me, but I towed two of them in the water once behind a galley till the cannibal fish ate them, and since then the others have given me credit for—for what do you think?"
"I suppose it is that. But I am letting you see how it is done. Just have the head to work out a little sum, and see what an effect can be gained. You will be a God yet yourself, Deucalion, with these
silly Atlanteans, if only you will use your wit and cleverness."
Was she laughing at me? Was she in earnest? I could not tell. Sometimes she pointed out that her success and triumphs were merely the reward of thought and brilliancy, and next moment she gave me some impossible explanation and left me to deduce that she must be more than mortal or the thing could never have been found. In good truth, this little woman with her supple mind and her supple body mystified me more and more the longer I stayed by her side; and more and more despairing did I grow that Atlantis could ever be restored by my agency to peace and the ancient Gods, even after I had carried out the commands of the high council and taken her to wife.
Only one plan seemed humanly possible, and that was to curb her further mischievousness by death, and then leave the wretched country naturally to recover. It was just a dagger-stroke, and the thing was done. Yet the very idea of this revolted me, and when the desperate thought came to my mind (which it did ever and anon), I hugged to myself the answer that if it were fitting to do this thing, the High Gods in Their infinite wisdom would surely have put definite commands upon me for its carrying out.
Yet such was the fascination of Phorenice that, when presently we left her gold collectors and stumbled into such peril that a little withholding of my hand would have gained her a passage to the nether Gods, I found myself fighting when she called upon
me as seldom I have fought before. And though, of course, some blame for this must be laid upon that lust of battle which thrills even the coldest of us when blows begin to whistle and war-cries start to ring, there is no doubt also that the pleasure of protecting Phorenice, and the distaste for seeing her pulled down by those rude, uncouth fishers, put special nerve and vehemence into my blows.
The cause of the matter was the unrest and the prevalency to street violence which I have spoken of above, and the desperate poverty of the common people, which led them to take any risk if it showed them a chance of winning the wherewithal to purchase a meal. We had once more mounted the litter, and once more the bearers, with their heads beneath the pole, bore us on at their accustomed swinging trot. Phorenice was telling me about her new supplies of gold. She had made fresh sumptuary laws, it appeared.
"In the old days," said she, "when yellow gold was tediously dredged up grain by grain from river gravels in the dangerous lands, a quillful would cost a rich man's savings, and so none but those whose high station fitted them to be so adorned could wear golden ornaments. But when the sea-water gave me gold here by the double handful a day, I found that the price of these river hoards decreased; and one day—could you credit it?—a common fellow, who was one of my smiths, came to me wearing a collar of yellow gold on his own common neck. Well, I had that neck divided as payment for his presumption; and as I promised to repeat the division promptly on
all other offenders, that special species of forwardness seems to be checked for the time. There are many exasperations, Deucalion, in governing these common people."
She had other things to say upon the matter, but at this point I saw two clumsy boats of fishers paddling to us from over the ripples, and at the same time among the narrow lanes which led between the houses on the other side of us savage-faced men were beginning to run after the litter in threatening clusters.
"With permission," I said, "I will step out of the conveyance and scatter this rabble."
"Oh, the people always cluster round me. Poor ugly souls, they seem to take a strange delight in coming to stare at my pretty looks. But scatter them. I have said I did not wish to be followed. I am taking holiday now, Deucalion, am I not, while you learn to woo me?"
I stepped to the ground. The rough fishers in the boats were beginning to shout to those who dodged among the houses to see to it that we did not escape, and the numbers who hemmed us in on the shore side were increasing every moment. The prospect was unpleasant enough. We had come out beyond the merchants’ quarter, and were level with those small huts of mud and grass which the fishing population deem sufficient for shelter, and which has always been a spot where turbulence might be expected. Indeed, even in those days of peace and good government in the old King's time, this part of the city had rarely been without its weekly riot.
The life of the fishermen is the most hard that any human toilers have to endure. Violence from the winds and waves, and pelting from fire-stones out of the sky are their daily portion; the great beasts that dwell in the seas hunt them with savage persistence, and it is a rare day when at least some one of the fishers’ guild fails to come home to answer the tally. Moreover, the manner which prevails of catching fish is not without its risks.
To each man there is a large sea-fowl taken as a nestling and trained to the work. A ring of bronze is round its neck to prevent its swallowing the spoil for which it dives, and for each fish it takes and flies back with to the boat, the head and tail and inwards are given to it for a reward, the ring being removed while it makes the meal.
The birds are faithful, once they have got a training, and are seldom known to desert their owners; but, although the fishers treat them more kindly than they do their wives, or children of their own begetting, the life of the birds is precarious like that of their masters. The larger beasts and fish of the sea prey on them as they prey on the smaller fish; and so, whatever care may be lavished upon them, they are most liable to sudden cutting off.
And here is another thing that makes the life of the fisher most precarious: if his fishing-bird be slain, and the second, which he has in training, also come by ill fortune, he is left suddenly bereft of all utensils of livelihood, and (for aught his guild-fellows care) he may go starve. For these fishers hold that the Gods of the sea regulate their craft, and that if one
is not pleasing to Them, They rob him of his birds; after which it would be impious to have any truck or dealing with such a fellow; and accordingly he is left to starve or rob as he chooses.
All of which circumstances tend to make the fishers rude, desperate men, who have been forced into the trade because all other callings have rejected them. They are fellows, moreover, who will spend the gains of a month on a night's debauch, for fear that the morrow will rob them of life and the chance of spending; and, moreover, it is their one point of honor to be curbed in no desire by an ordinary fear of consequences. As will appear.
I went quickly towards the largest knot of these people, who were skulking behind the houses, leaving the litter halted in the path behind me, and I bade them sharply enough to disperse. "For an employment," I added, "put your houses in order, and clean the fish offal from the lanes between them. Tomorrow I will come round here to inspect, and put this quarter into a better order. But for to-day the Empress, (whose name be adored) wishes for a privacy; so cease your staring."
"Then give us money," said a shrill voice from among the huts.
"I will send you a torch in an hour's time," I said, grimly, "and rig you a gallows, if you give me more annoyance. To your kennels, you!"
I think they would have obeyed the voice of authority if they had been left to themselves. There was a quick stir among them. Those that stood in the sunlight instinctively slipped into the shadow,
and many dodged into the houses and cowered in dark corners out of sight. But the men in the two hide-covered fisher-boats that were paddling up called them back with boisterous cries.
I signed to the litter-bearers to move on quickly along their road. There was need of discipline here, and I was minded to deal it out myself with a firm hand. I judged that I could prevent them following the Empress, but if she still remained as a glittering bait for them to rob, and I had to protect her also, it might be that my work would not be done so effectively.
But it seems I was presumptuous in giving an order which dealt with the person of Phorenice. She bade the bearers stand where they were, and stepped out, and drew her weapons from beneath the cushions. She came towards me strapping a sword on to her hip, and carrying a well-dinted target of gold on her left forearm. "An unfair trick," cried she, laughing. "If you will keep a fight to yourself now, Deucalion, where will your greediness carry you when I am your shrinking, wistful little wife? Are these fools truly going to stand up against us?"
I was not coveting a fight, but it seemed as if there would be no avoidance of it now. The robe and the glittering gauds of which Phorenice had recently despoiled the merchant drew the eyes of these people with keen attraction. The fishers in the boats paddled into the surf which edged the beach, and leaped over-side and left the frail basket-work structures to be spewed up sound or smashed, as chance ordered. And from the houses, and from the filthy
lanes between them, poured out hordes of others, women mixed with the men, gathering round us threateningly.
"Have a care," shouted one on the outskirts of the crowd. "She called down fire for the sacrifice once to-day, and she can burn up others here if she chooses."
"So much the more for those that are left," retorted another. "She cannot burn all."
"Nay, I will not burn any," said Phorenice, "but you shall look upon my sword play till you are tired."
I heard her say that with some malicious amusement, knowing (as one of the Seven) how she had called down the fires of the sky to burn that cloven-hoofed horse offered in sacrifice, and knowing too, full well, that she could bring down no fire here. But they gave us little enough time for wordy courtesies. Their Empress never went far unattended, and, for aught the wretches knew, an escort might be close behind. So what pilfering they did it behooved them to get done quickly.
They closed in; jostling one another to be first, and the reek of their filthy bodies made us cough. A grimy hand launched out to seize some of the jewels which flashed on Phorenice's breast, and I lopped it off at the elbow, so that it fell at her feet, and a second later we were engaged.
"Your back to mine, comrade," cried she, with a laugh, and then drew and laid about her with a fine dexterity. Bah! but it was mere slaughter, that first bout.
The crowd hustled inward with such greediness to seize what they could that none had space to draw back elbow for a thrust, and we too kept a circle round us by sheer whirling of steel. It is necessary to do one's work cleanly in these bouts, as wounded left on the ground unnoticed before one are as dangerous as so many snakes. But as we circled round in our battling I noted that all of Phorenice's quarry lay peaceful and still. By the Gods! but she could play a fine sword, this dainty Empress. She touched life with every thrust.
Yes, it was plain to see, now an example was given, that the throne of Atlantis had been won, not by a lovely face and a subtle tongue alone; and (as a fighter myself) I did not like Phorenice the less for the knowledge. I could but see her out of the corner of my eye, and that only now and again, for the fishers, despite their ill-knowledge of fence and the clumsiness of their weapons, had heavy numbers and most savage ferocity; and as they made so confident of being able to pull us down, it required more than a little hard battling to keep them from doing it. Aye, by the Gods! it was at times a fight my heart warmed to; and if I had not contrived to pluck a shield from one fool who came too vaingloriously near me with one, I could not swear they would not have dragged me down by sheer ravening savageness.
And always above the burly uproar of the fight came very pleasantly to my ears Phorenice's cry of "Deucalion!" which she chose as her battle shout. I knew her, of course, to be a past mistress of the art
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“‘WE TWO KEPT A CIRCLE, AROUND US’”
of compliment, and it was no new thing for me to hear the name roared out above a battle din; but it was given there under circumstances which were peculiar, and for the life of me I could not help being tickled by the flattery.
Condemn my weakness how you will, but I came very near then to liking the Empress of Atlantis in the way she wished. And as for that other woman who should have filled my mind, I will confess that the stress of the moment and the fury of the engagement had driven both her and her strait completely out beyond the marches of my memory. Of such frail stuff are we made, even those of us who esteem ourselves the strongest.
Now it is a temptation few men born to the sword can resist, to throw themselves heart and soul into a fight for a fight's sake, and it seems that women can be bitten with the same fierce infection. The attack slackened and halted. We stood in the middle of a ring of twisted dead, and the rest of the fishers and their women who hemmed us in shrank back out of reach of our weapons.
It was the moment for a truce, the moment when a few strong words would have sent them back cowering to their huts, and given us free passage to go where we chose. But no; this Phorenice must needs sing a hymn to her sword and mine, gloating over our feats and invulnerability; and then she must needs ask payment for the bearers of her litter whom they had killed, and then speak balefully of the burnings and the skinnings and the sawings asunder with which this fishers' quarter would be treated in
the near future, till they learned the virtues of deportment and genteel manners.
"It makes your backs creep, does it?" said Phorenice. "I do not wonder. This severity must have its unpleasant side. But why do you not put it beyond my power to give the order? Either you must think yourselves Gods or me no Goddess, or you would not have gone on so far. Come, now, you nasty-smelling people, follow out your theory, and if you make a good fight of it, I swear by my face I will be lenient with those who do not fall."
But there was no pressing up to meet our swords. They still ringed us in, savage and sullen, beyond the ring of their own dead, and would neither run back to the houses nor give us the game of further fight. There was a certain stubborn bravery about them that one could not but admire, and for myself I determined that next time it became my duty to raise troops I would catch a handful of these men and teach them handiness with the utensils of war and train them to loyalty and faithfulness. But presently from behind their ranks a stone flew, and though it whizzed between the Empress and myself, and struck down a fisher, it showed that they had brought a new method into their attack, and it behooved us to take thought and meet it.
I looked round me up and down the beach. There was no sign of a rescue. "Phorenice," I said, in the court tongue, which these barbarous fishers would know little enough of, "I take it that a whiff of the sea-breeze would come very pleasant after all this warm play. As you can show such pretty sword-work,
will you cut me a way down to the beach, and I will do my poor best to keep these creatures from snapping at our heels?"
"Oh!" cried she, "then I am to have a courtier for a husband, after all. Why have you kept back your flattering speeches till now? Is that your trick to make me love you?"
"I will think out the reason for it another time."
"Ah, these stern, commanding husbands," said she, "how they do press upon their little wives!" and with that leaped over the ring of dead before her, and cut and stabbed a way through those that stood between her and the waters which creamed and crashed upon the beach. Gods! what a charge she made. It made me tingle with admiration as I followed sideways behind her, guarding the rear. And I am a man that has spent so many years in battlings that it takes something far out of the common to move me to any enthusiasm in this matter.
There were two boats creaking and washing about in the edge of the surf, but in one, happily, the wicker-work which made its frame was crushed by the weight of the waves into a shapeless bundle of sticks, and would take half a day to replace. So that, let us but get the other craft afloat, and we should be free from further embroiling. But the fishers were quick to see the object of this new manœuvre. "Guard the boat!" they shouted. "Smash her! Slit her skin with your knives! Tear her with your fingers! Swim her out to sea! Oh, at least take the paddles!"
But if these clumsy fishers could run, Phorenice
was like a legged snake for speed. She was down beside the boat before any could reach it, laughing and shouting out that she could beat them at every point. Myself, I was slower bf foot; and, besides, there were some that offered me a fight on the road, and I was not wishful to balk them; and, moreover, the fewer we left clamoring behind, the fewer there would be to speed our going with their stones. Still, I came to the beach in good order, and laid hands on the flimsy boat and tipped her dry.
"Fighting is no trade for me," I cried, "while you are here, Phorenice. Guard me my back and walk out into the water."
I took the boat, thrusting it afloat and wading with it till two lines of the surf were past. The fishers swarmed round us, active as fish in their native element, and strove mightily to get hands on the boat and slit the hides which covered it with their eager fingers. But I had a spare hand and a short stabbing-knife for such close-quarter work, and here, there, and everywhere was Phorenice the Empress, with her thirsty, dripping sword. By the Gods! I laughed with sheer delight at seeing her art of fence.
But the swirl of a great fish into the shallows, and the squeal of a fisher as he was dragged down and borne away into the deep, made me mindful of foes that no skill can conquer and no bravery avoid. Without taking time to give the Empress a word of warning, I stooped and flung an arm round her, and threw her up out of the water into the boat, and then thrust on with all my might, driving the flimsy craft out to sea, while my legs crept under me for
fear of the beasts which swam invisible beneath the muddied waters.
To the fishers, inured to these horrid perils by daily association, the seizing of one of their number meant little, and they pressed on, careless of their dull lives, eager only to snatch the jewels which still flaunted on Phorenice's breast. Of the vengeance that might come after they reeked nothing; let them but get the wherewithal for one night's good debauch, and they would forget that such a thing as the morning of a morrow could have existence.
Two fellows I caught and killed, that, diving down beneath, tried to slit the skin of the boat out of sight under the water; and Phorenice cared for all those that tried to put a hand on the gunwales. Yes, and she did more than that. A huge long-necked turtle that was stirred out of the mud by the turmoil came up to daylight, and swung its great horn-lipped mouth to this side and that, seeking for a prey. The fishers near it dodged and dived. I, thrusting at the stern of the boat, could only hope it would pass me by, and so offered an easy mark. It scurried towards me, champing its noisy lips, and beating the water into spray with its flippers.
But Phorenice was quick with a remedy and a rescue. She passed her sword through one of the fishers that pressed her, and then thrust the body towards the turtle. The great neck swooped towards it; the long slimy feelers which protruded from its head quivered and snuffled; and then the horny green jaws crunched on it, and drew it down out of sight.
The boat was in deep water now, and Phorenice
called upon me to come in over the side, she the while balancing nicely so that the flimsy thing should not be overset. The fishers had given up their pursuit, finding that they earned nothing but lopped off arms and split faces by coming within swing of this terrible sword of their Empress, and so contented themselves with volleying jagged stones in the hopes of stunning us or splitting the boat. However, Phorenice crouched in the stern, holding the two shields—her own golden target and the rough hide buckler I had won—and so protected both of us while I paddled; and though many stones clattered against the shields, and hit the hide covering of the boat, so that it resounded like a drum, none of them did damage, and we drew quickly out of their range.