The Lost Continent, by Cutcliffe Hyne, , at sacred-texts.com
THERE is no denying that the wishes of Phorenice were carried into quick effect in the city of Atlantis. Her modern theory was that the country and all therein existed only for the good of the Empress, and when she had a desire, no cost could possibly be too great in its carrying out.
She had given forth her edict concerning the burying alive of Naïs, and though the words were that I was to build the throne of stone, it was an understood thing that the manual labor was to be done for me by others. Heralds made the proclamation in every ward of the city, and masons, laborers, stonecutters, sculptors, engineers, and architects took hands from whatever was occupying them for the moment, and hastened to the rendezvous. The architects chose a chief who gave directions, and the lesser architects and the engineers saw these carried into effect. Any material within the walls of the city on which they set their seal was taken at once without payment or compensation; and as the blocks of stone they chose were the most monstrous that could be got, they were forced to demolish no few buildings to give them passage.
I have before spoken of the modern rage for erecting
new palaces and pyramids, and, even though at the moment an army of rebels was battering with war engines at the city walls, the building guilds were steadily at work, and their skill (with Phorenice's marvellous invention to aid them) was constantly on the increase. True, they could not move such massive blocks of stone as those which the early Gods planted for the sacred circle of our Lord the Sun, but they had got rams and trucks and cranes which could handle amazing bulks.
The throne was to be erected in the open square before the royal pyramid. Seven tiers of stone were there for a groundwork, each a knee-height deep, and each cut in the front with three steps. In the uppermost layer was a cavity made to hold the body of Naïs, and above this was poised the vast block which formed the seat of the throne itself.
Throughout the night, to the light of torches, relay after relay of the stone-cutters and the masons and the sweating laborers had toiled over bringing up the stone and dressing it into fit shape, and laying it in due position; and the engineers had built machines for lifting, and the architects had proved that each stone lay in its just and perfect place. Whips cracked, and men fainted with the labor, but so soon as one was incapable another pressed forward into his place. No delay was brooked when Phorenice had said her wish.
And finally, as the square began to fill with people come to gape at the pageant of to-day, the chippings and the scaffolding were cleared away, and with it the bodies of some half-score of workmen who had
died from accidents or their exertions during the building, and there stood the throne, splendid in its carvings, and all ready for completion. The lower part stood more than two man-heights above the ground, and no stone of its courses weighed less than twenty men; the upper part was double the weight of any of these, and was carved so that the royal snake encircled the chair and the great hooded head overshadowed it. But at present the upper part was not on its bed, being held up high by lifting-rams, for what purpose all men knew.
It was to face this scene, then, that I came out from the royal pyramid at the summons of the chamberlains in the cool of next morning. Each great man who had come there before me had banner-bearers and trumpeters to proclaim his presence; the middle classes were in all their bravery of apparel; and even poor squalid creatures, with ribs of hunger showing through their dusty skins, had turbans and wisps of color wrapped about their heads to mark the gayety of the day.
The trumpets proclaimed my coming, and the people shouted welcome; and, with the gorgeous chamberlains walking backward in advance, I went across to a scarlet awning that had been prepared, and took my seat upon the cushions beneath it.
And then came Phorenice, my bride that was to be that day, fresh from sleep, and glorious in her splendid beauty. She was borne out from the pyramid in an open litter of gold and ivory by fantastic savages from Europe, her own refinement of feature being thrown up into all the higher relief by contrast
with their brutish ugliness. One could hear the people draw a deep breath of delight as their eyes first fell upon her; and it is easy to believe there was not a man in that crowd which thronged the square who did not envy me her choice, nor was there a soul present (unless Ylga was there somewhere veiled) who could by any stretch imagine that I was not overjoyed in winning so lovely a wife.
For myself, I summoned up all the iron of my training to guard the expression of my face. We were here on ceremonial to-day—a ghastly enough affair throughout all its acts, if you choose, but still ceremonial; and I was minded to show Phorenice a grand manner that would leave her nothing to cavil at. After all that had been gone through and endured, I did not intend a great scheme to be shattered by letting my agony and pain show themselves in either a shaking hand or a twitching cheek. When it came to the point, I told myself, I would lay the living body of my love in the hollow beneath the stone as calmly and with as little outward emotion as though I had been a mere priest carrying out the burial of some dead stranger. And she, on her part, would not, I knew, betray our secret. With her, too, it was truly, "Before all, Atlantis."
I think it spared a pang to find that there was to be no mockery or flippancy in what went forward. All was solemn and impressive; and, though a certain grandeur and sombreness which bit deep into my breast was lost to the vulgar crowd, I fancy that the outward shape of the double sacrifice they witnessed that day would not be forgotten by any of
them, although the inner meaning of it all was completely hidden from their minds. When it suited her fancy, none could be more strict on the ritual of a ceremony than this many-mooded Empress, and it appeared that on this occasion she had given command that all things were to be carried out with the rigid exactness and pomp of the older manner.
So she was borne up by her Europeans to the scarlet awning, and I handed her to the ground. She seated herself on the cushions and beckoned me to her side, entwining her fingers with mine, as has always been the custom with rulers of Atlantis and their consorts. And there before us as we sat a body of soldiery marched up, and, opening out, showed Naïs in their midst. She had a collar of metal round her neck, with chains depending from it firmly held by a brace of guards, so that she could not run in upon the spears of the escort, and thus get a quick and easy death, which is often the custom of those condemned to the more lingering punishments.
But it was pleasant to see that she still wore her clothing. Raiment, whether of fabric or skin, has its value, and custom has always given the garments of the condemned to the soldiers guarding them. So, as Naïs was not stripped, I could not but see that some one had given moneys to the guards as a recompense, and in this I thought I saw the hand of Ylga, and felt a gratitude towards her.
The soldiers brought her forward to the edge of the pavilion's shade, and she was bidden prostrate herself before the Empress; and this she wisely did,
and so avoided rough handling and force. Her face was pale, but showed neither fear nor defiance, and her eyes were calm and natural. She was remembering what was due to Atlantis, and I was thrilled with love and pride as I watched her.
But outwardly I, too, was impassive as a man of stone; and though I knew that Phorenice's eye was on my face, there was never anything on it from first to last that I would not have had her see.
"Naïs," said the Empress, "you have eaten from my platter when you were fan-girl, and drunk from my cup, and what was yours I gave you. You should have had more than gratitude, you should have had knowledge also that the arm of the Empress was long and her hand consummately heavy. But it seems that you have neither of these things. And, moreover, you have tried to take a certain matter that the Empress has set apart for herself. You were offered pardon on terms, and you rejected it. You were foolish. But it is a day now when I am inclined to clemency. Presently, seated on that carved throne of granite which he has built me yonder, I shall take my lord Deucalion to husband. Give me a plain word that you are sorry, girl, and name a man whom you would choose, and I will remember the brightness of the occasion; you shall be pardoned and wed before we rise from these cushions."
"I will not wed," she said, quietly.
"Think for the last time, Naïs, of what is the other choice. You will be taken, warm and quick and beautiful as you stand there this minute, and laid in the hollow place that is made beneath the
throne-stone. Deucalion, that is to be my husband, will lay you in that awful bed, as a symbol that so shall perish all Phorenice's enemies; and then he will release the rams and lower the upper stone into place, and the world shall see your face no more. Look at the bright sky, Naïs, fill your chest with the sweet warm air, and then think of what this death will mean. Believe me, girl, I do not want to make you an example unless you force me."
"I will not wed," said the prisoner, quietly.
The Empress loosed her fingers from my arm and lay back against the cushions. "If the girl presumes on our old familiarity, or thinks that I jest, show her now, Deucalion, that I do not."
"The Empress is far from jesting," I said. "I will do this thing because it is the wish of the Empress that it should be done, and because it is the command of the Empress that a symbol of it shall remain forever as an example for others. Lead your prisoner to the place."
The soldiers wheeled, and the two guards with the chains of the collar which was on the neck of Naïs prepared to put out force to drag her up the steps. But she walked with them willingly, and with a color unchanged, and I rose from my seat and made obeisance to the Empress and followed them.
Before all those ten thousand eyes we two made no display of emotion then, not only for Atlantis's sake, but also because both Naïs and I had a nicety and a pride in our natures. We were not as Phorenice to flaunt endearments before others.
Yet, when I had bidden the guards unhasp the
collar which held the prisoner's neck, and clapped my arms round her, showing all the roughness of one who has no mind that his captive shall escape or even unduly struggle, a thrill gushed through me so potent that I was like to have fainted, and it was only by supreme strain of will that I held unbrokenly on with the ceremonial. I, who had never embraced a woman with aught but the arm of roughness before, now held pressed to me one whom I loved with an infinite tenderness, and the revelation of how love can come out and link with love was almost my undoing. Yet, outwardly, Naïs made no sign, but lay half-strangled in my arms, as any woman does that is being borne away by a spoiler.
I trod with her to the uppermost step, the vast throne-stone overhanging us, and then, so that all of those who were gazing from the sides of the pyramids and the roofs of the buildings round might see, though we were beyond Phorenice's view, I used a force that was brutal in dragging her across the level and putting her down into the hollow. And yet the girl resisted me with no one effort whatever.
So that the victim might not struggle out and be crushed, and so gain an easy death when the stone descended, there were brazen clamps to fit into grooves of the stones above the hollow where she lay, and these I fitted in place above her, and fastened one by one, doing this butcher's work with one hand, and still fiercely holding her down by the other. Gods! and the sweat of agony dripped from me on to the thirsty stone as I worked. I could not keep that in.
I clamped and locked the last two bars in place, and took my brute's hand away from her throat.
The hateful finger-marks showed as bloodless furrows in the whiteness of her skin. For the life of me, yes, even for the fate of Atlantis, I could not help dropping my glance upon her face. But she was stronger than I. She gave me no last look. She kept her eyes steadfastly fixed on the cruel stone above, and so I left her, knowing that it was best not to tarry longer.
I came out from under the stone and gave the sign to the engineers who stood by the rams. The fires were taken away from their sides, and the metal in them began to contract, and slowly the vast bulk of the throne-stone began to creep down towards its bed.
But ah, so slowly! Gods! how my soul was torn as I watched and waited.
Yet I kept my face impassive, overlooking as any officer might a piece of work which others were carrying out under his direction, and on which his credit rested; and I stood gravely in my place till the rams had let the stone come down on its final resting-place, and had been carried away by the engineers; and then I went round with the master architect with his plumb-line and level, while he tested this last piece of the building and declared it perfect.
It was a useless form, this last, seeing that by calculation they knew exactly how the stone must rest; but the guilds have their forms and customs, and on these occasions of high ceremonial they are punctiliously carried out, because these middle-class people wish always to appear mysterious and impressive
to the poor vulgar folk who are their inferiors. But perhaps I am hard there on them. A man who is needlessly taken round to plumb and duly level the tomb where his love lies buried living may perhaps be excused by the assessors on high a little spirit of bitterness.
I had gone up the steps to do my hateful work a man full of grief, though outwardly unmoved. As I came down again I had a feeling of incompleteness; it seemed as though half my inwards had been left behind with Naïs in the hollow of the stone, and their place was taken by a void which ached wearily; but still I carried a passive face, and a memory that before all these private matters stood the command of the high council, which sat before the Ark of the Mysteries.
So I went and stood before Phorenice, and said the words which the ancient forms prescribed concerning the carrying out of her wish.
"Then now," she said, "I will give myself to you as wife. We are not as others, you and I, Deucalion. There is a law and a form set down for the marrying of these other people, but that would be useless for our purposes. We will have neither priest nor scribe to join us and set down the union. I am the law here in Atlantis, and you soon will be part of me. We will not be demeaned by profaner hands. We will make the ceremony for ourselves, and for witnesses there are sufficient in waiting. Afterwards the record shall be cut deep in the granite throne you have built for me, and the lettering filled in with gold, so that it shall endure and remain bright for always."
"The Empress can do no wrong," I said, formally, and took the hand she offered me and helped her to rise. We walked out from the scarlet awning into the glare of the sunshine, she leaning on me, flushed, and so radiantly lovely that the people began to hail her with rapturous shouts of "A Goddess! our Goddess Phorenice!" But for me they had no welcoming word. I think the set grimness of my face both scared and repelled them.
We went up the steps which led to the throne, the people still shouting, and I sat her in the royal seat beneath the snake's outstretched head, and she drew me down to sit beside her.
She raised her jewelled hand, and a silence fell on that great throng, as though the breath had been suddenly cut short for all of them.
Then Phorenice made proclamation:
"Hear me, O my people, and hear me, O High Gods from whom I am come. I take this man Deucalion to be my husband, to share with me the prosperity of Atlantis, and join me in guarding our great possession. May all our enemies perish as she is now perishing above whom we sit." And then she put her arms around my neck and kissed me hotly on the mouth.
In turn I also spoke: "Hear me, O most High Gods, whose servant I am, and hear me also, O ye people. I take this Empress Phorenice to wife, to help with her the prosperity of Atlantis, and join with her in guarding the welfare of that great possession. May all the enemies of this country perish as they have perished in the past."
And then I too, who had not been permitted by the fates to touch the lips of my love, bestowed the first kiss I had ever given a woman to Phorenice, that was now being made my wife.
But we were not completely linked yet.
"A woman is one, and man is one," she proclaimed, following for the first time the old form of words, "but in marriage they merge, so that wife and husband are no more separate, but one conjointly. In token of this we will now make the symbolic joining together, so that all may see and remember." She took her dagger, and pricking the brawn on my forearm till the bead of blood appeared, set her red lips to it and took it into herself.
"Ah," she said, with her eyes sparkling, "now you are part of me indeed, Deucalion, and I feel you have strengthened me already." She pulled down the neck of her robe. "Let me make you my return."
I pricked the rounded whiteness of her shoulder. Gods! when I remembered who was beneath us as we sat on that throne, I could have driven the blade through to her heart! And then I, too, put down my lips and took the drop of her blood that was yielded to me.
My tongue was dry, my throat was parched, and my face suffused, and I thought I should have choked.
But the Empress, who was ordinarily so acute, was misled then. "It thrills you?" she cried; "it burns within you like living fire? I have just felt it. By my face! Deucalion, if I had known the pleasure it
gives to be made a wife, I do not think I should have waited this long for you. Ah, yes; but with another man I should have had no thrill. I might have gone through the ceremony with another, but it would have left me cold. Well, they say this feeling comes to a woman but once in her time, and I would not change it for the glory of all my conquests and the whirl of all my power." She leaned in close to me so that the red curls of her hair swept my cheek, and her breath came hot against my mouth. "Tasted you ever any sweet so delicious as this knowledge that we are made one now, Deucalion, past all possible dissolving?"
I could not lie to her any more just then. The Gods know how honestly I had striven to play the part commanded me for Atlantis's good, but there is a limit to human endurance, and mine was reached. I was not all anger towards her. I had some pity for this passion of hers, which had grown of itself certainly, but which I had done nothing to check; and the indecent frankness with which it was displayed was only part of the livery of potentates who flaunt what meaner folk would coyly hide. But always before my eyes was a picture of the girl on whom her jealousy had taken such a bitter vengeance, and to invent spurious lover's talk then was a thing my tongue refused to do.
"Words are poor things," I said, "and I am a man unused to women, and have but a small stock of any phrases except the driest. Remember, Phorenice, a week agone I did not know what love was, and now that I have learned the lesson, somewhat of the suddenest, the language remains still to come to me. My
inwards speak; indeed they are full of speech; but I cannot translate into bald cold words what they say."
And here surely the High Gods took pity on my tied tongue and my misery, and made an opportunity for bringing the ceremony to an end. A man ran into the square shouting, and showing a wound that dripped, and presently all that vast crowd which stood on the pavements and the sides of the pyramids and the roofs of the temples took up the cry and began to feel for their weapons.
"The rebels are in!" "They have burrowed a path into the city!" "They have killed the cave-tigers and taken a gate!" "They are putting the whole place to the storm!" "They will presently leave no poor soul of us here alive!"
There then was a termination of our marriage cooings. With rebels merely biting at the walls, it was fine to put strong trust in the defences, and easy to affect contempt for the besiegers’ powers, and to keep the business of pageants and state craft and marryings turning on easy wheels. But with rebel soldiers already inside the city (and hordes of others doubtless pressing on their heels), the affair took a different light. It was no moment for further delay, and Phorenice was the first to admit it. The glow that had been in her eyes changed to the glare of the fighter as the fellow who had run up squalled out his tidings.
I stood and stretched my chest. I seemed in need of air. "Here," I said, "is work that I can understand more clearly. I will go and sweep this rabble back to their burrows, Phorenice."
"But not alone, sir. I come too. It is my city still. Nay, sir, we are too newly wed to be parted yet."
"Have your will," I said, and together we went down the steps of the throne to the pavement below. Under my breath I said a farewell to Naïs.
Our armor-bearers met us with weapons, and we stepped into litters, and the slaves took us off hot foot. The wounded man who had first brought the news had fallen in a faint, and no more tidings was to be got from him; but the growing din of the fight gave us the general direction, and presently we began to meet knots of people who dwelt near the place of irruption running away in wild panic, loaded down with their household goods.
It was useless to stop these, as fight they could not; and if they had stayed they would merely have been slaughtered like flies, and would in all likelihood have impeded our own soldiery. And so we let them run screaming on their blind way, but forced the litters through them with but very little regard for their coward convenience.
Now the advantage of the rebels, when it came to be looked upon by a soldier's eye, was a thing of little enough importance. They had driven a tunnel from behind a covering mound, beneath the walls, and had opened it cleverly enough through the floor of a middle-class house. They had come through into this, collecting their numbers under its shelter, and doubtless hoping that the marriage of the Empress (of which spies had given them information) would sap the watchfulness of the city guards. But it seems
they were discovered and attacked before they were thoroughly ready to emerge, and, as a fine body of troops were barracked near the spot, their extermination would have been merely a matter of time, even if we had not come up.
It did not take a trained eye long to decide on this, and Phorenice, with a laugh, lay back on the cushions of the litter, and returned her weapons to the armor-bearer who came panting up to receive them. "We grow nervous with our married life, my Deucalion," she said. "We are fearful lest this new-found happiness be taken from us too suddenly."
But I was not to be robbed of my breathing-space in this wise. "Let me crave a wedding gift of you," I said.
"It is yours before you name it."
"Then give me troops, and set me wide a city gate a mile away from here."
"You can gather five hundred as you go from here to the gate, taking two hundred of those that are here. If you want more, they must be fetched from other barracks along the walls. But where is your plan?"
"Why, my poor strategy teaches me this: these foolish rebels have set all their hopes on this mine, and all their excitement on its present success. If they are kept occupied here by a Phorenice, who will give them some dainty fighting without checking them unduly, they will press on to the attack and forget all else, and never so much as dream of a sortie. And meanwhile a Deucalion with his troop will march out of the city well away from here, without tuck of
drum or blare of trumpet, and fall most unpleasantly upon their rear. After which a Phorenice will burn the house here at the mine's head, which is of wood, and straw-thatched, to discourage further egress, and either go to the walls to watch the fight from there, or sally out also and spur on the rout as her fancy dictates?"
"Your scheme is so pretty, I would I could rob you of it for my own credit's sake; and as it is I must kiss you for your cleverness. But you got my word first, you naughty fellow, and you shall have the men and do as you ask. Eh, sir, this is a sad beginning of our wedded life if you begin to rob your little wife of all the sweets of conquest from the outset."
She took back the weapons and target she had given to the armor-bearer, and stepped over the side of the litter to the ground. "But at least," she said, "if you are going to fight, you shall have troops that will do credit to my drill," and thereupon proceeded to tell off the companies of men-at-arms who were to accompany me. She left herself few enough to stem the influx of rebels who poured ceaselessly in through the tunnel; but, as I had seen, with Phorenice heavy odds added only to her enjoyment.
But for the Empress, I will own at the time to have given little enough of thought. My own proper griefs were raw within me, and I thirsted for that forgetfulness of all else which battle gives, so that for awhile I might have a rest from their gnawings.
It made my blood run freer to hear once more the tramp of practised troops behind me, and when all
had been collected we marched out through a gate of the city, and presently were charging through and through the straggling rear of the enemy. By the Gods! for the moment even Naïs was blotted from my wearied mind. Never had I loved more to let my fierceness run madly riot. Never have I gloated more abundantly over the terrible joy of battle.
Naïs must forgive my weakness in seeking to forget her even for a breathing-space. Had that opportunity been denied me, I believe the agony of remembering would have snapped my brain-strings for always.