The Lost Continent, by Cutcliffe Hyne, , at sacred-texts.com
IT was Naïs herself who sent me to attend to my sterner duties. The din of the attack came to us in the house where I was tending her, and she asked its meaning. As pithily as might be, for she was in no condition for tedious listening, I gave her the history of her nine years’ sleep.
The color flushed more to her face. "My lord is the properest man in all the world to be King," she whispered.
"I refused to touch the trade till they had given me the Queen I desired, safe and alive, here upon the Mountain."
"How we poor women are made the chattels of you men! But, for myself, I seem to like the traffic well enough. You should not have let me stand in the way of Atlantis's good, Deucalion. Still, it is very sweet to know you were weak there for once, and that I was the cause of your weakness. What is that bath over yonder? Ah! I remember; my wits seem none of the clearest just now."
"You have made the beginning. Your strength will return to you by quick degrees. But it will not bear hurrying. You must have a patience."
"Your ear, sir, for one moment, and then I will
rest in peace. My poor looks, are they all gone? You seem to have no mirror here. I had visions that I should wake up wrinkled and old."
"You are as you were, dear, that first night I saw you—the most beautiful woman in all the world."
"I am pleased you like me," she said, and took the cup of broth I offered her. "My hair seems to have grown; but it needs combing sadly. I had a fancy, dear, once, that you liked ruddy hair best, and not a plain brown." She closed her eyes then, lying back among the cushions where I had placed her, and dropped off into healthy sleep, with the smiles still playing upon her lips. I put the coverlet over her, and kissed her lightly, holding back my beard lest it should sweep her cheek. And then I went out of the chamber.
That beard had grown vastly disagreeable to me these last hours, and I then went into a room in the house, and found instruments, and shaved it down to the bare chin. A change of robe also I found there, and took it instead of my squalid rags. If a man is in truth a King, he owes these things to the dignity of his office.
But, if the din of the fighting was any guide, mine was a narrowing kingdom. Every hour it seemed to grow fiercer and more near, and it was clear that some of the gates in the passage up the cleft in the cliff, impregnable though all men had thought them, had yielded to the vehemence of Phorenice's attack. And, indeed, it was scarcely to be marvelled at. With all her genius spurred on to fury by the blow that had been struck at her by wrecking so fair a part of
the city, the Empress would be no light adversary even for a strong place to resist, and the Sacred Mountain was no longer strong.
Defences of stone, cunningly planned and mightily built, it still possessed, but these will not fight alone. They need men to line them, and, moreover, abundance of men. For always in a storm of this kind some desperate fellows will spit at death and get to hand grips, or slingers and archers slip in their shot, or the throwing-fire gets home, or (as here) some new-fangled machine like Phorenice's fire-tubes make one in a thousand of their wavering darts find the life; and so, though the general attacking loses his hundreds, the defenders also are not without their dead.
The slaughter, as it turned out, had been prodigious. As fast as the stormers came up, the priests who held the lowest gate remaining to us rained down great rocks upon them till the narrow alley of the stair was paved with their writhing dead. But Phorenice stood on a spur of the rock below them urging on the charges, and with an insane valor company after company marched up to hurl themselves hopelessly against the defences. They had no machines to batter the massive gates, and their attack was as pathetically useless as that of a child who hammers against a wall with an orange; and meanwhile the terrible stones from above mowed them down remorselessly.
Company after company of the troops marched into this terrible death-trap, and not a man of all of them ever came back. Nor was it Phorenice's policy
that they should do so. In her lust for this final conquest, she was minded to pour out troops till she had filled up the passes with the slain, so that at last she might march on to a level fight over the bridge of their poor bodies. It was no part of Phorenice's mood ever to count the cost. She set down the object which was to be gained, and it was her policy that the people of Atlantis were there to gain it for her.
Two gates then had she carried in this dreadful fashion, slaughtering those priests that stood behind them who had not been already shot down. And here I came down from above to take my share in the fight. There was no trumpet to announce my coming, no herald to proclaim my quality, but the priests as a sheer custom picked up "Deucalion!" as a battle-cry; and some shouted that, with a King to lead, there would be no further ground lost.
It was clear that the name carried to the other side and bore weight with it. A company of poor, doomed wretches who were hurrying up stopped in their charge. The word "Deucalion!" was bandied round and handed back down the line. I thought, with some grim satisfaction, that here was evidence I was not completely forgotten in the land.
There came shouts to them from behind to carry on their advance; but they did not budge; and presently a glittering officer panted up, and commenced to strike right and left among them with his sword. From where I stood on the high rampart above the gate I could see him plainly and recognized him at once.
"It matters not what they use for their battle-cry,"
he was shouting. "You have the orders of your divine Empress, and that is enough. You should be proud to die for her wish, you cowards. And if you do not obey, you will die afterwards under the instruments of the tormentors, very painfully. As for Deucalion, he is dead any time these nine years."
"There it seems you lie, my lord Tatho!" I shouted down to him.
He started, and looked up at me.
"So you are there in real truth, then? Well, old comrade, I am sorry. But it is too late to make a composition now. You are on the side of these mangy priests, and the Empress has made an edict that they are to be rooted out, and I am her most obedient servant."
"You used to be skilful of fence," I said, and indeed there was little enough to choose between us. "If it please you to stop this pitiful killing, make yourself the champion of your side, and I will stand for mine, and we will fight out this quarrel in some fair place, and bind our parties to abide by the result."
"It would be a grand fight between us two, old friend, and it goes hard with me to balk you of it. But I cannot pleasure you. I am general here under Phorenice, and she has given me the strongest orders not to peril myself. And besides, though you are a great man, Deucalion, you are not chief. You are not even one of the Three."
"I am King."
Tatho laughed. "Few but yourself would say so, my lord."
"Few, truly, but what they are they are powerful. I was given the name for the first time yesterday, and as a first blow in the campaign there was some mischief done in the city. I was there myself, and saw how you took it."
"You were in Atlantis!"
"I went for Naïs. She is on the Mountain now, and to-morrow will be my Queen. Tatho, as a priest to a priest, let me solemnly bring to your memory the infinite power you bite against on this Sacred Mountain. Your teaching has warned you of the weapons that are stored in the Ark of the Mysteries. If you persist in this attack, at the best you can merely lose; at the worst you can bring about a wreck over which even the High Gods will shudder as They order it."
"You cannot scare us back now by words," said Tatho, doggedly. "And as for magic, it will be met by magic. Phorenice has found by her own cleverness as many powers as were ever stored up in the Ark of the Mysteries."
"Yet she looked on helplessly enough last night, when her royal pyramid was trundled into a rubbish heap. Zaemon had prophesied that this should be so, and for a witness, why, I myself stood closer to her than we two stand now, and saw her."
"I will own you took her by surprise somewhat there. I do not understand these matters myself; I was never more than one of the Seven in the old days; and now, quite rightly, Phorenice keeps the knowledge of her magic to herself: but it seems time is needed when one magic is to be met by another."
"Well," I said, "I know little about the business either. I leave these matters now to those who are higher above me in the priesthood. Indeed, having a liking for Naïs, it seems I am debarred from ever being given understanding about the highest of the high Mysteries. So I content myself with being a soldier, and when the appointed day comes, I shall fall and kiss my mother the Earth for the last time. You, so I am told, have ambition for longer life."
He nodded. "Phorenice has found the Great Secret, and I am to be the first that will share it with her. We shall be as Gods upon the earth, seeing that Death will be powerless to touch us. And the twin sons she has borne me will be made immortal also."
"Phorenice is headstrong. No, my lord, there is no need to shake your head and try to deny it. I have had some acquaintance with her. But the order has been made, and her immortality will be snatched from her very rudely. Now mark solemnly my words. I, Deucalion, have been appointed King of Atlantis by the high council of the priests who are the mouthpiece of the most High Gods, and if I do not have my reign, then there will be no Atlantis left to carry either King or Empress. You know me, Tatho, for a man that never lies."
"Then save yourself before it is too late. You shall have again your viceroyalty in Yucatan."
"But, man, there is no Yucatan. A great horde of little hairy creatures, that were something less than human and something more than beasts, swept down upon our cities and ate them out. Oh, you may sneer
if you choose. Others sneered when I came home, till the Empress stopped them. But you know what a train of driver-ants is that you meet with in the forests? You may light fires across their path, and they will march into them in their blind bravery, and put them out with their bodies, and those that are left will march on in an unbroken column, and devour all that stands in their path. I tell you, my lord, those little hairy creatures were like the ants—aye, for numbers and wooden bravery, as well as for appetite. As a result, to-day there is no Yucatan."
"You shall have Egypt, then."
He burst at me hotly. "I would not take seven Egypts and ten Yucatans. My lord, you think more poorly of me than is kind when you ask me to become a traitor. In your place would you throw your Naïs away if the doing it would save you from a danger?"
"That is different."
"In no degree. You have a kindness for her. I have all that and more for Phorenice, who is, besides, my wife and the mother of my children. If I have qualms—and I freely confess I know you are desperate men up there, and have dreadful powers at your command—my shiverings are for them and not for myself. But I think, my lord, this parley is leading to nothing, and though these common soldiers here will understand little enough of our talk, they may be picking up a word here and there, and I do not wish them to go on to their death (as you will see them do shortly) and carry evil reports about me to whatever Gods they chance to come before."
He saluted me with his sword and drew back, and
once more the missiles began to fly, and the doomed wretches who had been halting beside the steep rock walls of the pass began once more to press hopelessly forward. They had scaling-ladders certainly, but they had no chance of getting these planted. They could do naught but fill the narrow way with their bodies, and to that end they had been sent, and to that end they humbly died. Our priests with crow and lever wrenched from their lodging-places the great rocks which had been made ready, and sent them crashing down, so that once more screams filled the pass, and the horrid butchery was renewed.
But ever and again some arrow, or some sling-stone, or some fire-tube's dart would find its way up from below and through the defences, and there we would be with a man the less to carry on the fight. It was well enough for Phorenice to be lavish with her troops; indeed, if she wished for success, there were no two ways for it; and when those she had levied were killed, she could readily press others into the service, seeing that she had the whole broad face of the country under her rule. But with us it was different. A man down on our side was a man whose arm would bitterly be missed, and one which could in no possible way be replaced.
I made calculation of the chances, and saw clearly that if we continued the fight on the present plan, they would storm the gates one after another as they came to them, and that by the time the uppermost gate was reached there would be no priest alive to defend it. And so, not disdaining to fashion myself on Phorenice's newer plan, which held that a general
should at times in preference plot coldly from a place of some safety, and not lead the thick of the fighting, I left those who stood to the gate with some rough soldier's words of cheer, and withdrew again up the narrow stair of the pass.
This one approach to the Sacred Mountain was, as I have said before, vastly more difficult and dangerous in the olden days when it stood as a mere bare cleft as the High Gods made it. But a chasm had been bridged here, and a shelf cut through the solid rock there, and in many places the roadway was built up on piers from distant crags below so as to make all uniform and easy. It came to my mind now that if I could destroy this path, we might gain a breathing-space for further effort.
The idea seemed good, or at least no other occurred to me which would in any way relieve our desperate situation, and I looked around me for means to put it into execution. Up and down, from the Mountain to the plains below, I had traversed that narrow stair of a pass some thousands of times, and so in a manner of speaking knew every stone and every turn and every cut of it by heart. But I had never looked upon it with an eye to shaving off all roadway to the Sacred Mountain, and so now, even in this moment of dreadful stress, I had to traverse it no less than three times afresh before I could decide upon the best site for demolition.
But once the point was fixed, there was little delay in getting the scheme in movement. Already I had sent men to the storehouses among the priests’ dwellings to fetch me rams and crows and acids and hammers,
and such other material as was needed, and these stood handy behind one of the upper gates. I put on every pair of hands that could be spared to the work, no matter what was their age and feebleness; yes, if Naïs could have walked go far I would have pressed her for the labor; and presently carved balustrade and way-side statue, together with the lettered wall-stones and the foot-worn cobbles roared down into the gulf below, and added their din to the shrieks and yells and crashes of the fighting. Gods! but it was a hateful task, smashing down that splendid handiwork of the men of the past. But it was better that it should crash down to ruin in the abyss below than that Phorenice should profane it with her impious sandals.
At first I had feared that it would be needful to sacrifice the knot of brave men who were so valiantly defending the gate then being attacked. It is disgusting to be forced into a measure of this kind, but in hard warfare it is often needful to the carrying out of his schemes for a general to leave a part of his troops to fight to a finish, and without hope of rescue, as valiantly as they may; and all he can do for their reward is to commend them earnestly to the care of the Gods. But when the work of destroying the pathway was nearly completed, I saw a chance of retrieving them.
We had not been content merely with breaking arches and throwing down the piers. We had got our rams and levers under the living rock itself on which all the whole fabric stood; and fire stood ready to heat the rams for their work; and when the
word was given, the whole could be sent crashing down the face of the cliffs beyond chance of repair.
All was, I say, finally prepared in this fashion, and then I gave the word to hold. A narrow ledge still remained undestroyed, and offered footway, and over this I crossed. The cut we had made was immediately below the uppermost gate of all, and below it there were three more massive gates still unviolated, besides the one then being so vehemently attacked. Already the garrisons had been retired from these, and I passed through them all in turn, unchallenged and unchecked, and came to that busy rampart where the twelve priests left alive worked, stripped to the waist, at heaving down the murderous rocks.
For awhile I busied myself at their side, stopping an occasional fire-tube dart or arrow on my shield and passing them the tidings. The attack was growing fiercer every minute now. The enemy had packed the pass below wellnigh full of their dead, and our battering-stones had less distance to fall, and so could do less execution. They pressed forward more eagerly than ever with their scaling-ladders, and it was plain that soon they would inevitably put the place to the storm. Even during the short time I was there their sling-stones and missiles took life from three more of the twelve who stood with me on the defence.
So I gave the word for one more furious avalanche of rock to be pelted down, and while the few living were crawling out from those killed by the discharge, and while the next band of reinforcements came scrambling up over the bodies, I sent my nine remaining
men away at a run up the steep stairway of the path, and then followed them myself. Each of the gates in turn we passed, shutting them after us, and breaking the bars and levers with which they were moved, and not till we were through the last did the roar of shouts from below tell that the besiegers had found the gate they bit against was deserted.
One by one we balanced our way across the narrow ledge which was left where the path had been destroyed, and one poor priest that carried a wound grew giddy and lost his balance here, and toppled down to his death in the abyss below before a hand could be stretched out to steady him. And then, when we were all over, heat was put to the rams, and they expanded with their resistless force, and tore the remaining ledges from their hold in the rock. I think a pang went through us all then when we saw for ourselves the last connecting-link cut away from between the poor remaining handful of our Sacred Clan on the Mountain and the rest of our great nation, who had grown so bitterly estranged to us, below.
But here at any rate was a break in the fighting. There were no further preparations we could make for our defence, and high though I knew Phorenice's genius to be, I did not see how she could very well do other than accept the check and retire. So I set a guard on the ramparts of the uppermost gate to watch all possible movements, and gave the word to the others to go and find the rest which so much they needed.
For myself, dutifully I tried to find Zaemon first,
going on the errand my proper self, for there was little enough of kingly state observed on the Sacred Mountain, although the name and title had been given me. But Zaemon was not to be come at. He was engaged inside the Ark of Mysteries with another of the Three, and being myself only one of the Seven, I had not rank enough in the priesthood to break in upon their workings. And so I was free to turn where my likings would have led me first, and that was to the house which sheltered Naïs.
She waked as I came in over the threshold, and her eyes filled with a welcome for me. I went across and knelt where she lay, putting my face on the pillow beside her. She was full of tender talk and sweet endearments. Gods! What an infinity of delight I had missed by not knowing my Naïs earlier! But she had a will of her own through it all, and some quaint conceits which made her all the more adorable. She rallied me on the new cleanness of my chin, and on the robe which I had taken as a covering. She professed a pretty awe for my kingship, and vowed that had she known of my coming dignities she would never have dared to discover a love for me. But about my marriage with Phorenice she spoke with less lightness. She put out her thin white hand and drew my face to her lips.
"It is weak of me to have a jealousy," she murmured, "knowing how completely my lord is mine alone; but I cannot help it. You have said you were her husband for awhile. It gives me a pang to think that I shall not be the first to lie in your arms, Deucalion."
"Then you may gayly throw your pang away," I whispered back. "I was husband to Phorenice in mere word, for how long I do not precisely know. But in anything beyond I was never her husband at all. She married me by a form she prescribed herself, ignoring all the old rites and ceremonies, and whether it would hold as legal or not we need not trouble to inquire. She herself has most nicely and completely annulled that marriage, as I have told you. Tatho is her husband now, and father to her children, and he seems to have a fondness for her which does him credit."
We said other things too in that chamber, those small repetitions of endearments which are so precious to lovers and so beyond the comprehension of other folk, but they are not to be set down on these sheets. They are a mere private matter which can have no concern to any one beyond our two selves, and more weighty subjects are piling themselves up in deep index for the historian.
Phorenice, it seemed, had more rage against the Priests’ Clan on the Mountain and more bright genius to help her to a vengeance than I had credited. Her troops stormed easily the gates we had left to them, and swarmed up till they stood where the pathway was broken down. In the fierceness of their rush the foremost were thrust over the brink by those pressing up behind before the advance could be halted, and these went screaming to a horrid death in the great gulf below. But it was no position here that a lavish spending of men could take, and presently all were drawn off, save for some half-score
who stood as outpost sentries and dodged out of arrow-shot behind angles of the rock.
It seems, too, that the Empress herself reconnoitred the place, using due caution and quickness, and so got for herself a full plan of its requirements without being obliged to trust the measuring of another eye. With extraordinary nimbleness she must have planned an engine such as was necessary to suit her purposes, and given orders for its making; for even with the vast force and resources at her disposal, the speed with which it was built was prodigious.
There was very little noise made to tell of what was afoot. All the wood-work and metal-work was cut and tongued and forged and fitted first by skilled craftsmen below in the plain at the foot of the cleft; and when each ponderous balk and each cross-piece and each plank was dragged up the steep pass through the conquered gates, it was ready instantly for fitting into its appointed place in the completed machine.
The cleft was straight where they set about their building, and there was no curve or spur of the cliff to hide their handiwork from those of the priests who watched from the ramparts above our one remaining gate. But Phorenice had a coyness lest her engine should be seen before it was completed, and so to screen it she had a vast fire built at the uppermost point where the causeway was broken off, and fed diligently with wet sedge and green wood, so that a great smoke poured out, rising like a curtain that shut out all view. And so though the priests on the rampart above the gate picked off now and
again some of those who tended the fire, they could do the besiegers no further injury, and remained up to the last quite in ignorance of their tactics.
The passage up the cleft was in shadow during the night hours, for, though all the crest of the Sacred Mountain was always lit brightly by the eternal fires which made its defence on the farther side, their glow threw no gleam down that flank where the cliff ran sheer to the plains beneath. And so it was under cover of the darkness that Phorenice brought up her engine into position for attack.
Planking had been laid down for its wheels, and the wheels themselves well greased, and it may be that she hoped to march in upon us while all slept. But there was a certain creaking and groaning of timbers and labored panting of men which gave advertisement that something was being attempted, and the alarm was spread quietly in the hope that if a surprise had been planned, the real surprise might be turned the other way.
A messenger came to me, running, where I sat in the house at the side of my love, and she, like the soldier's wife she was made to be, kissed me and bade me go quickly and care for my honor, and bring back my wounds for her to mend.
On the rampart above the gate all was silence, save for the faint rustle of armed men, and out of the black darkness ahead, from the other side of the broken causeway, came the sounds of which the messenger had warned me.
The captain of the gate came to me and whispered: "We have made no light till the King came, not
knowing the King's will in the matter. Is it wished I send some of the throwing-fire down yonder, on the chance that it does some harm, and at the same time lights up the place? Or is it willed that we wait for their surprise?"
"Send the fire," I said, "or we may find that Phorenice's brain has been one too many for us." The captain of the gate took one of the balls in his hand, lit the fuse, and hurled it. The horrid thing burst among a mass of men who were laboring with a huge engine, spattering them with its deadly fire, and lighting their garments. The plan of the engine showed itself plainly. They had built them a vast great tower, resting on wheels at its base, so that it might be pushed forward from behind, and slanting at its foot to allow for the steepness of the path and leave it always upright.
It was storied inside, with ladders joining each floor, and through slits in the side which faced us bowmen could cover an attack. From its top a great bridge reared high above it, being carried vertically till the tower was brought near enough for its use. The bridge was hinged at the third story of the tower, and fastened with ropes to its extreme top; but, once the ropes were cut, the bridge would fall, and light upon whatever came within its swing, and be held there by the spikes with which it was studded beneath.
I saw, and inwardly felt myself conquered. The cleverness of Phorenice had been too strong for my defence. No war-engine of which we had command could overset the tower. The whole of its massive
timbers were hung with the wet new-stripped skins of beasts, so that even the throwing-fire could not destroy it. What puny means we had to impede those who pushed it forward would have little effect. Presently it would come to the place appointed, and the ropes would be cut, and the bridge would thunder down on the rampart above our last gate, and the stormers would pour out to their final success.
Well, life had loomed very pleasant for me these few days, with a warm and loving Naïs once more in touch of my arms, but the High Gods in Their infinite wisdom knew best always, and I was no rebel to stay stiff-necked against their decision. But it is ever a soldier's privilege, come what may, to warm over a fight, and the most exquisitely fierce joy of all is that final fight of a man who knows that he must die, and who lusts only to make his bed of slain high enough to carry a due memory of his powers with those who afterwards come to gaze upon it. I gripped my axe, and the muscles of my arms stood out in knots at the thought of it. Would Tatho come to give me sport? I feared not. They would send only the common soldiers first to the storm, and I must be content to do my killing on those.
And Naïs, what of her? I had a quiet mind there. When any spoilers came to the house where she lay, she would know that Deucalion had been taken up to the Gods, and she would not be long in following him. She had her dagger. No, I had no fears of being parted long from Naïs now.