THE LOST CONTINENT by C. J. Cutcliffe Hyne
10. A Wooing
A murmur quickly sprang up round me, which grew into shouts. “Kneel,” one whispered, “kneel, sir, or you will be seen.” And another cried: “Kneel, you without beard, and do obeisance to the only Goddess, or by the old Gods I will make myself her priest and butcher you!” And so the shouts arose into a roar.
But presently the word “Deucalion” began to be bandied about, and there came a moderation in the zeal of these enthusiasts. Deucalion, the man who had left Atlantis twenty years before to rule Yucatan, they might know little enough about, but Deucalion, who rode not many days back beside the Empress in the golden castle beneath the canopy of snakes, was a person they remembered; and when they weighed up his possible ability for vengeance, the shouts died away from them limply.
So when the silence had grown again, and Phorenice turned and saw me standing alone amongst all the prostrate worshippers, I stepped out from the crowd and passed between two of the great stones, and went across the circle to where she stood beside the altar. I did not prostrate myself. At the prescribed distance I made the salutation which she herself had ordered when she made me her chief minister, and then hailed her with formal decorum as Empress.
“Deucalion, man of ice,” she retorted.
“I still adhere to the old Gods!”
“I was not referring to that,” said she, and looked at me with a sidelong smile.
But here Ylga came up to us with a face that was white, and a hand that shook, and made supplication for my life. “If he will not leave the old Gods yet,” she pleaded, “surely you will pardon him? He is a strong man, and does not become a convert easily. You may change him later. But think, Phorenice, he is Deucalion; and if you slay him here for this one thing, there is no other man within all the marches of Atlantis who would so worthily serve—”
The Empress took the words from her. “You slut,” she cried out. “I have you near me to appoint my wardrobe, and carry my fan, and do you dare to put a meddling finger on my policies? Back with you, outside this circle, or I’ll have you whipped. Ay, and I’ll do more. I’ll serve you as Zaemon served my captain, Tarca. Shall I point a finger at you, and smite your pretty skin with a sudden leprosy?”
The girl bowed her shoulders, and went away cowed, and Phorenice turned to me. “My lord,” she said, “I am like a young bird in the nest that has suddenly found its wings. Wings have so many uses that I am curious to try them all.”
“May each new flight they take be for the good of Atlantis.”
“Oh,” she said, with an eye-flash, “I know what you have most at heart. But we will go back to the pyramid, and talk this out at more leisure. I pray you now, my lord, conduct me back to my riding beast.”
It appeared then that I was to be condoned for not offering her worship, and so putting public question on her deification. It appeared also that Ylga’s interference was looked upon as untimely, and, though I could not understand the exact reasons for either of these things, I accepted them as they were, seeing that they forwarded the scheme that Zaemon had bidden me carry out.
So when the Empress lent me her fingers—warm, delicate fingers they were, though so skilful to grasp the weapons of war—I took them gravely, and led her out of the great circle, which she had polluted with her trickeries. I had expected to see our Lord the Sun take vengeance on the profanation whilst it was still in act; but none had come: and I knew that He would choose his own good time for retribution, and appoint what instrument He thought best, without my raising a puny arm to guard His mighty honour.
So I led this lovely sinful woman back to the huge red mammoth which stood there tamely in waiting, and the smell of the sacrifice came after us as we walked. She mounted the stair to the golden castle on the shaggy beast’s back, and bade me mount also and take seat beside her. But the place of the fan-girl behind was empty, and what we said as we rode back through the streets there was none to overhear.
She was eager to know what had befallen me after the attack on the gate, and I told her the tale, laying stress on the worthiness of Nais, and uttering an opinion that with care the girl might be won back to allegiance again. Only the commands that Zaemon laid upon me when he and I spoke together in the sacred tongue, did I withhold, as it is not lawful to repeat these matters save only in the High Council of the Priests itself as they sit before the Ark of the Mysteries.
“You seem to have an unusual kindliness for this rebel Nais,” said Phorenice.
“She showed herself to me as more clever and thoughtful than the common herd.”
“Ay,” she answered, with a sigh that I think was real enough in its way, “an Empress loses much that meaner woman gets as her common due.”
“In what particular?”
“She misses the honest wooing of her equals.”
“If you set up for a Goddess—” I said.
“Pah! I wish to be no Goddess to you, Deucalion. That was for the common people; it gives me more power with them; it helps my schemes. All you Seven higher priests know that trick of calling down the fire, and it pleased me to filch it. Can you not be generous, and admit that a woman may be as clever in finding out these natural laws as your musty elder priests?”
“Remains that you are Empress.”
“Nor Empress either. Just think that there is a woman seated beside you on this cushion, Deucalion, and look upon her, and say what words come first to your lips. Have done with ceremonies, and have done with statecraft. Do you wish to wait on as you are till all your manhood withers? It is well not to hurry unduly in these matters: I am with you there. Yet, who but a fool watches a fruit grow ripe, and then leaves it till it is past its prime?”
I looked on her glorious beauty, but as I live it left me cold. But I remembered the command that had been laid upon me, and forced a smile. “I may have been fastidious,” I said, “but I do not regret waiting this long.”
“Nor I. But I have played my life as a maid, time enough. I am a woman, ripe, and full-blooded, and the day has come when I should be more than what I have been.”
I let my hand clench on hers. “Take me to husband then, and I will be a good man to you. But, as I am bidden speak to Phorenice the woman now, and not to the Empress, I offer fair warning that I will be no puppet.”
She looked at me sidelong. “I have been master so long that I think it will come as enjoyment to be mastered sometimes. No, Deucalion, I promise that—you shall be no puppet. Indeed, it would take a lusty lung to do the piping if you were to dance against your will.”
“Then, as man and wife we will live together in the royal pyramid, and we will rule this country with all the wit that it has pleased the High Gods to bestow on us. These miserable differences shall be swept aside; the rebels shall go back to their homes, and hunt, and fight the beasts in the provinces, and the Priests’ Clan shall be pacified. Phorenice, you and I will throw ourselves brain and soul into the government, and we will make Atlantis rise as a nation that shall once more surpass all the world for peace and prosperity.”
Petulantly she drew her hand away from mine. “Oh, your conditions, and your Atlantis! You carry a crudeness in these colonial manners of yours, Deucalion, that palls on one after the first blunt flavour has worn away. Am I to do all the wooing? Is there no thrill of love under all your ice?”
“In truth, I do not know what love may be. I have had little enough speech with women all these busy years.”
“We were a pair, then, when you landed, though I have heard sighs and protestations from every man that carries a beard in all Atlantis. Some of them tickled my fancy for the day, but none of them have moved me deeper. No, I also have not learned what this love may be from my own personal feelings. But, sir, I think that you will teach me soon, if you go on with your coldness.”
“From what I have seen, love is for the poor, and the weak, and for those of flighty emotions.”
“Then I would that another woman were Empress, and that I were some ill-dressed creature of the gutter that a strong man could pick up by force, and carry away to his home for sheer passion. Ah! How I could revel in it! How I could respond if he caught my whim!” She laughed. “But I should lead him a sad life of it if my liking were not so strong as his.”
“We are as we are made, and we cannot change our inwards which move us.”
She looked at me with a sullen glance. “If I do not change yours, my Deucalion, there will be more trouble brewed for this poor Atlantis that you set such store upon. There will be ill doings in this coming household of ours if my love grows for you, and yours remains still unborn.”
I believe she would have had me fondle her there in the golden castle on the mammoth’s shabby back, before the city streets packed with curious people. She had little enough appetite for privacy at any time. But for the life of me I could not do it. The Gods know I was earnest enough about my task, and They know also how it repelled me. But I was a true priest that day, and I had put away all personal liking to carry out the commands which the Council had laid upon me. If I had known how to set about it, I would have fallen in with her mood. But where any of those shallow bedizened triflers about the court would have been glibly in his element, I stuck for lack of a dozen words.
There was no help for it but to leave all, save what I actually felt, unsaid. Diplomacy I was trained in, and on most matters I had a glib enough tongue. But to palter with women was a lightness I had always neglected, and if I had invented would-be pretty speeches out of my clumsy inexperience, Phorenice would have seen through the fraud on the instant. She had been nurtured during these years of her rule on a pap of these silly protestations, and could weigh their value with an expert’s exactness.
Nor was it a case where honest confession would have served my purpose better. If I had put my position to her in plain words, it would have made relations worse. And so perforce I had to hold my tongue, and submit to be considered a clown.
“I had always heard,” she said, “that you colonists in Yucatan were far ahead of those in Egypt in all the arts and graces. But you, sir, do small credit to your vice-royalty. Why, I have had gentry from the Nile come here, and you might almost think they had never left their native shores.”
“They must have made great strides this last twenty years, then. When last I was sent to Egypt to report, the blacks were clearly masters of the land, and our people lived there only on sufferance. Their pyramids were puny, and their cities nothing more than forts.”
“Oh,” she said mockingly, “they are mere exiles still, but they remember their manners. My poor face seemed to please them, at least they all went into raptures over it. And for ten pleasant words, one of them cut off his own right hand. We made the bargain, my Egyptian gallant and I, and the hand lies dried on some shelf in my apartment to-day as a pleasant memento.”
But here, by a lucky chance for me, an incident occurred which saved me from further baiting. The rebels outside the walls were conducting their day’s attack with vigour and some intelligence. More than once during our procession the lighter missiles from their war engines had sung up through the air, and split against a building, and thrown splinters which wounded those who thronged the streets. Still there had been nothing to ruffle the nerves of any one at all used to the haps of warfare, or in any way to hinder our courtship. But presently, it seems, they stopped hurling stones from their war engines, and took to loading them with carcases of wood lined with the throwing fire.
Now, against stone buildings these did little harm, save only that they scorched horribly any poor wretch that was within splash of them when they burst; but when they fell upon the rude wooden booths and rush shelters of the poorer folk, they set them ablaze instantly. There was no putting out these fires.
These things also would have given to either Phorenice or myself little enough of concern, as they are the trivial and common incidents of every siege; but the mammoth on which we rode had not been so properly schooled. When the first blue whiff of smoke came to us down the windings of the street, the huge red beast hoisted its trunk, and began to sway its head uneasily. When the smoke drifts grew more dense, and here and there a tongue of flame showed pale beneath the sunshine, it stopped abruptly and began to trumpet.
The guards who led it, tugged manfully at the chains which hung from the jagged metal collar round its neck, so that the spikes ran deep into its flesh, and reminded it keenly of its bondage. But the beast’s terror at the fire, which was native to its constitution, mastered all its new-bought habits of obedience. From time unknown men have hunted the mammoth in the savage ground, and the mammoth has hunted men; and the men have always used fire as a shield, and mammoths have learned to dread fire as the most dangerous of all enemies.
Phorenice’s brow began to darken as the great beast grew more restive, and she shook her red curls viciously. “Someone shall lose a head for this blundering,” said she. “I ordered to have this beast trained to stand indifferent to drums, shouting, arrows, stones, and fire, and the trainers assured me that all was done, and brought examples.”
I slipped my girdle. “Here,” I said, “quick. Let me lower you to the ground.”
She turned on me with a gleam. “Are you afraid for my neck, then, Deucalion?”
“I have no mind to be bereaved before I have tasted my wedded life.”
“Pish! There is little enough of danger. I will stay and ride it out. I am not one of your nervous women, sir. But go you, if you please.”
“There is little enough chance of that now.”
Blood flowed from the mammoth’s neck where the spikes of the collar tore it, and with each drop, so did the tameness seem to ooze out from it also. With wild squeals and trumpetings it turned and charged viciously down the way it had come, scattering like straws the spearmen who tried to stop it, and mowing a great swath through the crowd with its monstrous progress. Many must have been trodden under foot, many killed by its murderous trunk, but only their cries came to us. The golden castle, with its canopy of royal snakes, was swayed and tossed, so that we two occupants had much ado not to be shot off like stones from a catapult. But I took a brace with my feet against the front, and one arm around a pillar, and clapped the spare arm round Phorenice, so as to offer myself to her as a cushion.
She lay there contentedly enough, with her lovely face just beneath my chin, and the faint scent of her hair coming in to me with every breath I took; and the mammoth charged madly on through the narrow streets. We had outstripped the taint of smoke, and the original cause of fear, but the beast seemed to have forgotten everything in its mad panic. It held furiously on with enormous strides, carrying its trunk aloft, and deafening us with its screams and trumpetings. We left behind us quickly all those who had trod in that glittering pageant, and we were carried helplessly on through the wards of the city.
The beast was utterly beyond all control. So great was its pace that there was no alternative but to try and cling on to the castle. Up there we were beyond its reach. To have leapt off, even if we had avoided having brains dashed out or limbs smashed by the fall, would have been to put ourselves at once at a frightful disadvantage. The mammoth would have scented us immediately, and turned (as is the custom of these beasts), and we should have been trampled into a pulp in a dozen seconds.
The thought came to me that here was the High God’s answer to Phorenice’s sacrilege. The mammoth was appointed to carry out Their vengeance by dashing her to pieces, and I, their priest, was to be human witness that justice had been done. But no direct revelation had been given me on this matter, and so I took no initiative, but hung on to the swaying castle, and held the Empress against bruises in my arms.
There was no guiding the brute: in its insanity of madness it doubled many times upon its course, the windings of the streets confusing it. But by degrees we left the large palaces and pyramids behind, and got amongst the quarters of artisans, where weavers and smiths gaped at us from their doors as we thundered past. And then we came upon the merchants’ quarters where men live over their storehouses that do traffic with the people overseas, and then down an open space there glittered before us a mirror of water.
“Now here,” thought I, “this mad beast will come to sudden stop, and as like as not will swerve round sharply and charge back again towards the heart of the city.” And I braced myself to withstand the shock, and took fresh grip upon the woman who lay against my breast. But with louder screams and wilder trumpetings the mammoth held straight on, and presently came to the harbour’s edge, and sent the spray sparkling in sheets amongst the sunshine as it went with its clumsy gait into the water.
But at this point the pace was very quickly slackened. The great sewers, which science devised for the health of the city in the old King’s time, vomit their drainings into this part of the harbour, and the solid matter which they carry is quickly deposited as an impalpable sludge. Into this the huge beast began to sink deeper and deeper before it could halt in its rush, and when with frightened bellowings it had come to a stop, it was bogged irretrievably. Madly it struggled, wildly it screamed and trumpeted. The harbour-water and the slime were churned into one stinking compost, and the golden castle in which we clung lurched so wildly that we were torn from it and shot far away into the water.
Still there, of course, we were safe, and I was pleased enough to be rid of the bumpings.
Phorenice laughed as she swam. “You handle yourself like a sore man, Deucalion. I owe you something for lending me the cushion of your body. By my face! There’s more of the gallant about you when it comes to the test than one would guess to hear you talk. How did you like the ride, sir? I warrant it came to you as a new experience.”
“I’d liefer have walked.”
“Pish, man! You’ll never be a courtier. You should have sworn that with me in your arms you could have wished the bumping had gone on for ever. Ho, the boat there! Hold your arrows. Deucalion, hail me those fools in that boat. Tell them that, if they hurt so much as a hair of my mammoth, I’ll kill them all by torture. He’ll exhaust himself directly, and when his flurry’s done we’ll leave him where he is to consider his evil ways for a day or so, and then haul him out with windlasses, and tame him afresh. Pho! I could not feel myself to be Phorenice, if I had no fine, red, shaggy mammoth to take me out for my rides.”
The boat was a ten-slave galley which was churning up from the farther side of the harbour as hard as well-plied whips could make oars drive her, but at the sound of my shouts the soldiers on her foredeck stopped their arrowshots, and the steersman swerved her off on a new course to pick us up. Till then we had been swimming leisurely across an angle of the harbour, so as to avoid landing where the sewers outpoured; but we stopped now, treading the water, and were helped over the side by most respectful hands.
The galley belonged to the captain of the port, a mincing figure of a mariner, whose highest appetite in life was to lick the feet of the great, and he began to fawn and prostrate himself at once, and to wish that his eyes had been blinded before he saw the Empress in such deadly peril.
“The peril may pass,” said she. “It’s nothing mortal that will ever kill me. But I have spoiled my pretty clothes, and shed a jewel or two, and that’s annoying enough as you say, good man.”
The silly fellow repeated a wish that he might be blinded before the Empress was ever put to such discomfort again.
But it seemed she could be cloyed with flattery. “If you are tired of your eyes,” said she, “let me tell you that you have gone the way to have them plucked out from their sockets. Kill my mammoth, would you, because he has shown himself a trifle frolicsome? You and your sort want more education, my man. I shall have to teach you that port-captains and such small creatures are very easy to come by, and very small value when got, but that my mammoth is mine—mine, do you understand?—the property of Goddess Phorenice, and as such is sacred.”
The port-captain abased himself before her. “I am an ignorant fellow,” said he, “and heaven was robbed of its brightest ornament when Phorenice came down to Atlantis. But if reparation is permitted me, I have two prisoners in the cabin of the boat here who shall be sacrificed to the mammoth forthwith. Doubtless it would please him to make sport with them, and spill out the last lees of his rage upon their bodies.”
“Prisoners you’ve got, have you? How taken?”
“Under cover of last night they were trying to pass in between the two forts which guard the harbour mouth. But their boat fouled the chain, and by the light of the torches the sentries spied them. They were caught with ropes, and put in a dungeon. There is an order not to abuse prisoners before they have been brought before a judgment?”
“It was my order. Did these prisoners offer to buy their lives with news?”
“The man has not spoken. Indeed, I think he got his death-wound in being taken. The woman fought like a cat also, so they said in the fort, but she was caught without hurt. She says she has got nothing that would be of use to tell. She says she has tired of living like a savage outside the city, and moreover that, inside, there is a man for whose nearness she craves most mightily.”
“Tut!” said Phorenice. “Is this a romance we have swum to? You see what affectionate creatures we women are, Deucalion.”—The galley was brought up against the royal quay and made fast to its golden rings. I handed the Empress ashore, but she turned again and faced the boat, her garments still yielding up a slender drip of water.—”Produce your woman prisoner, master captain, and let us see whether she is a runaway wife, or a lovesick girl mad after her sweetheart. Then I will deliver judgment on her, and as like as not will surprise you all with my clemency. I am in a mood for tender romance to-day.”
The port-captain went into the little hutch of a cabin with a white face. It was plain that Phorenice’s pleasantries scared him. “The man appears to be dead, Your Majesty. I see that his wounds—”
“Bring out the woman, you fool. I asked for her. Keep your carrion where it is.”
I saw the fellow stoop for his knife to cut a lashing, and presently who should he bring out to the daylight but the girl I had saved from the cave-tigers in the circus, and who had so strangely drawn me to her during the hours that we had spent afterwards in companionship. It was clear, too, that the Empress recognised her also. Indeed, she made no secret about the matter, addressing her by name, and mockingly making inquiries about the ménage of the rebels, and the success of the prisoner’s amours.
“This good port-captain tells me that you made a most valiant attempt to return, Nais, and for an excuse you told that it was your love for some man in the city here which drew you. Come, now, we are willing to overlook much of your faults, if you will give us a reasonable chance. Point me out your man, and if he is a proper fellow, I will see that he weds you honestly. Yes, and I will do more for you, Nais, since this day brings me to a husband. Seeing that all your estate is confiscate as a penalty for your late rebellion, I will charge myself with your dowry, and give it back to you. So come, name me the man.”
The girl looked at her with a sullen brow. “I spoke a lie,” she said; “there is no man.”
I tried myself to give her advocacy. “The lady doubtless spoke what came to her lips. When a woman is in the grip of a rude soldiery, any excuse which can save her for the moment must serve. For myself, I should think it like enough that she would confess to having come back to her old allegiance, if she were asked.”
“Sir,” said the Empress, “keep your peace. Any interest you may show in this matter will go far to offend me. You have spoken of Nais in your narrative before, and although your tongue was shrewd and you did not say much, I am a woman and I could read between the lines. Now regard, my rebel, I have no wish to be unduly hard upon you, though once you were my fan-girl, and so your running away to these ill-kempt malcontents, who beat their heads against my city walls, is all the more naughty. But you must meet me halfway. You must give an excuse for leniency. Point me out the man you would wed, and he shall be your husband to-morrow.”
“There is no man.”
“Then name me one at random. Why, my pretty Nais, not ten months ago there were a score who would have leaped at the chance of having you for a wife. Drop your coyness, girl, and name me one of those. I warrant you that I will be your ambassadress and will put the matter to him with such delicacy that he will not make you blush by refusal.”
The prisoner moistened her lips. “I am a maiden, and I have a maiden’s modesty. I will die as you choose, but I will not do this indecency.”
“Well, I am a maiden too, and though because I am Empress also, questions of State have to stand before questions of my private modesty, I can have a sympathy for yours—although in truth it did not obtrude unduly when you were my fan-girl, Nais. No, come to think of it, you liked a tender glance and a pretty phrase as well as any when you were fan-girl. You have grown wild and shy, amongst these savage rebels, but I will not punish you for that.
“Let me call your favourites to memory now. There was Tarca, of course, but Tarca had a difference with that ill-dressed father of yours, and wears a leprosy on half his face instead of that beard he used to trim so finely. And then there is Tatho, but Tatho is away overseas. Eron, too, you liked once, but he lost an arm in fighting t’other day, and I would not marry you to less than a whole man. Ah, by my face! I have it, the dainty exquisite, Rota! He is the husband! How well I remember the way he used to dress in a change of garb each day to catch your proud fancy, girl. Well, you shall have Rota. He shall lead you to wife before this hour to-morrow.”
Again the prisoner moistened her lips. “I will not have Rota, and spare me the others. I know why you mock me, Phorenice.”
“Then there are three of us here who share one knowledge.”—She turned her eyes upon me. Gods! who ever saw the like of Phorenice’s eyes, and who ever saw them lit with such fire as burned within them then?—”My lord, you are marrying me for policy; I am marrying you for policy, and for another reason which has grown stronger of late, and which you may guess at. Do you wish still to carry out the match?”
I looked once at Nais, and then I looked steadily back to Phorenice. The command given by the mouth of Zaemon from the High Council of the Sacred Mountain had to outweigh all else, and I answered that such was my desire.
“Then,” said she, glowering at me with her eyes, “you shall build me up the pretty body of Nais beneath a throne of granite as a wedding gift. And you shall do it too with your own proper hands, my Deucalion, whilst I watch your devotion.”
And to Nais she turned with a cruel smile. “You lied to me, my girl, and you spoke truth to the soldiers in the harbour forts. There is a man here in the city you came after, and he is the one man you may not have. Because you know me well, and my methods very thoroughly, your love for him must be very deep, or you would not have come. And so, being here, you shall be put beyond mischief’s reach. I am not one of those who see luxury in fostering rivals.
“You came for attention at the hands of Deucalion. By my face! you shall have it. I will watch myself whilst he builds you up living.”
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK