The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol I Part 13

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Layelah next came to see me. She was as amiable as ever, and showed no resentment at all. She gave me an account of what had happened at the Council of State, which was the same as what I had heard from the Kohen Gadol.

I asked her why she had made such a report of us.

"To conciliate their good-will," said Layelah. "For if they thought that you had really fled from death from a love of life, they would have felt such contempt for you that serious harm might have happened."

"Yes," said I; "but among the Kosekin what you call harm would probably have been just what I want. I should like to be viewed with contempt, and considered unworthy of death and the Mista Kosek, and other such honors."

"Oh yes," said Layelah; "but that doesn't follow; for you see the paupers love death so intensely that they long to bestow it on all; and if they knew that you were afraid of it, they would be tempted to bestow it upon you immediately, just to show you how delightful a thing it is. And that was the very thing that I was trying to guard against."



"Well," said I, "and what is the result? Do you know what their decision is?"

"Yes," said Layelah.

"What is it?" I asked, eagerly.

Layelah hesitated.

"What is it?" I cried again, full of impatience.

"I'm afraid it will not sound very pleasant to you," said Layelah, "but at any rate your life is spared for the present. They have decided to give you what they call the greatest possible honors and distinctions."

Layelah paused, and looked at me earnestly. For my part these words sounded ominous, and were full of the darkest meaning.

"Tell me all," I said; "don't keep me in suspense."

"Well," said Layelah, "I'm afraid you will think it hard; but I must tell you. I will tell it, therefore, as briefly and formally as possible.

"First, then, they have decreed the blessing of separation. You and Almah must now be parted, since this is regarded as the highest bliss of lovers.

"Secondly, they have decreed the blessing of poverty. All these luxuries will be taken away, and you will be raised to an equality in this respect with the great paupers.

"Thirdly, you are to have the blessing of darkness. You are to be removed from this troublesome and vexatious light, which here is regarded as a curse, and henceforth live without it.

"Fourthly, the next decree is the high reward of imprisonment. You are to be delivered from the evils of liberty, and shut up in a dark cavern, from which it will be impossible to escape or to communicate with anyone outside.

"Fifthly, you are to a.s.sociate with the greatest of the paupers, the cla.s.s that is the most honored and influential. You will be present at all their highest councils, and will have the privilege of perpetual intercourse with those reverend men. They will tell you of the joys of poverty, the happiness of darkness, and the bliss of death."

Layelah paused, and looked at me earnestly.

"Is there anything more?" I gasped.

"No," said she. "Is not that enough? Some were in favor of bestowing immediate death, but they were outvoted by the others. You surely cannot regret that."

Layelah's words sounded like the words of a mocking demon. Yet she did not wish to distress me; she had merely stated my sentence in formal language, without any attempt to soften its tremendous import. As for me, I was overwhelmed with despair. There was but one thought in my mind--it was not of myself, but of Almah.

"And Almah?" I cried.

"Almah," said Layelah--"she will have the same; you are both included in the same sentence."

At this a groan burst from me. Horror overwhelmed me. I threw myself down upon the floor and covered my face with my hands. All was lost! Our fate--Almah's fate--was darkness, imprisonment, and death. Could anything be imagined that might mitigate such woes as these? Could anything be conceived of as more horrible? Yes; there remained something more, and this was announced by Layelah.

"Finally," said she, "it has been decreed that you shall not only have the blessing of death, but that you shall have the rare honor of belonging to the chosen few who are reserved for the Mista Kosek. Thus far this had not been granted. It was esteemed too high an honor for strangers; but now, by an exercise of unparalleled liberality, the Grand Council of Paupers have added this, as the last and best, to the high honors and rewards which they have decreed for you and Almah."

To this I had nothing to say; I was stupefied with horror. To such words what answer could be made? At that moment I could think of nothing but this tremendous sentence--this infliction of appalling woes under the miserable name of blessings! I could not think of Layelah; nor did I try to conjecture what her motives might be in thus coming to me as the messenger of evil. I could not find s.p.a.ce amid my despair for speculations as to her own part in this, or stop to consider whether she was acting the part of a mere messenger, or was influenced by resentment or revenge. All this was far away from my thoughts; for all my mind was filled with the dread sentence of the Council of Paupers and the baleful prospect of the woes that awaited us.

On the next jom I saw Almah. She had already learned the awful tidings. She met me with a face of despair; for there was no longer any hope, and all that remained for us was a last farewell. After this we parted, and each of us was taken to our respective prison.

I was taken along dark pa.s.sages until I came to a cavern with a low, dark portal. Upon entering I found the darkness deeper than usual, and there was only one solitary lamp, which diffused but a feeble ray through the gloom. The size of the place could not be made out. I saw here a group of human beings, and by the feeble ray of the lamp I perceived that they were wan and thin and emaciated, with scant clothing, all in rags, squalor, misery, and dirt; with coa.r.s.e hair matted together, and long nails and s.h.a.ggy beards. They reminded me in their personal appearance of the cannibals of the outer sh.o.r.e. These hideous beings all gathered around me, blinking at me with their bleary eyes and grinning with their abominable faces, and then each one embraced me. The filth, squalor, and unutterable foulness of these wretches all combined to fill my soul with loathing, and the inconceivable horror of that embrace wellnigh overwhelmed me. Yet, after all, it was surpa.s.sed by the horror of the thought that Almah might be at that very moment undergoing the same experience; and for her such a thing must be worse than for me.

I retreated as far as possible from them, deep into the thick darkness, and sat down. No convicted felon at the last hour of life, no prisoner in the dungeons of the Inquisition, ever could have suffered more mental agony than I did at that moment. The blessings, the awful blessings of the Kosekin were descending upon my miserable head--separation from Almah, squalor and dirt, imprisonment, the society of these filthy creatures, darkness, the shadow of death, and beyond all the tremendous horrors of the Mista Kosek!

I do not know how the time pa.s.sed, for at first I was almost stupefied with despair; nor could I ever grow reconciled to the society of these wretches, scarce human, who were with me. Some food was offered me--filthy stuff, which I refused. My refusal excited warm commendation; but I was warned against starving myself, as that was against the law. In my despair I thought of my pistol and rifle, which I still kept with me--of using these against my jailors, and bursting forth; but this wild impulse soon pa.s.sed away, for its utter hopelessness was manifest. My only hope, if hope it was, lay in waiting, and it was not impossible that I might see Almah again, if only once.

Joms pa.s.sed away, I know not how. The Chief Pauper, who is the greatest man in the land of the Kosekin, made several attempts to converse with me, and was evidently very condescending and magnanimous in his own eyes; but I did not meet his advances graciously--he was too abhorrent. He was a hideous wretch, with eyes nearly closed and bleary, thick, matted hair, and fiendish expression--in short, a devil incarnate in rags and squalor.

But as the joms pa.s.sed I found it difficult to repel my a.s.sociates. They were always inflicting their society upon me, and thrusting on me nasty little acts of kindness. The Chief Pauper was more persistent than all, with his chatter and his disgusting civilities. He was evidently glad to get hold of a fresh subject for his talkative genius; he was a very garrulous cannibal, and perhaps my being a foreigner made me more interesting in his eyes.

The chief topic of his discourse was death. He hated life, loved death, longed for it in all its forms, whether arising from disease or from violence. He was an amateur in corpses, and had a larger experience in dead bodies than any other man in the nation.

I could not help asking him once why he did not kill himself, and be done with it.

"That," said he, "is not allowed. The temptation to kill one's self is one of the strongest that human nature can experience, but it is one that we must struggle against, of course, for it is against all law. The greatest blessing must not be seized. It must be given by nature or man. Those who violate the blessed mystery of death are infamous."

He a.s.sured me that he had all his life cultivated the loftiest feelings of love to others. His greatest happiness consisted in doing good to others, especially in killing them. The blessing of death, being the greatest of all blessings, was the one which he loved best to bestow upon others; and the more he loved his fellow-creatures the more he wished to give them this blessing. "You," said he, "are particularly dear to me, and I should rather give to you the blessing of death than to any other human being. I love you, Atam-or, and I long to kill you at this moment."

"You had better not try it," said I, grimly.

He shook his head despondingly.

"Oh no," said he; "it is against the law. I must not do it till the time comes."

"Do you kill many?" I asked.

"It is my pleasing and glorious office," he replied, "to kill more than any other; for, you must know, I am the Sar Tabakin" (chief of the executioners).

The Chief Pauper's love of death had grown to be an all-absorbing pa.s.sion. He longed to give death to all. As with us there are certain philanthropists who have a mania for doing good, so here the pauper cla.s.s had a mania for doing what they considered good in this way. The Chief Pauper was a sort of Kosekin Howard or Peabody, and was regarded by all with boundless reverence. To me, however, he was an object of never-ending hate, abhorrence, and loathing; and, added to this, was the thought that there might be here some equally hideous female--someone like the nightmare hag of the outer sea--a torment and a horror to Almah.

CHAPTER XXIX.

THE CEREMONY OF SEPARATION.

Separated from Almah, surrounded by foul fiends, in darkness and the shadow of death, with the baleful prospect of the Mista Kosek, it was mine to endure the bitterest anguish and despair; and in me these feelings were all the worse from the thought that Almah was in a similar state, and was enduring equal woes. All that I suffered in my present condition she too was suffering--and from this there was no possibility of escape. Perhaps her surroundings were even worse, and her sufferings keener; for who could tell what these people might inflict in their strange and perverted impulses?

Many joms pa.s.sed, and there was only one thing that sustained me--the hope of seeing Almah yet again, though it were but for a moment. That hope, however, was but faint. There was no escape. The gate was barred without and within. I was surrounded by miscreants, who formed the chief cla.s.s in the state and the ruling order. The Chief Pauper was the highest magistrate in the land, from whose opinion there was no appeal, and the other paupers here formed the Kosekin senate. Here, in imprisonment and darkness, they formed a secret tribunal and controlled everything. They were objects of envy to all. All looked forward to this position as the highest object of human ambition, and the friends and relatives of those here rejoiced in their honor. Their powers were not executive, but deliberative. To the Meleks and Athons was left the exercise of authority, but their acts were always in subordination to the will of the paupers.

"I have everything that heart can wish," said the Chief Pauper to me once. "Look at me, Atam-or, and see me as I stand here: I have poverty, squalor, cold, perpetual darkness, the privilege of killing others, the near prospect of death, and the certainty of the Mista Kosek--all these I have, and yet, Atam-or, after all, I am not happy."

To this strange speech I had nothing to say.

"Yes," continued the Chief Pauper, in a pensive tone, "for twenty seasons I have reigned as chief of the Kosekin in this place. My cavern is the coldest, squalidest, and darkest in the land. My raiment is the coa.r.s.est rags. I have separated from all my friends. I have had much sickness. I have the closest captivity. Death, darkness, poverty, want, all that men most live and long for, are mine to satiety; and yet, as I look back and count the joms of my life to see in how many I have known happiness, I find that in all they amount to just seven! Oh, Atam-or, what a comment is this on the vanity of human life!"

To this I had no answer ready; but by way of saying something, I offered to kill him on the spot.

"Nay, nay, Atam-or," said he, with a melancholy smile, "do not tempt me. Leave me to struggle with temptations by myself, and do not seek to make me falter in my duty. Yes, Atam-or, you behold in me a melancholy example of the folly of ambition; for I often think, as I look down from my lofty eminence, that after all it is as well to remain content in the humble sphere in which we are placed at birth; for perhaps, if the truth were known, there is quite as much real happiness among the rich and splendid--among the Athons and Meleks."

On this occasion I took advantage of the Chief Pauper's softer mood to pour forth an earnest entreaty for him to save Almah's life, or at least to mitigate her miseries. Alas! he was inexorable. It was like an appeal of some mad prisoner to some gentle-hearted governor in Christendom, entreating him to put some fellow-prisoner to death, or at least to make his confinement more severe.

The Chief Pauper stared at me in horror.

"You are a strange being, Atam-or," said he, gently. "Sometimes I think you mad. I can only say that such a request is horrible to me beyond all words. Such degradation and cruelty to the gentle and virtuous Almah is outrageous and forever impossible; no, we will not deprive her of a single one of those blessings which she now enjoys."

I turned away in despair.

At length one jom the Chief Pauper came to me with a smile and said, "Atam-or, let me congratulate you on this joyous occasion."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"You are to have your ceremony of separation."

"Separation!" I repeated.

"Yes," said he. "Almah has given notice to us. She has announced her intention of giving you up, and separating from you. With us the woman always gives the announcement in such cases. We have fixed the ceremony for the third jom from this, and I hope you will not think it too soon."

This strange intelligence moved me greatly. I did not like the idea of a ceremony of separation; but behind this there rose the prospect of seeing Almah, and I felt convinced that she had devised this as a mode of holding communication with me, or at least of seeing me again. The thought of Layelah was the only thing that interfered with this belief, for it might be her doings after all; yet the fact remained that I was to see Almah, and in this I rejoiced with exceeding great joy.

The appointed jom came. A procession was formed of the paupers. The chief did not go, as he never left the cavern except on the great sacrifices and Mista Koseks. The door was opened, and I accompanied the procession. On our way all was dark, and after traversing many pa.s.sages we came at length to the door of a cavern as gloomy as the one I had left. On entering this I found all dark and drear; and a little distance before me there was a light burning, around which was gathered a group of hags hideous beyond all expression. But these I scarcely noticed; for there amid them, all pale and wan, with her face now lighted up with joyous and eager expectation, I saw my darling--my Almah! I caught her in my arms, and for a few moments neither of us spoke a word. She sobbed upon my breast, but I knew that the tears which she shed were tears of joy. Nor was our joy checked by the thought that it was to be so short-lived. It was enough at that moment that we saw one another--enough that we were in one another's arms; and so we mingled our tears, and shared one common rapture. And sweet it was--sweet beyond all expression--the sweetest moment in all my life; for it had come in the midst of the drear desolation of my heart and the black despair. It was like a flash of lightning in the intense darkness, short and sudden indeed, yet still intense while it lasted, and in an instant filling all with its glow.

"I did this," murmured Almah, "to see you and to save you."

"Save me!" I repeated.

"Yes," said she. "I have seen Layelah. She told me that there is this chance and this one only to save you. I determined to try it. I cannot bear to think of you at the sacrifice--and for love of me meeting your death--for I would die to save you, Atam-or."

I pressed her closer in my arms.

"Oh, Almah," said I, "I would die to save you! and if this ceremony will save you I will go through with it, and accept my fate whatever it may be."

We were now interrupted.

The women--the hags of horror--the shriek-like ones, as I may call them, or the fiend-like, the female fiends, the foul ones--they were all around us; and one there was who looked so exactly like the nightmare hag of the outer sea that I felt sure she must be the same, who by some strange chance had come here. Such, indeed, is quite likely, for there may have been a pa.s.s over the mountains to the land of the Kosekin; and those savage cannibals may all have been honored Kosekin exiles, dwelling in poverty, want, woe, and darkness, all of which may have been allotted to them as a reward for eminent virtues. And so here she was, the nightmare hag, and I saw that she recognized me.

A circle was now formed around us, and the light stood in the middle. The nightmare hag also stood within the circle on the other side of the light opposite us. The beams of the lamp flickered through the darkness, faintly illuminating the faces of the horrible creatures around, who, foul and repulsive as harpies, seemed like unclean beasts, ready to make us their prey. Their glances seemed to menace death; their blear eyes rested upon us with a horrid eager hunger. My worst fears at that moment seemed realized; for I saw that Almah's a.s.sociates were worse than mine, and her fate had been more bitter. And I wondered how it had been possible for her to live among such a.s.sociates; or, even though she had lived thus far, whether it would be possible for her to endure it longer.

And now there arose a melancholy chant from the old hags around--a dreadful strain, that sounded like a funeral dirge, sung in shrill, discordant voices, led by the nightmare hag, who as she sang waved in her hand a kind of club. All the time I held Almah in my arms, regardless of those around us, thinking only of her from whom I must soon again be separated, and whom I must leave in this drear abode to meet her fearful fate alone. The chant continued for some time, and as long as it continued it was sweet to me; for it prolonged the meeting with Almah, and postponed by so much our separation.

At length the chant ceased. The nightmare hag looked fixedly at us, and spoke these words: "You have embraced for the last time. Henceforth there is no more sorrow in your love. You may be happy now in being forever disunited, and in knowing the bliss of eternal separation. As darkness is better than light, as death is better than life, so may you find separation better than union."

She now gave a blow with her club at the lamp, which broke it to atoms and extinguished the flame. She continued: "As the baleful light is succeeded by the blessed darkness, so may you find the light of union followed by the blessed darkness of separation."

And now in the deep darkness we stood clasped in one another's arms; while around us, from the horrible circle of hags, there arose another chant as harsh and discordant as the previous one, but which, nevertheless, like that, served at least to keep us together a little longer. For this reason it sounded sweeter than the sweetest music; and therefore, when at last the hideous noise ended, I felt a pang of grief, for I knew that I must now give up Almah forever.

I was right. The ceremony was over. We had to part, and we parted with tears of despair. I was led away, and as I went I heard Almah's sobs. I broke away, and tried to return for one more embrace; but in the darkness I could not find her, and could only hear her sobs at a greater distance, which showed that she too was being led away. I called after her, "Farewell, Almah!"

Her reply came back broken with sobs.

"Farewell forever, Atam-or!"

I was once more led away, and again traversed the dark pa.s.sages, and again came back to my den, which now seemed dark with the blackness of despair.

On my return I was formally and solemnly congratulated by all the paupers. I should not have received their congratulations had I not expected that there would be something more. I expected that something would be said about the result of this act of separation; for Almah had believed that it would be the means of saving my life, and I believed that it would be the means of saving her life, and for this reason each of us had performed our part; although, of course, the joy of meeting with one another would of itself have been sufficient, and more than sufficient, to make that ceremony an object of desire. I thought, therefore, that some statement might now be made to the effect that by means of this ceremony my status among the Kosekin would be changed, and that both I and Almah, being no longer lovers, would be no longer fit for the sacrifice. To my intense disappointment, however, nothing whatever was said that had the remotest reference to this.

On the following jom I determined to ask the Chief Pauper himself directly; and accordingly, after a brief preamble, I put the question point-blank: "Will our ceremony of separation make any difference as to our sacrifice?"

"What?" he asked, with a puzzled expression.

I repeated the question.

"I don't understand," said he, still looking puzzled.

Upon this I once more repeated it.

"How can that be?" said he at length; "how can the ceremony of separation have any effect upon your sacrifice? The ceremony of separation stands by itself as the sign and symbol of an additional blessing. This new happiness of separation is a great favor, and will make you the object of new envy and admiration; for few have been so fortunate as you in all the history of the Kosekin. But you are the favorite of the Kosekin now, and there is nothing that they will not do for you."

"But we were separate before," said I, indignantly.

"That is true," said he, "in point of fact; but this ceremony makes your separation a legal thing, and gives it the solemn sanction of law and of religion. Among the Kosekin one cannot be considered as a separate man until the ceremony of separation has been publicly performed."

"I understood," said I, "that we were chosen to suffer the sacrifice together because we were lovers, and now since you do not any longer regard us as lovers, why do you sacrifice us?"

At this question the Chief Pauper looked at me with one of those hungry glances of his, which showed how he thirsted for my blood, and he smiled the smile of an evil fiend.

"Why do we sacrifice you, Atam-or?" he replied. "Why, because we honor you both, and love you both so dearly that we are eager to give you the greatest of all blessings, and to deny you nothing that is in our power to bestow."

"Do you mean to sacrifice both of us?" I gasped.

"Of course."

"What! Almah too?"

"Certainly. Why should we be so cruel to the dear child as to deprive her of so great a boon?"

At this I groaned aloud and turned away in despair.

The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol I Part 13

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