A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder, by James De Mille

Chapter XIV

I Learn My Doom

Horror is a feeling that cannot last long; human nature is incapable of supporting it. Sadness, whether from bereavement, or disappointment, or misfortune of any kind, may linger on through life. In my case, however, the milder and more enduring feeling of sadness had no sufficient cause for existence. The sights which I had seen inspired horror, and horror only. But when the first rush of this feeling had passed there came a reaction. Calmness followed, and then all the circumstances of my life here conspired to perpetuate that calm. For here all on the surface was pleasant and beautiful; all the people were amiable and courteous and most generous. I had light and luxury and amusements. Around me there were thousands of faces, all greeting me with cordial affection, and thousands of hands all ready to perform my slightest wish. Above all, there was Almah. Everything combined to make her most dear to me. My life had been such that I never before had seen anyone whom I loved; and here Almah was the one congenial associate in a whole world of aliens: she was beautiful and gentle and sympathetic, and I loved her dearly, even before I understood what my feelings were. One day I learned all, and found that she was more precious to me than all the world.

It was one jom when she did not make her appearance as usual. On asking after her I learned that she was ill. At this intelligence there came over me a feeling of sickening anxiety and fear. Almah ill! What if it should prove serious? Could I endure life here without her sweet companionship? Of what value was life without her? And as I asked myself these questions I learned that Almah had become dearer to me than life itself, and that in her was all the sunshine of my existence. While she was absent, life was nothing; all its value, all its light, its flavor, its beauty, were gone. I felt utterly crushed. I forgot all else save her illness, and all that I had endured seemed as nothing when compared with this.

In the midst of my own anxiety I was surprised to find that the whole community was most profoundly agitated. Among all classes there seemed to be but one thought — her illness. I could overhear them talking I could see them wait outside to hear about her. It seemed to be the one subject of interest, beside which all others were forgotten. The Kohen was absorbed in her case; all the physicians of the city were more or less engaged in her behalf; and there came forward as volunteers every woman in the place who had any knowledge of sick-duties. I was somewhat perplexed, however, at their manner. They were certainly agitated and intensely interested, yet not exactly sad. Indeed, from what I heard it seemed as though this strange people regarded sickness as rather a blessing than otherwise. This, however, did not interfere in the slightest degree with the most intense interest in her, and the most assiduous attention. The Kohen in particular was devoted to her. He was absent-minded, silent, and full of care. On the whole, I felt more than ever puzzled, and less able than ever to understand these people. I loved them, yet loathed them; for the Kohen I had at once affection and horror. He looked like an anxious father, full of tenderest love for a sick child — full also of delicate sympathy with me; and yet I knew all the time that he was quite capable of plunging the sacrificial knife in Almah’s heart and of eating her afterward.

But my own thoughts were all of Almah. I learned how dear she was. With her the brightness of life had passed; without her existence would be intolerable. Her sweet voice, her tender and gracious manner, her soft touch, her tender, affectionate smile, her mournful yet trustful look — oh, heavens! would all these be mine no more? I could not endure the thought. At first I wandered about, seeking rest and finding none; and at length I sat in my own room, and passed the time in listening, in questioning the attendants, in wondering what I should do if she should be taken from me.

At length on one blessed jom, the Kohen came to me with a bright smile.

“Our darling Almah is better,” said he. “Eat, I beseech you. She is very dear to all of us, and we have all felt for her and for you. But now all danger is past. The physicians say that she will soon be well.” There were tears in his eyes as he spoke. It may have been caused by the bright light, but I attributed this to his loving heart, and I forgot that he was a cannibal. I took his hands in mine and pressed them in deep emotion. He looked at me with a sweet and gentle smile.

“I see it all,” said he, in a low voice — “you love her, Atam-or.”

I pressed his hands harder, but said nothing. Indeed, I could not trust myself to speak.

“I knew it,” said he; “it is but natural. You are both of a different race from us; you are both much alike, and in full sympathy with one another. This draws you together. When I first saw you I thought that you would be a fit companion for her here — that you would lessen her gloom, and that she would be pleasant to you. I found out soon that I was right, and I felt glad, for you at once showed the fullest sympathy with one another. Never till you came was Almah happy with us; but since you have come she has been a different being, and there has been a joyousness in her manner that I never saw before. You have made her forget how to weep; and as for yourself, I hope she has made your life in this strange land seem less painful, Atam-or.”

At all this I was so full of amazement that I could not say one word.

“Pardon me,” continued he, “if I have said anything that may seem like an intrusion upon your secret and most sacred feelings. I could not have said it had it not been for the deep affection I feel for Almah and for you, and for the reason that I am just now more moved than usual, and have less control over my feelings.”

Saying this, he pressed my hand and left me. It was not the custom here to shake hands, but with his usual amiability he had adopted my custom, and used it as naturally as though he had been to the manner born.

I was encouraged now. The mild Kohen came often to cheer me. He talked much about Almah — about her sweet and gracious disposition, the love that all felt for her, the deep and intense interest which her illness had aroused. In all this he seemed more like a man of my own race than before, and in his eager desire for her recovery he failed to exhibit that love for death which was his nature. So it seemed: yet this desire for her recovery did not arise out of any lack of love for death; its true cause I was to learn afterward; and I was to know that if he desired Almah’s recovery now, it was only that she might live long enough to encounter death in a more terrific form. But just then all this was unknown, and I judged him by myself.

At last I learned that she was much better, and would be out on the following jom. This intelligence filled me with a fever of eager anticipation, so great that I could think of nothing else. Sleep was impossible. I could only wait, and try as best I might to quell my impatience. At last the time came. I sat waiting. The curtain was drawn aside. I sprang up, and, hurrying toward her, I caught her in my arms and wept for joy. Ah me, how pale she looked! She bore still the marks of her illness. She seemed deeply embarrassed and agitated at the fervor of my greeting; while I, instead of apologizing or trying to excuse myself, only grew more agitated still.

“Oh, Almah,” I cried. “I should have died if you had not come back to me! Oh, Almah, I love you better than life and I never knew how dearly I loved you till I thought that I had lost you! Oh, forgive me, but I must tell you — and don’t weep, darling.”

She was weeping as I spoke. She said nothing, but twined her arms around my neck and wept on my breast. After this we had much to say that we had never mentioned before. I cannot tell the sweet words that she said to me; but I now learned that she had loved me from the first — when I came to her in her loneliness, when she was homesick and heartsick; and I came, a kindred nature, of a race more like her own; and she saw in me the only one of all around her whom it was possible not to detest, and therefore she loved me.

We had many things to say to one another, and long exchanges of confidence to make. She now for the first time told me all the sorrow that she had endured in her captivity — sorrow which she had kept silent and shut up deep within her breast. At first her life here had been so terrible that it had brought her down nearly to death. After this she had sunk into dull despair; she had grown familiar with horrors and lived in a state of unnatural calm. From this my arrival had roused her. The display of feeling on my part had brought back all her old self, and roused anew all those feelings which in her had become dormant. The darkness, the bloodshed, the sacrifices, all these affected me as they had once affected her. I had the same fear of death which she had. When I had gone with her to the cheder nebilin, when I had used my sepet-ram to save life, she had perceived in me feelings and impulses to which all her own nature responded. Finally, when I asked about the Mista Kosek, she warned me not to go. When I did go she was with me in thought and suffered all that I felt, until the moment when I was brought back and laid senseless at her feet.

“Then,” said Almah, “I felt the full meaning of all that lies before us.”

“What do you mean by that?” I asked, anxiously. “You speak as though there were something yet — worse than what has already been; yet nothing can possibly be worse. We have seen the worst; let us now try to shake off these grisly thoughts, and be happy with one another. Your strength will soon be back, and while we have one another we can be happy even in this gloom.”

“Ah me,” said Almah, “it would be better now to die. I could die happy now, since I know that you love me.”

“Death!” said I; “do not talk of it — do not mention that word. It is more abhorrent than ever. No, Almah, let us live and love — let us hope — let us fly.”

“Impossible!” said she, in a mournful voice. “We cannot fly. There is no hope. We must face the future, and make up our minds to bear our fate.”

“Fate!” I repeated, looking at her in wonder and in deep concern. “What do you mean by our fate? Is there anything more which you know and which I have not heard?”

“You have heard nothing,” said she, slowly; “and all that you have seen and heard is as nothing compared with what lies before us. For you and for me there is a fate — inconceivable, abhorrent, tremendous! — a fate of which I dare not speak or even think, and from which there is no escape whatever.”

As Almah said this she looked at me with an expression in which terror and anguish were striving with love. Her cheeks, which shortly before had flushed rosy red in sweet confusion, were now pallid, her lips ashen; her eyes were full of a wild despair. I looked at her in wonder, and could not say a word.

“Oh, Atam-or,” said she, “I am afraid of death!”

“Almah,” said I, “why will you speak of death? What is this fate which you fear so much?”

“It is this,” said she hurriedly and with a shudder, “you and I are singled out. I have been reserved for years until one should be found who might be joined with me. You came. I saw it all at once. I have known it — dreaded it — tried to fight against it. But it was of no use. Oh, Atam-or, our love means death; for the very fact that you love me and I love you seals our doom!”

“Our doom? What doom?”

“The sacrifice!” exclaimed Almah, with another shudder. In her voice and look there was a terrible meaning, which I could not fail to take. I understood it now, and my blood curdled in my veins. Almah clung to me despairingly.

“Do not leave me!” she cried — “do not leave me! I have no one but you. The sacrifice, the sacrifice! It is our doom the great sacrifice — at the end of the dark season. It is at the amir. We must go there to meet our doom.”

“The amir?” I asked; “what is that?”

“It is the metropolis,” said she.

I was utterly overwhelmed, yet still I tried to console her; but the attempt was vain.

“Oh!” she cried, “you will not understand. The sacrifice is but a part — it is but the beginning. Death is terrible; yet it may be endured — if there is only death. But oh! — oh think! — think of that which comes after — the Mista Kosek!”

Now the full meaning flashed upon me, and I saw it all. In an instant there arose in my mind the awful sacrifice on the pyramid and the unutterable horror of the Mista Kosek. Oh, horror, horror, horror! Oh, hideous abomination and deed without a name! I could not speak. I caught her in my arms, and we both wept passionately.

The happiness of our love was now darkened by this tremendous cloud that lowered before us. The shock of this discovery was overpowering, and some time elapsed before I could rally from it. Though Almah’s love was sweet beyond expression, and though as the time passed I saw that every jom she regained more and more of her former health and strength, still I could not forget what had been revealed. We were happy with one another, yet our happiness was clouded, and amid the brightness of our love there was ever present the dread spectre of our appalling doom.

These feelings, however, grew fainter. Hope is ever ready to arise; and I began to think that these people, though given to evil ways, were after all kind-hearted, and might listen to entreaty. Above all, there was the Kohen, so benevolent, so self-denying, so amiable, so sympathetic. I could not forget all that he had said during Almah’s illness, and it seemed more than probable that an appeal to his better nature might not be without effect. I said as much to Almah.

“The Kohen,” said she; “why, he can do nothing.”

“Why not? He is the chief man here, and ought to have great influence.”

“You don’t understand,” said she, with a sigh. “The Kohen is the lowest and least influential man in the city.”

“Why, who are influential if he is not?” I asked.

“The paupers,” said Almah.

“The paupers!” I exclaimed, in amazement.

“Yes,” said Almah. “Here among these people the paupers form the most honored, influential, and envied portion of the community.”

This was incomprehensible. Almah tried to explain, but to no purpose, and I determined to talk to the Kohen.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/d/de_mille/james/strange/chapter14.html

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37