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

Chapter XVIII

A Voyage Over the Pole

The discovery of our love had brought a crisis in our fate for me and Almah. The Kohen hailed it with joy, for now was the time when he would be able to present us to the Kohen Gadol. Our doom was certain and inevitable. We were to be taken to the amir; we were to be kept until the end of the dark season, and then we were both to be publicly sacrificed. After this our bodies were to be set apart for the hideous rites of the Mista Kosek. Such was the fate that lay before us.

The Kohen was now anxious to take us to the amir. I might possibly have persuaded him to postpone our departure, but I saw no use in that. It seemed better to go, for it was possible that amid new scenes and among new people there might be hope. This, too, seemed probable to Almah, who was quite anxious to go. The Kohen pressed forward the preparations, and at length a galley was ready for us.

This galley was about three hundred feet in length and fifty in width, but not more than six feet in depth. It was like a long raft. The rowers, two hundred in number, sat on a level with the water, one hundred on each side. The oars were small, being not more than twelve feet in length, but made of very light, tough material, with very broad blades. The galley was steered with broad-bladed paddles at both ends. There was no mast or sail. Astern was a light poop, surrounded by a pavilion, and forward there was another. At the bow there was a projecting platform, used chiefly in fighting the thannin, or sea-monsters, and also in war. There were no masts or flags or gay streamers; no brilliant colors; all was intensely black, and the ornaments were of the same hue.

We were now treated with greater reverence than ever, for we were looked upon as the recipients of the highest honor that could fall to any of the Kosekin — namely, the envied dignity of a public death. As we embarked the whole city lined the public ways, and watched us from the quays, from boats, and from other galleys. Songs were sung by a chosen choir of paupers, and to the sound of this plaintive strain we moved out to sea.

“This will be a great journey for me,” said the Kohen, as we left the port. “I hope to be made a pauper at least, and perhaps gain the honor of a public death. I have known people who have gained death for less. There was an Athon last year who attacked a pehmet with forty men and one hundred and twenty rowers. All were killed or drowned except himself. In reward for this he gained the mudecheb, or death recompense. In addition to this he was set apart for the Mista Kosek.”

“Then, with you, when a man procures the death of others he is honored?”

“Why, yes; how could it be otherwise?” said the Kohen. “Is it not the same with you? Have you not told me incredible things about your people, among which there were a few that seemed natural and intelligible? Among these was your system of honoring above all men those who procure the death of the largest number. You, with your pretended fear of death, wish to meet it in battle as eagerly as we do, and your most renowned men are those who have sent most to death.”

To this strange remark I had no answer to make.

The air out at sea now grew chillier. The Kohen noticed it also, and offered me his cloak, which I refused. He seemed surprised, and smiled.

“You are growing like one of us,” said he. “You will soon learn that the greatest happiness in life is to do good to others and sacrifice yourself. You already show this in part. When you are with Almah you act like one of the Kosekin. You watch her to see and anticipate her slightest wish; you are eager to give her everything. She, on the other hand, is equally eager to give up all to you. Each one of you is willing to lay down life for the other. You would gladly rush upon death to save her from harm, much as you pretend to fear death; and so I see that with Almah you will soon learn how sweet a thing death may be.”

“To live without her,” said I, “would be so bitter that death with her would indeed be sweet. If I could save her life by laying down my own, death would be sweeter still; and not one of you Kosekin would meet it so gladly.”

The Kosekin smiled joyously.

“Oh, almighty and wondrous power of Love!” he exclaimed, “how thou hast transformed this foreigner! Oh, Atam-or! you will soon be one of us altogether. For see, how is it now? You pretend to love riches and life, and yet you are ready to give up everything for Almah.”

“Gladly, gladly!” I exclaimed.

“Yes,” he said, “all that you have — you would gladly lavish on her, and would rejoice to make yourself a pauper for her sweet sake. You also would rejoice equally to give up life for her. Is it not so?”

“It is,” said I.

“Then I see by this that Almah has awakened within you your true human nature. Thus far it has lain dormant; it has been concealed under a thousand false and unnatural habits, arising from your strange native customs. You have been brought up under some frightful system, where nature is violated. Here among us your true humanity is unfolded, and with Almah you are like the Kosekin. Soon you will learn new lessons, and will find out that there is a new and a final self-abnegation in perfect love; and your love will never rest till you have separated yourself from Almah, so that love can have its perfect work.”

The sea now opened wide before us, rising up high as if half-way to the zenith, giving the impression of a vast ascent to endless distances. Around the shores spread themselves, with the shadowy outlines of the mountains; above was the sky, all clear, with faint aurora-flashes and gleaming stars. Hand-in-hand with Almah I stood and pointed out the constellations as we marked them while she told me of the different divisions known among the Kosekin as well as her own people. There, high in the zenith, was the southern polar-star, not exactly at the pole, nor yet of very great brightness, but still sufficiently noticeable.

Looking back, we saw, low down, parts of the Phoenix and the Crane; higher up, the Toucan, Hydrus, and Pavo. On our right, low down, was the beautiful Altar; higher up, the Triangle; while on the left were the Sword-fish and the Flying-fish. Turning to look forward, we beheld a more splendid display. Then, over the bow of the vessel, between the Centaur, which lay low, and Musca Indica, which rose high, there blazed the bright stars of the Southern Cross — a constellation, if not the brightest, at least the most conspicuous and attractive in all the heavens. All around there burned other stars, separated widely. Then, over the stern, gleamed the splendid lustre of Achernar, on the left the brilliant glow of Alpha Robur and Canopus, and low down before us the bright light of Argo. It was a scene full of splendor and fascination. After a time a change came over the sky: the aurora-flashes, at first faint, gradually increased in brilliancy till the stars grew dim, and all the sky, wherever the eye might turn from the horizon to the zenith, seemed filled with lustrous flames of every conceivable hue. Colossal beams radiated from the pole toward the horizon till the central light was dissipated, and there remained encircling us an infinite colonnade of flaming pillars that towered to the stars. These were all in motion, running upon one another, incessantly shifting and changing; new scenes forever succeeded to old; pillars were transformed to pyramids, pyramids to fiery bars; these in their turn were transformed to other shapes, and all the while one tint of innumerable hues overspread the entire circle of the sky.

Our voyage occupied several joms; but our progress was continuous, for different sets of rowers relieved one another at regular intervals. On the second jom a storm broke out. The sky had been gathering clouds during sleeping-time, and when we awoke we found the sea all lashed to fury, while all around the darkness was intense. The storm grew steadily worse; the lightning flashed, the thunder pealed, and at length the sea was so heavy that rowing was impossible. Upon this the oars were all taken in, and the galley lay tossing upon the furious sea, amid waves that continually beat upon her.

And now a scene ensued that filled me with amazement, and took away all my thoughts from the storm. It seemed impossible that so frail a bark could stand the fury of the waves. Destruction was inevitable, and I was expecting to see the usual signs of grief and despair — wondering, too, how these rowers would preserve their subordination. But I had forgotten in my excitement the strange nature of the Kosekin. Instead of terror there was joy, instead of wild despair there was peace and serene delight.

The lightning-flashes revealed a wonderful scene. There were all the rowers, each one upon his seat, and from them all there came forth a chant which was full of triumph, like a song of public welcome to some great national hero, or a song of joy over victory. The officers embraced one another and exchanged words of delight. The Kohen, after embracing all the others, turned to me, and, forgetting my foreign ways, exclaimed, in a tone of enthusiastic delight,

“We are destroyed! Death is near! Rejoice!”

Accustomed as I was to the perils of the sea, I had learned to face death without flinching. Almah, too, was calm, for to her this death seemed preferable to that darker fate which awaited us; but the words of the Kohen jarred upon my feelings.

“Do you not intend to do anything to save the ship?” I asked.

He laughed joyously.

“There’s no occasion,” said he. “When the oars are taken in we always begin to rejoice. And why not? Death is near — it is almost certain. Why should we do anything to distract our minds and mar our joy? For oh, dear friend, the glorious time has come when we can give up life — life, with all its toils, its burdens, its endless bitternesses, its perpetual evils. Now we shall have no more suffering from vexatious and oppressive riches, from troublesome honors, from a surplus of food, from luxuries and delicacies, and all the ills of life.”

“But what is the use of being born at all?” I asked, in a wonder that never ceased to rise at every fresh display of Kosekin feeling.

“The use?” said the Kohen. “Why, if we were not born, how could we know the bliss of dying, or enjoy the sweetness of death? Death is the end of being — the one sweet hope and crown and glory of life, the one desire and hope of every living man. The blessing is denied to none. Rejoice with me, oh Atam-or! you will soon know its blessedness as well as I.”

He turned away. I held Almah in my arms, and we watched the storm by the lightning-flashes and waited for the end. But the end came not. The galley was light, broad, and buoyant as a life-boat; at the same time it was so strongly constructed that there was scarcely any twist or contortion in the sinewy fabric. So we floated buoyantly and safely upon the summit of vast waves, and a storm that would have destroyed a ship of the European fashion scarcely injured this in the slightest degree. It was an indestructible as a raft and as buoyant as a bubble; so we rode out the gale, and the death which the Kosekin invoked did not come at all.

The storm was but short-lived; the clouds dispersed, and soon went scudding over the sky; the sea went down. The rowers had to take their oars once more, and the reaction that followed upon their recent rejoicing was visible in universal gloom and dejection. As the clouds dispersed the aurora lights came out more splendid than ever, and showed nothing but melancholy faces. The rowers pulled with no life or animation; the officers stood about sighing and lamenting; Almah and I were the only ones that rejoiced over this escape from death.

Joms passed. We saw other sights; we met with galleys and saw many ships about the sea. Some were moved by sails only; these were merchant ships, but they had only square sails, and could not sail in any other way than before the wind. Once or twice I caught glimpses of vast shadowy objects in the air. I was startled and terrified; for, great as were the wonders of this strange region, I had not yet suspected that the air itself might have denizens as tremendous as the land or the sea. Yet so it was, and afterward during the voyage I saw them often. One in particular was so near that I observed it with ease. It came flying along in the same course with us, at a height of about fifty feet from the water. It was a frightful monster, with a long body and vast wings like those a bat. Its progress was swift, and it soon passed out of sight. To Almah the monster created no surprise; she was familiar with them, and told me that they were very abundant here, but that they never were known to attack ships. She informed me that they were capable of being tamed if caught when young, though in her country they were never made use of. The name given by the Kosekin to these monsters is athaleb.

At length we drew near to our destination. We reached a large harbor at the end of a vast bay: here the mountains extended around, and before us there arose terrace after terrace of twinkling lights running away to immense distances. It looked like a city of a million inhabitants, though it may have contained far less than that. By the brilliant aurora light I could see that it was in general shape and form precisely like the city that we had left, though far larger and more populous. The harbor was full of ships and boats of all sorts, some lying at the stone quays, others leaving port, others entering. Galleys passed and repassed, and merchant ships with their clumsy sails, and small fishing-boats. From afar arose the deep hum of a vast multitude and the low roar that always ascends from a popular city.

The galley hauled alongside her wharf, and we found ourselves at length in the mighty amir of the Kosekin. The Kohen alone landed; the rest remained on board, and Almah and I with them.

Other galleys were here. On the wharf workmen were moving about. Just beyond were caverns that looked like warehouses. Above these was a terraced street, where a vast multitude moved to and fro — a living tide as crowded and as busy as that in Cheapside.

After what seemed a long time the Kohen returned. This time he came with a number of people, all of whom were in cars drawn by opkuks. Half were men and half women. These came aboard, and it seemed as though we were to be separated; for the women took Almah, while the men took me. Upon this I entreated the Kohen not to separate us. I informed him that we were both of a different race from his, that we did not understand their ways; we should be miserable if separated.

I spoke long and with all the entreaty possible to one with my limited acquaintance with the language. My words evidently impressed them: some of them even wept.

“You make us sad,” said the Kohen. “Willingly would we do everything that you bid, for we are your slaves; but the state law prevents. Still, in your case, the law will be modified; for you are in such honor here that you may be considered as beyond the laws. For the present, at least, we cannot separate you.”

These words brought much consolation. After this we landed, and Almah and I were still together.

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