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

Chapter XIX

The Wonders of the “Amir”

We were drawn on cars up to the first terraced street, and here we found the vast multitude which we had seen from a distance. Crossing this street, we ascended and came to another precisely like it; then, still going on, we came to a third. Here there was an immense space, not overgrown with trees like the streets, but perfectly open. In the midst arose a lofty pyramid, and as I looked at it I could not refrain from shuddering; for it looked like the public altar, upon which in due time I should be compelled to make my appearance, and be offered up as a victim to the terrific superstitions of the Kosekin.

Crossing this great square, we came to a vast portal, which opened into a cavern with twinkling lights. The city itself extended above this, for we could see the terraced streets rising above our heads; but here our progress ended at the great cavern in the chief square, opposite the pyramid.

On entering the cavern we traversed an antechamber, and then passing on we reached a vast dome, of dimensions so great that I could perceive no end in that gloom. The twinkling lights served only to disclose the darkness and to indicate the immensity of the cavern. In the midst there arose two enormous columns, which were lost in the gloom above.

It was only by passing through this that we learned its great extent. We at length came to the other end, and here we saw numerous passages leading away. The Kohen led us through one of these, and after passing through several other domes of smaller dimensions we at length reached an apartment where we stopped. This place was furnished with couches and hangings, and lighted with flaming lamps. The light was distressing to those who had accompanied us, and many of them left, while the few who remained had to cover their eyes. Here we found that all preparations had been made. The apartments were all illuminated, though our love of light never ceased to be a matter of amazement to the Kosekin, and a bounteous repast was spread for us. But the Kohen and the others found the light intolerable, and soon left us to ourselves.

After the repast some women appeared to take Almah to her chamber, and, with the usual kindness of the Kosekin, they assured her that she would not be expected to obey the law of separation, but that she was to remain here, where she would be always within reach of me.

After her departure there came to visit me the lowest man in all the land of the Kosekin, though, according to our view, he would be esteemed the highest. This was the Kohen Gadol. His history had already been told me. I had learned that through lack of Kosekin virtue he had gradually sunk to this position, and now was compelled to hold in his hands more wealth, power, and display than any other man in the nation.

He was a man of singular appearance. The light was not so troublesome to him as to the others — he merely kept his eyes shaded; but he regarded me with a keen look of inquiry that was suggestive of shrewdness and cunning. I confess it was with a feeling of relief that I made this discovery; for I longed to find someone among this singular people who was selfish, who feared death, who loved life, who loved riches, and had something in common with me. This I thought I perceived in the shrewd, cunning face of the Kohen Gadol, and I was glad; for I saw that while he could not possibly be more dangerous to me than those self-sacrificing, self-denying cannibals whom I had thus far known, he might prove of some assistance, and might help me to devise means of escape. If I could only find someone who was a coward, and selfish and avaricious — if this Kohen Gadol could but be he — how much brighter my life would be! And so there happened to me an incredible thing, that my highest wish was now to find in the Kohen Gadol cowardice, avarice, and selfishness.

The Kohen was accompanied by a young female, richly attired, who, I afterward learned, was his daughter. Her name was Layelah, and she filled the office of Malca, which signifies queen; and though honorable with us above all, is among the Kosekin the lowest in the land. Layelah was so beautiful that I looked at her in amazement. She was very tall for one of the Kosekin, which made her stature equal to that of an ordinary girl with us; her hair was rich, dark and luxuriant, gathered about her head in great masses and bound by a golden band. Her features were delicate and perfect in their outline; her expression was noble and commanding. Her eyes were utterly unlike those of the other Kosekin; the upper lids had a slight droop, but that was all, and that was the nearest approach to the national blink. Her first entrance into the room seemed to dazzle her, and she shaded her eyes for a few moments, but after that she looked at me fixedly, and seemed to suffer no more inconvenience than I did. The perfect liberty of women among the Kosekin made this visit from her quite as natural as that of her father; and though she said but little on this occasion, she was an attentive listener and close observer.

Their visit was long, for they were evidently full of curiosity. They had heard much about me and wished to see more. It was the first time that I had found among the Kosekin the slightest desire to know where I had come from. Hitherto all had been content with the knowledge that I was a foreigner. Now, however, I found in the Kohen Gadol and Layelah a curiosity that was most eager and intense. They questioned me about my country, about the great world beyond the mountains, about the way in which I had come here, about the manners and customs of my countrymen. They were eager to know about those great nations of which I spoke, who loved light and life; about men who loved themselves better than others; of that world where men feared death and loved life, and sought after riches and lived in the light.

The sleeping-time came and passed, and my visitors were still full of eager questionings. It was Layelah who at last thought of the lateness of the hour. At a word from her the Kohen Gadol rose, with many apologies, and prepared to go. But before he left he said:

“When I was a child I was shipwrecked, and was taken up a ship which conveyed me to a nation beyond the sea. There I grew up to manhood. I learned their language and manners and customs, and when I returned home I found myself an alien here: I do not love darkness or death, I do not hate riches, and the result is that I am what I am. If I were like the rest of my countrymen, my lot would make me miserable; but as it is I prefer it to any other, and consider myself not the lowest but the greatest in the land. My daughter is like me, and instead of being ashamed of her station she is proud of it, and would not give it up even to become a pauper. I will see you again. I have much to say.”

With these words the Kohen Gadol retired, followed by Layelah, leaving me more hopeful than I had been for a long time.

For many joms following I received visits from the Kohen Gadol and from Layelah. Almah was with me until sleeping-time, and then these other visitors would come. In this, at least, they resembled the other Kosekin, that they never dreamed of interfering with Almah when she might wish to be with me. Their visits were always long, and we had much to say; but what I lost of sleep I always made up on the following jom. The Kohen Gadol, with his keen, shrewd face, interested me greatly; but Layelah, with her proud face and air of command, was a positive wonder.

I soon learned that the Kohen Gadol was what we term “a man of advanced views,” or perhaps a “Reformer,” or a “Philosophic Radical,” it matters not which; suffice it to say that his ideas and feelings differed from those of his nation, and if carried out would be equal to a revolution in politics and morals.

The Kohen Gadol advocated selfishness as the true law of life, without which no state can prosper. There were a few of similar views, but they were all regarded with great contempt by the multitude, and had to suffer the utmost rigor of the law; for they were all endowed with vast wealth, compelled to live in the utmost splendor and luxury, to have enormous retinues, and to wield the chief power in politics and in religion. Even this, however, had not changed the sentiments of the condemned, and I learned that they were laboring incessantly, notwithstanding their severe punishment, to disseminate their peculiar doctrines. These were formulated as follows:

1. A man should not love others better than himself. 2. Life is not an evil to be got rid of. 3. Other things are to be preferred to death. 4. Poverty is not the best state for man. 5. Unrequited love is not the greatest happiness. 6. Lovers may sometimes marry. 7. To serve is not more honorable than to command. 8. Defeat is not more glorious than victory. 9. To save a life should not be regarded as a criminal offence. 10. The paupers should be forced to take a certain amount of wealth, to relieve the necessities of the rich.

These articles were considered both by the Kohen Gadol and by Layelah to be remarkable for their audacity, and were altogether too advanced for mention by any except the chosen few. With the multitude he had to deal differently, and had to work his way by concealing his opinions. He had made a great conspiracy, in which he was still engaged, and had gained immense numbers of adherents by allowing them to give him their whole wealth. Through his assistance many Athons and Kohens and Meleks had become artisans laborers, and even paupers; but all were bound by him to the strictest secrecy. If anyone should divulge the secret, it would be ruin to him and to many others; for they would at once be punished by the bestowal of the extremest wealth, by degradation to the rank of rulers and commanders, and by the severest rigors of luxury, power, splendor, and magnificence known among the Kosekin. Overwhelmed thus with the cares of government, crushed under the weight of authority and autocratic rule, surrounded by countless slaves all ready to die for them, their lives would be embittered and their punishment would be more than they could bear. But the philosophic Kohen Gadol dared all these punishments, and pursued his way calmly and pertinaciously.

Nothing surprised the Kohen Gadol so much as the manner in which I received his confidences. He half expected to startle me by his boldness, but was himself confounded by my words. I told him that in my country self was the chief consideration, self-preservation the law of nature; death the King of Terrors; wealth the object of universal search, poverty the worst of evils; unrequited love nothing less than anguish and despair; to command others the highest glory; victory, honor; defeat, intolerable shame; and other things of the same sort, all of which sounded in his ears, as he said, with such tremendous force that they were like peals of thunder. He shook his head despondently; he could not believe that such views as mine could ever be attained to among the Kosekin. But Layelah was bolder, and with all a woman’s impetuosity grasped at my fullest meaning and held it firm.

“He is right,” said Layelah — “the heaven-born Atam-or. He shall be our teacher. The rich shall be esteemed, the poor shall be down-trodden; to rule over others shall be glorious, to serve shall be base; victory shall be an honor, defeat a shame; selfishness, self-seeking, luxury, and indulgence shall be virtues; poverty, want, and squalor shall be things of abhorrence and contempt.”

The face of Layelah glowed with enthusiasm as she said these words, and I saw in her a daring, intrepid, and high-hearted woman, full of a woman’s headlong impetuosity and disregard of consequences. In me she saw one who seemed to her like a prophet and teacher of a new order of things, and her whole soul responded to the principles which I announced. It required immense strength of mind and firmness of soul to separate herself from the prevalent sentiment of her nation; and though nature had done much for her in giving her a larger portion of original selfishness than was common to her people, still she was a child of the Kosekin, and her daring was all the more remarkable. And so she went further than her father, and adopted my extreme views when he shrank back, and dared more unflinchingly the extremest rigors of the national law, and all that the Kosekin could inflict in the way of wealth, luxury, supreme command, palatial abodes, vast retinues of slaves, and the immense degradation of the queenly office.

I spoke to her in a warning voice about her rashness.

“Oh,” said she, “I have counted the cost, and am ready to accept all that they can inflict. I embrace the good cause, and will not give it up — no, not even if they could increase my wealth a thousand-fold, and sentence me to live a hundred seasons. I can bear their utmost inflictions of wealth, power, magnificence; I could even bear being condemned to live forever in the light. Oh, my friend, it is the conviction of right and the support of conscience that strengthens one to bear the greatest evils that man can inflict.”

From these words it was evident to me that Layelah was a true child of the Kosekin; for though she was of advanced sentiments she still used the language of her people, and spoke of the punishments of the law as though they were punishments in reality. Now, to me and to Almah these so-called punishments seemed rewards.

It was impossible for me to avoid feeling a very strong regard for this enthusiastic and beautiful girl; all the more, indeed, because she evinced such an undisguised admiration for me. She evidently considered me some superior being, from some superior race; and although my broken and faulty way of speaking the language was something of a trial, still she seemed to consider every word I uttered as a maxim of the highest wisdom. The tritest of truths, the commonest of platitudes, the most familiar of proverbs or old saws current among us were eagerly seized by Layelah, and accepted as truths almost divine — as new doctrines for the guidance of the human race. These she would discuss with me; she would put them into better and more striking language, and ask for my opinion. Then she would write them down.

For the Kosekin knew the art of writing. They had an alphabet of their own, which was at once simple and very scientific. There were no vowels, but only consonant sounds, the vowels being supplied in reading, just as if one should write the words fthr or dghtr, and read them father and daughter. Their letters were as follows: P, K, T, B, G, D, F, Ch, Th, M, L, N, S, H, R. There were also three others, which have no equivalents in English.

It soon became evident to me that Layelah had a complete ascendancy over her father; that she was not only the Malca of the amir, but the presiding spirit and the chief administrative genius of the whole nation of the Kosekin. She seemed to be a new Semiramis — one who might revolutionize an empire and introduce a new order of things. Such, indeed, was her high ambition, and she plainly avowed it to me; but what was more, she frankly informed me that she regarded me as a Heaven-sent teacher — as one who in this darkness could tell her of the nations of light — who could instruct her in the wisdom of other and greater races, and help her to accomplish her grand designs.

As for Almah, she seemed quite beneath the notice of the aspiring Layelah. She never noticed her, she never spoke of her, and she always made her visits to me after Almah had gone.

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