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

Chapter XX

The Dark Maiden Layelah

Layelah at length began to make pointed remarks about Almah.

“She loves you,” said she, “and you love her. How is it that you do not give each other up?”

“I would die rather than give up Almah,” said I.

Layelah smiled. “That sounds strange to the Kosekin,” said she, “for here to give up your love and to die are both esteemed the greatest possible blessings. But Almah should give you up. It is the women with us who make the beginning. Women generally fall in love first, and it is expected that they will tell their love first. The delicacy of a woman’s feelings makes this natural, for if a man tells his love to a woman who does not love him, it shocks her modesty; while if a woman tells a man, he has no modesty to shock.”

“That is strange,” said I; “but suppose the man does not love the woman?”

“Why, no woman wants to be loved; she only wants to love.”

At this I felt somewhat bewildered.

“That,” said Layelah, “is unrequited love, which is the chief blessing here, though for my part I am a philosopher, and would wish when I love to be loved in return.”

“And then,” said I, “if so, would you give up your lover, in accordance with the custom of your country?”

Layelah’s dark eyes rested on me for a moment with a glance of intense earnestness and profound meaning. She drew a long breath, and then said, in a low, tremulous voice,

“Never!”

Layelah was constantly with me, and at length used to come at an earlier time, when Almah was present. Her manner toward Almah was full of the usual Kosekin courtesy and gracious cordiality. She was still intent upon learning from me the manners, customs, and principles of action of the race to which I belonged. She had an insatiable thirst for knowledge, and her curiosity extended to all of those great inventions which are the wonder of Christendom. Locomotives and steamboats were described to her under the names of “horses of fire” and “ships of fire”; printing was “letters of power”; the electric telegraph, “messages of lightning”; the organ, “lute of giants,” and so on. Yet, in spite of the eagerness with which she made her inquiries, and the diligence with which she noted all down, I could see that there was in her mind something lying beneath it all — a far more earnest purpose, and a far more personal one, than the pursuit of useful knowledge.

Layelah was watchful of Almah; she seemed studying her to see how far this woman of another race differed from the Kosekin. She would often turn from me and talk with Almah for a long time, questioning her about her people and their ways. Almah’s manner was somewhat reserved, and it was rendered somewhat more so from the fact that her mind was always full of the prospect of our impending doom. Each jom as it came and went brought us nearer to that awful time, and the hour was surely coming when we should be taken to the outer square and to the top of the pyramid of sacrifice.

Once Layelah sat for some time silent and involved in thought. At length she began to speak to me.

“Almah,” said she, “is very different from us. She loves you and you love her. She ought to give you up. Almah, you ought to give up Atam-or, since you love him.”

Almah looked confused, and made some reply to the effect that she belonged to a different race with different customs.

“But you should follow our customs. You are one of us now. You can easily find another who will take him.”

Almah threw a piteous glance at me and said nothing.

“I,” said Layelah, “will take him.”

She spoke these words with an air of magnanimity, as though putting it in the light of a favor to Almah; but Almah did not make any reply, and after some silence Layelah spoke of something else.

Not long after we were alone together, and Layelah returned to the subject. She referred to Almah’s want of sympathy with the manners of the Kosekin, and asserted that she ought to aim after a separation.

“I love her,” said I, with great warmth, “and will never give her up.”

“But she must give you up; it is the woman’s place to take the first step. I should be willing to take you.”

As Layelah said this she looked at me very earnestly, as if anxious to see how I accepted this offer. It was for me a most embarrassing moment. I loved Almah, but Layelah also was most agreeable, and I liked her very much; indeed, so much so that I could not bear to say anything that might hurt her feelings. Among all the Kosekin there was not one who was not infinitely inferior to her in my eyes. Still, I loved Almah, and I told her so again, thinking that in this way I might repel her without giving offence.

But Layelah was quite ready with her reply.

“If you love Almah,” said she, “that is the very reason why you should marry me.”

This made me feel more embarrassed than ever.

I stammered something about my own feelings — the manners and customs of my race — and the fear that I had of acting against my own principles. “Besides,” I added, “I’m afraid it would make you unhappy.”

“Oh no,” said Layelah, briskly; “on the contrary, it would make me very happy indeed.”

I began to be more and more aghast at this tremendous frankness, and was utterly at a loss what to say.

“My father,” continued Layelah, “is different from the other Kosekin, and so am I. I seek requital for love, and do not think it an evil.”

A sudden thought now suggested itself, and I caught at it as a last resort.

“You have,” said I, “some lover among the Kosekin. Why do you not marry him?”

Layelah smiled.

“I have no lover that I love,” said she, “among the Kosekin.”

My feeble effort was thus a miserable failure. I was about saying something concerning the Kosekin alphabet or something else of an equally appropriate nature, when she prevented me.

“Atam-or,” said she, in a low voice.

“Layelah,” said I, with my mind full of confusion.

“I love you!”

She sat looking at me with her beautiful face all aglow her dark eyes fixed on mine with an intense and eager gaze. I looked at her and said not one single word. Layelah was the first to break the awkward silence.

“You love Almah, Atam-or; but say, do you not love me? You smile at me, you meet me always when I come with warm greetings, and you seem to enjoy yourself in my society. Say, Atam-or, do you not love me?”

This was a perilous and a tremendous moment. The fact is, I did like Layelah very much indeed, and I wanted to tell her so; but my ignorance of the language did not allow me to observe those nice distinctions of meaning which exist between the words “like” and “love.” I knew no other word than the one Kosekin word meaning “love,” and could not think of any meaning “like.” It was, therefore, a very trying position for me.

“Dear Layelah,” said I, floundering and stammering in my confusion, “I love you; I— ”

But here I was interrupted without waiting for any further words; the beautiful creature flung her arms around me and clung to me with a fond embrace. As for me, I was utterly confounded, bewildered, and desperate. I thought of my darling Almah, whom alone I loved. It seemed at that moment as though I was not only false to her, but as if I was even endangering her life. My only thought now was to clear up my meaning.

“Dear Layelah,” said I, as I sat with her arms around me, and with my own around her slender waist, “I do not want to hurt your feelings.”

“Oh, Atam-or! oh, my love! never, never did I know such bliss as this.”

Here again I was overwhelmed, but I still persisted in my effort.

“Dear Layelah,” said I, “I love Almah most dearly and most tenderly.”

“Oh, Atam-or, why speak of that? I know it well. And so by our Kosekin law you give her up; among us, lovers never marry. So you take me, your own Layelah, and you will have me for your bride; and my love for you is ten thousand times stronger than that of the cold and melancholy Almah. She may marry my papa.”

This suggestion filled me with dismay.

“Oh no,” said I. “Never, never will I give up Almah!”

“Certainly not,” said Layelah; “you do not give her up — she gives you up.”

“She never will,” said I.

“Oh yes,” said Layelah; “I will tell her that you wish it.”

“I do not wish it,” said I. “I love her, and will never give her up.”

“It’s all the same,” said Layelah. “You cannot marry her at all. No one will marry you. You and Almah are victims and the State has given you the matchless honor of death. Common people who love one another may marry if they choose, and take the punishment which the law assigns but illustrious victims who love cannot marry, and so, my Atam-or, you have only me.”

I need not say that all this was excessively embarrassing I was certainly fond of Layelah, and liked her too much to hurt her feelings. Had I been one of the Kosekin I might perhaps have managed better; but being a European, a man of the Aryan race — being such, and sitting there with the beautiful Layelah lavishing all her affections upon me — why, it stands to reason that I could not have the heart to wound her feelings in any way. I was taken at an utter disadvantage. Never in my life had I heard of women taking the initiative. Layelah had proposed to me, she would not listen to refusal, and I had not the heart to wound her. I had made all the fight I could by persisting in asserting my love for Almah, but all my assertions were brushed lightly aside as trivial things.

Let any gentleman put himself in my situation, and ask himself what he would do. What would he do if such a thing could happen to him at home? But there such a thing could not happen, and so there is no use in supposing an impossible case. At any rate I think I deserve sympathy. Who could keep his presence of mind under such circumstances? With us a young lady who loves one man can easily repel another suitor; but here it was very different, for how could I repel Layelah? Could I turn upon her and say “Unhand me”? Could I say “Away! I am another’s”? Of course I couldn’t; and what’s worse, if I had said such things Layelah would have smiled me down into silence. The fact is, it doesn’t do for women to take the initiative — it’s not fair. I had stood a good deal among the Kosekin. Their love of darkness, their passion for death, their contempt of riches, their yearning after unrequited love, their human sacrifices, their cannibalism, all had more or less become familiar to me, and I had learned to acquiesce in silence; but now when it came to this — that a woman should propose to a man — it really was more than a fellow could stand. I felt this at that moment very forcibly; but then the worst of it was that Layelah was so confoundedly pretty, and had such a nice way with her, that hang me if I knew what to say.

Meanwhile Layelah was not silent; she had all her wits about her.

“Dear papa,” said she, “would make such a nice husband for Almah. He is a widower, you know. I could easily persuade him to marry her. He always does whatever I ask him to do.”

“But victims cannot marry, you said.”

“No,” said Layelah, sweetly, “they cannot marry one another, but Almah may marry dear papa, and then you and I can be married, and it will be all very nice indeed.”

At this I started away.

“No,” said I, indignantly, “it won’t be nice. I’m engaged to be married to Almah, and I’m not going to give her up.”

“Oh, but she gives you up, you know,” said Layelah, quietly.

“Well, but I’m not going to be given up.”

“Why, how unreasonable you are, you foolish boy!” said Layelah, in her most caressing manner. “You have nothing at all to do with it.”

At this I was in fresh despair, and then a new thought came, which I seized upon.

“See here,” said I, “why can’t I marry both of you? I’m engaged to Almah, and I love her better than all the world. Let me marry her and you too.”

At this Layelah laughed long and merrily. Peal after peal of laughter, musical and most merry, burst from her. It was contagious; I could not help joining in, and so we both sat laughing. It was a long time before we regained our self-control.

“Why, that’s downright bigamy!” exclaimed Layelah with fresh laughter. “Why, Atam-or, you’re mad!” and so she went off again in fresh peals of laughter. It was evident that my proposal was not at all shocking, but simply comical, ridiculous, and inconceivable in its absurdity. It was to her what the remark of some despairing beauty would be among us who, when pressed by two lovers should express a confused willingness to marry both. It was evident that Layelah accepted it as a ludicrous jest.

Laughter was all very well, of course; but I was serious and felt that I ought not to part with Layelah without some better understanding, and so I once more made an effort.

“All this,” said I, in a mournful tone, “is a mere mockery. What have I to say about love and marriage? If you loved me as you say, you would not laugh, but weep. You forget what I am. What am I? A victim, and doomed — doomed to a hideous fate — a fate of horror unutterable. You cannot even begin to imagine the anguish with which I look forward to that fate which impends over me and Almah. Marriage — idle word! What have I to do with marriage? What has Almah? There is only one marriage before us — the dread marriage with death! Why talk of love to the dying? The tremendous ordeal, the sacrifice, is before us and after that there remains the hideous Mista Kosek!”

At this Layelah sprang up, with her whole face and attitude full of life and energy.

“I know, I know,” said she, quickly; “I have arranged for all. Your life shall be saved. Do you think that I have consented to your death? Never! You are mine. I will save you. I will show you what we can do. You shall escape.”

“Can you really save me?” I cried.

“I can.”

“What! in spite of the whole nation?”

Layelah laughed scornfully.

“I can save you,” said she. “We can fly. There are other nations beside ours. We can find some land among the Gojin where we can live in peace. The Gojin are not like us.”

“But Almah?” said I.

The face of Layelah clouded.

“I can only save you,” said she.

“Then I will stay and die with Almah,” said I, obstinately.

“What!” said Layelah, “do you not fear death?”

“Of course I do,” said I; “but I’d rather die than lose Almah.”

“But it’s impossible to save both of you.”

“Then leave me and save Almah,” said I.

“What! would you give up your life for Almah?”

“Yes, and a thousand lives,” said I.

“Why,” said Layelah, “now you talk just like the Kosekin. You might as well be one of us. You love death for the sake of Almah. Why not be more like the Kosekin, and seek after a separation from Almah?”

Layelah was not at all offended at my declaration of love for Almah. She uttered these words in a lively tone, and then said that it was time for her to go.

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