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

Chapter XXI

The Flying Monster

I retired to bed, but could not sleep. The offer of escape filled me with excited thoughts. These made sleep impossible, and as I lay awake I thought that perhaps it would be well to know what might be Layelah’s plan of escape, for I might then make use of it to save Almah. I determined to find out all about it on the following jom — to question her as to the lands of the Gojin, to learn all her purpose. It might be that I could make use of that very plan to save Almah; but if not, why then I was resolved to remain and meet my fate with her. If Layelah could be induced to take both of us, I was of course resolved to go, trusting to chance as to the claims of Layelah upon me, and determined at all hazards to be faithful to Almah; but if she should positively refuse to save Almah, then I thought it possible that I might be able to find in Layelah’s plan of escape something of which I might avail myself. I could not imagine what it was, but it seemed to me that it might be something quite feasible, especially for a desperate man. The only thought I had was of escape by means of some boat over the seas. In a boat I would be at home. I could make use of a sail so as to elude pursuit, and could guide myself by the stars. The only thing that I wanted to know was the situation of the lands of the Gojin.

On the following jom the Kohen Gadol and Layelah came quite early and spent much time. I was surprised to see the Kohen Gadol devoting himself in an absurd fashion to Almah. It at once occurred to me that Layelah had obtained her father’s co-operation in her scheme, and that the old villain actually imagined that he could win the hand of Almah. To Almah herself I had said nothing whatever about the proposal of Layelah, so that she was quite ignorant of the intentions of her companion; but it was excessively annoying to me to see such proceedings going on under my own eyes. At the same time I felt that it would be both unwise and uncivil to interfere; and I was also quite sure that Almah’s affections were not to be diverted from me by anyone, much less by such an elderly party as the Kohen Gadol. It was very trying, however, and, in spite of my confidence in Almah, my jealousy was excited, and I began to think that the party of philosophical Radicals were not so agreeable as the orthodox cannibals whom I first met. As for Layelah, she seemed quite unconscious of any disturbance in my mind. She was as amiable, as sprightly, as inquisitive, and as affectionate as ever. She even outdid herself, and devoted herself to me with an abandon that was quite irresistible.

After Almah had left me, Layelah came again, and this time she was alone.

“I have come,” said she, “to show you the way in which we can escape, whenever you decide to do so.”

It was the thing above all others which I wished to know, and therefore I questioned her eagerly about it; but to all of my questions she only replied that she would show me, and I might judge for myself.

Layelah led the way, and I followed her. We traversed long galleries and vast halls, all of which were quite empty. It was the sleeping-time, and only those were visible who had some duties which kept them up later than usual. Faint, twinkling lights but feebly illuminated the general gloom. At length we came to an immense cavern, which was darker than ever, and without any lamps at all. Through a vast portal, which was closed with a barred gateway, the beams of the brilliant aurora penetrated and disclosed something of the interior.

Here Layelah stopped and peered through the gloom while I stood waiting by her side, wondering what means of escape could be found in this cavern. As I stood I heard through the still air the sound as of living things. For a time I saw nothing, but at length I descried a vast, shadowy form moving forward toward the portal, where the darkness was less. It was a form of portentous size and fearful shape, and I could not make out at first the nature of it. It surpassed all that I had ever seen. Its head was large and its jaws long, armed with rows of terrible teeth like those of a crocodile. Its body was of great size. It walked on its hind-legs, so as to maintain itself in an upright attitude, and in that position its height was over twelve feet. But the most amazing thing about this monster has yet to be told. As it walked its forearms waved and fluttered, and I saw descending from them what seemed like vast folded leathern wings, which shook and swayed in the air at every step. Its pace was about as fast as that of a man, and it moved with ease and lightness. It seemed like some enormous bat, or rather like a winged crocodile, or yet again like one of those monstrous dragons of which I had read, but in whose actual existence I had never believed. Yet here I saw one living and moving before me — an actual dragon, with the exception of a tail; for that appendage, which plays so great a part in all the pictures of dragons, had no place here. This beast had but a short caudal appendage, and all its terrors lay in its jaws and in its wings.

For a moment I stood almost lifeless with terror and surprise. Then I shrank back, but Layelah laid her hand on my arm.

“Don’t be afraid,” said she; “it’s only an athaleb.”

“But won’t it — won’t it bite?” I asked, with a shudder.

“Oh no,” said Layelah; “it swallows its victuals whole.”

At this I shrank away still farther.

“Don’t be afraid,” said Layelah again. “Its jaws are muzzled, and, besides, it’s a tame athaleb. Its jaws are unmuzzled only at feeding-time. But this one is very tame. There are three or four others in here, and all as tame as I am. They all know me. Come up nearer; don’t be afraid. These athalebs are easily tamed.”

“How can such tremendous monsters be tamed?” I asked, in an incredulous tone.

“Oh, man can tame anything. The athalebs are very docile when they are taken young. They are very long lived. This one has been in service here for a hundred seasons and more.”

At this I began to regain my confidence, and as Layelah moved nearer to the athaleb I accompanied her. A nearer view, however, was by no means reassuring. The dragon look of the athaleb was stronger than ever, for I could see that all its body was covered with scales. On its neck and back was a long ridge of coarse hair, and the sweep of its vast arms was enormous. It was with a quaking heart that I stood near; but the coolness of Layelah reassured me, for she went close up, as a boy would go up to a tame elephant, and she stroked his enormous back, and the monster bent down his terrible head and seemed pleased.

“This,” said Layelah, “is the way we have of escaping.”

“This!” I exclaimed, doubtfully.

“Yes,” said she. “He is trained to the service. We can mount on his back, and he will fly with us wherever I choose to guide him.”

“What!” I exclaimed, as I shrank back — “fly! Do you mean to say that you will mount this hideous monster, and trust yourself to him?”

“Certainly,” said Layelah, quietly. “He is very docile. There is harness here with which we can guide him. Should you like to see him harnessed?”

“Very much indeed,” said I.

Upon this Layelah walked up to the monster and stroked his breast. The huge athaleb at once lay down upon his belly. Then she brought two long straps like reins, and fastened each to the tip of a projecting tip of each wing. Then she fastened a collar around his neck, to which there was attached a grappling-iron.

“We seat ourselves on his back,” said Layelah. “I guide with these reins. When we land anywhere I fasten him with the grapple. He looks dull now, but if I were to open the gate and remove his muzzle he would be off like the wind.”

“But can he carry both of us?” I asked.

“Easily,” said Layelah. “He can carry three persons without fatigue.”

“Could you mount on his back now, and show me how you sit?”

Layelah readily assented, and mounted with the greatest ease, seating herself on the broadest part of the back between the wings.

“Here,” said she, “is room for you. Will you not come?”

For an instant I hesitated; but then the sight of her, seated there as coolly as though she were on a chair reassured me, and I climbed up also, though not without a shudder. The touch of the fearful monster was abhorrent but I conquered my disgust and seated myself close behind Layelah. Here she sat, holding the reins in her hands, with the grapple just in front of her; and, seated in this position, she went on to explain the whole process by which the mighty monster was guided through the air.

No sooner had I found myself actually on the back of the athaleb than all fear left me. I perceived fully how completely tame he was, and how docile. The reins attached to his wings could be pulled with the greatest ease, Just as one would pull the tiller-ropes of a boat. “Familiarity breeds contempt;” and now, since the first terror had passed away, I felt perfect confidence, and under the encouragement of Layelah I had become like some rustic in a menagerie, who at first is terrified by the sight of the elephant, but soon gains courage enough to mount upon his back. With my new-found courage and presence of mind I listened most attentively to all of Layelah’s explanations, and watched most closely the construction and fastening of the harness; for the thought had occurred to me that this athaleb might be of avail in another way — that if I did not fly with Layelah, I might fly with Almah. This thought was only of a vague and shadowy character — a dim suggestion, the carrying out of which I scarce dared to think possible; still, it was in my mind, and had sufficient power over me to make me very curious as to the plans of Layelah. I determined to find out where she proposed to go, and how far; to ask her about the dangers of the way and the means of sustenance. It seemed, I confess, rather unfair to Layelah to find out her plans and use them for another purpose; but then that other purpose was Almah, and to me at that time every device which was for her safety seemed fair and honorable.

“Here,” said Layelah — “here, Atam-or, you see the way of escape. The athaleb can carry us both far away to a land where you need never fear that they will put you to death — a land where the people love light and life. Whenever you are ready to go, tell me; if you are ready to go now, say so, and at once I will open the door, and we shall soon be far away.”

She laid her hand on mine and looked at me earnestly; but I was not to be beguiled into any hasty committal of myself, and so I turned her proposal away with a question:

“How far is it,” I asked, “to that land?”

“It is too far for one flight,” said Layelah. “We go first over the sea till we come to a great island, which is called Magones, where there are mountains of fire; there we must rest, and feed the athaleb on fish, which are to be found on the shore. The athaleb knows his way there well, for he goes there once every season for a certain sacred ceremony. He has done this for fifty or sixty seasons, and knows his way there and back perfectly well. The difficulty will be, when we leave Magones, in reaching the land of the Orin.”

“The Orin?” I repeated. “Who are they?”

“They are a people among the Gojin who love life and light. It is their land that I wish to reach, if possible.”

“Where is it?” I asked, eagerly.

“I cannot explain,” said Layelah. “I can only trust to my own skill, and hope to find the place. We may have to pass over different lands of the Gojin, and if so we may be in danger.”

“What is the reason why the athaleb goes to Magones every season?” I asked.

“To take there the chief pauper of the season, who has won the prize of death by starvation. It is one of the greatest honors among the Kosekin.”

“Is Magones barren?”

“It is an island of fire, without anything on it but craggy mountains and wild rocks and flowing rivers of fire. It stands almost in the middle of the sea.”

“How can we get away from here?” I asked, after some silence.

“From here? — why, I open the gates, and the athaleb flies away; that is all.”

“But shall we not be prevented?”

“Oh no. No one here ever prevents anyone from doing anything. Everyone is eager to help his neighbor.”

“But if they saw me deliberately mounting the athaleb and preparing for flight, would they not stop me?”

“No.”

I was amazed at this.

“But,” said I, “am I not a victim — preserved for the great sacrifice?”

“You are; but you are free to go where you like, and do what you like. Your character of victim makes you most distinguished. It is the highest honor and dignity. All believe that you rejoice in your high dignity, and no one dreams that you are anxious to escape.”

“But if I did escape, would they not pursue me?”

“Certainly not.”

“What would they do for a victim?”

“They would wonder at your unaccountable flight, and then choose some distinguished pauper.”

“But if I were to stay here, would they not save me from death at my entreaty?”

“Oh, certainly not; they would never understand such an entreaty. That’s a question of death, the supreme blessing. No one is capable of such a base act as saving his fellow-man from death. All are eager to help each other to such a fate.”

“But if I were to fly they would not prevent me, and they would not pursue me?”

“Oh no.”

“Are there any in the land who are exempt from the sacrifice?”

“Oh yes; the Athons, Meleks, and Kohens — these are not worthy of the honor. The artisans and tradesmen are sometimes permitted to attain to this honor; the laborers in greater numbers; but it is the paupers who are chiefly favored. And this is a matter of complaint among the rich and powerful, that they cannot be sacrificed.”

“Well, why couldn’t I be made an Athon or a Kohen, and be exempted in that way?”

“Oh, that would be too great a dishonor; it would be impossible. On the contrary, the whole people are anxious to honor you to the very uttermost, and to bestow upon you the greatest privileges and blessings which can possibly be given. Oh no, it would be impossible for them to allow you to become an Athon or a Kohen. As for me, I am Malca, and therefore the lowest in the land — pitied and commiserated by the haughty pauper class, who shake their heads at the thought of one like me. All the people shower upon me incessantly new gifts and new offices. If my present love of light and life were generally known, they would punish me by giving me new contributions of wealth and new offices and powers, which I do not want.”

“But you love riches, do you not? and you must want them still?”

“No,” said Layelah, “I do not want them now.”

“Why, what do you want?” I asked.

“You!” said she, with a sweet smile.

I said nothing, but tried desperately to think of something that might divert the conversation.

Layelah was silent for a few moments, and then went on in a musing tone:

“As I was saying, I love you, Atam-or, and I hate Almah because you love her. I think Almah is the only human being in all the world that I ever really hated; and yet, though I hate her, still, strange to say, I feel as though I should like to give her the immense blessing of death, and that is a very strange feeling, indeed, for one of the Kosekin. Do you understand, Atam-or, what such can possibly be?”

I did not answer, but turned away the conversation by a violent effort.

“Are there any other athalebs here?”

“Oh yes.”

“How many?”

“Four.”

“Are they all as tame as this?”

“Oh yes, all quite as tame; there is no difference whatever.”

Upon this I left the back of the athaleb, and Layelah also descended, after which she proceeded to show me the other monsters. At length she unharnessed the athaleb and we left the cavern.

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