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

Chapter XXIV

Recapture

How long I slept I do not know; but in the midst of my sleep there sounded voices, which at first intermingled themselves with my dreams, but gradually became separate and sounded from without, rousing me from my slumbers. I opened my eyes drowsily, but the sight that I saw was so amazing that in an instant all sleep left me. I started to my feet, and gazed in utter bewilderment upon the scene before me.

The aurora light was shining with unusual brilliancy, and disclosed everything — the sea, the shore, the athaleb, the jantannin, the promontory, all — more plainly and more luminously than before; but it was not any of these things that now excited my attention and rendered me dumb. I saw Almah standing there at a little distance, with despairing face, surrounded by a band of armed Kosekin; while immediately before me, regarding me with a keen glance and an air of triumph, was Layelah.

“Ataesmzori alonla,” said she, with a sweet smile, giving me the usual salutation of the Kosekin.

I was too bewildered to say a word, and stood mute as before, looking first at her and then at Almah.

The sight of Almah a prisoner once more, surrounded by the Kosekin, excited me to madness. I seized my rifle, and raised it as if to take aim; but Almah, who understood the movement, cried to me:

“Put down your sepet-ram, Atam-or! you can do nothing for me. The Kosekin are too numerous.”

“Sepet-ram!” said Layelah; “what do you mean by that? If your sepet-ram has any power, do not try to use it, Atam-or, or else I shall have to order my followers to give to Almah the blessing of death.”

At this my rifle was lowered: the whole truth flashed upon me, and I saw, too, the madness of resistance. I might kill one or two, but the rest would do as Layelah said, and I should speedily be disarmed. Well I knew how powerless were the thunders of my fire-arms to terrify these Kosekin; for the prospect of death would only rouse them to a mad enthusiasm, and they would all rush upon me as they would rush upon a jantannin — to slay and be slain. The odds were too great. A crowd of Europeans could be held in check far more easily than these death-loving Kosekin. The whole truth was thus plain: we were prisoners, and were at their mercy.

Layelah showed no excitement or anger whatever. She looked and spoke in her usual gracious and amiable fashion, with a sweet smile on her face.

“We knew,” said she, “that you would be in distress in this desolate place, and that you would not know where to go from Magones; and so we have come, full of the most eager desire to relieve your wants. We have brought with us food and drink, and are ready to do everything for you that you may desire. We have had great trouble in finding you, and have coursed over the shores for vast distances, and far over the interior, but our athalebs found you at last by their scent. And we rejoice to have found you in time, and that you are both so well, for we have been afraid that you had been suffering. Nay, Atam-or, do not thank us; thanks are distasteful to the Kosekin: these brave followers of mine will all be amply rewarded for this, for they will all be made paupers; but as for myself, I want no higher reward than the delightful thought that I have saved you from suffering.”

The beautiful, smiling Layelah, who addressed me in this way with her sweet voice, was certainly not to be treated as an enemy. Against her a rifle could not be levelled; she would have looked at me with the same sweet smile, and that smile would have melted all my resolution. Nor could I even persist in my determination to remain. Remain! For what? For utter despair! And yet where else could we go?

“You do not know where lie the lands of the Orin,” said Layelah. “The athaleb does not know. You could not guide him if you did know. You are helpless on his back. The art of driving an athaleb is difficult, and cannot be learned without long and severe practice. My fear was that the athaleb might break away from you and return, leaving you to perish here. Had you tried to leave this place he would have brought you back to the amir.”

To this I said nothing — partly because it was so true that I had no answer to make, and partly also out of deep mortification and dejection. My pride was wounded at being thus so easily baffled by a girl like Layelah, and all my grief was stirred by the sadness of Almah. In her eyes there seemed even now the look of one who sees death inevitable, and the glance she gave to me was like an eternal farewell.

Almah now spoke, addressing herself to Layelah.

“Death,” said she, in a voice of indescribable mournfulness, “is better here than with you. We would rather die here than go back. Let us, I pray you, receive the blessing of death here. Let us be paupers and exiles, and die on Magones.”

Layelah heard this, and stood for a moment in deep thought.

“No one but a stranger,” said she at length, “would ask such a favor as that. Do you not know that what you ask is among the very highest honors of the Kosekin? Who am I that I can venture to grant such a request as that? Ask for anything in my power, and I will be glad to grant it. I have already arranged that you shall be separated from Atam-or; and that, surely, is a high privilege. I might consent to bind you hand and foot, after the manner of the more distinguished Asirin; you may also be blindfolded if you wish it. I might even promise, after we return to the amir, to keep you confined in utter darkness, with barely sufficient food to keep you alive until the time of the sacrifice; in short, there is no blessing known among the Kosekin that I will not give so long as it is in my power. And so, beloved Almah,” continued Layelah, “you have every reason for happiness; you have all the highest blessings known among the Kosekin: separation from your lover, poverty, want, darkness; and, finally, the prospect of inevitable death ever before you as the crowning glory of your lot.”

These words seemed to the Kosekin the very excess of magnanimity, and involuntary murmurs of admiration escaped them; although it is just possible that they murmured at the greatness of the favor that was offered. But to me it sounded like fiendish mockery, and to Almah it sounded the same; for a groan escaped her, her fortitude gave way, she sank on her knees, buried her head in her hands, and wept.

“Almah,” cried I, in a fury, “we will not go back — we will not be separated! I will destroy all the athalebs, and we shall all perish here together. At least, you and I will not be separated.”

At this Almah started up.

“No, no,” said she — “no; let us go back. Here we have nothing but death.”

“But we have death also at the amir, and a more terrible one,” said I.

“If you kill the athalebs,” said Layelah, “I will give Almah the blessing of death.”

At this I recoiled in horror, and my resolution again gave way.

“You have some mysterious power of conferring death,” continued Layelah, “with what Almah calls your sepet-ram; but do not kill the athalebs, for it will do you no good. Almah would then receive the blessing of death. My followers, these noble Kosekin, would rejoice in thus gaining exile and death on Magones. As for myself, it would be my highest happiness to be here alone with you. With you I should live for a few sweet joms, and with you I should die; so go on — kill the athalebs if you wish.”

“Do not!” cried Almah — “do not! There is no hope. We are their prisoners, and our only hope is in submission.”

Upon this all further thought of resistance left me, and I stood in silence, stolidly waiting for their action. As I looked around I noticed a movement near the jantannin, and saw several athalebs there, which were devouring its flesh. I now went over to Almah and spoke with her. We were both full of despair. It seemed as though we might never meet again. We were to be separated now; but who could say whether we should be permitted to see each other after leaving this place? We had but little to say. I held her in my arms, regardless of the presence of others; and these, seeing our emotion, at once moved away, with the usual delicacy of the Kosekin, and followed Layelah to the jantannin to see about the athalebs.

At last our interview was terminated. Layelah came and informed us that all was ready for our departure. We walked sadly to the place, and found the athalebs crouched to receive their riders. There were four beside ours. Layelah informed me that I was to go with her, and Almah was to go on another athaleb. I entreated her to let Almah go with me; but she declined, saying that our athaleb could only carry two, as he seemed fatigued, and it would not be safe to overload him for so long a flight. I told her that Almah and I could go together on the same athaleb; but she objected on the ground of my ignorance of driving. And so, remonstrances and objections being alike useless, I was compelled to yield to the arrangements that had been made. Almah mounted on another athaleb. I mounted with Layelah, and then the great monsters expanded their mighty wings, rose into the air, and soon were speeding over the waters.

We went on in silence for some time. I was too despondent to say a word, and all my thoughts turned toward Almah, who was now separated from me — perhaps forever. The other athalebs went ahead, at long intervals apart, flying in a straight line, while ours was last. Layelah said nothing. She sat in front of me; her back was turned toward me; she held in her hands the reins, which hung quite loose at first, but after a while she drew them up, and seemed to be directing our course. For some time I did not notice anything in particular, for my eyes were fixed upon the athaleb immediately before us, upon which was seated the loved form of Almah, which I could easily recognize. But our athaleb flew slowly, and I noticed that we were falling behind. I said this to Layelah, but she only remarked that it was fatigued with its long journey. To this I objected that the others had made as long a journey, and insisted that she should draw nearer. This she at first refused to do; but at length, as I grew persistent, she complied, or pretended to do so. In spite of this, however, we again fell behind, and I noticed that this always happened when the reins were drawn tight. On making this discovery I suddenly seized both reins and let them trail loose, whereupon the athaleb at once showed a perceptible increase of speed, which proved that there was no fatigue in him whatever. This I said to Layelah.

She acquiesced with a sweet smile, and taking the reins again, she sat around so as to face me, and said:

“You are very quick. It is no use to try to deceive you, Atam-or: I wish to fall behind.”

“Why?”

“To save you.”

“To save me?”

“Yes. I can take you to the land of the Orin. Now is the time to escape from death. If you go back you must surely die; but now, if you will be guided by me, I can take you to the land of the Orin. There they all hate death, they love life, they live in the light. There you will find those who are like yourself; there you can love and be happy.”

“But what of Almah?” I asked.

Layelah made a pretty gesture of despair.

“You are always talking of Almah,” said she. “What is Almah to you? She is cold, dull, sad! She never will speak. Let her go.”

“Never!” said I. “Almah is worth more than all the world to me.”

Layelah sighed.

“I can never, never, never,” said she, “get from you the least little bit of a kind word — even after all that I have done for you, and when you know that I would lie down and let you trample me under your feet if it gave you any pleasure.”

“Oh, that is not the question at all,” said I. “You are asking me to leave Almah — to be false to her — and I cannot.”

“Among the Kosekin,” said Layelah, “it is the highest happiness for lovers to give one another up.”

“I am not one of the Kosekin,” said I. “I cannot let her go away — I cannot let her go back to the amir — to meet death alone. If she dies she shall see me by her side, ready to die with her.”

At this Layelah laughed merrily.

“Is it possible,” said she, “that you believe that? Do you not know that if Almah goes back alone she will not die?”

“What do you mean?”

“Why, she can only die when you are in her company. She has lived for years among us, and we have waited for someone to appear whom she might love, so that we might give them both the blessing of death. If that one should leave her, Almah could not receive the blessing. She would be compelled to live longer, until some other lover should appear. Now, by going with me to the land of the Orin, you will save Almah’s life — and as for Almah, why, she will be happy — and dear papa is quite willing to marry her. You must see, therefore, dear Atam-or, that my plan is the very best that can be thought of for all of us, and above all for Almah.”

This, however, was intolerable; and I could not consent to desert Almah, even if by doing so I should save her life. My own nature revolted from it. Still it was not a thing which I could dismiss on the instant. The safety of Almah’s life, indeed, required consideration; but then the thought came of her wonder at my desertion. Would she not think me false? Would not the thought of my falsity be worse than death?

“No,” said I, “I will not leave her — not even to save her life. Even among us there are things worse than death. Almah would rather die by the sacrificial knife than linger on with a broken heart.”

“Oh no,” said Layelah, sweetly; “she will rejoice that you are safe. Do you not see that while you are together death is inevitable, but if you separate you may both live and be happy?”

“But she will think me dead,” said I, as a new idea occurred. “She will think that some accident has befallen me.”

“Oh no, she won’t,” said Layelah; “she will think that you have gone off with me.”

“Then that will be worse, and I would rather die, and have her die with me, than live and have her think me false.”

“You are very, very obstinate,” said Layelah, sweetly.

I made no reply. During this conversation I had been too intent upon Layelah’s words to notice the athalebs before me; but now as I looked up I saw that we had fallen far behind, and that Layelah had headed our athaleb in a new direction. Upon this I once more snatched the reins from her, and tried to return to our former course. This, however, I was utterly unable to do.

Layelah laughed.

“You will have to let me guide our course,” said she. “You can do nothing. The athaleb will now go in a straight line to the land of the Orin.”

Upon this I started up in wild excitement.

“Never, never, never!” I cried, in a fury. “I will not; I will destroy this athaleb and perish in the water!”

As I said this I raised my rifle.

“What are you going to do?” cried Layelah, in accents of fear.

“Turn back,” I cried, “or I will kill this athaleb!”

Upon this Layelah dropped the reins, stood up, and looked at me with a smile.

“Oh, Atam-or,” said she, “what a thing to ask! How can I go back now, when we have started for the land of the Orin?”

“We shall never reach the land of the Orin,” I cried; “we shall perish in the sea!”

“Oh no,” said Layelah; “you cannot kill the athaleb. You are no more than an insect; your rod is a weak thing, and will break on his iron frame.”

It was evident that Layelah had not the slightest idea of the powers of my rifle. There was no hesitation on my part. I took aim with the rifle. At that moment I was desperate. I thought of nothing but the swift flight of the athaleb, which was bearing me away forever from Almah. I could not endure that thought, and still less could I endure the thought that she should believe me false. It was therefore in a wild passion of rage and despair that I levelled my rifle, taking aim as well as I could at what seemed a vital part under the wing. The motion of the wing rendered this difficult, however, and I hesitated a moment, so as to make sure. All this time Layelah stood looking at me with a smile on her rosy lips and a merry twinkle in her eyes — evidently regarding my words as empty threats and my act as a vain pretence, and utterly unprepared for what was to follow.

Suddenly I fired both barrels in quick succession. The reports rang out in thunder over the sea. The athaleb gave a wild, appalling shriek, and fell straight down into the water, fluttering vainly with one wing, while the other hung down useless. A shriek of horror burst from Layelah. She started back, and fell from her standing-place into the waves beneath. The next instant we were all in the water together — the athaleb writhing and lashing the water into foam, while I involuntarily clung to his coarse mane, and expected death every moment.

But death did not come; for the athaleb did not sink, but floated with his back out of the water, the right pinion being sunk underneath and useless, and the left struggling vainly with the sea. But after a time he folded up the left wing and drew it close in to his side, and propelled himself with his long hind-legs. His right wing was broken, but he did not seem to have suffered any other injury.

Suddenly I heard a cry behind me:

“Atam-or! oh, Atam-or!”

I looked around and saw Layelah. She was swimming in the water, and seemed exhausted. In the agitation of the past few moments I had lost sight of her, and had thought that she was drowned; but now the sight of her roused me from my stupor and brought me back to myself. She was swimming, yet her strokes were weak and her face was full of despair. In an instant I had flung off my coat, rolled up the rifle and pistol in its folds, and sprung into the water. A few strokes brought me to Layelah. A moment more and I should have been too late. I held her head out of water, told her not to struggle, and then struck out to go back. It would have been impossible for me to do this, encumbered with such a load, had I not fortunately perceived the floating wing of the athaleb close beside me. This I seized, and by means of it drew myself with Layelah alongside; after which I succeeded in putting her on the back of the animal, and soon followed myself.

The terror of the rifle had overwhelmed her, and the suddenness of the catastrophe had almost killed her. She had struggled in the water for a long time, and had called to me in vain. Now she was quite exhausted, and lay in my arms trembling and sobbing. I spoke to her encouragingly, and wrapped her in my coat, and rubbed her hands and feet, until at last she began to recover. Then she wept quietly for a long time; then the weeping fit passed away. She looked up with a smile, and in her face there was unutterable gratitude.

“Atam-or,” said she, “I never loved death like the rest of the Kosekin; but now — but now — I feel that death with you would be sweet.”

Then tears came to her eyes, and I found tears coming to my own, so that I had to stoop down and kiss away the tears of Layelah. As I did so she twined both her arms around my neck, held me close to her, and sighed.

“Oh, Atam-or, death with you is sweet! And now you cannot reproach me — You have done this yourself, with your terrible power; and you have saved my life to let me die with you. You do not hate me, then, Atam-or, do you? Just speak once to a poor little girl, and say that you do not hate her!”

All this was very pitiable. What man that had a heart in his breast could listen unmoved to words like these, or look without emotion upon one so beautiful, so gentle, and so tender? It was no longer Layelah in triumph with whom I had to do, but Layelah in distress: the light banter, the teasing, mocking smile, the kindling eye, the ready laugh — all were gone. There was nothing now but mournful tenderness — the timid appeal of one who dreaded a repulse, the glance of deep affection, the abandonment of love.

I held Layelah in my arms, and I thought of nothing now but words of consolation for her. Life seemed over; death seemed inevitable; and there, on the back of the athaleb, we floated on the waters and waited for our doom.

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