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

Chapter XXV

Falling, Like Icarus, into the Sea

The aurora light, which had flamed brightly, was now extinct, and darkness was upon the face of the deep, where we floated on the back of the monster. He swam, forcing himself onward with his hind-legs, with one broad wing folded up close. Had both been folded up the athaleb could have swum rapidly; but the broken wing lay expanded over the water, tossing with the waves, so that our progress was but slight. Had it not been for this, the athaleb’s own instinct might have served to guide him toward some shore which we might have hoped to reach before life was extinct; but as it was, all thought of reaching any shore was out of the question, and there arose before us only the prospect of death — a death, too, which must be lingering and painful and cruel. Thus amid the darkness we floated, and the waves dashed around us, and the athaleb never ceased to struggle in the water, trying to force his way onward. It seemed sweet at that moment to have Layelah with me, for what could have been more horrible than loneliness amid those black waters? and Layelah’s mind was made up to meet death with joy, so that her mood conveyed itself to me. And I thought that since death was inevitable it were better to meet it thus, and in this way end my life — not amid the horrors of the sacrifice and the Mista Kosek, but in a way which seemed natural to a seafaring man like myself, and with which I had long familiarized my thoughts. For I had fallen upon a world and among people which were all alien and unintelligible to me; and to live on would only open the way to new and worse calamities. There was peace also in the thought that my death would snatch the prospect of death from Almah. She would now be safe. It was only when we were together as lovers that death threatened her; but now since I was removed she could resume her former life, and she might remember me only as an episode in that life. That she would remember me I felt sure, and that she would weep for me and mourn after me was undeniable; but time as it passed would surely alleviate that grief, and Almah would live and be happy. Perhaps she might yet regain her native land and rejoin her loved kindred, whom she would tell of the stranger from an unknown shore who had loved her, and through whose death she had gained her life. Such were the thoughts that filled my mind as I floated over the black water with darkness all around, as I held Layelah in my arms, with my coat wrapped around her, and murmured in her ear tender words of consolation and sympathy.

A long, long time had passed — but how long I know not — when suddenly Layelah gave a cry, and started up on her knees, with her head bent forward listening intently. I too listened, and I could distinctly hear the sound of breakers.

It was evident that we were approaching some shore; and, from what I remembered of the shore of Magones, such a shore meant death, and death alone. We stood up and tried to peer through the gloom. At length we saw a whole line of breakers, and beyond all was black. We waited anxiously in that position, and drew steadily nearer. It was evident that the athaleb was desirous of reaching that shore, and we could do nothing but await the result.

But the athaleb had his wits about him, and swam along on a line with the breakers for some distance, until at length an opening appeared, into which he directed his course. Passing through this we reached still water, which seemed like a lagoon surrounded by a coral reef. The athaleb swam on farther, and at length we saw before us an island with a broad, sandy beach, beyond which was the shadowy outline of a forest. Here the monster landed, and dragged himself wearily upon the sand, where he spread his vast bulk out, and lay panting heavily. We dismounted — I first, so as to assist Layelah; and then it seemed as if death were postponed for a time, since we had reached this place where the rich and rank vegetation spoke of nothing but vigorous life.

Fortune had indeed dealt strangely with me. I had fled with Almah, and with her had reached one desolate shore, and now I found myself with Layelah upon another shore, desolate also, but not a savage wilderness. This lonely island, ringed with the black ocean waters, was the abode of a life of its own, and there was nothing here to crush the soul into a horror of despair like that which was caused by the tremendous scenes on Magones.

In an instant Layelah revived from her gloom. She looked around, clapped her little hands, laughed aloud, and danced for joy.

“Oh, Atam-or,” she cried, “see — see the trees, see the grass, the bushes! This is a land of wonder. As for food, you can call it down from the sky with your sepet-ram, or we can find it on the rocks. Oh, Atam-or! life is better than death, and we can live here, and we can be happy. This shall be better to us than the lands of the Orin, for we shall be alone, and we shall be all in all to one another.”

I could not help laughing, and I said:

“Layelah, this is not the language of the Kosekin. You should at once go to the other side of this island, and sit down and wait for death.”

“Never,” said Layelah; “you are mine, Atam-or, and I never will leave you. If you wish me to die for you, I will gladly lay down my life; but I will not leave you. I love you, Atam-or; and now, whether it be life or death, it is all the same so long as I have you.”

Our submersion in the sea and our long exposure afterward had chilled both of us, but Layelah felt it most. She was shivering in her wet clothes in spite of my coat which I insisted on her wearing, and I determined, if possible, to kindle a fire. Fortunately my powder was dry, for I had thrown off my flask with my coat before jumping into the sea, and thus I had the means of creating fire. I rubbed wet powder over my handkerchief, and then gathered some dried sticks and moss. After this I found some dead trees, the boughs of which were dry and brittle, and in the exercise I soon grew warm, and had the satisfaction of seeing a great heap of fagots accumulating. I fired my pistol into the handkerchief, which, being saturated with powder, caught the fire, and this I blew into a flame among the dried moss. A bright fire now sprang up and blazed high in the air; while I, in order to have an ample supply of fuel, continued to gather it for a long time. At length, as I came back, I saw Layelah lying on the sand in front of the fire, sound asleep. I was glad of this, for she was weary, and had seemed so weak and tremulous that I had felt anxious; so now I arranged my coat over her carefully, and then sat down for a time to think over this new turn which my fortune had taken.

This island was certainly very unlike Magones, yet I had no surety but that it might be equally destitute of food. This was the first question, and I could not think of sleep until I had found out more about the place. The aurora light, which constantly brightens and lessens in this strange world, was now shining gloriously, and I set forth to explore the island. The beach was of fine sand all the way. The water was smooth, and shut in on every side by an outer reef against which the sea-waves broke incessantly. As I walked I soon perceived what the island was; for I had often seen such places before in the South Pacific. It was, in fact, a coral islet, with a reef of rocks encircling it on every side. The vegetation, however, was unlike anything in the world beyond; for it consisted of many varieties of tree-ferns, that looked like palms, and giant grasses, and bamboo. The island was but small, and the entire circuit was not over a mile. I saw nothing that looked like food, nor did it seem likely that in so small a place there could be enough sustenance for us. Our only hope would be from the sea, yet even here I could see no signs of any sort of shell-fish. On the whole the prospect was discouraging, and I returned to the starting-point with a feeling of dejection; but this feeling did not trouble me much at that time: my chief thought was of rest, and I flung myself down on the sand and fell asleep.

I was awakened by a cry from Layelah. Starting up, I saw her standing and looking into the sky. She was intensely excited. As soon as she saw me she rushed toward me and burst into tears, while I, full of wonder, could only stare upward.

“Oh!” cried Layelah, “they’ve turned back — they’ve found us! We shall have to leave our dear, lovely island. Oh, Atam-or, I shall lose you now; for never, never, never again will you have one thought of love for your poor Layelah!”

With these words she clung sobbing to me. For my part I do not remember what I said to soothe her, for the sight above was so amazing that it took up all my attention. The aurora shone bright, and in the sky I saw two vast objects wheeling and circling, as if about to descend. I recognized them at once as athalebs; but as their backs were hid from view by their immense wings, I could not make out whether they were wanderers about to alight of their own accord, or guided here by riders — perhaps by the Kosekin from whom we had been parted.

This much at least I remember. I said to Layelah that these athalebs were wild ones, which had come here because they saw or scented our wounded one; but Layelah shook her head with mournful meaning.

“Oh no,” said she; “Almah has come back for you. This fire-light has guided them. If you had not made the fire they never, never, never could have found us; but now all is lost.”

There was no time for conversation or discussion. The athalebs drew swiftly nearer and nearer, descending in long circuits, until at length they touched the ground not far away on the wide sandy beach. Then we saw people on their backs, and among them was Almah. We hurried toward them, and Almah rushed into my arms, to the great disgust of Layelah, for she was close beside me and saw it all. She gave an exclamation of grief and despair, and hurried away.

From Almah I learned that our disappearance had caused alarm; that two of the athalebs had come back in search of us; that they had been to Magones, and had searched over the seas, and were just about giving us up as lost, when the fire-light had attracted their attention and drawn them here.

I said nothing at that time about the cause of our disappearance, but merely remarked that the athaleb had fallen into the sea and swam here. This was sufficient. They had to remain here for some time longer to rest their athalebs. At length we prepared to depart. Our wounded athaleb was left behind to take care of himself. I was taken with Almah, and Layelah went on the other. We were thus separated; and so we set forth upon our return, and at length arrived at the amir.

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