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

Chapter XXVIII

In Prison

It was with hearts full of the gloomiest forebodings that we returned to the amir, and these we soon found to be fully justified. The athalebs descended at that point from which they had risen — namely, on the terrace immediately in front of the cavern where they had been confined. We then dismounted, and Layelah with the Kosekin guards accompanied us to our former chambers. There she left us, saying that a communication would be sent to us.

We were now left to our own conjectures.

“I wonder what they will do to us?” said I.

“It is impossible to tell,” said Almah.

“I suppose,” said I, “they will punish us in some way; but then punishment among the Kosekin is what seems honor and reward to me. Perhaps they will spare our lives, for that in their eyes ought to be the severest punishment and the deepest disgrace imaginable.”

Almah sighed.

“The Kosekin do not always act in this matter as one would suppose,” said she. “It is quite likely that they may dread our escaping, and may conclude to sacrifice us at once.”

On the next jom I had a visit from the Kohen Gadol. He informed me that the paupers had held a Council of State, in which they had made a special examination of our late flight. He and Layelah had both been examined, as well as the Kosekin who had gone after us; but Layelah’s testimony was by far the most important.

The Council of State gathered from Layelah’s report that we had fled to Magones for the especial purpose of gaining the most blessed of deaths; that she pursued us in the interest of the state; and that we on her arrival had generously surrendered our own selfish desires, and had at once returned.

We learned that much gratification was felt by the council, and also expressed, at Layelah’s account and at our action.

First, at our eager love of death, which was so natural in their eyes; secondly, at the skill which we had shown in selecting Magones; and finally, at our generosity in giving up so readily the blessed prospect of exile and want and death, so as to come back to the amir. Had we been Kosekin our acts would have been natural enough; but, being foreigners, it was considered more admirable in us, and it seemed to show that we were equal to the Kosekin themselves. It was felt, however, that in our eager rush after death we had been somewhat selfish; but as this probably arose from our ignorance of the law, it might be overlooked. On the whole it was decided that we ought to be rewarded, and that, too, with the greatest benefits that the Kosekin could bestow. What these benefits were the Kohen Gadol could not say; and thus we were left, as before, in the greatest possible anxiety. We still dreaded the worst. The highest honors of these men might well awaken apprehension; for they thought that the chief blessings were poverty and darkness and death.

Layelah next came to see me. She was as amiable as ever, and showed no resentment at all. She gave me an account of what had happened at the Council of State, which was the same as what I had heard from the Kohen Gadol.

I asked her why she had made such a report of us.

“To conciliate their good-will,” said Layelah. “For if they thought that you had really fled from death from a love of life, they would have felt such contempt for you that serious harm might have happened.”

“Yes,” said I; “but among the Kosekin what you call harm would probably have been just what I want. I should like to be viewed with contempt, and considered unworthy of death and the Mista Kosek, and other such honors.”

“Oh yes,” said Layelah; “but that doesn’t follow; for you see the paupers love death so intensely that they long to bestow it on all; and if they knew that you were afraid of it, they would be tempted to bestow it upon you immediately, just to show you how delightful a thing it is. And that was the very thing that I was trying to guard against.”

“Well,” said I, “and what is the result? Do you know what their decision is?”

“Yes,” said Layelah.

“What is it?” I asked, eagerly.

Layelah hesitated.

“What is it?” I cried again, full of impatience.

“I’m afraid it will not sound very pleasant to you,” said Layelah, “but at any rate your life is spared for the present. They have decided to give you what they call the greatest possible honors and distinctions.”

Layelah paused, and looked at me earnestly. For my part these words sounded ominous, and were full of the darkest meaning.

“Tell me all,” I said; “don’t keep me in suspense.”

“Well,” said Layelah, “I’m afraid you will think it hard; but I must tell you. I will tell it, therefore, as briefly and formally as possible.

“First, then, they have decreed the blessing of separation. You and Almah must now be parted, since this is regarded as the highest bliss of lovers.

“Secondly, they have decreed the blessing of poverty. All these luxuries will be taken away, and you will be raised to an equality in this respect with the great paupers.

“Thirdly, you are to have the blessing of darkness. You are to be removed from this troublesome and vexatious light, which here is regarded as a curse, and henceforth live without it.

“Fourthly, the next decree is the high reward of imprisonment. You are to be delivered from the evils of liberty, and shut up in a dark cavern, from which it will be impossible to escape or to communicate with anyone outside.

“Fifthly, you are to associate with the greatest of the paupers, the class that is the most honored and influential. You will be present at all their highest councils, and will have the privilege of perpetual intercourse with those reverend men. They will tell you of the joys of poverty, the happiness of darkness, and the bliss of death.”

Layelah paused, and looked at me earnestly.

“Is there anything more?” I gasped.

“No,” said she. “Is not that enough? Some were in favor of bestowing immediate death, but they were outvoted by the others. You surely cannot regret that.”

Layelah’s words sounded like the words of a mocking demon. Yet she did not wish to distress me; she had merely stated my sentence in formal language, without any attempt to soften its tremendous import. As for me, I was overwhelmed with despair. There was but one thought in my mind — it was not of myself, but of Almah.

“And Almah?” I cried.

“Almah,” said Layelah — “she will have the same; you are both included in the same sentence.”

At this a groan burst from me. Horror overwhelmed me. I threw myself down upon the floor and covered my face with my hands. All was lost! Our fate — Almah’s fate — was darkness, imprisonment, and death. Could anything be imagined that might mitigate such woes as these? Could anything be conceived of as more horrible? Yes; there remained something more, and this was announced by Layelah.

“Finally,” said she, “it has been decreed that you shall not only have the blessing of death, but that you shall have the rare honor of belonging to the chosen few who are reserved for the Mista Kosek. Thus far this had not been granted. It was esteemed too high an honor for strangers; but now, by an exercise of unparalleled liberality, the Grand Council of Paupers have added this, as the last and best, to the high honors and rewards which they have decreed for you and Almah.”

To this I had nothing to say; I was stupefied with horror. To such words what answer could be made? At that moment I could think of nothing but this tremendous sentence — this infliction of appalling woes under the miserable name of blessings! I could not think of Layelah; nor did I try to conjecture what her motives might be in thus coming to me as the messenger of evil. I could not find space amid my despair for speculations as to her own part in this, or stop to consider whether she was acting the part of a mere messenger, or was influenced by resentment or revenge. All this was far away from my thoughts; for all my mind was filled with the dread sentence of the Council of Paupers and the baleful prospect of the woes that awaited us.

On the next jom I saw Almah. She had already learned the awful tidings. She met me with a face of despair; for there was no longer any hope, and all that remained for us was a last farewell. After this we parted, and each of us was taken to our respective prison.

I was taken along dark passages until I came to a cavern with a low, dark portal. Upon entering I found the darkness deeper than usual, and there was only one solitary lamp, which diffused but a feeble ray through the gloom. The size of the place could not be made out. I saw here a group of human beings, and by the feeble ray of the lamp I perceived that they were wan and thin and emaciated, with scant clothing, all in rags, squalor, misery, and dirt; with coarse hair matted together, and long nails and shaggy beards. They reminded me in their personal appearance of the cannibals of the outer shore. These hideous beings all gathered around me, blinking at me with their bleary eyes and grinning with their abominable faces, and then each one embraced me. The filth, squalor, and unutterable foulness of these wretches all combined to fill my soul with loathing, and the inconceivable horror of that embrace wellnigh overwhelmed me. Yet, after all, it was surpassed by the horror of the thought that Almah might be at that very moment undergoing the same experience; and for her such a thing must be worse than for me.

I retreated as far as possible from them, deep into the thick darkness, and sat down. No convicted felon at the last hour of life, no prisoner in the dungeons of the Inquisition, ever could have suffered more mental agony than I did at that moment. The blessings, the awful blessings of the Kosekin were descending upon my miserable head — separation from Almah, squalor and dirt, imprisonment, the society of these filthy creatures, darkness, the shadow of death, and beyond all the tremendous horrors of the Mista Kosek!

I do not know how the time passed, for at first I was almost stupefied with despair; nor could I ever grow reconciled to the society of these wretches, scarce human, who were with me. Some food was offered me — filthy stuff, which I refused. My refusal excited warm commendation; but I was warned against starving myself, as that was against the law. In my despair I thought of my pistol and rifle, which I still kept with me — of using these against my jailors, and bursting forth; but this wild impulse soon passed away, for its utter hopelessness was manifest. My only hope, if hope it was, lay in waiting, and it was not impossible that I might see Almah again, if only once.

Joms passed away, I know not how. The Chief Pauper, who is the greatest man in the land of the Kosekin, made several attempts to converse with me, and was evidently very condescending and magnanimous in his own eyes; but I did not meet his advances graciously — he was too abhorrent. He was a hideous wretch, with eyes nearly closed and bleary, thick, matted hair, and fiendish expression — in short, a devil incarnate in rags and squalor.

But as the joms passed I found it difficult to repel my associates. They were always inflicting their society upon me, and thrusting on me nasty little acts of kindness. The Chief Pauper was more persistent than all, with his chatter and his disgusting civilities. He was evidently glad to get hold of a fresh subject for his talkative genius; he was a very garrulous cannibal, and perhaps my being a foreigner made me more interesting in his eyes.

The chief topic of his discourse was death. He hated life, loved death, longed for it in all its forms, whether arising from disease or from violence. He was an amateur in corpses, and had a larger experience in dead bodies than any other man in the nation.

I could not help asking him once why he did not kill himself, and be done with it.

“That,” said he, “is not allowed. The temptation to kill one’s self is one of the strongest that human nature can experience, but it is one that we must struggle against, of course, for it is against all law. The greatest blessing must not be seized. It must be given by nature or man. Those who violate the blessed mystery of death are infamous.”

He assured me that he had all his life cultivated the loftiest feelings of love to others. His greatest happiness consisted in doing good to others, especially in killing them. The blessing of death, being the greatest of all blessings, was the one which he loved best to bestow upon others; and the more he loved his fellow-creatures the more he wished to give them this blessing. “You,” said he, “are particularly dear to me, and I should rather give to you the blessing of death than to any other human being. I love you, Atam-or, and I long to kill you at this moment.”

“You had better not try it,” said I, grimly.

He shook his head despondingly.

“Oh no,” said he; “it is against the law. I must not do it till the time comes.”

“Do you kill many?” I asked.

“It is my pleasing and glorious office,” he replied, “to kill more than any other; for, you must know, I am the Sar Tabakin” (chief of the executioners).

The Chief Pauper’s love of death had grown to be an all-absorbing passion. He longed to give death to all. As with us there are certain philanthropists who have a mania for doing good, so here the pauper class had a mania for doing what they considered good in this way. The Chief Pauper was a sort of Kosekin Howard or Peabody, and was regarded by all with boundless reverence. To me, however, he was an object of never-ending hate, abhorrence, and loathing; and, added to this, was the thought that there might be here some equally hideous female — someone like the nightmare hag of the outer sea — a torment and a horror to Almah.

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