The Ship of Ishtar, by Abraham Merritt

PART I

1 The Coming of the Ship

A tendril of the strange fragrance spiralled up from the great stone block. Kenton felt it caress his face like a coaxing hand.

He had been aware of that fragrance — an alien perfume, subtly troubling, evocative of fleeting unfamiliar images, of thought-wisps that were gone before the mind could grasp them — ever since he had unsheathed from its coverings the thing Forsyth, the old archaeologist, had sent him from the sand shrouds of ages-dead Babylon.

Once again his eyes measured the block — four feet long, a little more than that in height, a trifle less in width. A faded yellow, its centuries hung about it like a half visible garment. On one face only was there inscription, a dozen parallel lines of archaic cuneiform; carved there, if Forsyth were right in his deductions, in the reign of Sargon of Akkad, sixty centuries ago. The surface of the stone was scarred and pitted and the wedge-shaped symbols mutilated, half obliterated.

Kenton leaned closer over it, and closer around him wound the scented spirals clinging like scores of tendrils, clinging like little fingers, wistful, supplicating, pleading —

Pleading for release! What nonsense was this he was dreaming? Kenton drew himself up. A hammer lay close at hand; he lifted it and struck the block, impatiently.

The block answered the blow!

It murmured; the murmuring grew louder; louder still, with faint bell tones like distant carillons of jade. The murmurings ceased, now they were only high, sweet chimings; clearer, ever more clear they rang, drawing closer, winging up through endless corridors of time.

There was a sharp crackling. The block split. From the break pulsed a radiance as of rosy pearls and with it wave after wave of the fragrance — no longer questing, no longer wistful nor supplicating.

Jubilant now! Triumphant!

Something was inside the block! Something that had lain hidden there since Sargon of Akkad, six thousand years go!

The carillons of jade rang out again. Sharply they pealed, then turned and fled back the endless corridors up which they had come. They died away; and as they died the block collapsed; it disintegrated; it became a swirling, slowly settling cloud of sparkling dust.

The cloud whirled, a vortex of glittering mist. It vanished like a curtain plucked away.

Where the block had been stood — a ship!

It floated high on a base of curving waves cut from lapis lazuli and foam-crested with milky rock crystals. Its hull was of crystal, creamy and faintly luminous. Its prow was shaped like a slender scimitar, bent backward. Under the incurved tip was a cabin whose seaward sides were formed, galleon fashion, by the upward thrust of the bows. Where the hull drew up to form this cabin, a faint flush warmed and cloudy crystal; it deepened as the sides lifted; it gleamed at last with a radiance that turned the cabin into a rosy jewel.

In the center of the ship, taking up a third of its length, was a pit; down from the bow to its railed edge sloped a deck of ivory. The deck that sloped similarly from the stern was jet black. Another cabin rested there, larger than that at the bow, but squat and ebon. Both decks continued in wide platforms on each side of the pit. At the middle of the ship the ivory and black decks met with an odd suggestion of contending forces. They did not fade into each other. They ended there abruptly, edge to edge; hostile.

Out of the pit arose a rail mast: tapering and green as the core of an immense emerald. From its cross-sticks a wide sail stretched.. shimmering like silk spun from fire opals: from mast and yards fell stays of twisted dull gold.

Out from each side of the ship swept a single bank of seven great oars, their scarlet blades dipped deep within the pearl-crested lapis of the waves.

And the jewelled craft was manned! Why, Kenton wondered, had he not noticed the tiny figures before?

It was as though they had just arisen from the deck . . . a woman had slipped out of the rosy cabin’s door, an arm was still outstretched in its closing . . . and there were other women shapes upon the ivory deck, three of them, crouching . . . their heads were bent low; two clasped harps and the third held a double flute . . .

Little figures, not more than two inches high . . .

Toys!

Odd that he could not distinguish their faces, nor the details of their dress. The boys were indistinct, blurred, as though a veil covered them. Kenton told himself that the blurring was the fault of his eyes; he closed them for a moment.

Opening them he looked down upon the black cabin and stared with deepening perplexity. The black deck had been empty when first the ship had appeared — that he could have sworn.

Now four manikins were clustered there — close to the edge of the pit!

And the baffling haze around the toys was denser. Of course it must be his eyes — what else? He would lie down for a while and rest them. He turned, reluctantly; he walked slowly to the door; he paused there, uncertainly, to look back at the shining mystery —

All the room beyond the ship was hidden by the haze!

Kenton heard a shrilling as of armies of storm; a roaring as of myriads or tempests; a shrieking chaos as though down upon him swept cataracts of mighty winds.

The room split into thousands of fragments; dissolved. Clear through the clamor came the sound of a bell — one — two — thr —

He knew that bell. It was his clock ringing out the hour of six. The third note was cut in twain.

The solid floor on which he stood melted away. He felt himself suspended in space, a space filled with mists of silver.

The mists melted.

Kenton caught a glimpse of a vast blue wave-crested ocean — another of the deck of a ship flashing by a dozen feet below him.

He felt a sudden numbing shock, a blow upon his right temple. Splintered lightnings veined a blackness that wiped out sight of sea and ship.

2 The First Adventure

KENTON lay listening to a soft whispering, persistent and continuous. It was like the breaking crests of sleepy waves. The sound was all about him; a rippling susurration becoming steadily more insistent. A light beat through his closed lids. He felt motion under him, a gentle, cradling lift and fall. He opened his eyes.

He was on a ship; lying on a narrow deck, his head against the bulwarks. In front of him was a mast rising out of a pit. Inside the pit were chained men straining at great oars. The mast seemed to be of wood covered with translucent, emerald lacquer. It stirred reluctant memories.

Where had he seen such a mast before?

His gaze crept up the mast. There was a wide sail; a sail made of opaled silk. Low overhead hung a sky that was all a soft mist of silver.

He heard a woman’s voice, deep toned, liquidly golden. Kenton sat up, dizzily. At his right was a cabin nestling under the curved tip of a scimitared prow; it gleamed rosily. A balcony ran round its top; little trees blossomed on that balcony; doves with feet and bills crimson as though dipped in wine of rubies fluttered snowy wings among the branches.

At the cabin’s door stood a woman, tall, willow-lithe, staring beyond him. At her feet crouched three girls. Two of them clasped harps, the other held to her lips a double flute. Again the reluctant memories stirred and fled and were forgotten as Kenton’s gaze fastened upon the woman.

Her wide eyes were green as depths of forest glens, and like them they were filled with drifting shadows. Her head was small; the features fine; the red mouth delicately amorous. In the hollow of her throat a dimple lay; a chalice for kisses and empty of them and eager to be filled. Above her brows was set a silver crescent, slim as a newborn moon. Over each horn of the crescent poured a flood of red-gold hair, framing the lovely face; the flood streamed over and was parted by her tilted breasts; it fell in ringlets almost to her sandalled feet.

As young as Spring, she seemed — yet wise as Autumn; Primavera of some archaic Botticelli — but Mona Lisa too; if virginal in body, certainly not in soul.

He followed her gaze. It led him across the pit of the oarsmen. Four men stood there. One was taller by a head than Kenton, and built massively. His pale eyes stared unwinkingly at the woman; menacing; malignant. His face was beardless and pallid. His huge and flattened head was shaven; his nose vulture-beaked; from his shoulders black robes fell, shrouding him to feet. Two shaven heads were at his left, wiry, wolfish, black-robed; each of them held a brazen, conch-shaped horn.

On the last of the group Kenton’s eyes lingered, fascinated. This man squatted, his pointed chin resting on a tall drum whose curved sides glittered scarlet and jet with the polished scales of some great snake. His legs were sturdy but dwarfed — his torso that of a giant, knotted and gnarled, prodigiously powerful. His ape-like arms were wound around the barrelled tambour; spider-like were the long fingers standing on their tips upon the drum head.

It was his face that held Kenton. Sardonic and malicious — there was in it none of the evil concentrate in the others. The wide slit of his mouth was frog-like and humor was on the thin lips. His deep set, twinkling black eyes dwelt upon the crescented woman with frank admiration. From the lobes of his outstanding ears hung disks of hammered gold.

The woman paced swiftly down toward Kenton. When she halted he could have reached out a hand and touched her. Yet she did not seem to see him.

“Ho — Klaneth!” she cried. “I hear the voice of Ishtar. She is coming to her ship. Are you ready to do her homage, Slime of Nergal?”

A flicker of hate passed over the massive man’s pallid face like a little wave from hell.

“This is Ishtar’s Ship,” he answered, “yet my Dread Lord has claim upon it too, Sharane? The House of the Goddess brims with light — but tell me, does not Nergal’s shadow darken behind me?”

And Kenton saw that the deck on which were these men was black as polished jet and again memory strove to make itself heard.

A sudden wind smote the ship, like an open hand, heeling it. From the doves within the trees of the rosy cabin broke a tumult of cries; they flew up like a white cloud flecked with crimson; they fluttered around the woman.

The ape-like arms of the drummer unwrapped, his spidery fingers poised over the head of the snake drum. Darkness deepened about him and hid him; darkness cloaked all the ship’s stern.

Kenton felt the gathering of unknown forces. He slid down, upon his haunches, pressed himself against the bulwarks.

From the deck of the rosy cabin blared a golden trumpeting; defiant; inhuman. He turned his head, and on it the hair lifted and prickled.

Resting on the rosy cabin was a great orb, an orb like the moon at full; but not, like the moon, white and cold — an orb alive with pulsing roseate candescence. Over the ship it poured its rays and where the woman called Sharane had been was now — no woman!

Bathed in the orb’s rays she loomed gigantic. The lids of her eyes were closed, yet through those closed lids eyes glared! Plainly Kenton saw them — eyes hard as jade, glaring through the closed lids as though those lids had been gossamer! The slender crescent upon her brows was an arc of living fire, and all about it the masses of her red-gold hair beat and tossed.

Round and round, in clamorous rings above the ship, wheeled the cloud of doves, snowy wings beating, red beaks open; screaming.

Within the blackness of the ship’s stern roared the thunder of the serpent drum.

The blackness thinned. A face stared out, half veiled, bodiless, floating in the shadow. It was the face of the man Klaneth — and yet no more his than that which challenged it was the woman Sharane’s. The pale eyes had become twin pools of hell flames; pupilless. For a heart beat the face hovered, framed by the darkness. The shadow dropped over it and hid it.

Now Kenton saw that this shadow hung like a curtain over the exact center of the ship, and that he crouched hardly ten feet distant from where that curtain cut the craft in twain. The deck on which he lay was pale ivory and again memory stirred but did not awaken. The radiance from the roseate orb struck against the curtain of shadow and made upon it a disk, wider than the ship, that was like a web of beams spun from the rays of a rosy moon. Against this shining web the shadow pressed, straining to break through.

From the black deck the thunder of the serpent drum redoubled; the brazen conches shrieked. Drum-thunder and shrieking horn mingled; they became the pulse of Abaddon, lair of the damned.

From Sharane’s three women, shot storm of harpings, arpeggios like gusts of tiny arrows and with them shrill javelin pipings from the double flute. Arrows and javelins of sound cut through the thunder hammering of the drum and the bellow of the horns, sapping them, beating them back.

A movement began within the shadow. It seethed. It spawned.

Over the face of the disk of radiance black shapes swarmed. Their bodies were like monstrous larva, slugs; faceless. They tore at the web; stove to thrust through it; flailed it.

The web gave!

Its edge held firm, but slowly the center was pushed back until the disk was like the half of a huge hollow sphere. Within that hollow crawled and writhed and struck the monstrous shapes. From the black deck serpent drum and brazen horns bellowed triumph.

Again rang the golden trumpet cry from the deck of ivory. Out of the orb streamed an incandescence intolerable. The edges of the web shot forward and curved.

They closed upon the black spawn; within it the black spawn milled and struggled like fish in a net. Like a net lifted by some mighty hand the web swung high up above the ship. Its brightness grew to match that of the orb. From netted shapes of blackness came a faint, high-pitched, obscene wailing. They shrank, dissolved, were gone.

The net opened. Out of it drifted a little cloud of ebon dust.

The web streamed back into the orb that had sent it forth.

Then, swiftly, the orb was gone! Gone too was the shadow that had shrouded the black deck. High above the ship the snowy doves circled, screaming victory.

A hand touched Kenton’s shoulder. He looked up into the shadowy eyes of the woman called Sharane; no goddess now, only woman. In her eyes he read amazement, startled disbelief.

Kenton sprang to his feet. A thrust of blinding pain shot through his head. The deck whirled round him. He tried to master the dizziness; he could not. Dizzily the ship spun beneath his feet; and beyond in wider arcs dizzily spun turquoise sea and silver horizon.

Now all formed a vortex, a maelstrom, down whose pit he was dropping — faster, ever faster. Around him was a formless blur. Again he heard the tumult of the tempests; the shrillings of the winds of space. The winds died away. There were three clear bell notes —

Kenton stood within his own room!

The bell had been his clock, striking the hour of six. Six o’clock? Why the last sound of his own world before the mystic sea had swept it from under him had been the third stroke of that hour clipped off in mid-note.

God — what a dream! And all in half a bell stroke!

He lifted his hand and touched a throbbing bruise over his right temple. He winced — well, that blow at least had been no dream. He stumbled over to the jewelled ship.

He stared at it, incredulous.

The toys upon the ship had moved — new toys had appeared!

No longer were there four manikins on the black deck.

There were only two. One stood pointing toward the starboard platform near the mast, his hand resting on the shoulder of a red-bearded, agate-eyed soldier toy clad all in glittering chain mail.

Nor was there any woman at the rosy cabin’s door as there had been when Kenton had loosed the ship from the block. At its threshold were five slim girls with javelins in hands.

The woman was on the starboard platform, bent low beside the rail!

And the ship’s oars were no longer buried in the waves of lapis lazuli. They were lifted, poised for the downward stroke!

3 The Ship Returns

ONE BY ONE Kenton pulled at the manikins, each toy. Immovable, gem hard, each was, seemingly part of the deck itself; no force he could exert would move them.

Yet something had shifted them — and where were the vanished ones? From where had the new ones come?

Nor was there any haze around the little figures, nor blurring; each lineament stood out clean cut. The pointing toy on the black deck had dwarfed, bowed legs; his torso was that of a giant; his bald pate glinted and in his ears were wide discs of gold. Kenton recognized him — the beater of the serpent drum.

There was a tiny silver crescent upon the head of the bending woman toy, and over its tips poured flood of red-gold hair —

Sharane!

And that place at which she peered — was it not where he had lain on that other ship of his dream?

That — other ship? He saw again its decks ebon and ivory, its rosy cabin and its emerald mast. It had been this ship before him — no other! Dream? Then what had moved the toys?

Kenton’s wonder grew. Within it moved a sharp unease, a sharper curiosity. He found he could not think clearly with the ship filling his eyes; it seemed to focus all his attention upon it, to draw it taut, to fill him with a tense expectancy. He unhooked a hanging from the wall and threw it over the gleaming mystery. He walked from the room, fighting with each step an imperative desire to turn his head. He dragged himself through the doorway as though hands were gripping his ankles, drawing him back. Head still turned away Kenton lurched shoulders against the door; closed it; locked it.

In his bathroom he examined the bruise on his head. It was painful enough, but nothing serious. Half an hour of cold compresses fairly well removed all outward marks of it. He told himself that he might have fallen upon the floor, overcome by the strange perfumes — he knew that he had not.

Kenton dined alone, scarce heeding what was set before him, his mind groping through perplexities. What was the history of the block from Babylon? Who had set the ship within it — and why? Forsyth’s letter had said that he had found it in the mound called Amran, just south of the Qser or crumbled “palace” of Nabopolasser. There was evidence, Kenton knew, that the Amran mound was the site of E-Sagilla, the ziggurat or terraced temple that had been the Great House of the Gods in ancient Babylon. The block must have been held in peculiar reverence, so Forsyth had conjectured, since only so would it have been saved from the destruction of the city by Sennacherib and afterwards have been put back in the re-built temple.

But why had it been held in such reverence? Why had such a miracle as the ship been imprisoned in the stone?

The inscription might have given some clue had it not been so mutilated. In his letter Forsyth had pointed out that the name of Ishtar, Mother Goddess of the Babylonians — Goddess of Vengeance and Destruction as well — appeared over and over again; that plain too were the arrowed symbols of Nergal, God of the Babylonian Hades and Lord of the Dead; that the symbols of Nabu, the God of Wisdom, appeared many times. These three names had been almost the only legible words on the block. It was as though the acid of time which had etched out the other characters had been held back from them.

Kenton could read the cuneatic well nigh as readily as his native English. He recalled now that in the inscription Ishtar’s name had been coupled with her wrathful aspect rather than her softer ones, and that associated always with the symbols of Nabu had been the signs of warning, of danger.

Forsyth had not noticed that, evidently — or if he had he had not thought it worth mentioning. Nor, apparently had he been aware of the hidden perfumes of the block.

Well — there was no use thinking of the inscription. It was gone forever with the dust into which it had turned.

Kenton impatiently thrust back his chair. He knew that for the past hour he had been out temporizing, divided between the burning desire to get back to the room where the ship lay and the dread that when he did he would find all that adventure had been illusion, a dream; that the little figures had not really moved; that they were as they had been when he had first loosed the ship; that it was only a toy manned by toys — nothing more. He would temporize no longer.

“Don’t bother about me any more to-night, Jevins,” he told his butler. “I’ve some important work to do. If there are any calls say that I am away. I’m going to lock myself in and I don’t want to be disturbed for anything less than Gabriel’s trumpet.”

The old servant, a heritage from Kenton’s father, smiled.

“Very well, Mr. John,” he said. “I’ll let no one bother you.”

To reach the room wherein was the ship, Kenton’s way led through another in which he kept the rarest of his spoils from many a far away corner of the world. Passing, a vivid gleam of blue caught his eye and stayed him, like a hand. The gleam came from the hilt of a sword in one of the cabinets, a curious weapon he had bought from a desert nomad in Arabia. The sword hung above an ancient cloak in which it had been wrapped when the furtive Arab had slipped into his tent. Unknown centuries had softened the azure of that cloak, through whose web and woof great silver serpents writhed, cabalistically entwined.

Kenton unhooked the sword. Silver serpents, counterparts of those on the garments, twined about its hilt. From the hilt sprang a rod of bronze, eight inches long and three thick, round as a staff. This rod flared and flattened out into a leaf-shaped blade two feet long and full six inches wide across its center. Set in the hilt had been one large stone of cloudy blue.

The stone was no longer clouded. It was translucent, shining like an immense sapphire!

Obeying some half-formed thought that linked this new enigma with the ship’s shifting toys, he drew down the cloak and threw it over his shoulders. The sword in hand, he unlocked the further door, closed and fastened it behind him; walked over to the shrouded ship; swept off its covers.

Pulses leaping, Kenton drew back.

On it now were two figures only — the drummer, crouched with head in arms upon the black deck, and on deck of ivory a girl, leaning over the rail and looking down upon the oarsmen!

Kenton snapped out the electrics and stood waiting.

Minute after minute crept by. Fugitive gleams from the lights on the Avenue penetrated the curtains of the windows, glimmered on the ship. Muted but steady came the roar of the traffic, punctuated by horn blasts, explosions through mufflers — New York’s familiar voice.

Was that a halo growing round the ship . . . And what had become of the traffic’s roar.

The room was filling with silence as a vessel is filled with water . . .

Now a sound broke that silence; a sound like the lapping of little waves, languorous, caressing. The sounds stroked his lids, slumbrously; pressed them down. By enormous effort he half raised them.

A wide mist was opposite him, a globular silvery mist floating down upon him. Within that mist drifted a ship, its oars motionless, its sail half-filled. Wavelets crisped at its sickled bow, wavelets of pale turquoise with laced edges of foam.

Half the room was lost in the ripples of that approaching sea . . . the part on which he stood was many feet above the waves . . . so far below were they that the deck of the ship was level with his feet.

Closer drew the ship. He wondered why he heard no rushing winds, no clamoring tempests; no sound save the faint whispering of the foam-tipped waves.

Retreating, he felt his back press against the farther wall. Before him drifted that misty world, the ship upon its breast.

Kenton leaped, straight for the deck.

The winds roared about him now; vast winds howled and shrieked — again he heard but felt them not at all. And suddenly the clamor died.

Kenton’s feet struck solid surface.

He stood upon an ivory deck, facing a rosy cabin whose little blossoming trees were filled with cooing crimson billed, vermilion footed, doves. Between him and the cabin’s door was a girl, her soft brown eyes filled with wonder and that same startled disbelief he had seen in those of Sharane when first her gaze had fallen upon him at the foot of the emerald mast.

“Are you Lord Nabu’ that you came thus out of the air and in his cloak of wisdom, his serpents twining within it?” she whispered. “Nay that cannot be — for Nabu is very old — and you are young. Are you his messenger?”

She dropped to her knees; crossed her hands, palms outward, over her forehead. She leaped to her feet; ran to the closed door of the cabin.

“Kadishtu!” she struck it with clenched hands. “Holy One — a messenger from Nabu!”

The door of the cabin was flung open. Upon its threshold stood the woman called Sharane. Her glance swept him; then darted to the black deck. He followed it. The beater of the serpent drum squatted there; he seemed to sleep.

“Watch, Satalu!” breathed Sharane to the girl.

She caught Kenton’s hand; she drew him through the door. Two girls were there who stared at him. She thrust them forward.

“Out!” she whispered. “Out and watch with Satalu.”

They slipped from the cabin. She ran to an inner door; dropped a bar across it.

She turned, back against it; then stepped slowly to Kenton. She stretched out slim fingers; with them touched his eyes, his mouth, his heart — as though to assure herself that he was real.

She cupped his hands in hers, and bowed, and set her brows against his wrists; the waves of her hair bathed them. At her touch desire ran through him, swift and flaming. Her hair was a silken net to which his heart flew, eager to be trapped.

He steadied himself; he drew his hands from hers; he braced himself against her lure.

She lifted her head; regarded him.

“What has the Lord Nabu to say to me?” her voice rocked Kenton with perilous sweetnesses, subtle provocations. “What is his word to me, messenger? Surely will I listen — for in his wisdom has not the Lord of Wisdom sent one to whom to listen ought not be — difficult?”

There was a flash of coquetry like the flirt of a roguish fan in the misty eyes turned for an instant to his.

Thrilling to her closeness, groping for some firm ground, Kenton sought for words to answer her. Playing for time, he looked about the cabined space. There was an altar at the far end. It was sown with luminous gems, with pearls and pale moonstones and curdled, milky crystals. From seven crystal basins set before it arose still silvery flames. There was an alcove behind the altar, but the glow of the seven lights hid whatever was within. He had a swift sense of tenancy of that flame veiled alcove — something dwelt there.

At the far side was a low, wide divan of ivory inlaid with the milky crystals and patterned with golden arabesques. Silken tapestries fell from the walls, multicolored, flower woven. Soft deep silken rugs covered the cabin’s floor, and piles of cushions. At back, at left, two wide low windows opened; through them streamed silver light.

A bird flew upon the sill of one; a snowy bird with scarlet beak and feet; it scanned him, it preened itself, it cooed and flew away —

Soft hands touched him; Sharane’s face was close, eyes now with doubt more deeply shadowed.

“You — do come from Nabu?” she asked, and waited for reply; and still he found no words to answer her. “Messenger you must be,” she faltered, “else — how could you board the Ship of Ishtar? . . . And you are clad in Nabu’s cloak . . . and wear his sword . . . many times have I seen them in his shrine at Uruk . . . and I am weary of the Ship,” she whispered. “I would see Babylon again! Ah dearly, do I long for Babylon.”

Now words came to Kenton.

“Sharane,” he said boldly. “I do bear a message for you. It is the truth, and our Lord Nabu is Lord of Truth — therefore it must be from him. But before I give it to you, tell me — what is this ship?”

“What is the Ship!” she drew back from him, doubt enough now in her face —“But if you come indeed from Nabu — you must know that!”

“I do not know,” he told her, “I do not even know the meaning of the message I carry — it is for you to interpret. Yet here am I, upon the ship, before you. And in my ears I hear command — whispered it may be by Nabu himself — that I must not speak until you have told me — what is this ship.”

For a long moment she stood, scanning him, studying him.

“The ways of the gods are strange,” she sighed at last. “They are hard to understand. Yet — I obey.”

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 23:09