At last the time came.
It was the end of the dark season. Then, as the sun rises for its permanent course around the heavens, when the long day of six months begins, all in the land of the Kosekin is sorrow, and the last of the loved darkness is mourned over amid the most solemn ceremonies, and celebrated with the most imposing sacrifices. Then the most honored in all the land are publicly presented with the blessing of death, and allowed to depart this hated life, and go to the realms of that eternal darkness which they love so well. It is the greatest of sacrifices, and is followed by the greatest of feasts. Thus the busy season — the loved season of darkness — ends, and the long, hateful season of light begins, when the Kosekin lurk in caverns, and live in this way in the presence of what may be called artificial darkness.
It was for us — for me and for Almah — the day of doom. Since the ceremony of separation I had not seen her; but my heart had been always with her. I did not even know whether she was alive or not, but believed that she must be; for I thought that if she had died I should have heard of it, as the Kosekin would have rejoiced greatly over such an event. For every death is to them an occasion of joy, and the death of one so distinguished and so beloved as Almah would have given rise to nothing less than a national festival.
Of time I had but a poor reckoning; but, from the way in which the paupers kept account of their joms, I judged that about three months had elapsed since the ceremony of separation.
The paupers were now all joyous with a hideous joy. The Chief Pauper was more abhorrent than ever. He had the blood-thirst strong upon him. He was on that jom to perform his horrible office of Sar Tabakin, and as he accosted me he smiled the smile of a demon, and congratulated me on my coming escape from life. To this I had no word of answer to make; but my hands held my rifle and pistol, and these I clutched with a firmer grasp as my last hour approached.
The time of departure at length arrived. Soldiers of the Kosekin came, following the paupers, who went first, while the guards came after me. Thus we all emerged into the open air. There the broad terrace already mentioned spread out before my eyes, filled with thousands upon thousands of human beings. It seemed as though the entire population of the city was there, and so densely packed was this great crowd that it was only with great difficulty that a way was laid open for our passage.
Above was the sky, where the stars were twinkling faintly. There was no longer the light of the aurora australis; the constellations glimmered but dimly, the moon was shining with but a feeble ray; for there far away over the icy crests of the lofty mountains I saw a long line of splendid effulgence, all golden and red — the light of the new dawn — the dawn of that long day which was now approaching. The sight of that dawning light gave me new life. It was like a sight of home — the blessed dawn, the sunlight of a bright day, the glorious daybreak lost for so long a time, but now at last returning. I feasted my eyes on the spectacle, I burst into tears of joy, and I felt as though I could gaze at it forever. But the sun as it travelled was rapidly coming into view; soon the dazzling glory of its rim would appear above the mountain crest, and the season of darkness would end. There was no time to wait, and the guards hurried me on.
There in the midst of the square rose the pyramid. It was fully a hundred feet in height, with a broad flat top. At the base I saw a great crowd of paupers. Through these we passed, and as we did so a horrible death-chant arose. We now went up the steps and reached the top. It was about sixty feet square, and upon it there was a quadrangle of stones set about three feet apart, about sixty in number, while in the midst was a larger stone. All of these were evidently intended for sacrificial purposes.
Scarcely had I reached the top when I saw a procession ascend from the other side. First came some paupers, then some hags, and then, followed by other hags, I saw Almah. I was transfixed at the sight. A thrill passed through every nerve, and a wild impulse came to me to burst through the crowd, join her, and battle with them all for her life. But the crowd was too dense. I could only stand and look at her, and mark the paleness of her face and her mute despair. She saw me, waved her hand sadly, and gave a mournful smile. There we stood separated by the crowd, with our eyes fastened on each other, and all our hearts filled with one deep, intense yearning to fly to one another’s side.
And now there came up from below, louder and deeper, the awful death-chant. Time was pressing. The preparations were made. The Chief Pauper took his station by the central stone, and in his right hand he held a long, keen knife. Toward this stone I was led. The Chief Pauper then looked with his blear and blinking eyes to where the dawn was glowing over the mountain crest, and every moment increasing in brightness; and then, after a brief survey, he turned and whetted his knife on the sacrificial stone. After this he turned to me with his evil face, with the glare of a horrid death-hunger in his ravenous eyes, and pointed to the stone.
I stood without motion.
He repeated the gesture and said, “Lie down here.”
“I will not,” said I.
“But it is on this stone,” said he, “that you are to get the blessing of death.”
“I’ll die first!” said I, fiercely, and I raised my rifle.
The Chief Pauper was puzzled at this. The others looked on quietly, thinking it probably a debate about some punctilio. Suddenly he seemed struck with an idea.
“Yes, yes,” said he. “The woman first. It is better so.”
Saying this he walked toward Almah, and said something to the hags.
At this the chief of them — namely, the nightmare hag — led Almah to the nearest stone, and motioned to her to lie down. Almah prepared to obey, but paused a moment to throw at me one last glance and wave her hand as a last farewell. Then without a word she laid herself down upon the stone. At this a thrill of fury rushed through all my being, rousing me from my stupor, impelling me to action, filling my brain with madness. The nightmare hag had already raised her long keen knife in the air. Another moment and the blow would have fallen. But my rifle was at my shoulder; my aim was deadly. The report rang out like thunder. A wild, piercing yell followed, and when the smoke cleared away the nightmare hag lay dead at the foot of the altar. I was already there, having burst through the astonished crowd, and Almah was in my arms; and holding her thus for a moment, I put myself in front of her and stood at bay, with my only thought that of defending her to the last and selling my life as dearly as possible.
The result was amazing.
After the report there was for some moments a deep silence, which was followed by a wild, abrupt outcry from half a million people — the roar of indistinguishable words bursting forth from the lips of all that throng, whose accumulated volume arose in one vast thunder-clap of sound, pealing forth, echoing along the terraced streets, and rolling on far away in endless reverberations. It was like the roar of mighty cataracts, like the sound of many waters; and at the voice of that vast multitude I shrank back for a moment. As I did so I looked down, and beheld a scene as appalling as the sound that had overawed me. In all that countless throng of human beings there was not one who was not in motion; and all were pressing forward toward the pyramid as to a common centre. On every side there was a multitudinous sea of upturned faces, extending as far as the eye could reach. All were in violent agitation, as though all were possessed by one common impulse which forced them toward me. At such a sight I thought of nothing else than that I was the object of their wrath, and that they were all with one common fury rushing toward me to wreak vengeance upon me and upon Almah for the slaughter of the nightmare hag.
All this was the work of but a few moments. And now as I stood there holding Almah — appalled, despairing, yet resolute and calm — I became aware of a more imminent danger. On the top of the pyramid, at the report of the rifle, all had fallen down flat on their faces, and it was over them that I had rushed to Almah’s side. But these now began to rise, and the hags took up the corpse of the dead, and the paupers swarmed around with cries of “Mut! mut!” (dead! dead!) and exclamations of wonder. Then they all turned their foul and bleary eyes toward me, and stood as if transfixed with astonishment. At length there burst forth from the crowd one who sought to get at me. It was the Chief Pauper. He still held in his hand the long knife of sacrifice. He said not a word, but rushed straight at me, and as he came I saw murder in his look. I did not wait for him, but raising my rifle, discharged the second barrel full in his face. He fell down a shattered, blackened heap, dead.
As the second report thundered out it drowned all other sounds, and was again followed by an awful silence. I looked around. Those on the pyramid — paupers and hags — had again flung themselves on their faces. On the square below the whole multitude were on their knees, with their heads bowed down low. The silence was more oppressive than before; it was appalling — it was tremendous! It seemed like the dread silence that precedes the more awful outburst of the hurricane when the storm is gathering up all its strength to burst with accumulated fury upon its doomed victim.
But there was no time to be lost in staring, and that interval was occupied by me in hastily reloading my rifle. It was my last resource now; and if it availed not for defence it might at least serve to be used against ourselves. With this thought I handed the pistol to Almah, and hurriedly whispered to her that if I were killed, she could use it against herself. She took it in silence, but I read in her face her invincible resolve.
The storm at last burst. The immense multitude rose to their feet, and with one common impulse came pressing on from every side toward the pyramid, apparently filled with the one universal desire of reaching me — a desire which was now all the more intense and vehement from these interruptions which had taken place. Why they had fallen on their knees, why the paupers on the pyramid were still prostrate, I could not tell; but I saw now the swarming multitude, and I felt that they were rolling in on every side — merciless, blood-thirsty, implacable — to tear me to pieces. Yet time passed and they did not reach me, for an obstacle was interposed. The pyramid had smooth sides. The stairways that led up to the summit were narrow, and did not admit of more than two at a time; yet, had the Kosekin been like other people, the summit of the pyramid would soon have been swarming with them; but as they were Kosekin, none came up to the top; for at the base of the pyramid, at the bottom of the steps, I saw a strange and incredible struggle. It was not, as with us, who should go up first, but who should go up last; each tried to make his neighbor go before him. All were eager to go, but the Kosekin self-denial, self-sacrifice, and love for the good of others made each one intensely desirous to make others go up. This resulted in a furious struggle, in which, as fast as anyone would be pushed up the steps a little way, he would jump down again and turn his efforts toward putting up others; and thus all the energies of the people were worn out in useless and unavailing efforts — in a struggle to which, from the very nature of the case, there could be no end.
Now those on the pyramid began to rise, and soon all were on their feet. Cries burst forth from them. All were looking at us, but with nothing like hostility; it was rather like reverence and adoration, and these feelings were expressed unmistakably in their cries, among which I could plainly distinguish such words as these: “Ap Ram!” “Mosel anan wacosek!” “Sopet Mut!” (The Father of Thunder! Ruler of Cloud and Darkness! Judge of Death!) These cries passed to those below. The struggle ceased. All stood and joined in the cry, which was taken up by those nearest, and soon passed among all those myriads, to be repeated with thunder echoes far and wide.
At this it suddenly became plain to me that the danger of death had passed away; that these people no longer regarded me as a victim, but rather as some mighty being — some superior, perhaps supernatural power, who was to be almost worshipped. Hence these prostrations, these words, these cries, these looks. All these told me that the bitterness of death had passed away. At this discovery there was, for a moment, a feeling of aversion and horror within me at filling such a position; that I, a weak mortal, should dare to receive adoration like this; and I recoiled at the thought: yet this feeling soon passed; for life was at stake — not my own merely, but that of Almah; and I was ready now to go through anything if only I might save her: so, instead of shrinking from this new part, I eagerly seized upon it, and at once determined to take advantage of the popular superstition to the utmost.
Far away over the crests of the mountains I saw the golden edge of the sun’s disc, and the light flowed therefrom in broad effulgence, throwing out long rays of glory in a luminous flood over all the land. I pointed to the glorious orb, and cried to the paupers, and to all who were nearest, in a loud voice:
“I am Atam-or, the Man of Light! I come from the land of light! I am the Father of Thunder, of Cloud and Darkness; the Judge of Death!”
At this the paupers all fell prostrate, and cried out to me to give them the blessing of death.
I made no answer, but leading Almah to the edge of the pyramid, told her to fire the pistol. A million eyes were fixed on us. She held up the pistol and fired. Immediately after, I fired both barrels of the rifle; and as the reports rang out and the smoke cleared away, I heard a mighty murmur, and once more beheld all prostrate. Upon this I hurriedly loaded again, and waited for further revelations. All the time I could not help wondering at the effect produced by the rifle now, in comparison with the indifference with which it had been regarded at my first arrival in the country. I could not account for it, but supposed that the excitement of a great religious festival and the sudden death of the Chief Pauper and the Chief Hag had probably deeply impressed them. In the midst of these thoughts the whole multitude arose; and once more there came to my ears the universal uproar of innumerable cries, in the midst of which I could hear the words, “Ap Ram!” “Mosel anan wacosek!” “Sopet Mut!”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:49