Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
Go to Home Page
This work is out of copyright in countries with a copyright
period of 70 years or less, after the year of the author's death.
If it is under copyright in your country of residence,
do not download or redistribute this file.
Original content added by RGL (e.g., introductions, notes,
RGL covers) is proprietary and protected by copyright.
SEVERAL years ago, in the good old days of the Queensland Polynesian Labour Trade—instituted, as some of my readers are aware, to provide a supply of Kanakas to work the sugar plantations in that colony—in the good old days of the trade, I say, before the abuses crept into it, and kidnapping replaced honest and voluntary engagement of the islanders of the South Seas, I held the position of government agent or inspector on board the Fitzroy, one of the schooners engaged in the traffic. The situation possessed two of the enviable characteristics of the immortal Circumlocution Office—the salary was liberal and the duties were nominal. The latter consisted mainly in representing the paternal government of Queensland at all engagements of the natives. My instructions when I entered the service, given to me with an appalling amount of periphrasis by the veteran official who then presided over the Colonial Secretary's department, included the onerous duty of seeing that the "boys"—as the islanders are called—clearly realized the provisions of the contract as an entirely voluntary agreement entered into for so many "moons"—usually thirty-six—in return for which they were to receive a fixed amount of wages, including tobacco; also, that when their term of service expired they would be brought back to the island and the particular village whence they had been taken.
We had already made two or three successful trips in the Fitzroy. My cousin, Bob Anstey, our captain, was as fine a seaman and as noble a fellow as ever walked a quarter-deck. By many of his friends and fellow-skippers he was styled "the Bayard of the Pacific". Some of them good-humouredly ridiculed what they designated his "quixotic championship of the nigger." He in turn would retort in the lofty lines of old Whittier, his favourite poet, against the wrong of sneering at—
"the black man, whose sin
Is the curl of his hair and the hue of the skin."
Far from any of the cruelties staining the later annals of the traffic being perpetrated during the visits of his vessel to the islands, he was notoriously lenient and indulgent to the boys, and would have shot down any sailor who attempted to employ force to secure a single recruit. A tight hand and a ready arm were required to keep in check the "anointed ruffians" we were often compelled to employ as sailors. Really good men, with their papers right, would rarely look at the terms of the "labour service," for the wages for seamen were low and the work was heavy and incessant.
Bob's strangely magnetic personality and popularity with all and sundry had carried him hitherto over all difficulties. Skipper Anstey's craft, with its white hull and blue lines, was always welcomed at every island, from the Solomon Group and the savage Marquesas to New Britain and the mysterious Easter Island.
The trite old proverbial copyhead, "Honesty is the best policy," that has come down to us from the old Greek polymath, Pittacus, holds true to-day quite as firmly among the fetish-worshippers of the Pacific as among the ethical casuists of London and Berlin. The islanders of the South Seas could always rely upon receiving a fair price and honourable treatment from "Boss" Anstey, in return for their cargoes of copra and bêche-de-mer. Against his commercial honesty there was no black mark in the unwritten register of the natives. He had never suffered from lapses of memory as to payment as soon as he had the cargoes under hatches, nor shown a clean pair of heels in place of either coin or kind. The outrages in the South Seas which our missionaries and missionary societies are ever and anon eloquently bewailing, were never the result of his unchristian swindling of the "gentle" savage. They were due to the deceit perpetrated by other captains, whose Christian practice was often in inverse proportion to the volubility of their profession.
In October, 1877, we left Brisbane, upon what was destined to be our last voyage, amid the usual felicitations and wishes of bon voyage from the owners of the Fitzroy (in which, by the way, Anstey held a share) and our skipper's numerous friends. Apparently our company held it truth with Praed, who sings:—
"I think I have as warm a heart
As friend to friend can be,
So another bumper ere we part—
Old wine, old wine for me!"
For champagne and claret corks popped freely as the trim, taut little schooner was being towed by the tug Gannet down the Brisbane River. Two or three of the sugar-planters for whom we were procuring the Kanaka recruits, a friend of Professor Barlow's—the Professor was taking a trip with us to pursue certain ethnological studies—a journalist or two, besides Messrs. Laffit and Jolliboy (the firm of owners), and some of Bob's friends, were on board, intending to proceed as far as the Pile Lighthouse, where we would "cast off" the tug, in which they would return to town.
Little did we think that some of us at least would never see the old shores again, as we dropped slowly down the winding reaches of the beautiful river on that deliciously clear evening in the fair colonial springtide, when the very atmosphere was redolent with sweet, subtle odours of magnolia, gardenia, and other semi-tropical flowers, as well as of new-mown hay, wafted to us from the little farms on the banks. The great glad world around us was teeming with the countless myriads of that multiform life visible under the Southern Cross.
Trouble oft comes with the swiftness of lightning out of a blue sky, sings the Persian poet Firdausi. Scarce were the adieux and the well-wishes of our friends spoken and our sails set when our cares commenced. Bob's proverbial luck deserted him. Verily, as in the case of Ulysses, it seemed as if the favour shown to him hitherto by some of the gods had, in an inexplicable way, aroused the jealousy of the others, for he was now to experience frowns in place of smiles.
Our crew consisted of twelve men all told. They were a rather worse lot than usual. We had not lost sight of the sandy coast-bluffs of Queensland more than twenty hours, and were running down our "Eastings" before a fine westerly breeze blowing fresh off the land, when notice was brought aft by the steward to the mate, Mr. Rodgers, that one of the men in his watch had been seized with a mysterious ailment. Rodgers, who was a first-rate seaman after the skipper's own heart, went to the fo'c's'le without delay to see the sufferer. Presently he returned with a rather grave and troubled face. Professor Barlow, Anstey, and I were seated on the poop conveniently near the wheel, that Bob might keep an eye on the course until we got well clear of the land. They were discussing the moral and intellectual status of the Australian aborigines, while I was reading a smart article in the Athenaeum on George Eliot's Daniel Deronda, but listening ever and anon to scraps of the conversation. The Professor was adducing certain facts he had collected to demolish the theories of the existing ethnological schools relative to the assumed debasement of the race.
Rodgers joined us, and deprecating so abruptly interrupting Barlow, asked the Captain if he had any laudanum on board. The skipper replied in the affirmative, and inquired what was wrong.
"I hardly know what is wrong," replied the mate. "Bill Adams, one of the best men in my watch, and, next to the bo'sun, the most reliable hand on board, has been seized with the most excruciating pains in his stomach. He has become quite black in some places, and is swelling terribly in all his extremities."
While Captain Bob went to get the laudanum the Professor turned to the mate, saying:
"Can I be of any use to you? I have devoted myself to the study of medicine for many years past. Perhaps I might be able to do the poor fellow some good."
Rodgers eagerly accepted the offer. The time hanging heavily on my hands, I thought I might as well accompany them to the forecastle. The skipper joined us with the bottle of laudanum in his hand, and we all walked "forrard."
As we neared the fore part of the vessel, we were saluted by the most pitiful moans it has ever been my fortune to hear. Adams was certainly in mortal anguish. His whole body was covered with profuse perspiration, induced by the physical torture through which he was passing. Deep black lines were already apparent beneath his eyes, and the eye-balls themselves seemed starting from their sockets. He was in a state of semi-coma, only recognizing us at intervals. Several of the mates of his watch were standing around endeavouring to alleviate his pain, but seemingly realizing their helplessness.
The Professor, as he entered, uttered a hasty exclamation, and walked quickly over to the bunk of the sick man. After taking the temperature of the sufferer, raising his eyelids to see whether the pupils were dilated, opening his mouth to examine his tongue, the Professor turned to the skipper and said:
"Captain Anstey, this man is suffering from the effects of an irritant poison, administered within the past three or four hours. At first I thought the symptoms were those of antimony, but now I am convinced something else has been mingled with it. The spasmodic contortions of the body suggest strychnine, but there are other symptoms indicative of arsenic. Singularly, and most unhappily for us, the patient has not retched at all, and I must now try to make him do so, though I may as well say I fear the case is hopeless."
"Then, doctor, if the case is hopeless, what's the use of troublin' him ter make him retch?"
It was one of the men who spoke, a swarthy, sinister-looking Irish-American, big and burly enough in physique, but who carried the word "villain" writ large on his features.
"To discover the scoundrel who has administered this poison, for that this is a case of either accident or suicide I cannot believe," replied the Professor, eyeing his questioner so steadily and closely that he slunk away behind his fellows.
At this moment the shadow of an overwhelming trouble seemed to descend over Captain Bob. His face became pale as marble, but as impassive. Turning to Rodgers I heard him remark in a low, hurried tone, "Quick, lock up the armoury, bring two or three loaded revolvers." Then in a louder tone, to be heard by all, "You will find it in a green bottle in my cabin." In an instant Rodgers was gone, and, as events proved, it was well the precaution was taken. A few minutes afterwards Adams revived a little, and opening his eyes, noticed the captain by his side. Beckoning him to bend down over him, the sick man made an effort to say something, in which the words "Poisoned—wouldn't agree—plot—mutiny—seize ship—piracy," were alone distinguishable.
Suddenly the captain was with scant ceremony pushed aside, and a hoarse voice said:
"'Axin' parding, cap'n, but I knows his ways. Here I be, mate; here's old Joss; I won't leave yez. Och, but poor old Bill's mind's away agin; he don't know his best friends."
The latter part of the speech was occasioned by a look of unutterable horror which flashed into the dying man's features at the sight of the evil-looking Irish-American who called himself Joss.
What more might have passed can only be surmised, but at this moment the Professor turned swiftly round to Joss, and, pulling a small but deadly-looking revolver from the breast of his coat, pointed it directly at his head.
"Jake Huggins, alias Joss Ramage, hands up! I charge you with the attempted murder of William Adams, and with a plot to mutiny and seize this ship."
For a moment the villain was dumb-foundered at the discovery of his plot, but, recovering himself, he shouted to the "watch on deck", "To the armoury, boys; snaffle the shooting-irons, for the gaff's blown!" making at the same time an attempt to rush from the forecastle to join his confederates, who were beginning to gather round the door.
The Professor, albeit a scientist, and likely to be more familiar with gases than gunpowder, and with the theoretic course of the bullet as governed by the laws controlling projection, than with accuracy of aim, was as cool and determined a man as ever lived. He had calculated every chance before he took the overt step he did. He therefore hesitated now not for an instant, but fired point-blank at Huggins, who fell at his feet with a deep groan. A loaded revolver slipped at the same time from his grasp, and Captain Bob at once appropriated the weapon. At the same moment also the mate and bo'sun, a thoroughly reliable man, whom Rodgers had taken into his confidence, appeared, heavily armed, and driving the watch on deck before them like a flock of sheep, the man at the wheel having been cautioned, as he valued his life, to remain at his place, and keep the vessel's head to her course.
The combat, if such it could be called, was over almost immediately. The two other ringleaders, disheartened by the fall of Huggins, submitted to the inevitable, and surrendered at discretion. They were at once placed in irons, while the body of the leader, sewn in a shroud with a couple of shot at his feet, was thrown overboard without more ado.
Poor Adams only lived another hour. The Professor was confident that, had he been informed of his seizure earlier, he could have saved him. Huggins, however, had put off summoning assistance until the poor fellow was in articulo mortis. Another of the men exhibited signs of having been marked out for the same fate. But Professor Barlow, by strong antidotes, was enabled to counteract the effect of the poison. He was convinced, by further examination, that the basic poison, or that administered in the largest quantities, had been strychnine. For some considerable time he had been engaged in the study of toxicology, particularly with relation to snakebite, and had verified the brilliant discovery of Dr. Mueller, of Yackandandah, that strychnine is an infallible specific for the bite of even the most venomous of reptiles.
With the true scientist's power of reasoning by analogy, he argued that if strychnine possesses the power of rendering innocuous the toxic principle present in the fangs of a snake, that toxic principle inversely should prove an antidote to strychnine. With infinite trouble he had collected a small phialful of the fluid extracted from the poison-bag of numerous snakes, in order to subject it to chemical analysis.
As soon, therefore, as the second sufferer was seized, Barlow administered two minims of the latter poison to him. In two hours' time, save for an overpowering feeling of nausea, the man was free from pain; in twelve he was at work. The success of the experiment was complete.
Meantime the skipper and the mate were investigating the plot to mutiny and seize the ship. Of this, Huggins appeared to have been the Arch-Diabolus. His design had been deliberately planned, and as deliberately put into practice. Along with two accomplices, he was to ship on board the Fitzroy, and endeavour to win the crew over to their scheme. In this, by threats and cajolery, he seemed to have been successful. Only in the case of Adams and Robb had he failed. They had been faithful to their trust, and declined to have anything to do with the matter, threatening, were it prosecuted further, to reveal all to the mate. This difficulty, so unexpected, had rather staggered Huggins, and he therefore determined to remove them by poison. The revelation that poison had been used was likewise a surprise to the conspirators. That the Professor would know anything of toxicology had never entered into their calculations, and his swift, sudden recognition of Huggins, notwithstanding his elaborate disguise, thoroughly disconcerted the scoundrel.
Professor Barlow afterwards supplied the remaining links of the story. Huggins he had known in America as a wrecker and bully of the worst type. The evening previous to the outbreak he had been lying in one of the boats taking some lunar observations. He was completely concealed from the view of all on deck.
Presently Huggins and two other men belonging to the watch on deck approached, and, leaning over the bulwarks, immediately under the davits supporting the boat wherein Barlow lay, commenced to talk of the plot. The arch-conspirator had completely won the men over to his plans, which he was recounting for their special information, so that the Professor was placed in possession of all. Of poisoning Adams and Robb, however, no mention was made, although the threat was used that if they did not yield they would rue it.
The Professor at once communicated to the captain what he had heard. They both determined to be on their guard and await developments, informing Rodgers of the affair. The sacrifice of poor Adams' life, however, brought matters to a crisis, and at a signal from Captain Bob, the Professor had acted in the way he did. When they came to overhaul the effects of Huggins and his two accomplices, they gained some idea of the object of the plot, to account for which had previously puzzled both the captain and the Professor. In Huggins' chest was found a bottle, evidently a message from the sea, the contents of which were such as to cause them the utmost surprise. The bottle itself had apparently been a considerable time in the water, as the glass was encrusted with minute shell-fish and withered sea-weed.
Inside they discovered a paper on which was inscribed in faded, rusty-red characters, the following words, a considerable portion of them being quite undecipherable through damp:—
"L.t 27°13' S., L....111° 17' W. Is..e...Spirits, Tu..day 12th Fe....ry 18.. The fo.rth y.ar.... residenc...dreary island...home..kin...love...God....Christ come...help....five castaway Englishm... gold.. treasu.es, precious... tempt ... here... abundan....make...wealthy,....dreams of... men...come...no . elay ...end. ord. Mary We...ter Com..cial Ro.d, Lei.h, whoever fi....his, and .od.r...ard.y...
"John Webster, 1.te ma..er..ec..ed..rig Emily Hope ...n. Gib..n ma.e...son, bo's.. Tho....ret, sa.l..Jo..Ric..ds, sail.r."
To decipher the letter was a work of some difficulty, owing to the action of the brine in eating away the paper—evidently a leaf out of an old note-book.
The characters also, originally written in blood, were so faint as to be well-nigh illegible. However, after a time I succeeded, in accordance with the captain's request, in piecing together the epistle, supplying what was awanting from the connection supplied by the context. The full text of the message then read as follows:—
"L(a)t. 27° 13' S., L(ong.) 111° 17' W., Is(l)e (of) Spirits, Tu(es)day, 12th Fe(brua)ry 18 (year impossible to decipher). The fo(u)rth y(e)ar (of our) residenc(e in this) dreary island (far from) home (and) kin(dred). (For the) love (of) God (and of his Son Jesus) Christ come (to the) help (of) five castaway Englishm(en). (If) gold (together with) treasu(r)es (and) precious (stones can) tempt (any one to come) here (there is) abundan(ce to) make (any one) wealthy (beyond the) dreams of (avarice). Men (we entreat you?) come (to our help, make) no (d)elay. (S)end (w)ord (to) Mary We(bs)ter Com(mer)cial Ro(a)d, Lei(t)h, whoever fi(nds) this, and (G)od (will) r(ew)ard y(ou). John Webster, l(a)te ma(st)er, (wr)ec(k)ed (b)rig Emily Hope.—Gib(so)n, ma(t)e—(names illegible of bos'un and sailors, the last names, perhaps, John Richards or Richardson)."
LYING alongside the bottle containing so pitiful a cry for help from the trackless ocean, was a bundle of letters and papers referring to it. From these the fact became apparent that Huggins' cupidity, not his humanity, had been excited by the information. To proceed to the spot indicated was evidently his intention as soon as he had obtained facilities for so doing.
Not, however, to rescue the unfortunate castaways! With him as with the buccaneers of the seventeenth century, life ranked as a bagatelle compared with that precious metal, of which its bard Tom Hood sings:—
"Gold! Gold! Gold! Gold!
Bright and yellow, hard and cold,
Heavy to get, and light to hold;
Price of many a crime untold.
For gold they lived, and they died for gold;
How widely its agencies vary!"
Calculations as to the exact position of the Isle of Spirits, letters in reply to some of his, urging men to join in an attempt to secure the treasure, an epistle half written addressed to one Joseph Parslow, exhorting him to make every effort to ship on board the Fitzroy, as she was a vessel suitable for their purpose, and stating the fact that "circumstances" might render it necessary for "five" of those on board "to join the majority" without delay, were all discovered, with many other odds and ends, among the papers of this finished and pitiless scoundrel.
On our showing what had been discovered to Professor Barlow, to our surprise he betrayed signs of an uncontrollable emotion. His features blanched until they assumed the colour of parchment. Staggering back until he stumbled against the bulwarks, he ejaculated in a hollow tone, gazing at the paper meantime as if on the lineaments of some frightful spectre, "My God, my sister's long-lost husband—John Webster—Emily Hope!"
Captain Bob, with his usual sympathetic kindness, tried to console him by suggesting that, as the paper showed signs of having been in the water for a considerable period, the castaways had probably already been rescued. But against this suggestion, the keen, logical mind of the Professor instantly balanced the negative probabilities of the case. "That may be so," he replied, "but with equal force it may not. Captain Anstey, Heaven has prospered me as far as this world is concerned. I am what people call a wealthy man. Now, I offer you whatever sum you choose to name, to bear down into the latitudes mentioned in the message, and to see if my brother-in-law is still there."
"Did it rest alone with me, Professor," said the manly British seaman, "no inducement would be needed to stimulate me to crowd on every stitch of canvas I possess, and to proceed as quickly as possible to the rescue of my fellow-men. But I have my fellow-owners, Messrs. Laffit and Jolliboy, to consider, as well as the underwriters. Not that they would not agree with me in hurrying the vessel to the rescue of the castaways, But they are not here to give their opinion."
"Name your price, name your price; or, stay, let me buy the vessel right out," said the Professor, "including a sum representing the possible profits of the trip."
"Perhaps that would be the quickest and the surest way out of the difficulty; we, of course, buying it back from you at the same figure when you have completed your search."
The Professor assented. Summoning Rodgers and myself to act as witnesses, Captain Anstey and Barlow descended into the main cabin, and there an agreement was drawn up, whereby, for the sum of £3000 plus £800 (as representing the possible profits of the trip), the latter became possessor of the schooner Fitzroy, together with all her belongings. To this, a detailed statement was also appended, setting forth the reasons for the transaction for the information of the Government. To this document our signatures were affixed, and all on board straightway became the servants of Ernest Barlow, by virtue of the cheque drawn by him in favour of the Captain and Messrs Laffit and Jolliboy, and deposited in the ship's safe.
"Now, gentlemen, a glass of wine to seal our bargain. Steward, a bottle of that old 'Three Star' Hennessey you crack up so much," cried the Professor. "Now, skipper, here's to our success, make the little girl show her heels to the wind. Crowd on your canvas. Every damage you sustain will be made good. Remember my brother-in-law's life and those of his men may depend on our expedition."
Captain Bob cheerfully responded to the Professor's toast. That every expedition would be used he assured him, and as the wind continued favourable the progress was all that could be desired. Yet we could see that, excellent though the record achieved might be, it was much too slow to keep pace with the lightning course of the Professor's anxiety. While he was constantly quoting as a sort of oral anodyne for the gnawing anguish of his suspense, the beautiful lines in the Helena of Euripides, where the chorus advises the unfortunate daughter of "Leda"—"Never with presaging mind to anticipate evils to come,"—we could note that the unuttered apprehensions outweighed the unction he fain would lay to his soul.
Captain Bob had assured the Professor that, taking the distance at about 2200 miles from the position of the vessel at the date of the discovery of the letter, to the exact spot in the Pacific Ocean mentioned as the locale of the so-called Isle of Spirits—a point, however, marked on none of the Admiralty Charts as occupied by any land whatsoever—the duration of the voyage could not, under the most favourable circumstances, be less than twenty-six days. Though an average rate of progress, registering six knots an hour, might be maintained in many places, allowance had to be made for calms, currents, baffling and head winds, and the like.
The Professor reiterated his full conviction of Captain Bob's anxiety to reduce the term of the Fitzroy's run to a minimum. He assured us of his intention to possess his soul in patience, to employ the time in pursuing his studies, with other determinations of a philosophical and laudable character.
But of all servitors a truant attention is the most intractable. Easier it is to preach than to practise patience, or, as good Adriana in the Comedy of Errors says, "They can be meek that have no other cause." Professor Barlow's endeavour to fulfil the Scriptural injunction to possess his soul in patience had much in common with the illustrious exemplification of the same virtue by that paragon of patience, Sir Fretful Plagiary.
Long before the twenty-six days of the estimated term had run their course, the Professor's anxiety had broken down the rigid barriers of an Englishman's natural reserve, and that mask of unemotional callousness modern society pronounces comme il faut. More than once a suspicious glistening was perceptible in the Professor's eyes. But the sun is very trying to the eyes in those latitudes, and the Professor always blew his nose with remarkable vigour on such occasions. But as the longest lane must have its turning, the dreariest day its end, so the voyage of the Fitzroy to the mysterious Isle of Spirits at last approached its termination. Captain Bob had privately confided to me his opinion that an error had been made in Captain Webster's observations. "Could it be possible," he reasoned, "that the numberless American, colonial, and British ships passing this way would not have discovered and reported land at a point where neither the Admiralty, nor the French, nor even, for that matter, the Dutch charts, imperfect though they be, mark a rood of the barrenest rock ever sea-fowl settled on? He must have landed on Elizabeth Island or Ducie Island, or perhaps on Easter Island, which, God knows, is mysterious enough to satisfy the biggest glutton for mystery and supernaturalism the Psychical Society ever acknowledged as an emissary. But not a word to the Professor; poor soul, he is worried enough already. Let him hug his illusions a little longer."
At last we reached the twenty-sixth day, on which Bob had given it as his opinion we ought to sight the Isle of Spirits. Our voyage had been prosecuted under the most favourable circumstances, both as regards wind and currents, but not a trace of land appeared on any quarter. In vain did the Professor scan the horizon all round with his powerful telescope. Twelve o'clock arrived, when the skipper took his observation. "In five hours," said he, "we ought to cross your brother-in-law's line of observation; but, as you see, there is no land in sight."
The Professor said nothing; the deepening of the lines of anxiety on his forehead was the only reply. The wind meantime had died away to the lightest possible breeze.
Suddenly Mr. Rodgers, the mate, who was standing at the bow of the vessel, reported huge masses of sea-weed extending for miles right across the direct course of the ship, and barring progress.
"Humph—funny!" grunted Bob; "we are thousands of miles away from the Sargasso Sea, and I never heard of such belts of weed in these latitudes."
The Fitzroy drove directly on to the bed. She passed the outer edge without much perceptible hindrance, but a few seconds afterwards was lying perfectly stationary, rolling like a log amidst an immense mass of tangled black seaweed, offering an obstinate resistance to her further course.
"Confound the thing!" cried the skipper. "'Bout ship! What can it mean? Long as I have sailed these waters—and I may safely say I have been a dozen times in this very latitude—I never saw anything like this before. Lower the jolly-boat, Mr. Rodgers, while we are making this tack, and take a look round if you can see any break in the weed."
After some little difficulty in getting the vessel set to her new course, Mr. Rodgers fulfilled the captain's instructions. We watched him and his men skirting the edge of the huge bed for more than a mile. Then they appeared to turn suddenly at right angles into the sea-weed, and the boat, now a speck, seemed swept up some opening with considerable velocity. After proceeding into the heaving mass for some hundreds of yards, we saw them turn and endeavour to retrace their course back to the ship. But the task proved no easy one. They evidently were battling against a current, whose tendency was to sweep them further into the heart of the weed-bed. Bit by bit, however, they won their way out, and at last we saw them emerge from the tangled mass of black snaky feelers and row towards us.
Their arrival was now awaited with anxiety.
On coming aboard again, the mate reported that about a mile and a half on the port side there was a break in the sea-weed, in the form of a channel about fifteen yards wide. But, singularly enough, down this open space ran a current of not less, he was convinced, than from three to four knots. As far as he could see, the channel stretched for miles into the heart of the weed-bed. Of the latter there seemed positively no termination whatever.
"Well, Professor, what do you wish us to do?" asked Bob.
"I wish you, Captain, to run the vessel into that channel, and to sail through it. As I am a living man, I believe that behind this vast bed lies the Isle of Spirits, where my poor brother-in-law is. But, stay—there may be dangers here altogether foreign to the ordinary perils incident to a mariner's life. Will you, as captain, announce to the men, that to every one on board I will guarantee a bonus of 20 per cent on the aggregate amount of their yearly, not their monthly, wages if they will stick to me?"
"Oh, that is not needed, Professor," said the Captain dissuadingly. "Your previous generosity in raising the wages of all on board would stimulate every one to do his best to assist you in your quest."
"Never mind, skipper; do as I wish, please, and let them all understand that he who obliges me in this will not find me ungrateful."
From the cold reserved Professor this meant much. Anstey said no more. He bowed, and proceeded to execute the order.
In a short time the Fitzroy, albeit hampered by the light wind, was heading direct for the break in the wide expanse of algae indicated by Rodgers, who was personally acting as "lookout" in the bow of the vessel. Ere long we passed between the two outlying "capes" of weed marking the entrance. Scarcely had the ship entered the so-called channel than she experienced the force of the current referred to by the mate. Her rate of progress was perceptibly accelerated, while as we were now moving more rapidly than the wind, the sails were flapping idly against the mast.
The scene around us was weird and strange in the extreme. To some vast lake, whose surface was covered with water-lilies prior to flowering, as well as with other aquatic plants and weeds, the entire expanse of ocean, far as the eye could see on every side, bore close resemblance. In place of its bosom presenting a shimmering mirror, blue as the cerulean heavens above, it exhibited a dreary monotonous waste of brownish-black tendrils or streamers, bobbing their knotted and knobbed "ganglia" at times above the surface, but generally covered by a thin layer of water, so that they were ever floating and swaying and twisting and turning on that surface, like myriads of octopi stretching out black horrible tentacles to suck down any hapless being that fell amongst them. Even the proverbial "waste of waters" was preferable to this terrible spectacle.
But the channel through which we were passing showed no signs of narrowing, nor did the current decrease in velocity. For considerably over three hours we had been carried along by it without experiencing any sign of slackening speed. Thrice had Captain Anstey ordered the lead to be heaved, receiving as a response—20—18—22 fathoms respectively.
Professor Barlow's excitement increased every hour. His agitation had become well-nigh uncontrollable. Ceaselessly he paced the poop, stopping every few minutes to sweep the horizon line anew with his glass. Pale as parchment were his features. To no one did he address himself, and all respected the silence he evidently desired to preserve.
Suddenly, as afternoon was deepening into evening, and the shadows lengthening, the startling cry, "Land ho!" rang from the cage at the mast-head, where Captain Anstey had posted a sailor as "look-out ."
The effect upon every one on board was electrical.
"Where away?" cried the skipper, startled out of his apathy.
"Low down on the starboard bow; but there is a mist or something hanging over it, so that you can't make it out clearly."
The skipper and the Professor at once proceeded to the mast-head. With the aid of the strong telescope of the latter the fact was established beyond a doubt that, be it of large or small extent, land certainly lay in the direction indicated. Before long it was visible even from the poop as a low dark line on the horizon.
Over all else hung a heavy pall of cloud or mist. To the Professor, however, what was revealed was sufficient. That the land before him was the Isle of Spirits he entertained not a doubt. His gloom disappeared in an instant, and in his satisfaction he was inclined to gently rally Captain Anstey on his incredulity.
"Well, Professor, I must own I am in the wrong. But I may say this, that, old sailor as I am, I never heard of land lying in this precise latitude before. I grant the Pacific is most imperfectly laid down as yet by hydrographic survey, and that there are hundreds of miles of water in these archipelagoes into which no vessel of any size dare enter, owing to the difficulties of navigation from the coral reels. Still the existence of this island is a mystery."
"My dear Anstey, you were right when you said the Pacific is most imperfectly surveyed. Still, I imagine that the difficulty meeting us this morning in the vast algae beds, has been the main cause of deterring other vessels from running down here. They have not been so fortunate in striking this channel."
"Nay, even if they did find it, not one man in a thousand would dare to venture down it. I warn you it will need a tidy cap of wind to take us out again, unless this current finds an outlet elsewhere, after skirting the island, and will do us the same kind office in carrying us out as it is now doing in bearing us in."
But to the Professor any warning meantime fell on deaf ears. To solve a family mystery, overshadowing with the deep pall of sorrow the life of his youngest and favourite sister, and rendered even more acute because of the uncertainty attending the fate of the loved one, was at present his one absorbing purpose. Humanity exhibited towards one object may, when carried to excess, unwittingly involve gross cruelty towards others. This was exactly our present situation. His natural affection towards his sister blinded the Professor to the overwhelming danger threatening the entire ship's company, in thus running recklessly upon an unknown coast.
THAT the Captain apprehended to the full the perils of the case, I could detect in his troubled look and restless demeanour. With the anxiety of Professor Barlow to solve the pending doubt as to the fate of his brother-in-law, he had too keen a sympathy to permit him to say anything. But all that a bold and skilful British seaman could do to ensure safety for us he did.
To the island we were now steadily approaching, and its outlines were beginning to stand forth in bolder relief against the glowing amethyst and orange hues of the evening skies. The shimmering radiance of the dying day was rapidly merging into the deeper shades of the coming night. This fact, however, occasioned but slight apprehension, as, ere long, the moon, then at its full, would arise and afford us abundant light. The mists enveloping the land had rolled away like the curtain of a panorama, and disclosed to us an island of considerable size, to judge of the whole by the part presenting itself to our view. Though still a long distance from the shore, we could perceive the physical characteristics of it to be mountainous; successive ranges of hills rising tier above tier behind one another, until they culminated in one supreme and solitary peak, partially snow-clad and loftily sublime, at whose summit, amidst the darkling shadows of the night, gleamed the sullen, steady glow of a semi-active volcano. To the steamy smoke, rising as it did in white, sulphurous volumes from the cone, were due the clouds and the vapours enveloping the island when viewed from afar.
The Professor was in ecstasies. In his quest, he had struck upon a veritable terra incognita, a rare experience in this age of persistent "globetrotting," when a man's reputation as a traveller rests not on his ability to reproduce the scenes through which he has passed, but on the aggregate amount of the world's surface he has covered in his peregrinations. The Professor at once proceeded to christen the volcano "Mount Anstey," in honour of our captain.
Darkness had now fallen over the scene, rendering everything more weird and unearthly, as seen in the dull red light cast in fitful flashes from the distant crater. Presently, however, over the north-eastern shoulder of the mountain the moon began to arise in all its peaceful silvery radiance; while afar off lights were peeping out like flitting fire-flies from the shore, evincing that the island was at least inhabited, though by whom remained to be seen.
While speculating on this, we were startled by another cry from the look-out, "Sail on the port bow!" A sail!—surely not? Another rush to the side. But the "look-out" was right. There, bearing down upon us, out of the semi-gloom of that side of the island lying under the shadow of the towering mountain, and, therefore, not yet illumined by the rising moon, gleamed what seemed to be the white sails of a vessel. She was approaching us with great rapidity, albeit travelling against the current. Nearer we drew to each other. Now she emerged out of the deep gloom cast over the waters by the mountain ranges into the tremulous argent sheen gradually being suffused over the scene by "Cynthia in all her beauty."
"Good heavens! what kind of a craft is she?" cried the skipper, in a tone of utter astonishment. The sentiment was re-echoed by us all. At both stem and stern were curious voluted figure-heads; while her bulwarks stood high out of the water. She carried only one mast, on the low yards of which hung one vast, broad sail, in size and shape resembling a lateen sail, but at present clewed up into a single reef. Her breadth of beam, and quaint, high poop also attracted notice; but what most of all excited our surprise was the fact that, although a vessel of about 100 or 150 tons burden, she was propelled by three banks of oars, placed in an oblique order above each other on either side.
At last, when she was about three hundred yards distant from us, the Professor, who had been attentively examining her through his telescope, broke silence with the words,—
"As I live, a Roman trireme, complete in every detail!" uttered in a tone of the most profound astonishment.
"What do you say, Professor?" said the captain.
"I remarked that the vessel approaching us is a facsimile, in every detail, of a Roman galley or trireme of the age of the early Caesars. What it all means I cannot say."
Presently, in response to some order, the rowers on board the galley ceased pulling, and were evidently waiting for us to approach.
Captain Anstey was, however, determined to err on the safe side.
"Bring up a rifle or two from the armoury," he said to the mate. "Let each man carry his revolver in readiness; whether they be friendly or hostile, it is well to be prepared."
At length, when we came within hailing distance, there advanced to the side of the galley a picturesque figure, attired in a helmet and cuirass of some highly-polished metal, a coat or kilt of chain-mail reaching well-nigh to the knee, and greaves covering the legs from the knee to the ankle. He was armed with a short sword, held drawn in his right hand, while on the left arm rested a small circular shield with metal "bosses." In fact, his whole accoutrements reminded me of the illustrations in those highly-esteemed volumes, familiar enough in my school and college days in "Auld Reekie"—Dr. Smith's Dictionary of Antiquities and History of Rome.
Our surprise over the occurrences of this eventful night was rapidly deepening into the profoundest amazement. Was it possible that the customs in vogue in the Rome of the Caesars could be existent in the nineteenth century away out in the semi-tropical Pacific? The whole matter appeared an enigma of the most perplexing character. To say it was deepened would be to convey only the faintest possible conception of the thrill of astonishment vibrating through our minds, when across the channel separating the two vessels came the accents of that tongue, which, though now ranking among the dead languages of the earth, had been the current speech of that mighty empire, the stateliest and the most imposing the world has known—
"Quae navis est? Estisne amici aut hostes?" But the Professor, in proportion as the mystery became more inexplicable, rose to the occasion. In his Oxford days he had been famous for the purity and felicity of his Latinity. On him, therefore, the task of conversing with the strangers in the language of old Rome naturally devolved, and was a delight. Without hesitation he replied in their own tongue—
"This is the ship Fitzroy; we come as friends, seeking friends who are thought to have suffered shipwreck here."
"You and yours, then, are welcome to Nova Sicilia. Publius Manlius Torquatus, and Caius Flaminius Piso, the consuls, have commissioned me to meet you to inquire your errand, and if ye came in peace, to bid you welcome in the name of the Republic," was the response.
"In the name of my friends and myself I thank you. We are anxious to cast anchor. Where may this be done with safety?"
"This trireme will conduct you to a convenient anchorage in the harbour, if you will accompany us. It lies about sixteen stadia from the present spot. At about half that distance the current now carrying you along takes a turn to the right, and skirts the southern shores of the island. Our principal town, Nova Messana, lies a little to the north. You will therefore require to get out your oars, and leave what we call the 'stream', so as to strike over the bay to the harbour."
A puzzled man was good Captain Anstey when the information given by the stranger was translated to him.
"God bless the fellow, how the mischief can I get out of this stream, as he calls it now, when there is not as much wind as would fill your hat? Get out my oars! the man must be a blooming chucklehead! What kind of oars would a 400-ton schooner carry, does he think? No, Professor, the only thing to be done is that the gentleman in the tin hat should order his trythingumyjig to take us in tow. By the powers, what have I come to, when my trim little craft has to be taken in tow by an outlandish cockle-boat like that!"
"My dear Captain Anstey, it is a genuine Roman trireme, and those apparently are descendants of the ancient Romans, though how in the name of wonder they got here goodness only knows."
Poor Captain Bob muttered something about not caring much whether it was a "try-ream" or a "try-quire;" he didn't like the business any the more. However, the Professor, having hailed the stranger—who, by the way, informed him that his name was Quintus Calpurnius Lepidus—explained the difficulty to him. Apparently, the unwonted characteristics of our party were occasioning quite as much astonishment on board the galley as theirs among us. Lepidus having held a hurried consultation with some of his companions, signified their willingness to take us in tow, but seemed at a loss to understand how it was to be managed.
"Oh, that's a simple matter," cried Captain Anstey. "Bo'sun, take the jolly-boat and a couple of men, and carry a cable line aboard that—that—what the dickens d'ye call it, Professor?"
The honest bo'sun, Job Simpson, one of the most faithful souls on earth, to whom an order represented a command to be carried out at all costs, nevertheless did not relish his mission. He muttered some words about "not liking the cut o' the jib o' them there furrineerin' blokes," but at once proceeded to execute his mission. With evident surprise, those on board the galley observed the three men in the boat first being lowered from the davits, then proceeding to the bow of the schooner to take up the tow-line.
But the climax of honest Job's experience was attained when he reached the side of the galley, and, looking through one of the oar-ports, observed some of the rowers (usually slaves or criminals in the days of Rome) eyeing him very attentively. To Job all "furrineerin' fellers" had some subtle connection with Frenchmen. Only natural, then, was it that the good sailor should address them, as he considered, in appropriate terms:
"Axin' yer parding, mounseers, I ain't acquaint with yer parley-vous, but would yez jist kitch a hold o' this here line?"
But not a sign of acquiescence was vouchsafed.
"Drat the fellers! Are they all deaf and dumb, think yez, boys? I'm sayin', mounseers, if yer honours would just lay hold o' this here line it would be a great obleegement."
Still not a sign from those whom he addressed, only sounds of suppressed laughter.
"Gosh, here's a mess! either all these bloomin' coves are stone deaf or they can't understand a word o' good English. I'm sayin', mounseer—"
But here the Professor, who, with Captain Anstey, had been watching the efforts of Job with some little amusement, interposed, and directed the attention of Lepidus to what was desired. The line was at once taken on board over the stern of the galley and fastened securely. Presently the trireme began to forge slowly ahead with the schooner in her wake.
At this point the channel perceptibly widened, until it attained a width considerably over 100 yards. The algae beds receded farther and yet farther apart, finally terminating altogether, while we noted, gradually opening up in front of us, the coast-lines of a noble and spacious bay, semicircular in shape, around which, and extending up the slopes of the hills behind, gleamed the lights of a large and widely-scattered town—populous, too, if the hum and bustle of busy life reaching us even at this distance were any criterion. Here, too, we left the current that had so long borne us on our way. After a few minutes' steady strain on the tow-line, during which we distinctly heard the voices of what Professor Barlow informed us were the hortatores or overseers (also called by Plautus, pausarii), encouraging the remiges or rowers in their task by a sort of rhythmic refrain or chant, the schooner was slowly but surely drawn from the current of the ocean stream, and was presently gliding through smooth water towards the entrance to the bay.
Passing a projecting headland of rocky precipitous cliffs, whereon stood a pharos or lighthouse, differing materially in design, however, from Smeaton's great structure on the Eddystone Rock—the model of all future erections of the kind—we swept into the bay, and in the clear moonlight beheld the harbour and town unfolded like a panorama before us.
IN the fair moonlight this mysterious town of Nova Messana—whereon the eye of no European had rested that returned to tell the tale—stood out in strong relief. The houses, being built of a white stone or marble, were thrown into prominence against the dark background of the mountains. The city was evidently of great size, for around the entire sweep of the coast-line, and over the shoulders of the two spurs of hill that jutted far out to sea and formed the bay, serried lines of streets and houses were to be detected. Besides, the hoarse muffled hum that reached us, of vehicles rolling along roads, dogs barking, children shouting, music playing, and all the hundred-and-one sounds one overhears when approaching a busy hive of population, betokened the presence of a mighty multitude, be its nationality what it might. But who were they? How came they to these latitudes? Such questions were still wrapped in mystery.
At last we glided slowly into the magnificent harbour round which the town clustered in serried lines of masonry. Yonder were substantial stone wharves lined with stately warehouses. Close in, by the side of the wharves, lay innumerable craft of much the same type as that now towing us, though lacking the rostra or high convoluted beaks. On the wharves we also noted cranes and slings for loading and unloading cargo of much the same type as those among us.
About a hundred and fifty yards from the shore, Lepidus informed us we could anchor without any danger. Then the trireme, having cast off the tow-line, returned towards us, and Lepidus intimated that the consuls would like to see the leaders of the party as soon as was convenient.
"Look here, Professor, you go, and take our friend Bill with you," said Captain Anstey, pointing to me. "I cannot leave my ship. It wouldn't be right."
"Why not come up with me and see what the people are like?" replied the Professor.
"No, Professor; again I say, let Bill and you go. I will stay here, and if any mischief is intended, I'll fire on the town with our carronade. It's not worth much against cannon, but it's unlikely, if they work with the tin armour that worthy gentleman Mr. Leppydoes wears, that they ever heard the sound of artillery before."
"Well, as you think best, skipper. Bill, do you mind going with me?" he asked of me.
"Not a bit. There's nothing I should like better; but I would advise we go heavily armed."
"Of course. We'll each take a couple of revolvers and some spare cartridges. We don't know anything about the people yet."
"I say, Professor, it might not be amiss if, under cover of saluting the flag of the country, we fire one or two blank charges. Explain to your friend Leppydoes that we mean it as an honour."
The Professor did as desired, and Lepidus appeared highly gratified. He thought they were to be treated to some entertainment. But when the thunder of the first discharge awoke all the echoes around the bay, and reverberated among the mountain defiles for miles back—when, too, it was followed by a second and a third, an awful stillness fell upon the city.
Then rose the terrible cry: "It is the voice of the gods, it is the voice of Jove!" and when we looked once more at the galley, we saw that Lepidus and his companions were kneeling on the deck. Their palms were turned outwards, and their heads bent in the attitude of worship.
The worthy centurion, though startled by the sound, was sufficiently master of himself not to show fright after the appalling sound ceased, but his respect for us had been deepened. Therefore, when we stepped aboard the trireme by a gangway thrown from its deck to our bulwarks, we were received with every demonstration of honour. We were conducted to the high raised poop, where seats were provided for us, and where Lepidus endeavoured to do the honours of his vessel. On inquiring whence we came, and on learning from the Professor that we hailed from the west, he inquired how things went on at Rome, who were the consuls, how far the "Mistress of the World" had now pushed her conquests, and the like, until he succeeded in so bamboozling the poor Professor that he had to beg for time to answer the questions in detail.
But before this could be done, we reached the wharf, and there, packed closely together, and evidently watching our approach with the intensest interest, were thousands of human beings, all attired in strict accordance with the costume of ancient Rome, the toga virilis We noticed that very few females were present. Males predominated. Yet the utmost decorum and order prevailed. Attended by Lepidus, we disembarked and passed up the narrow lane left for us between the crowds of eager citizens. A party of soldiers, attired like our guide, and armed with the spear, circular shield, and sword, preceded us, and we were followed by the entire mass of the population.
We passed along streets of noble buildings gleaming white in the clear moonlight, each edifice being an exact facsimile of those that used to figure in the engravings in our books of Roman history and antiquities. They were in general two or three stories high, the façades being richly adorned, while the porches and doorways were ornamented with fine carvings, and were also furnished with rows of Ionic and Corinthian pilasters. The paucity of windows facing towards the street gave the frontages of the houses rather a blank, heavy appearance. As was the custom in Rome, nearly all the windows of the rooms on the first or ground floor faced inwards upon the spacious inner court, opening from the atrium, or general sitting-room. From lattices over our heads faces peered through, and soft dark eyes looked curiously on the mysterious strangers that seemed to have dropped from the clouds. From the roadway litters, chariots, and waggons, heavy and clumsy, were drawn up that their occupants might have a glimpse of the strangers.
During our walk Lepidus kept up a lively conversation with Professor Barlow. I had been a fairly good Latin scholar when I graduated in Edinburgh University. Though the rust of time had blunted the edge of my proficiency in the language, still I was able to follow with comparative ease the course of the conversation.
Lepidus, as we advanced, pointed out the theatre where the plays of Fundanius and Puppius, dramatists of the Augustan age in Rome, were still performed, as he stated, with those of native colonial playwrights. He also showed us in the distance the Coliseum, the Museum, and other places of note. Finally, we reached the Forum or market-place, a broad open space, laid out in the form of a square,—as far as we could detect in the darkness,—and adorned with numberless statues. In the Forum were located the consular and senatorial halls and offices.
At last we stopped in front of a splendid pile of buildings with a handsome pillared propylaeum, to which a flight of steps led up. We ascended the stairs with our guide amidst a crowd of eager spectators.
"The Senate is in session, and would like to see the strangers," said another individual, approaching Lepidus.
"That is well," replied Lepidus, and, motioning us to follow, he entered the Senate House of the Republic of Nova Sicilia.
A vast hall with sloping benches like a semi-amphitheatre! At one end was a raised platform or tribune, in front of which were tables for scribes. Here met the assembly of the old men of the state—the Patres Conscripti—in whose hands lay the destinies of the country.
One of the two consuls for the year always presided over the deliberations of the Senate, taking the duty for six months each. The aged councillors of the republic, whose long white beards evinced the age and venerable character of the owners, received us standing. The consul, Caius Flaminius Piso, in his own name, conjointly with that of his colleague, and in the name of the Senate, welcomed us to the country. It was evident that Skipper Bob's salute had produced a very extraordinary effect on the minds of the people and of the Senate. They regarded us as descended from the gods, or, at least, in some subtle way connected with them, if we were not gods ourselves, and it seemed to them perfectly in keeping with the eternal fitness of things that these strange personages should be received with all honour.
Piso, a fine-looking old man with a silvery beard rippling down to his waist in hoary masses, having duly welcomed us, motioned the senators to be seated, then led us to some ivory chairs placed on a slightly lower level than his own, and reserved for those whom the Republic delighted to honour. He then indicated to us that we should sit down.
After seating himself, a slight pause ensued, intended as a gentle hint that the Senate would like to hear our story. The Professor was not long in responding to the hint. Bracing himself for the effort, he commenced to speak, and, after the first few sentences, got on wondrously well, and produced a very favourable impression on the Senate. In a few simple words, as far as I could follow him, he recorded the reasons for our voyage, then the circumstances of the suppressed mutiny, and, finally, the discovery of the paper in the bottle written by the Professor's brother-in-law.
With breathless silence the whole story was listened to by the members of the Senate. At last, when on concluding the recital he inquired, "Tell me, I entreat you, has my kinsman reached your hospitable shores? and if so, is he still here amongst you?" The answer pealed out from many responsive throats, "Certe—Yes"—than which no word could have been more delightful to Barlow.
"Pray inform me how he arrived here," said the Professor, addressing the consul. "When can I see him?"
But a strange diffidence was now visible in Piso's manner.
"I—I—am sorry—he has gone—"
"What has he done? Where has he gone? Has he committed any crime against your laws?"
The Consul shook his head, and a strange buzz of whispered comment on the question ran through the assembly.
"Then if he be not a criminal, if he be not an offender against your laws, if he has done nothing to merit punishment, why may not I see him?"
There was a sternness and a decision about Professor Barlow's manner that were not without their effect on the Consul and the senators.
Piso shifted uneasily, conferred with one of the old members who sat near him, and then replied:
"O strangers, think not our unwillingness to speak was due to any hostility to your kinsman. I was anxious to save your feelings as much as I could." Here again Piso paused and eyed the Professor sympathetically.
The features of the latter paled visibly as the words fell on his ear. He started, glanced quickly at me, then said impulsively: "I would know the worst, tell me all."
"You have made your choice. Joannes Websterius, about six months ago, mysteriously disappeared. We know not where he is, save that he was seen to enter the 'Cave of Gems'."
The Consul thereupon began to explain the nature of the "Cave of Gems," which, it turned out, was only the entrance to a perfect network of caverns which ran throughout the entire length of the mighty range of mountains behind the town.
The Professor listened in silence. Then he said in a low tone: "Do you think he has starved to death there? Is there no chance of escape?"
The Consul shook his head. "Even if he escaped and discovered the exit on the other side of the mountains, that would lead him into the country of the Ariutas, our enemies, and he would be remorselessly killed."
"My poor Mary!" exclaimed Barlow sadly. Then turning to the Consul he said, "Will you inform me of all you know of Webster, so that I may convey the news to his wife?"
"He had become very morose and unsociable in his habits just before his disappearance. He would not converse with anyone, nor would he have any intercourse with us. He wandered about the country aimlessly, neglecting his work and his duties. He would neither eat nor drink. As for sleep, it never seemed to visit him."
"The poor fellow had become desperate through his lonely situation," said the Professor to me in a low tone; then turning to Piso he continued: "Ah! he had been so long separated from his wife and family, from all who are dear to him, that despair had seized on him."
Piso nodded his head and added: "You desired to know something about the manner of his arriving here!"
"I should be very grateful."
"About five years ago he came to us in a small boat with two or three other companions, all of whom have since died. He informed us, through signs, that he had suffered shipwreck in the Mare Occidentale, and had endured terrible hardships before reaching Nova Messana. After being entertained by us for some time, as he was a man of great ability, we had him instructed in our language, which we deemed it strange he did not know, and at the end he was in charge of our naval construction yard. He would fain have made radical changes, and banish the remiges, or banks of rowers, as being useless; but that we could not recommend on his bare word alone; now, however, that we have seen your vessel moving without oars, the Senate will again consider the scheme."
"May I see the Cave of Gems?"
The Consul looked surprised, but recovering himself in a moment he replied:
"Most certainly, we will assist you in every way we can. You will be remaining here for a few days. The Government of the Republic will lend you all the help in its power."
The Professor gratefully acknowledged the promise. Immediately after this matter was settled, a knot of senators gathered round us both, and endeavoured to elicit information concerning the changes that had taken place in Rome and in Europe generally. They seemed to date everything to the beginning of the "Perpetual Consulship," as they termed it, of Octavius, shortly after the death of the great Julius. Not a member of the Senate but had some question to ask. It was as much as the Professor could do to answer the queries as briefly as possible, so rapidly did they follow each other.
The Professor's replies evidently excited profound astonishment, though few of the "Fathers" appeared to realize what was said. An example of this occurred when Barlow, in a voice choking with emotion, thanked the Republic through Piso for the humanity and kindness it had shown to his brother-in-law, adding that he would represent the matter to the British Government, so that some formal recognition might be made.
"The British Government—where is that?—Britannia we know as a dependency of Rome—is it not still so?"
The Professor was only able to indicate a few of the steps whereby the British Empire had advanced to its present pitch of greatness when he was interrupted by many of the senators crying, "But where was Rome all that time? Why did she allow you to attain such greatness?"
"Because Rome was crushed and overwhelmed, and no longer exists as the Rome you knew." But the fact at this time did not seem to be realized by the senators. They only smiled incredulously at what they considered the Professor's romancing.
Barlow at this stage expressed his desire to obtain some information regarding the migration of the Roman colony to the South Seas, adding, "We, in Europe, know nothing of your existence here."
"Nay, we do not wish you to know anything of us," retorted one of the senators hastily.
"Why so? Why do you not wish to be known?"
"Because Rome would crush us. She would not tolerate our independent existence. Our fathers have informed us of the policy she pursued towards her colonies, and time will not have modified her ideas."
"But I tell you Rome does not exist to-day."
Only a shrug of the shoulders followed this remark of the Professor's. The Senators evidently considered he had some sinister motive in asserting the fact, which to them was incredible, and one of them voiced the suspicions of the others when he muttered, "How do you come to know our language if Rome no longer exists?"
Observing this, Barlow varied his question by requesting Piso to inform him how their fathers had reached the quarter of the globe in which they now lived? The business of the Senate had been over before we arrived, so that we were not interfering with its transactions by remaining in the Chamber. Piso pondered over the request for a moment, then said:
"Tis only just you should know. After Caius Julius Caesar had grasped at supreme power, and overturned the ancient form of government—after the triumvirate of Antony, Octavius, and Lepidus in its turn had been superseded by the imperial authority of Augustus—after our great hero, Brutus, ultimus Romanorum had died, a number of the older Republicans in the state, despairing of the salvation of the country, determined, after the manner of the old Grecian colonies, to found a new state which would represent all the nobler features of ancient Roman virtue, valour, and fortitude. Our forefathers spent a year in quietly making preparations. They arranged to meet, as the narrative preserved in our archives records, at the head of the Red Sea, with 20 triremes, and a company of 400 men, 150 women, and many children. The vessels were well provisioned, and appointed with everything necessary for the foundation of a new colony. They knew they must push out into the vast unknown, beyond the confines of the known world, otherwise the greed of conquest, united to his rage at their escape, would cause Augustus to send his legions to wipe them out of existence. Therefore they resolved to go as far as possible beyond India Extra Gangem, from which ambassadors had been sent to Augustus, so much dreaded was the Roman name even there.
"The last point known to our Roman geographers, at which our fathers touched, was the Sindae Isles in the Indian Ocean. Here they heard that two ships from Brundusium had been there a few months before, and had sailed farther east. This determined them, and after laying in a great quantity of provisions, they also sailed east. After proceeding twenty days in this manner they reached the shores of a very large continent, where the inhabitants were exceedingly savage."
"Australia or New Guinea," said the Professor to me.
"Here they were about to land, but on consulting the augurs they said the gods had brought them only half-way on their journey, and that they must proceed onward for at least forty days more, when they would see their appointed home. Our fathers never doubted that the gods were guiding them, and this was proved by the fact that they were seldom out of sight of land more than a day at a time, and were enabled to take in water and fruits. On the morning of the fortieth day they came to the algae beds, which doubtless you saw, and which had well-nigh proved an insurmountable obstacle. But a flight of birds miraculously showed them the passage, down which they went fearlessly, the great Neptune himself leading the way in the shape of a large porpoise. That night our fathers reached this land. Here we have abode ever since. That is the history of the foundation of Nova Sicilia."
"What a wonderful history! And from that day to this you have quietly progressed, until you have reached the stage where we find you to-day?"
"Even so. The gods have been good. Our constitution is based on that of ancient Rome, our laws, our municipal regulations, are all based on those of Rome. We would have called our city Nova Roma, but it would have been unlucky. You will, I trust, remain with us for some time, and study our polity. We in our turn will study yours, and thus we may mutually benefit. But I beg of you when you return home not to inform the Romans of our existence."
Professor Barlow no longer attempted to remove their deeply-rooted belief in the "eternity" of the Roman power. He accepted Piso's invitation to make a stay in the city, but insisted upon returning to the vessel that night to inform Captain Anstey of what had taken place. He promised, on the following day, to call upon Piso, who offered to conduct him throughout Nova Messana.
WHEN the Professor and I reached the street, we were at once made the centre of an eager group of spectators, who walked with us as we returned to the vessel. Yet one could not help observing the innate courtesy of the people. Though their curiosity must have been intense, they did not cause us to feel its effects in any unpleasant manner, by mobbing us, or handling our clothes, as savages are apt to do.
Their attitude was most respectful. But it was easy to see they were in doubt whether to rank us as men like themselves or as sons of the gods.
We passed once more along the stately streets, Lepidus acting as our guide, and we found something to admire at almost every step. The massive architecture gleamed dazzlingly white in the glorious moonlight, while from well-nigh every house resounded the notes of music or the ripple of soft laughter.
At the top of the long tree-lined avenue leading down to the wharves Lepidus took leave of us, with stately Roman courtesy, and we pursued the remainder of our journey alone, save for the posse of the curious, who still followed us.
"My poor brother-in-law!" murmured Barlow, as we walked down the approach; "what a lonely existence he must have had amongst them. I fear he must be dead, or he would have been heard of."
"Well, Professor Barlow, I'll make one to go with you and search until we find some traces of him. I don't think he can be dead. Surely his body would have been found."
"Right, lad; you are a good fellow; you have raised my hopes again. We'll make a big effort to find some intelligence of him. These antipodean Romans seem a grand race."
"That they are, if all be true that we hear about them."
"Lepidus has given me a great deal of information regarding his nation. It appears they look upon a liar as having committed moral suicide, and no one will have anything further to do with him."
"That is a good trait. They do credit to their ancestors."
"But that little old man, with whom I was speaking, gave me the most information of all. He is a half-caste, and belongs to the native Ariutas. He is a doorkeeper in the hall."
"Dear me, what did he say?"
"He says that the New Sicilians are cold, critical, and unimpassioned. In some respects they are cruel, in others callous; but I think it is because they do not know what pity is. Yet they are just, virtuous, and noble in their lives, with all their severity. 'Crime is rare,' he said, 'and poverty is almost unknown.' They are simple in their habits, and exceedingly hospitable up to a certain limit, save to those strangers that come to spy. Several natives from Easter Island came here some weeks ago. They were kindly treated and sent home again, with a warning, however, not to return. With the aborigines of this island they are constantly at war, but as to intercourse with the outside world they have absolutely none."
"Is the island of Nova Sicilia large, did the old man inform you?" I inquired.
"Yes, larger than the original Sicily. It is wonderfully fertile, and such minerals as gold, silver, copper, lead, etc.—are to be found almost everywhere, with diamonds, rubies, sapphires, and opals in extraordinary abundance."
"It is a wonder it was never discovered before now."
The Professor shook his head, and then said in a lower tone, "There is more under that than appears. I believe the island has been discovered again and again, but that no one has returned to tell the tale."
"What do you mean?"
"Though not naturally cruel, the people here will do anything to preserve their liberty. They dread the very name of Europe. They cannot believe that the Rome of to-day is totally different from the Rome of 1800 years ago."
"Do you think they killed those who came here before from Europe?"
"Well, you saw me go over to a cabinet in the Senate Chamber and look into it. It contained curiosities. Among them, to my intense surprise, I found three suits of antique European clothes, an ancient flint-lock musket, a volume of Shakespeare dated 1736, and an old clay pipe. On asking where these came from, the Senators said, 'From the waves'. But there was a strange smile on their lips that I didn't like. My idea is, they belonged to some Englishmen who were fortunate enough, as they thought, to discover a new country, but were never allowed to leave it alive."
"But that is not like the nature of the New Sicilians."
"Far from it. Hospitality is to them an article of religious faith, but then security is the first consideration."
"Might these articles not have been found in some sailor's chest that was washed ashore?" I asked.
"It is possible, but I hardly think it probable, because they would have kept the chest also."
The Professor remained for a long time plunged in thought. In fact we were near the pier before he said:
"I don't like the look of it. We must watch, and be on our guard."
At last we reached the wharf, and on a whistle from me, Bob sent the boat across for us, and took us on board. We had so many things to relate to him that the new day was near its dawning before we separated.
When we awoke next morning and went on deck, a glorious prospect awaited us. There was the lovely city of Nova Messana basking in the sunshine, and glistening white as a pearl against the deep emerald background of the majestic range of mountains. The hills were densely wooded, all except the towering peak of the volcano; and a more charming picture than that presented by the bright blue of the bay studded with shipping, and the town stretching on all sides as far as the eye could reach, with its vineyards and olive groves, its orchards and pleasure gardens, could scarcely be conceived.
"It beats the Bay of Naples, I verily believe," cried the Professor enthusiastically. "Surely men living amid such beauties cannot be otherwise than noble."
"Are there any other towns in the island, Emilius?"
Lepidus had sent over one of his officers to know if he could be of any service to us. He was standing near, and heard the Professor's remark, at which he smiled gravely.
"O yes," answered the young officer. "There are four other seaports—Brundusium, about twenty miles along the coast; Syracusa, on the other side of the island, about sixty miles distant; and Drepanum and Bruttium, about eighty and a hundred miles respectively. We estimate the island to be about two hundred miles in circumference, and about a hundred and twenty or a hundred and thirty miles across. But the interior, though in parts thinly settled by the colonists, is in large measure held by the natives, who, by the way, are very far from being savages. In fact, there are over fifty miles of the coast-line still in their hands."
"And what is the population of the island?" I asked.
"That would be hard to answer. Messana has over 70,000 inhabitants, and the other towns less in proportion; but I should estimate the total population at not less than 400,000, exclusive of natives."
"And these absolutely unknown to the people of Europe," said the Professor. "What a treat it will be to study their customs, and note what direction their own natural development has taken!"
Emilius soon after went ashore to meet the Consul, who was to pay us a state visit that day.
The morning was but young when the shrill sound of a trumpet from the shore, where crowds had been gazing at us from the earliest hours, betokened the advance of the consul. Presently we saw Piso come down to the wharf, preceded by lictors, with their bundles of fasces, from which peeped out the heads of the axes. The party embarked on board the galley that had been our convoy on the previous evening. Evidently the consul meant that his state visit should impress us.
Captain Bob was determined that "these old-fashioned beggars should see that the world had not stood still, if they had." He therefore ordered the mate to salute the New Sicilian flag with three more discharges of cannon, and the ensign to be dipped as the galley approached.
The effect of the artillery was even more pronounced than on the previous evening. The thunder of the discharge reverberated again amongst the hills with startling echoes and re-echoes. The rowers were evidently awe-stricken, and stopped pulling, and it needed all the persuasions of the hortatores to induce them to proceed.
But Roman pride was flattered all the same. The Consul, as he stepped from the galley on board the Fitzroy, was graciously pleased to observe to the Professor that the Republic would be pleased to enter into an alliance with a state whose representatives were ready to show the flag of Nova Sicilia so much honour.
The Professor bowed low to hide his smile of amusement. Piso was evidently much impressed with what he saw on board the Fitzroy, but when he heard that it was but a cockle-boat compared with some of the warships in the British navy, he appeared to think the travellers were, vulgarly speaking, "talking tall." He replied with haughty assurance, that even the Roman Republic in the Second Punic War accounted a quinquereme a very large vessel.
The Professor chanced to have some illustrated descriptions of the British navy, showing the Inflexible, the Galatea, and the Glatton in full fighting trim.
On seeing them, Piso was astonished, and after remaining silent, said:
"But these vessels have no sails, and they all seem on fire."
"Oh dear, no! they are moving through the water by steam at about 20,000 paces in the hour."
"By steam?—our friend Joannes Websterius tried to explain that to us. I am aware that a steam-engine was at work in the Serapeum, in Alexandria, in the days of the divine Julius and the divine Augustus, but how can these little machines move an immense vessel like that?"
The Professor thereupon had to explain the principle to Piso and his friends. As Captain Bob had in his cabin some small models of locomotives, and engines of various kinds, Barlow and he demonstrated by these the uses to which steam had been put.
Piso was electrified. The purpose of his visit was all forgotten. He hung on the words of Captain Anstey and the Professor, ever and anon turning to Lepidus:
"Joannes was right, and we thought he was only a clever dreamer."
In fact, before the subject of the steamers was exhausted, the day was far spent, and dinner was announced. Captain Bob insisted on the Consul remaining. The lictors were therefore dismissed, and Piso, in his unofficial capacity, dined for the first time at a European board. Here a succession of surprises again awaited him. In place of the triclinia, or couches, there were seats, and the diners, instead of reclining at meals, sat on chairs. The dishes, too, puzzled him. The pea-soup he recognized, and the salt meat, but the "lobscouse" or "sea-pie" was beyond him, as was also the "plum-duff."
There was something infinitely ludicrous to my mind in the sight of a representative of the civilization which had been in vogue at the Christian era, gravely sitting down beside us and discussing the dishes one reads about in Horace and Tibullus, Caesar and Livy. He was not partial to our European drinks. The mild wines of Nova Sicilia had not prepared his palate for the fiery terrors of Scotch whisky, or the subtle strength of Henessey's "Three Star" brandy. His Massic and Falernian and Caecuban—how it thrilled one to hear the names of which Horace used to sing in the great days of the Caesars—were all he had been accustomed to. Piso was a great admirer of Horace and of Virgil, but referred in his conversation to many other authors, of whom we moderns had only heard the names. Perhaps it was our stronger liquors which excited him; but after dinner, when we commenced smoking, a habit which, in its utter meaninglessness, filled him with wonder, he began to ask once more about Rome. Of course, Rome stood where it was, he knew that, and was the capital of Italy, he knew that fact also, what else would it be? But he had never realized that the Rome of to-day could be other than the Rome of his fathers, whereof he had read in their archives the records of its grandeur and its power. He had heard what we said the previous evening, but he could not realize its truth. Was not Rome still the mistress of the world, still the centre of art, literature, culture, and civilization? he asked eagerly, evidently anticipating an answer in the affirmative.
His face was a study when Professor Barlow, opening an atlas, showed him first the Europe and then the Italy of to-day. He then once more informed him that the Rome of his fathers, the Rome that was mistress of the world, had long since passed away.
Piso sprang to his feet and gazed at us all keenly. I believe he imagined we were still in league to deceive him. But the evidence we adduced was more than sufficient to convince even so prejudiced a mind as his.
"Does not Rome still exist?" he asked hurriedly.
"Yes, most certainly, she still exists."
"Has she ever for a single year ceased to exist?"
"Never, from the days of Romulus until now."
"Then how could she lose her power? how could she be changed? how could it be that she no longer ruled the world as of yore?" he asked indignantly.
"Her people lost the justice, the sense of right, the love of truth, the valour, and the simplicity that had made them great. The very things your ancestors disliked to see, and preferred to leave their country rather than endure, spread over the whole of Italy. They ate out all that was grand in the character of a Roman. The Romans became luxurious, vicious, cruel, and tyrannical, until the very nations they had conquered and despised, rose up in turn and conquered them."
"And our language?"
"Is now a dead or unspoken language, familiar only to the learned."
A deep groan broke from Piso. His emotion was pitiable to witness. His features were working convulsively. Large tears were standing in his eyes. We were witnessing the death of a Roman's pride of race.
"Proceed," he said in husky tones.
"It is now more than 1400 years since the Gauls and other tribes rose up against Rome and brought it to its doom."
"But when the men of that day saw the evils which they were bringing on themselves, why did they not stop and revert to the simplicity of the age of the Scipios, or Cato, or grand old Cincinnatus? Why did not the rulers of the time cut out the cancer from the manners of the people?"
"The vice had eaten too deeply into the life of the people. The grand old name of Roman had no longer any power to charm. The emperors were the most vicious men of the time, and it was largely owing to their vices that Rome became what it did—a byword of reproach for all that was vile."
"But the old Roman valour—"
"Was gone for ever. The Romans themselves lost the ability to fight. They hired the conquered tribes to fight for them, and gradually the latter got the upper hand, until Rome was thrice taken and sacked by them."
"Rome taken and sacked," groaned Piso, striking his forehead with his hand. "O my fatherland, my fatherland!—disgraced and dishonoured—would that we had been there to have fought for thee," and, burying his face in his hands, Piso sobbed aloud.
The Professor endeavoured to console him, but the Consul would accept no sympathy. His sole cry, when any such attempt was made was, "Carthago, Carthago, thou art terribly avenged!" And with these words on his lips he re-entered the galley, which had returned for him after putting the lictors on shore, and insisted on being conveyed to the Senate House as rapidly as possible. Such terrible news as that he had just learned was not capable of being borne alone. Their pride and their glory had fallen. The Rome of their dreams had never had any existence.
And thus, 1400 years after Rome fell, its fell was mourned by a colony far beyond the limits of the Roman world, of whose existence the haughty senators on the banks of the Tiber had heard no mention.
As Piso went down into his galley, weeping bitterly the while, old Job the boatswain happened to be standing by the rope-ladder down which the Consul descended.
"Shiver my timbers!—wot's up with the old bloke. He's a-turned on the waterworks and no mistake," said the old man to me.
"He's weeping for the fall of his country—the country that his fathers belonged to in Europe, I mean."
Job shook his head meditatively. "How long ago is it sin' that ere fall 'appened, sir?"
"About 1400 years, Job."
"About what?" shouted the old boatswain.
"About 1400 years," I replied gravely.
"Well, I'll be jiggered!—'ere's a bloke a-blubberin' like a bloomin' baby for a thing that 'appened fourteen 'unner years ago—s'elp me, wot'll we see nixt, some blazin' old buffer a-'owlin' over old Father Adam an' the happle: s'elp me, but it's a rummy part o' the world this 'ere;" and Job, turning over his quid with a philosophic shake of his head, hitched up his nether garments and lounged away to find his crony, Sandy Robb, to whom he might confide the account of the wonderful spectacle he had witnessed of a man weeping as if his heart would break over an event that occurred 1400 years ago.
THAT evening we were startled by hearing sounds resembling the most agonizing wails and moans proceeding from nearly every quarter of the city. We were utterly at a loss to imagine what the reason of the noises could be. In the dusk of the fast-approaching tropical night we could see figures flitting hither and thither, carrying lanterns in their hands. But the wharves were deserted, although but a few hours previously they had been crowded with figures, eagerly watching every movement on board the vessel.
To Professor Barlow the matter presented itself in the light of a scientific problem that had to be solved at all costs.
"I cannot conceive what it means. The sounds are like nothing I ever heard," he said, with a puzzled expression.
"Could any great religious ceremony be going on?" I suggested.
"Don't you think we should have heard more stir about it during the day?" replied Barlow.
"Humph!" growled Captain Bob. "You never can tell what these out-of-the-way fellows are up to. Who knows but they may be preparing some hostile demonstration against us. It's bad policy to sleep with both eyes in an unknown country."
At this moment a small boat shot out from one of the western wharves, with the evident intention of proceeding across to one on the eastern side of the bay. As it had to pass under our bows, the Professor hailed the two men who were seated in it, and asked them what was going on in the city. For a few minutes they were so much astonished at being hailed in their own tongue from the mysterious vessel, that they were unable to reply. That they were terrified was evident, for, as we heard afterwards, the lower classes in the city regarded our artillery as undeniable proof of our divine origin.
The Professor had to repeat his question before he received a reply. Then one of them, bolder than his fellow, shouted, "We are mourning the fall of our mother-city Rome, which the barbarians have destroyed." Immediately thereafter they rowed away with all speed, as if amazed at their own temerity.
For some time we looked at one another in dumb amazement at the very idea of an entire colony lamenting an event which had happened 1400 years ago. However, it afforded us a vivid insight into the pride of race engrained in the nature of the New Sicilians, diluted though it had been through centuries of time.
"Upon my word, I'd like to see their ceremonies," said the Professor. "What do you say if we go ashore?"
"Don't, Professor; be thankful you have got back safely," replied the mate hurriedly.
"But what is the danger, Mr. Rodgers? You are continually throwing out vague hints. What do they all mean?"
"Ah! but that's more than I can tell, Professor. I have only suspicions to go on, but they are pretty deeply rooted."
"And yet you admit yourself they are a fine, noble, manly race."
"That's all true, sir," replied the mate earnestly. "They are as noble a set of fellows as you could wish to meet. But since we came here I've found out from Emilius, who had learned to speak a few sentences of English from your brother-in-law, that the common people have one deep-seated prejudice, and that is against foreigners. They can be kind and hospitable enough, but I honestly believe they fear lest foreigners should bring some power from Europe to wrest their country from them. Love of their native land seems a craze with them."
"Humph! there's something in that certainly; but I can't see what danger we should run."
"Won't the minds of the lower orders of the population be excited over the intelligence of the fall of Rome? It seems ridiculous to us, but it doubtless is terribly real to them, for Rome was their paradise, apparently. Won't the lower classes, when they hear that Rome was destroyed by barbarians, class us all in the same category, and take their revenge?" said Captain Anstey thoughtfully.
"Anstey, I must see those ceremonies. I may never have such a chance again. We'll go armed. You'll come also, Markham," continued the Professor, turning to me.
I eagerly assented, but Captain Bob and Rodgers both shook their heads, the former adding:
"I had better stick by the ship, Professor. Without flattering myself, it might be awkward if anything happened to me, for that would leave our friend Rodgers, here, single-handed."
"All right, Captain, do as you think best; but let's get away, Markham, as soon as possible."
And so it came about that the Professor and I were once more to assume the rôle of explorers.
We took with us a small revolver apiece, and then, arranging that the boat should be sent ashore for us when I sounded my ship's whistle, we descended into a dinghy and were pulled over to the main or central wharf.
Around the wharves the vast warehouses and stores, built of white marble and rising to a height of five and six stories, gleamed ghostly white in the moonlight. But not a figure did we see near them. All was silent. Once more we traversed the tree-lined avenue leading up from the waterside, and gained the Via Marcella, the main thoroughfare of the city, which communicated with the Forum. Along this street a few pedestrians were hurrying towards the marketplace, which evidently was the rendezvous for all the citizens.
To that place we directed our steps. The scene that met our gaze was a remarkable one. The immense square of the Forum was literally packed with people, all intent upon the ceremony that was being transacted at the farther end. There, on a raised platform in front of the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, stood a large number of white-robed priests surrounding the Pontifex Maximus, or High Priest, who was offering propitiatory sacrifices to the god. Round the platform stood crowds of professional mourners, who beat their breasts, threw dust upon their heads, and rolled on the ground to evince the intensity of their sorrow. These had been the cries we heard on board the Fitzroy. Then all became silent as a new phase of the ceremonies was entered upon.
The scene was a weird one. The spectators all carried torches. The façades of the noble buildings flanking each side of the square were literally in a blaze of illumination, not as a sign of joy, but of grief. Amongst the multitude were people of all ages, ranks, and conditions, standing silent and mournful, watching the priests. Not a sound broke the terrible stillness save a soft sigh, as of summer zephyrs passing through a grove of aspens at eventide, when the High Priest referred to the fell of Rome. One after another the black oxen on which were laid the offences of the people against their gods were slaughtered, and then burnt on the altars; the attendant priests meantime ceaselessly maintaining a low chant, which Professor Barlow whispered to me was the ancient hymn of the Fratres Arvales, dating back to the ancient days of the Sabines and Etruscans.
By quietly edging ourselves through the crowd, who were too much engrossed with their religious rites to pay much attention to us, we had been able to advance pretty close to the platform whereon the sacrifices were being performed. At a little distance from us, surrounded by his lictors and the soldiers of the Second Legion, stood Piso the Consul, attended by many of the senators. Among so many persons attired in the flowing toga and wearing no head-covering, our European garb and ship's caps soon attracted the attention of the priests. I noticed that the Pontifex Maximus eyed us very intently all through the ceremony, until the time came when the priestly curse had to be pronounced on those who had occasioned Rome's downfall. The Pontifex pronounced it, gazing at us the while, until he came to the words, "Accursed, thrice accursed be ye," when he raised his hand and pointed directly towards us.
In an instant a terrible tumult arose, and for some moments it seemed as though we were to be torn to pieces. A hundred hands seemed to be laid on us, and the cry arose, "To the Tarpeian Rock!" whence we should have been cast into the sea below, a sheer drop of seven or eight hundred feet. In vain did Piso, after an angry expostulation addressed to the Pontiff, order the legionaries to proceed to our rescue. They positively could not reach us through the dense struggling mass. At that moment I managed to draw my revolver, and raising it above my head, fired thrice into the air. The effect was marvellous. The crowd fell away from us on every side like the retiring waves of the sea, leaving a clear space, in the centre of which we stood. The legionaries themselves were daunted, but their leader rallied them, and they flung danger. He promptly despatched the boat with a heavily-armed crew under the command of Job Simpson, whose instructions were to fire at the crowd only as a last resource; but, if need arose, to fire over their heads as much as he liked to intimidate them. Accordingly, while we were embarking, and the legionaries were hard put to it to keep the crowd from following us down the wharf steps, Job ordered his men to fire a volley into the air, which had the effect of sending our pursuers scampering up the approach leading to the wharves as if all the fiends in Hades were after them. All very well was it to laugh when we were out of the wood, but our escape was rather too narrow to be pleasant.
"I tell you what, Professor, this business is a little too hot for peace-loving people like ourselves," said Anstey, after we had got safely on board.
"Oh! it was all due to the high priest," I retorted quickly.
"We were watching the sacrifices when the high priest actually pointed at us as the authors of the misfortune which had overtaken Rome. Of course the people were maddened and irritated, and their sentimental patriotism took fire at once. Had Markham not fired his revolver, and thus created a diversion, which enabled the legionaries to reach us, I fear we should not have been here to tell you the story."
"Good Heavens! what a set of wretches, to assault unoffending strangers! They deserve punishment," cried Anstey.
"Nay, nay," interposed the Professor. "The people are not to blame. The high priest is the cause of all. He evidently has a deep-seated hatred against all foreigners, and would slaughter every one of us if he could."
"Humph! it strikes me the sooner we get out of this hole the better," growled Captain Bob.
"Right! If my advice is worth anything, I would say the same," said the mate.
"What! and lose such an opportunity as this for the study of the customs of this mysterious people? Not a bit. This dislike of us will soon cool down. Piso and the best men in the Senate don't share in it. They are our friends. The old priest's enmity to us cannot last for ever. I could not leave the place without learning more about it. Besides, can we leave the fate of my brother-in-law uncertain? I must go into the Cave of Gems."
Rodgers turned away with a sigh and shook his head. The rest of us were conversing on the poop regarding the situation when we saw a small galley leave the wharf, and come directly towards us with great speed. To our surprise our friend Lepidus was standing on its deck. The little craft was not long in reaching us, and soon Lepidus stood amongst us.
"The consul and the high priest both regret what has happened to-night," said Lepidus, after the preliminary greetings were over, "and they have sent me to assure you that the Pontifex meant nothing towards you personally when he extended his hand in your direction."
"But he pointed at us," cried the Professor indignantly.
"That was only by accident, and he is deeply distressed over the occurrence. He would have come over himself, but is detained by the special sacrifices to Castor and Pollux that last throughout the night."
For a time the Professor seemed inclined to make more of the insult than would have been advisable if he wished afterwards to remain on friendly terms with the people. But presently his desire to learn something more regarding this extraordinary race prevailed over every other consideration, and soon Lepidus departed with the assurance that the occurrence would not be allowed to interfere with the friendly relations that had hitherto prevailed between the New Sicilians and ourselves.
ABOUT a mile from the promontory constituting the right arm of the bay, at the head of which stood Nova Messana, and at a distance of perhaps two miles from our anchorage, lay a small island, densely wooded, but from the top of whose precipitous sides peeped the ruined walls of what seemed an ancient castle. As we could not visit the town for a day or two, we determined to explore the little island. Accordingly, taking with us provisions for at least a day and a night, and each arming himself with his revolver, the Professor, Anstey, and I, accompanied by two sailors, started early one morning, before the smoke rising from Nova Messana had announced that the citizens had awakened to the labours and the cares of another day. We rowed leisurely across to the island, whose sides, as we approached, appeared more and more precipitous and unscalable. At last we discovered a little cove which seemed to have answered the purposes of a landing-place, because at its upper end we observed the remains of an ancient stone pier and a wooden wharf. But as far as we could see, no vessels had discharged cargo at the island for many a long year, nor did it appear inhabited.
We succeeded in effecting a landing, and ascended the path leading from the sea. Presently we reached the remains of a considerable township or village. But still no inhabitants. The houses, some of them in good preservation, appeared to have been long deserted. The first of them we entered, but only to start back in horror and surprise. There, facing us was a bleached skeleton, lying on the remains of what had once been a bed. Evidences of wealth and refinement lay scattered around, golden drinking-cups, platters and goblets, jewels of enormous value, and rich stuffs, and cloth of gold—mouldering away, evidently through sheer lapse of time. In the next house the same terrible spectacle presented itself What could the mystery mean?
"Blow my buttons, but these 'ere blokes seem terrible gone on skellingtons," muttered the redoubtable Job, after we had visited one or two other houses, only to find the same inexplicable phenomenon, and with it similar evidences of wealth and almost ostentatious display of splendour. Sometimes the bodies were those of males, sometimes of females, sometimes they were lying on beds, at other times on the floors. Sometimes portions of their frames seemed to have dropped off, in others they were lacking altogether. It was after we had observed this peculiarity in one or two instances that I noticed an anxious puzzled look pass over the Professor's features. He then directed our steps towards a large building which stood at a little distance from the others, and seemed, from its size, to be of some importance. As we entered it we all experienced the same shrinking dread of some horrible revelation about to be unfolded. We were not deceived. Scarcely had we passed the threshold than noisome odours assailed our nostrils. We turned into a large lofty room lined with low beds, one or two of which seemed to bear a ghastly burden. From one of the beds near the door a feeble cry came, and we saw "something," from which portions of hands, feet, ears, and nose had rotted away, roll on the floor, and, holding out its maimed hands, entreat compassion. It was all that remained of the figure of a man.
"Leprosy!" cried the Professor in horror; "we are in a lazaretto."
The effect produced upon us was terrible. Though leprosy had been more common in Australia than in England, where there are no Chinese communities, still none of us had been brought into contact with anything like this. It was an appalling proof of the prevalence of the disease among the New Sicilians.
But if the realization of his surroundings had startled the Professor for a moment, the feeble cry of the lonely sufferer recalled him to a sense of his duties. "Aqua, aqua," moaned the hideous "Life-in-Death" at our feet.
"We must assist him. Something has happened unexpectedly, otherwise he would not have been so terribly neglected," said Barlow rapidly. Then, turning to me, he said: "Fill that can with water from the tank standing outside, then go and get some of those broad palm-leaves on the trees near the gate." I did so, and returned with several. "Now bind them over my hands and place my handkerchief in my mouth. There, that will do. Leprosy is contagious, but not infectious; ordinary precautions are sufficient to guard against danger."
When I returned with the can of water, he poured a little of the liquid into a wine-cup, and, adding some whisky, he held it to the lips of the poor leper, who drank eagerly. Then the Professor, stooping, raised the maimed frame and laid it gently upon the bed. After receiving some bread soaked in the whisky, the leper, who had been literally dying of thirst and starvation, was able to talk, and in reply to the Professor's questions, explained that the island had for centuries been the refuge for those afflicted with leprosy in Nova Sicilia. Some years before, in consequence of a severe famine that had raged in the country, and when food was scarce and poor in quantity, the cases of leprosy had enormously increased, particularly among the lower classes. All without distinction were sent to the island, and a strict quarantine maintained. Once every fortnight a galley came across to the island with food and supplies for the sufferers; while two of the town doctors also visited them to alleviate, if possible, the anguish of their torments. A painless death through a subtle drug called letifolium was always offered them, but only in few instances had it been accepted. Life was dear even to those whose torments were so great.
The leper added that it had been the custom for those amongst them who were better in health than the others to assist the latter, and to cook for them. The inmates of the island had, however, been reduced to three, and but two days before, the two other sufferers, who had ministered to him, had been drowned by the capsizing of the boat while fishing in the cove, and of course he had been unable to assist them. He had managed to crawl back to his bed in the hospital, where lay the unburied corpses of the two others, whom the survivors had been unable to bury. He was lying praying for death when he heard our footsteps. The galley was due in two days more. He begged us to leave him food and water sufficient for his needs until then.
"My poor fellow, we'll do all we can to help you," said the Professor warmly. "Markham, you'll help me, I know, to convey these two bodies to some other place, so that our friend here may be freed from their presence."
I assented at once, but as in the hospital there was the same noisome odour we had experienced on entering, in place of moving the bodies whence, we carried the living man to one of the houses close by, where he could see the medical officers when they arrived.
We then made our patient as comfortable as circumstances would permit, leaving him a supply of whisky diluted with water, and bread steeped in it, which he could easily masticate with his toothless gums. We promised also to communicate with the shore, so that a boat might be sent off to his assistance.
Then we beat a hasty retreat. Not a minute too soon, for both Job Simpson and his fellow-seaman, as well as Captain Anstey, were beginning to look, as the skipper said, "very white about the gills" through being so long associated with such a scene of horror.
On leaving the cove we rowed round the island as though we were only taking a morning's excursion. Fortunately we were not perceived until we were almost within hail of the vessel.
"No more of such expeditions for me, Professor," said Anstey, as we clambered up the side of the Fitzroy.
"My dear skipper, if we hadn't gone across, that poor fellow would have perished by the most awful of deaths, from hunger and thirst."
That of course was true, but it was many a long day before the impression produced by the terrible scenes we had beheld on the island of "Life-in-Death" lost their power to produce a shudder of horror in me whenever they were recalled.
That afternoon we were again honoured by a visit from the centurion Lepidus, to whom Professor Barlow communicated the intelligence that when we had been taking a sail round the bay that morning, we had been hailed from the little island, and requested by a man who appeared to be all alone there, to inform the authorities on shore that he was urgently in need of help.
"The island—why, that is the Island of Death—you surely did not land there!" cried Lepidus, springing to his feet with alarm written on every feature.
"Land—there—why, what should we do landing there?" replied the Professor, wearing a most innocent expression of countenance; "what is on the island?"
Lepidus betrayed confusion when the question was put to him. He then answered, "We do not like to refer to it, but for a great many years past that is where we have had to send our lepers. No one, save our doctors, has set foot there for many a long day, and they use the greatest precautions when they do so."
"But leprosy is not infectious. I have handled many lepers without any evil results accruing."
Lepidus shook his head. "I will send over a boat in the morning. We have three other cases to be taken across, and our doctors have to make their annual report this visit. I am glad you did not land, as, if you did, the people of the town would shun you like a pestilence."
After he retired I fear we rather laughed over the trepidation of poor Lepidus. Well it was we did not know the consequences our visit to the island was to produce.
Early next morning the port watch reported that a galley had gone over to the island, and after some hours' delay we saw it returning. We observed those on board looking at us very curiously as the vessel passed, rapidly propelled by her long sweeps.
That night two of our sailors obtained permission to go ashore in order to obtain a supply of fresh water. They had made three trips to and from the shore, when, to our surprise, we saw an officer with a small detachment of legionaries come down to where the men were working and order them back to the ship. At first the sailors did not seem inclined to comply, but on seeing the soldiers preparing to use force, they hurriedly completed the filling of their casks, and returned to us. Anstey interrogated them over the incident.
"Blowed if I knowed a word o' their lingo, but they kep' pintin' to the hiland yonder, and the gent in the tin hat looked so bloomin' ugly at us that we thought it wos time to clear out."
"I'll be bound they have heard of our visit to the island, and wish to quarantine us," said the Professor, grimly.
"Humph! it's a blue look-out for us if they do."
"Because we want fresh provisions, and water, and heaps of things," replied Anstey. "Only a quarter of our casks are filled, and our condenser works so slowly it wouldn't keep us going in drinking water, far less what is needed for cooking."
The Professor looked grave.
"We must discover some means to break down their antipathy to us. I am longing to see Piso, and to get him to take me to the Cave of Gems."
During the next two or three days we remained cooped up on board the vessel, directing longing glances the while towards the shore, but precluded from setting foot on it.
At last, however, the Professor became impatient. He declared he would stand the confinement no longer. He stated his intention of going on shore that night, and invited the skipper and myself to accompany him.
"I tell you, I don't like leaving the vessel at present, Professor; but Markham and you can go again, although I don't think it's wise policy at all."
"But we can't remain like prisoners here; we must try to break down their antipathy against us. I don't ask you to go with us, Anstey, but I certainly intend to explore the coast-line to-night, if I possibly can."
Captain Anstey said no more. He considered that the Professor and I were recklessly rushing on our doom. The prospect, however, was too tempting for me to think of declining it, and that night, when all seemed quiet in Nova Messana, we descended into a boat, and rowed quickly shorewards. Both the Professor and myself were heavily armed, and we each carried a blue light to burn in case of extreme emergency.
AN element of excitement entered into our expedition. We did not know the lengths to which the inhabitants of Nova Sicilia might be inclined to proceed in their opposition to us. If captured, death might be our portion, for we were both well aware of the horror which the disease of leprosy aroused in the minds of those who had not carefully studied its symptoms. Our position rendered caution indispensable. Therefore, after leaving the neighbourhood of the wharves, we skirted the coast-line, examining each building as we passed it. The road ran parallel with the shore the whole length of the bay, and while entirely open to seaward, was, on its landward side, flanked by noble edifices—now a warehouse, now a temple, then a gladiatorial school, and a course for chariot races—each building massive, substantial, and imposing.
Of pedestrians we met but few. The night was dark; our garb was not very different from that of the Sicilians, for we both wore close-fitting skull-caps, which, in the dim light, were entirely invisible. One or two of those we encountered looked at us for a moment, then turned away indifferently, but the majority took not the slightest notice of us.
We at length reached a large, fine-looking structure situate about a mile from the wharves. This we proposed to visit. Entrance to it was obtained by a narrow road, which, passing under an archway, led us along a short avenue lined with shrubs resembling cypresses, to the front of the building. We noticed when we reached the doorway that there were no windows in the façade, and that it presented to us one unbroken front, only relieved here and there by fake pilasters, between which were niches for statuary.
"It strikes me we have dropped across one of their columbaria, or receptacles for holding the ashes of their dead, like the one which exists in the Via Appia in Rome, which belonged to Livia, the wife of Augustus," said the Professor musingly.
"Shall we enter?" I asked doubtingly.
"Of course; we may never have such a chance again," replied Barlow eagerly. "The door is open. I have brought a dark lantern with me."
We therefore entered, but had not proceeded far into the building when we found our progress barred by another door, which was fastened, and resisted all our efforts to open it. We were about to retire in disappointment, when we observed the fastenings to be on the outside, making it an easy matter for us to obtain entrance. We were not long in doing so, and took the precaution of securing the door after us on the inside. To our surprise, when we had traversed a short passage, which brought us into an immense circular chamber, we found the latter dimly lighted by myriads of little lamps. The interior resembled the ancient Scriptoria of the monasteries, being honeycombed with niches exactly like large pigeon-holes. Many of these were sealed up and had a tablet in front of them, whereon was inscribed the name of the deceased whose ashes were inclosed in the cinerary urns within.
In some cases the slabs sealing up the niches had become broken, or had decayed from sheer age, and exposed the urns inside. Many of them were of pure gold adorned with jewels, others of stone. In all, the workmanship and artistic finish were exquisite.
The ashes of thousands of persons were evidently resting in this silent and sacred edifice. Many were the touching tributes of parents to children, of children to parents, of wives to husbands, and husbands to wives, that met our gaze. Nor were they unlike what one commonly notices in the present day. "Oh, Metella!" sighed one young lover, "the light of my life has gone out since the light died out of your eyes." "Oh, Sulpicius," wailed a fond wife, "how can I endure life without you?" "Little Quintus, we shall no more listen to thy charming baby prattle. Vale, oh, carissime," mourned a broken-hearted pair over their first-born. And so on. But why increase the catalogue of sorrows? Have we not the same records daily meeting us here? Sorrow over death is the one catholic emotion wherein all ages, races, and civilizations join hands in mournful unity.
While we were talking and noting here and there inscriptions of more than ordinary interest, to our surprise we heard voices approaching along one of the passages which ran off in various directions from the principal chamber. These passages were also filled with niches. We listened a moment, and heard a soft female voice pleading in piteous tones for life. As we did not wish to be discovered as yet, we also stepped down another of the passages, and concealed ourselves.
Scarcely had we done so when we were astonished to see two ruffians enter, dragging with them a maiden of surpassing beauty. From what I could overhear, it appeared she had been very ill, and was believed to have died. The body had, therefore, been given over to the crematory functionaries to be reduced to ashes. Just when they were about to begin, life once more made itself manifest, and before the astonished attendants were aware, the girl had revived. As they had already received the money for her cremation, they did not relish the idea of returning it, and therefore were going to put this beyond a doubt by slaughtering the unfortunate girl in cold blood.
"But why kill me?" she pleaded in agonized tones. "Take me to my friends, and they will reward you."
"Oh, we know a little too much for that! They would demand back the money they gave us, and we should get nothing for our trouble," retorted one of the ruffians.
"Oh, have you no pity? Take me home, and I swear to you, by the faith of Minerva, that you shall be richly rewarded."
"We prefer to keep the reward we have," said the other scoundrel with a brutal leer.
"Oh, spare me, and I will go away and let you keep the money! I will let my parents think I am dead; spare me, and no one will ever know I am not dead." The beauty and grace of the maiden would have melted many a heart, but these men were of stone.
"Come on—we are wasting time—give her a stab with your knife, Tatius, and it'll be all over in a moment."
"Help, help!" shrieked the girl, in the vain hope that her cries might pierce the walls of this terrible chamber of the dead. "Oh, Juno—Mother of Heaven, save me!"
In another instant the Professor and I had thrown ourselves on the villains, who, taken by surprise and evidently considering us unearthly visitants, dropped terror-stricken to the ground. I fear I was guilty of striking men that were down, so maddened was I with their cruelty. They would carry certain marks with them to their grave as the result of that night's rencontre.
Meantime the girl was gazing upon us entranced, believing we had appeared in answer to her prayers. When I went forward to her she would have thrown herself at my feet. But, restraining her, I took off my long cloak and threw it over her, thus preventing her from contracting a chill from the damp night air.
Presently the Professor, after he had securely fettered the two men, returned to us, and asked the girl her name and where she lived.
"My father is a senator, and I belong to the Cornelian gens; my name is Cornelia, and my father's is Tullus Cornelius Stolo, brother-in-law to Piso the Consul. We live in the Via Saluberrima. But who are ye, my deliverers?—are ye men or gods?"
"Men, my dear child," said the Professor kindly; "we are of a like nature to yourself. We chanced to be here when these villains entered with you, and were in time to save you."
I fear the look poor Cornelia cast upon us was of a much more reverential nature than either the Professor or I deserved.
"Some of my clothing is on the bier whereon I was brought here. Ah! I remember!—I was sick—sick unto death. I recollect feeling as though I were really dying, and my poor parents must have thought I was so."
"Think no more of it," cried the Professor cheerily. "Many cases happen like that: it is only a swoon or trance; you will be well and strong now, I have no fear. Come, and we will go with you to get the remainder of your clothing, and when you have dressed we'll talk over what is to be done."
But Cornelia had scarcely donned her robes again when we heard the sound of many voices talking in front of the columbarium, and then the door was violently shaken. In the silence that followed we distinctly overheard a voice say: "I tell you, I saw them with my own eyes go in there. I sent Plautus on to summon you, and I remained to watch."
Then a second voice replied: "But what could they want there? They were over at Leper Island a day or two ago."
"Want there! why, they say some of these barbarians eat human flesh. They are harpies. You remember the body of Cornelia, the daughter of Cornelias Stolo, was to have been burned to-night. Here is her brother. That is what attracted them, I suppose," added a third voice.
"Nonsense! these men are more like gods than men. What would they want eating dead bodies? You are fools!" rejoined a voice, evidently of some one in authority.
"But Tatius and Spurius should be there at the crematory; why do they not come and open? Ho, Tatius!—Tatius!—Spurius, ho!"
The Professor, drawing himself up to his full height, and seizing his lantern, strode down the passage, and, throwing open the door, flashed the light over the sea of faces in front of him, demanding in stentorian tones, "What do you want with me?"
For several moments a dead silence prevailed amongst the crowd. Then a voice replied, "What are you doing there?"
"Come inside and I will show you what my companion and I have been doing," said the Professor, as he turned back and strode once more into the columbarium. In a few seconds the place was filled with an eager crowd. They were stupefied to see standing before them, at my side, the girl who, they believed, had died a day or two before. Distinctly I heard one of the men say to his neighbour, "They are gods come down to earth, and they have raised her from the dead."
Amongst the crowd was the brother of Cornelia, who, after gazing upon her for a few moments in speechless amazement, rushed forward towards her with the cry, "Cornelia, carissima, can it be really you?"
And Cornelia, running to meet him, fell upon his bosom and burst into tears. But her emotion only lasted for a short space. Raising herself from his arms she pointed to us and cried, "Ah! Julius, I should never have been here had it not been for those good men."
The crowd, impressed by her manner, fell back mutely towards the walls of the columbarium as Cornelia, pointing to the two wretches that lay bound at our feet, proceeded to relate her story. When she finished, a howl of rage rose from the ring of listeners: "Away with such brutes!" "Kill the villains!" "I never did like Tatius and Spurius: they were always cold-blooded." "Down with them!" were amongst the expressions that broke from the crowd.
Julius, advancing towards us, and holding out his hands to us, said: "Ah! friends, you little know how great a burden of sorrow you have lifted from our household. May Jupiter and Minerva everlastingly preserve you! May your paths ever be fortunate, and may the sun of your prosperity never set!"
"My dear young friend, we have done nothing. We simply came in here to visit the columbarium, and while we were here those scoundrels attempted to murder your sister, whom the night air had revived from her trance."
But Julius shook his head, and with tears in his eyes he knelt at our feet. "You say that because you do not wish to be troubled with our gratitude. You are the beloved of the gods. Whatsoever you ask they will do, even to sending the thunder of Jupiter. Ah! be not so hard-hearted as to prevent my revered father from thanking you in person."
"My dear lad, we must get back to our friends. They will be anxious about us. We merely came to take a walk. It is now very late."
"Then turn back with us to the city," pleaded the lad; and Cornelia joined her voice with his in entreating us.
"I fear we cannot go," I urged in substantiation of the Professor's refusal.
Suddenly an elderly man, who stood in the front row of the onlookers, said: "These good men ought to return with us, otherwise what evidence have we to convict Tatius and Spurius?" and the crowd, with their Roman sense of justice, murmured an approval.
"I see we'll have to go or give offence, and that is not wise," whispered the Professor to me; then, turning to Julius, he said: "In those circumstances we will go."
Our decision was received with great approval. The company filed out of the columbarium, leading Tatius and Spurius with them; torches were lighted, and we began to return to the city. But not by way of the coast road. At a little distance from the columbarium ran a cross-road, which conducted one directly from the coast into the Forum. Hence we were but a short time on our journey. Julius and Cornelia walked by our side conversing with us, while there was a struggle amongst the others as to who should have the honour of journeying along with us. How easily popular passions are swayed!
Just when we were approaching the mansion of Stolo we met the old senator himself, along with Piso his brother-in-law, hurrying to meet us. Some one had gone ahead and broken the news, and as the houses of Stolo and Piso were almost contiguous, to arouse the one was to arouse the other.
The brothers-in-law were in a painful state of excitement. They could not believe the news of Cornelia's resurrection. Nay, it was not until she had thrown herself into their arms, almost hysterical with joy, that they could credit the fact. That it was a miracle, and we the workers of it, they seemed to have no doubt. Presently the old senator, having tenderly embraced his daughter thus rendered "back from the dead," turned to us, and, raising his hand to heaven, he thanked the gods that they had sent their messengers to earth to achieve so beneficent a work. Then he laid his hand first upon my head, and afterwards upon Barlow's, blessing us despite all our disclaimers, and vowing sacrifices innumerable in thanksgiving.
Nor was Piso less slow to show his gratitude. Nothing would do but we must enter the house of Stolo and drink one cup of wine. As for Tatius and Spurius, his wrath towards them was terrible. Calling one of the guards that by night and by day watched the consular dwelling, "Take them," he said, "and place them in the hold in the Leontian prison. On the morrow I will deal with them as they deserve;" and so the two wretches were dragged away, and we saw them no more.
Considering the unseasonable hour of the night, we would only consent to enter the atrium of Stolo's house for a few minutes. Only one or two intimate friends were present besides ourselves, Cornelia having been hurried away to receive the embraces of her mother. Presently a slave entered with the wine-mixers—jars wherein water and wine were mingled in equal proportions—the New Sicilians following the example of their Latin ancestors in never drinking the wine undiluted.
After we had each been presented with a cup of Falernian, which for all the world resembled sweet Madeira, the Professor rose, and in a little speech congratulated Stolo on the recovery of his daughter. The senator, although somewhat surprised, made a dignified and affecting reply, wherein he reiterated his undying gratitude to us for our action in the matter: "The gods, who keep you in the hollow of their hand, may yet enable me to evince it in some way."
Thereafter we insisted on returning to the vessel. Stolo and Piso both intimated their intention of accompanying us to the wharves, and so, in the early morning, through the silent streets of Nova Messana we were conducted by the consul and his brother-in-law, each vying with the other in showing us honour. Ere long we were once more on board the Fitzroy, full of thankfulness that all had ended so well.
THE next day or two were spent in sightseeing around Nova Messana. Stolo and Piso could not do enough to show their gratitude. We could see, however, that there was always an undercurrent of anxiety running through all they said and did as long as we were on shore. More than once I noticed the expression of relief which overspread their countenances when we took leave of them, and returned to our vessel for the night. It was as though they would say, "We have protected you throughout another day, but how long it may last we know not." The Professor and Piso visited the Cave of Gems with its immense ramifications of workings, but were able to obtain no trace of Captain Webster. "I'll go back alone some day, or with you, Markham, and see what I can do in the matter. Piso seemed afraid of getting lost."
One day, when I was standing alone on the wharf, one of Piso's friends, a young philosopher belonging to the Stoic school in the city, and the acknowledged lover of Cornelia, approached me and said in a low tone as he stood beside me, "It is a friend who speaks. I like you and your companions. Do not appear alone in our city, and always carry with you the heavenly fire."—He referred to our revolvers.—"Our common people hate you as foreigners; our old men, headed by the Pontifex, hate you because they fear you will expose some of their tricks to gull the people. Your unfortunate visit to Leper Island, or the Island of Death, has given them an occasion for stirring up enmity against you, which it needs all the Consul's personal popularity to hold in check."
I thanked Naso for his advice, but pointed to my inside pocket, wherein lay my revolver.
He nodded. "You are wise," he said.
At that moment one of the wharf labourers approached the spot where we were standing, under the pretence of doing some work. Almost before I was aware, he had drawn a long knife and thrown himself on me. But Naso was on his guard, and before the wretch could reach me, the philosopher had hurled him back some paces, giving me time to draw my revolver. The fellow seemed to have an instinctive dread of it, for with a howl of rage he ran off and rejoined his companions, who had been watching him. The situation looked threatening.
"You had better get on board," cried Naso; "those fellows mean mischief."
"But you,—what of you?"
"Oh, they dare not attack me. They know they would die for it within an hour. But to kill you would be an act of religious zeal for which the pontifices would applaud them. These priests need a lesson; they are the hornets of our constitution."
"Why do you tolerate them?"
"The fear of the people, who reverence them. Now, there is your boat coming across for you. Get on board your vessel as rapidly as possible, and I shall feel relieved about you."
But my assailants saw it coming too, and, seemingly, they determined to unite in a last attempt before I escaped them. Accordingly, they made a rush along the wharf towards me. I felt it was necessary to give them a lesson. Taking aim, therefore, at the man who had already made the attempt upon me, and who appeared to be the ringleader, I fired. With a groan the wretch fell writhing on the floor of the wharf, while his companions stopped, terror-stricken at this new and awful weapon which could carry death at such a distance. Again I raised my arm and took aim. The mere motion was sufficient. They fled like sheep. I had purposely aimed at the fellow's legs, so that the bullet, if it took effect, might only maim, not kill him. Apparently it had found lodgment in the fleshy part of the thigh, for in a few moments he was able to drag himself away, looking with terror towards me the while. By that time the boat from the vessel was at hand. Taking farewell of Naso, I embarked, and soon was once more in our haven of refuge.
That afternoon a council of war was held on board the Fitzroy. Alarmed at the attack made on me, Mr. Rodgers, the mate, had urged Barlow and Captain Anstey, by all the means of persuasion at his command, to leave the island of Nova Sicilia. This the Professor was unwilling to do until he had studied the manners of the people a little further. He believed, and without doubt correctly, that never more would he have the chance of visiting the island under circumstances so favourable. Mr. Rodgers, who had been conversing with Naso on the previous day, impressed the fact upon us, that, with all their culture and civilization, their moral and political justice and rectitude, so great was the dread of Europe entertained by the inhabitants of Nova Sicilia, that they would kill every one of us sooner than allow any to carry back to Europe the news of the island's existence. It mattered not that Rome was no longer in the position she occupied of old. The lower orders of the New Sicilians would regard that as merely a tale to deceive them, as their belief in the invincibility of the Roman Republic was too deep to be suddenly eradicated.
"Well, in that case we must try to slip away as soon as I've had one more search for my brother-in-law. But I must say I regret to leave a place that has never been pressed, as far as we know, by the feet of discoverers before. Even as we are now, we are surely a match for them. We have one large gun and a lot of small-arms."
"They would crush us by the sheer force of numbers, if it came to that. But my belief is that no force would be used. We should simply drop off mysteriously one by one."
"What do you mean by that, Rodgers?" cried Anstey, eagerly. "How could they get at us? Where have you learned all this?"
"Naso has warned me. He says they have a very extensive knowledge of poisons. They have some extracted from roots and stones, that kill in a very few seconds, the death being absolutely painless."
"Good Heavens! I say, Professor, I must confess I don't quite like this job. Do you think it wise to remain?" retorted Anstey anxiously. "I'm about as indifferent to danger as most men, but I don't like the prospect of being robbed of life without some chance of escape."
"Well, I'll tell you what we'll do. We'll remain here another week, and at the end of that we may fairly ask to be convoyed out of this seaweed trap. I really feel it would be a lost opportunity that might never recur were I to allow this visit to terminate without making another search, and also obtaining some more notes on the island."
Reluctantly Captain Anstey agreed to the proposal
Meantime our friend Lepidus had arrived in the galley with a message from the Consul to the Professor, that if he would come ashore in the vessel thus sent, Piso in person would conduct him through certain portions of the town where he had not yet been. He also invited Captain Anstey, Mr. Rodgers, and myself. But as this meant that the vessel would be left entirely unprotected, it was arranged that Rodgers and I should remain, and Anstey and the Professor accompany the Consul on his tour of the city and to the cave.
We saw them depart, full of expectation and high spirits at the prospect of a long day of sight-seeing. We were convinced of the bona fides of the Consul, and they would be under his protection. Then Mr. Rodgers and myself, after following them with our gaze until they landed at the wharves and were conducted in state up the street out of sight, returned to the cabin, and, after filling our pipes, sat smoking and chatting for some time. Presently I began to feel myself getting terribly sleepy, to which the sultry heat of the summer's afternoon in some degree contributed. I could see that the mate was in the same predicament, and could scarcely keep his eyes open. At length he fairly succumbed. On seeing this, I allowed myself to lapse into dreamland also.
How long I slept I do not exactly know, but it could not have exceeded an hour at the longest. When I awoke, the first thing that struck me was that Rodgers' seat was empty. I thought this a remarkable circumstance, but considered he might have gone on deck for a few minutes, and would return presently. As this did not take place, I went on deck to see if I could discover anything of his whereabouts. A glance showed me he was not on deck. I ran down to his cabin. The door was open, but there was no sign of him therein. I began to get alarmed, yet did not like to confess my fears. Along with one of the sailors I searched the ship from stem to stern, leaving not so much as a rat-hole unprobed, but without success.
Then I began to question the men as to whether they had heard any sound of oars approaching the vessel. They had all been asleep, sooth to say, although they denied the soft impeachment. One of them, however, who confessed to only being drowsy, said he thought he had heard the sound of sweeps gently pulling towards the vessel, and as gently pulling away after a moment's stop. But as this was a common occurrence among the craft in the harbour when they had a larger complement of sightseers than usual on board, he had paid no attention to it.
One fact was evident, however—the mate had either gone away of his own accord, or had been carried away by others whether he would or not. Which of these alternatives was the right one? The latter undoubtedly. He had every reason to induce him to remain on board—being in charge of the vessel; besides, he always had a dread that the New Sicilians would kill him. All this went to strengthen the idea that he had been carried away from the vessel against his will.
But how could that be done without some of us hearing the noise? Rodgers would not permit himself to be carried off without resisting to the very last. How came it, then, that no noise either of struggle or of footsteps had been heard on board? The whole incident was wrapped in impenetrable mystery. Of course there were plenty of small boats, or dinghies, plying about the harbour. But how could the occupants of these succeed in silently kidnapping a strong, burly ship's mate, without awakening suspicion, or, at least, arousing attention?
I awaited the return of my companions with some degree of impatience. The hours began to get long, but still they did not return. When the afternoon gave place to evening, a terrible anxiety began to take hold of me. Had all my friends been captured together, and was I to be reserved to the last? While I was anxiously debating with myself what should be done, I saw the state trireme once more leave the wharves and approach the Fitzroy. My hopes returned. What a fool I was to trouble myself about such things! Here they were at last.
No such thing. Only our friend Lepidus with a message professedly from Captain Anstey, requesting me to join them at a banquet given in Piso's house.
I never could tell what awakened my suspicions that this message was not genuine. Probably it was the fact that I was mentioned alone in the invitation, and not Mr. Rodgers. I reasoned that our friends would have sent for us both, and that this message came from those who, having the others already in their possession, desired to get me also.
Mustering to my aid all my old academic Latin, I managed to make Lepidus understand that I could not leave the vessel until one of the two officers came to relieve me. I likewise wrote a letter to Captain Anstey, informing him that I declined to be drawn into the trap, also to inform the Senate, or whoever was detaining them, that, unless they were on board by nine o'clock the following morning, I should begin to bombard the town. I also explained the purport of the letter to Lepidus, who seemed to me to look very much surprised when he saw the plot was discovered.
Before he left I ostentatiously bade the men clear the carronade for action, and he saw a heavy charge, with the massive projectile, placed in the gun. We were obliged to carry the carronade and such heavy shot, owing to the fact that some of the islands in the South Seas were still infested with pirates.
Just before he set out on his return journey he made the remark to me: "I cannot see on what grounds you suspect our good faith. Your companions are well, and are well cared for. They are enjoying themselves, and desire your company."
"Well, well, if that is so, tell them to be on board here by nine o'clock if they wish to preserve the lives of the townspeople. I swear I will not leave one stone standing on another in the town if any of my companions have either been killed or injured."
"But none of them have been injured. Why should you threaten us for showing your friends a kindness?"
"That is all very well. I give them and you plenty of time to come to an understanding together. I may be wrong, but I will take the responsibility; and I swear to you that if they are not on board this vessel by nine o'clock to-morrow morning, woe betide your town."
For a moment a look of terror flashed into Lepidus' features. The unknown is always terrible. He cast a long scrutinizing glance at the carronade, which was pointing its mouth outside the gunhole in the bow, with silent yet threatening emphasis, towards the town.
Lepidus went off without another word, and I sat down in my cabin to watch and to wait. My position was a difficult one, but the lives of my hapless comrades seemed to depend on my discretion. I had little doubt they were in the hands of the New Sicilians, who would either kill them, or try to detain them until after the departure of the Fitzroy. Their lives and liberties, therefore, depended on the manner in which I should play my part in this responsible position. At nine a.m. should I have to bombard the town, or would our friends be restored? We shall see.
MY feelings that night may be better imagined than described. Alone on a vessel with a crew of which Job Simpson, the boatswain, was the only one with whom I could hold intercourse—alone, with the lives of others depending on my exertions. My friends on shore might be counting the hours until release came for them. That release had to be effected by me. Would my nerve carry me through?
Through the long, dreary night I sat planning what was best to be done. About four o'clock in the morning I fell into a troubled sleep. No answer had come from the town, and I feared that extreme measures would have to be adopted. But exhausted human nature could bear up no longer, and, laying my head on my arm, which rested on the table, I slept. How long I slept I could not tell, but dawn was breaking in the east when I was awakened by a low wailing noise from the shore. Inexpressibly sad and mournful it sounded, as though all the pent-up sorrow of humanity, repressed throughout aeons of time, were concentrated in the long-drawn-out, moaning cry.
I ran on deck at once, and in the gray light of the morning saw that the shores were already covered with people. Standing back from the quays a little way we had noticed a structure like a pyramid without the apex, or rather a cone which had been arrested in construction when only about three-fourths completed.
On the flat platform on the top of this I saw a large assemblage of persons dressed in white robes. I observed, too, that the attention of the people below seemed directed to some ceremony which was in progress there.
I hastily procured the ship's glass, and looked through it. Standing in the centre of the crowd, stripped to the waist, and with their hands tied behind them, I distinctly discerned the Professor, Anstey, and Rodgers. In the hands of the long-robed priests—as I conjectured them to be—I saw murderous-looking knives, which I had little doubt were intended for the sacrifice of my unfortunate comrades. The moaning sound I discovered proceeded from the trumpets which those who were seemingly subordinate priests were blowing around the pyramid. What did it all mean? Suddenly I observed on the face of Anstey a look of the most intense longing directed towards the vessel. That was enough. Seizing my revolver, I discharged it into the air, to let our friends know we were on the alert. All eyes on shore seemed instantly directed towards the vessel for a moment, then were fixed once more on the ceremony. Rousing two of the crew, I withdrew the projectile, and having inserted a blank charge, pointed the carronade towards the pyramid. I had no wish to take life needlessly, yet I was determined to save our comrades at all costs, though every man's life in New Sicilia were the price. I reasoned that if I fired one blank charge Anstey would know it was a warning, and impress on the Professor to urge the priests to let them go.
The roar of the carronade was terrific, as it reverberated among the hills. Once more the people fell prostrate, all except the priests. I looked once more through the glass. I could see the Professor on his feet talking earnestly to the Pontifex, and nodding his head towards the vessel. Then I saw the priest shake his head, and seemingly turn away.
"I'll give that fellow a lesson," I cried angrily to the sailors who stood beside me. "Hand me a loaded rifle." The bo'sun at once did so. It was one of the old Snider-Enfields, but I knew I could rely on it carrying with precision at least 400 yards, and the pyramid was not distant more than that from the vessel. The danger was great lest I should strike one of our own friends; but it had to be risked. Taking steady aim, I fired just as I saw the priest raise his hand with something bright held in it. Then there arose a shriek on the still air as of horror and alarm, and I saw the body of the Pontifex lying motionless stretched out on the platform.
Leaping down from the poop, I seized a speaking-horn, and cried as loudly as possible in Latin:
"Send back our comrades at once, or worse will befall you."
Still they hesitated, and I could see that the priests were endeavouring to proceed with the ceremony. That was quite enough for me. Apparently the lesson had not been sufficiently severe.
"Load the carronade, bo'sun, with shot. Do you see that building with pillars in front of it, standing to the right of the pyramid? I think that must be a temple of some kind, and in some way associated with this sacrifice, as these long-robed fellows have been coming and going in and out of it all the morning. Aim at it; I don't want to slaughter innocent people if I can help it, but it strikes me these priests are at the bottom of all this business."
Honest Job did as he was told. A heavy charge was placed in the carronade, which was pointed at the building in question. Then came a crash like thunder, and the missile sped on its way. The aim was true. The shot carried away one of the slender pillars as though it had been a twig, and then tore its way through the wall of the temple, bringing down half the front of the building at the same time.
"Give them another," I cried; "it'll teach them that the lives of Englishmen are not to be taken with impunity."
The second shot was even more disastrous in its effects than the first, and the front of the temple was well-nigh reduced to ruins.
The lesson was salutary. In a moment the wharves were crowded with kneeling figures, stretching out imploring hands towards us to stop the terrible thunderbolts of the gods.
Then we saw a crowd of armed men swarm up the pyramid and drive the priests away, the latter, however, resisting to the very last. Immediately afterwards, our comrades, released from their fetters, were marched down to the galley, placed on board, and the rowers ordered to convey them across to us.
But I was determined to give our friend Lepidus a lesson if he were there. Yes, sure enough, there he was on the poop, looking the very picture of terror and alarm.
"What do you mean by this?" I cried, in my broken Latin, as the galley came alongside. "Do you wish us to batter down the walls of your houses, until not one stone is left on another?"
Lepidus knelt submissively on the deck, his head bowed.
"There are your friends," he replied. "We crave pardon; but we are not to blame. Our priests misled us. They demanded sacrifices to appease their gods; but they have offended others more powerful."
Meantime the Professor, Anstey, and Rodgers had rushed up the ladder and gained the deck of the Fitzroy.
"God be thanked, Bill, lad! your resource and pluck have saved us. I thought I had looked my last on the world when that tiger of an old priest raised his knife," said Anstey, wringing my hand. "That rifle shot came like a bolt from offended Heaven. How those priests did squirm!"
"But, look here, what's it all about, and how did Mr. Rodgers get with you?"
The captain smiled and shook his head, and I continued: "I didn't like the look of things when I found he had disappeared. Then, when Lepidus came back and said you wanted me at the banquet, I knew something must be wrong, as you never would have wished the ship left without some responsible person on board. I gave them until nine to-day, and I was going to bombard the place until they gave you up."
"You have done quite enough damage over there, Bill, to last them for another century. They won't try on the game of human sacrifice again," said the Professor gleefully.
"But tell me your story, Professor. What an old reprobate that Piso must be—inviting you over to a banquet and stringing you like a lot of trussed fowls."
"Nay, do not blame him, he had nothing to do with the business. It was that vixenish Pontifex Maximus or Flamen that insisted on everything, and ran a sort of religious revolution on his own account against the consular power. We had the banquet right enough, and were induced to lay aside our arms for comfort's sake. Then Piso took us through the city and showed us every place he could think of, including a second visit to the 'Cave of Gems'. The city is just a reproduction of ancient Rome in every particular—the Forum, the Campus Martius, the Senate House, the Coliseum. Everything is reproduced. We were having a capital time, when we were invited to descend into the dungeons where malefactors were kept. I was anxious to see these. But when they got us there they kept us. We heard afterwards that Curius Celsus, the Pontifex, had planned this trap, and had egged the people on to carry it through; also that Piso was so indignant over it that he shut himself up in his house broken-hearted over the breach of hospitality."
"But how did they come to attempt to sacrifice you? Human sacrifice was never practised in ancient Rome, was it?"
"No; but it appears that recently a terrible plague has been raging in Nova Sicilia, and has carried off thousands of the inhabitants: the leprosy also has broken out tenfold more virulently than ever before. Celsus, after consulting the omens, and discussing the matter with the augurs, came to the conclusion that some great sacrifice was needed to stay the anger of the gods. In one of their old books it is recorded that on a similar occasion a plague was arrested by the sacrifice of certain strangers on the high altar of Jupiter Fluvialis—the pyramidal one you saw us on. Celsus determined to sacrifice us. When your message came, informing us that you would bombard the town if we were not handed over, I thought we were saved. But the old heathen made up his mind to offer up our lives on the altar, and then to send our bodies out to you, hoping that whatever happened to the city from you, the plague at least would be stayed. Mind you, the old chap had no animosity towards us. I did him an injustice. There was nothing so mean in him as that. He was a second Roman Brutus; he would have offered up his own son. There were tears in his eyes when he informed us of our fate. He was simply a fanatical old pagan, besotted with superstition. He imagined he would outwit you by performing the sacrifice at dawn, for it appears it must be done while 'the light-giver' looks on or is near. When I heard your revolver shot I began to have some hope, though our circumstances were certainly desperate. But the moment I saw the old Pontifex roll over, I knew we were saved. It was a supremely dramatic moment that. Those superstitious New Sicilians immediately concluded that some other god was offended, and that they would have a pretty kettle of fish on their hands if they proceeded with our death. I fancy, however, they would not have allowed us to go had not your carronade shots brought them to their senses. The effect of these was literally awful."
"Well, well, it's all over now, and all's well that ends well, they say; but I should not like to be in that position again," was my reply. Then I added, "By the way, Mr. Rodgers, how did you manage to slip away so quietly?"
The mate once more smiled rather sheepishly and said: "Curiosity—curiosity was the cause of my being caught. I could not sleep again after I had once awakened, and I wandered on deck just in time to see that scoundrel Lepidus slip alongside with a small dinghy bringing a message, professedly from the skipper here, asking me to come off at once, without saying anything to you, as you might wish to come, and they did not want you just then. A very unlikely story when you come to think of it; but in my drowsy condition I didn't suspect any treachery, but slipped down the ropes. I didn't find out the trap until I was taken into the skipper's presence there, and found he had never sent for me at all. Oh, I was a beautiful fool!"
"Well, Bill, my lad, we owe our lives to you, as I said. Now, what's to be our next course?" said Anstey.
"To get away from this hole as soon as possible," was my answer.
"Ay, but how can we get out? We can't run against that current."
"Bless us all, what are we to do then?" cried the Professor. "We're in a trap, sure enough."
"We'll make them take us out," was Anstey's indignant speech. "They owe it to us for attempting to sacrifice us to their confounded deities."
"Professor, if you will come ashore with me, as you can talk the language so easily, we'll go and see the Consul, and demand that we be shown the way out of this accursed place," I said boldly.
The Professor shuddered, and did not reply.
"Don't go, Bill," replied Anstey, "we'll be losing you next, and there will be the deuce to pay then."
"But how are we to get out, Bob? we can't feel our way out, because if once we get into a current like that running between the algae beds, it might throw us on some rocky shore from which the old ship would never more stir."
"Bill, I can't let you go there alone; it's sheer madness. After what we have suffered, I feel the same horror as the Professor at the idea of going back among them. Let's send the boat round the headland yonder, and see what lies beyond, and if it gives any hope of our being able to beat out, we'll try it."
"Nonsense, Bob! you know as well as I do that there's no hope there," I said sharply. "I've made up my mind that I'm going ashore, and will make them either tell me the course, or send a galley to take us in tow. If I don't return by the afternoon, you will know what to do."
"Skipper, don't you think I should go along with him?" said the mate.
"No; you least of all," was my reply; "they would probably insist on your remaining. I tell you I shall be all right. I will run into no dangers, and will take a couple of revolvers and a ship's cutlass with me, with a small box of Eley's cartridges. I'll be able to give a good account of myself then."
"Well, Bill, if you must go, you must; but remember, if you don't give any sign that you are alive by eight bells in the afternoon, we'll kick up a shindy over it."
"There's no fear but I'll be back again long before that time. Look here, I'm taking my wallet with me, and putting not only one but two boxes of cartridges into it. I could stand a siege for days now."
I never knew what induced me to take that additional box of cartridges with me. Oh, how I blessed the chance that directed me to do so in the terrible days that were to come.
The bo'sun and another sailor brought the boat round, and I slid down the chains into it.
"Good-bye—until the afternoon!" I cried gaily, as we pushed off.
"Come back, come back!" suddenly shouted the Professor; "it's madness for you to go on after what happened this morning. We'll never see you again. You're simply going to your death."
"Nonsense, Professor! don't be superstitious," I replied, laughing. "You will see me turning up like a bad penny this afternoon."
Alas, alas! neither that afternoon, nor for many another afternoon to come, was I to set eyes again on the tight little schooner the Fitzroy.
NO sooner did I reach the shore than I was surrounded by crowds of the townspeople, who were still lingering about discussing the occurrences of the morning. I noticed that they one and all wore the ancient Roman toga, but they had added to the garb worn of old in the Mistress of the World, wide pantaloons which descended to the ankle, and were fastened there with clasps. As the heat was too intense to go about throughout the day bareheaded, they also wore cloth caps, not unlike the biretta, peculiar to the Roman Catholic clergy. But in general features I observed little change between their dress and that which I had been taught to regard as peculiar to the Romans of the days of the Caesars.
It had been night when Professor Barlow and I landed in this part of Nova Messana on former occasions, so that I had seen nothing of the city beyond the outlines of the houses as they loomed up in the darkness. Now I had an opportunity of examining this mysterious town by day, amid glorious semi-tropical sunshine.
The people, by whom I was surrounded, seemed utterly confounded by my appearance among them. They regarded me with a look of intense fear, but I could not see in it any traces of hostility to myself in consequence of the occurrences of the morning.
Turning to one venerable-looking man who stood at some little distance from me intently observing me, I asked him where I could see Piso the Consul.
He replied with grave courtesy that I should find him at the Senate House. But, on observing my perplexed look when I received the information, he inquired if I knew the direction wherein these buildings lay. I shook my head. He then asked to be allowed to conduct me thither. Motioning the other citizens who had collected round us during our colloquy to stand on one side so as to allow us to pass, he desired me to accompany him. I managed to stammer out a few words of thanks, and at once put myself under his care. He was evidently very anxious to converse with me, but perceiving that my vocabulary of Latin words was not large, and that I had great difficulty in making myself understood, he suddenly surprised me by addressing me in very fair English. He read my amazement on my face, and said:
"Do not be surprised that I know your language. Joannes Websterius and his comrades stayed at my house when first they arrived in Nova Sicilia, and from him I learned to read and to speak your language."
"You are Cratinus the philosopher, then," was my reply. Both Naso and Emilius had informed me of Webster's friendship with Cratinus, and had designated the latter as being one of the best of their nation, as a man of vast learning, of great intellectual force, and with an insatiable thirst for knowledge. Lepidus had also added that he had seen exhibited in the daily life of Cratinus a truer nobility of moral character, and a more generous regard for the welfare of others, than in any other person he had ever met. I therefore felt a sincere pleasure in meeting with one on whom I could so thoroughly rely.
"I am delighted to see you, Cratinus. You have made good use of your time to speak English as fluently as you do. I trust I may be allowed to make use of you to explain my meaning to the Consul." I then told him what we desired, and that our only wish was to leave Nova Sicilia as soon as possible.
Cratinus shook his head gravely, adding, "Oh, these accursed priests! We are priest-ridden in this town; they tried to murder your companions as a sacrifice to the gods in order to stop the pestilence, and brought on us a worse disaster from you! I am a Stoic philosopher, and teach the tenets of that school to my disciples. I am in favour of piety towards the gods, of a reverend attitude towards their declared will, and of showing our respect for them by a moral, upright life, and honourable conduct towards our fellow-men, but more than this we have no authority to expect from any man, and these priests have been our curse."
I smiled as I thought how very closely the attitude of Cratinus approached that of our men of science at home. Perhaps it was my smile that induced Cratinus to proceed, for he added: "No man has a right to lay down a rule of life for his neighbour unless he can found that rule on something higher or deeper than his own will. The moral law is our sole guide. The dictates of the moral law are implanted in all men. They are the sole rule which we can with safety follow."
"True, Cratinus, and if we in all things shape our conduct by the unwritten but innate principles of that moral law, there will be little fear of our offending the gods."
"My son, you are a good Stoic. Your system of philosophy may not be in all things the same as mine, but in its grand essentials it is the same. Therefore I feel drawn to you by the nearest of all ties. I will help you as far as lies in my power."
I felt greatly cheered by this testimony of the friendly feelings Cratinus cherished towards me.
Meantime my companion met a brother philosopher of the same school passing down the street. They accosted one another, and presently Cratinus informed me that his friend, Zeno, would also accompany us to the Consul's and plead my cause.
I noticed, as we passed along the streets, the stately and magnificent character of the architecture. Temples, museums, libraries succeeded each other in bewildering profusion, each conceived in a style rivalling the finest extant specimens of Grecian design. Even the dwelling-houses, though not so magnificent, had all some pretensions to beauty and originality in plan. And it was as much the severe simplicity of the tout ensemble I admired, as the elegant finish of each several part.
I noted also the arrangements for drainage in the city. They were admirable, and consisted of jets of fresh water introduced at intervals into the covered drains, whereby they were always kept fresh and pure. All the streets were lined on both sides with avenues of fine old trees. The shade was exceedingly grateful amid the hot glare of the semi-tropical sun.
But meantime Zeno, Cratinus, and I had been pushing onward towards the Senate House. To reach it we had to cross the Forum or marketplace, which I now saw by day—a magnificent square, lined on all sides with the largest and most imposing buildings in Nova Messana. On one side I saw the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, and the platform where the sacrifices had taken place a few nights ago. In the centre of the open space was a rotunda, and Cratinus explained to me that all the large political meetings in the Republic were held there. The Forum was by no means so full as usual, he said; many of its habitués having been attracted to the shore by the scenes being enacted there. Still it presented a brisk and lively picture, kaleidoscopically changeful. Knots and groups of citizens were scattered over its expanse; while at the farther end were stationed heavy waggons and carts that had brought the produce into market. Cratinus explained that, although there were smaller markets for each commodity throughout the town, one day in the week was set apart for each industry, on which it had entire possession of the Forum. This was the day allocated to butter, cheese, eggs, and farm-produce generally.
The Senate House was a magnificent structure, built of a white stone closely resembling marble, and equally durable. A stately colonnade at the head of a flight of broad shallow steps leading up to the building afforded a cool promenade for the senators. At the head of these stood two soldiers attired in full armour, who acted as sentries. They looked curiously at me as I passed, but saluted with a deference that showed that the occurrences of the past day or two, in place of arousing any feelings of hostility, had operated in entirely the opposite way, in creating for us, among this mysterious race, a feeling of awe and of profound respect.
We ascended the steps of the colonnade, and passing through the outer portico entered an immense corridor or lobby, where a large number of senators were busily engaged in conversing. Here the lictors were standing, betokening that Piso was not far off. A profound silence fell upon the assemblage as I entered with my companions. On all sides I heard the whisper go round: "One of the mysterious strangers! What does he want? What are Cratinus and Zeno doing with him?"
Cratinus, advancing to the chief of the lictors, told him that I craved an audience of the Consul.
"Torquatus, the colleague of Piso, has returned to the city this morning, and is now with him. Is it the stranger's wish to see both consuls?" I nodded to Cratinus.
"Even so. He desires to see both of them. The matter is one of urgency. Would you likewise state that Cratinus and Zeno, the philosophers, will also attend to interpret."
In a few minutes the lictor returned, and requested us to follow him. We were ushered into a spacious ante-chamber adjoining the hall, where the consuls transacted the routine and detail business of the Republic, which was not supposed to be laid before the Senate.
Torquatus, although not so aged looking as Piso, whose long beard, as we have said, was of a silvery whiteness, was, nevertheless, a man considerably past his prime. His hair and beard were streaked with grey. His features were stern, haughty, and determined, in strange contrast to the mildness visible in the expression of Piso. Torquatus was the warrior consul, Piso the man of peace, who looked after national progress and the commercial development of the country.
Evidently Torquatus had only just learned the strange facts of our visit, and was burning to know more. All the warlike instincts in him were on the qui vive to discover the secret which gave a handful of strangers so great a superiority over the thousands who inhabited Nova Sicilia.
Piso, on my entry, greeted me with a cordiality which I could see was mingled with fear. He imagined I had come to call the State to account for its treatment of my companions. Torquatus contented himself with a distant bow. It was evident that he at least would not yield an inch. To my companions both the consuls bowed low. The name of a philosopher stood high in Nova Sicilia.
"Welcome, O stranger!" said Piso nervously. "What can the State do for thee and thine? We are deeply grieved that the superstition of our Pontifex Maximus did hurry him into an act of inhospitality and indiscretion which might have had serious results. Believe me, the State itself did all it could to prevent it."
Torquatus uttered a curious grunt, but whether of approbation of his colleague's remarks or the opposite did not as yet appear.
Then did I say unto Piso through Cratinus,—"Think no more of that matter. The Pontifex was under a deadly mistake when he took the step he did, and the gods have slain him for his presumption." I noticed a curiously contemptuous expression pass over the features of Torquatus when I said this. It was evident he had not much faith in the gods or in their power of vengeance. But the countenance of Piso cleared at once when I said, "We are thinking no more of that matter. It is past, it is gone; but we wish to know if you will permit your state trireme to tow us out so that we may be able to make headway against the current in the passage through which we came? Or if there is any other way out into the ocean, will you permit the galley to show us the way?"
Before Piso had time to reply, Torquatus interjected the query, "Whither do you wish to go?"
"Home," was my reply.
"Where is your home?"
"In Australia, an island lying west of Nova Sicilia."
"But that is not where you were born."
"Nay, I was born in Britain."
"That is in Europe, beyond Transalpine Gaul."
"That is so. Britain lies due north of Gaul, or of France, as we call it now."
Torquatus gazed at me keenly as he added: "Britain—Britain—Britain, that was the country conquered by the divine Julius a few years before his death."
"It was. But that of course was very long ago, and Rome herself has long since been conquered. Britain now in extent of empire far surpasses the glory of the 'Mistress of the World.'"
Torquatus allowed a contemptuous sneer to rest for a moment on his haughty features.
"You say that, as Piso tells me," he said; "but what proof have we of its truth? Rome's greatness was destined to be eternal."
"The Rome your fathers knew perished about 400 years after they left it," I remarked boldly. "The Rome of to-day is only the capital city of the kingdom of Italy."
Again Torquatus shook his head. "These are the tales of enemies. Rome might have been defeated, but she could never disappear in the way you state."
I saw it was useless to argue the question with the obstinate old soldier. I therefore again requested the favour of the galley to show us the way out into the open sea.
Piso it was who said, "Fear nothing; we are ready to do all we can to help you, but we must ask you to give us an assurance that you will not reveal the existence of Nova Sicilia to any one. We dread having our free and prosperous state enslaved by some more powerful country in the Old World. We have never known the yoke of the oppressor; we should take it ill now were we conquered by any other state."
"We would die first, Piso," was the answer of Torquatus.
"But who would wish to enslave you?" I asked—"no one among the European kingdoms of to-day. They would recognize your independence. Liberty is as noble a thing in their eyes as in yours. The policy of a free State for a free people would never be infringed by any of the European nations. Therefore what have you to fear?"
"But you will give us the assurance, will you not?" said Piso anxiously.
"Assuredly; and you will lend us your state trireme to act as our guide and tow-boat."
"Yes; but, unfortunately, she has even by this time left the harbour, and will have rounded Cape Pelusium. She might have taken you in tow then. There has been an insurrection at Bruttium, about a hundred miles distant, and we have had to despatch Lepidus with the trireme and a transport to drive back the savages that have crossed our borders."
"You have no other vessel here that would serve the purpose, have you?"
"I fear not. Our fleet is stationed at Brundusium, where is the naval arsenal, near the large timber forests. The vessels in the harbour are merely onerarii—merchant vessels—most of them with a single bank of oars. They would not have the power necessary to tow so large a vessel as yours. But why not wait until the trireme returns? She will only be gone three days?"
"Are you so adverse to accepting our hospitality that you cannot wait until then," said Torquatus grimly.
"An Englishman never suspects honourable men," I replied proudly, and Torquatus bowed. "We will await your pleasure until the trireme returns."
"And you will remain on shore and accept my hospitality?" cried Piso eagerly. "Believe me, I am desirous of testifying to you how deeply I deplored the treatment to which your companions were exposed by Celsus and the priests. Besides, I owe you much for the release of my niece from a cruel death."
Before I could reply, a curtain behind Piso was drawn quickly aside, and a young girl of rare and imperial beauty entered the apartment. She was evidently astonished to find it occupied, for she coloured deeply, and was about to retire, saying to Piso:
"I thought you were alone, my father."
"Nay, my Clodia, you must not go. Do you not see I have one of the strangers with us who saved your cousin Cornelia from death. Will you not add your persuasions to ours to induce him to stay with us?"
"And why will he not stay? I have heard so much of you since Cornelia's marvellous adventure, I wish to know you also," she replied, turning to me. "Will you not remain with us, and I will take you to see the Hanging Gardens, and the Mountain of Gold, and the Cave of Gems, and many other wonderful things?" Her voice as she addressed me was low and sweet, and stole into my heart like the notes of some finely-tuned harp.
Alas, alas! it was the old story. What will a glance from a beautiful woman's eyes not lead a man to do?
"I am grateful for the interest so fair a lady takes in me," I replied, in stilted phrases, "but I fear I must deny myself the pleasure."
"Why so?" retorted the imperious young beauty, with all a woman's pleading insistence. "Cornelia has never ceased speaking about you. I wish to know more of you, I say."
I bowed, and murmured my regrets once more, but I fear they were less firm in tone.
"Are you afraid of us?" she said quickly.
"Ha, ha!" laughed Torquatus grimly. "It looks like it, doesn't it, Clodia, when a man refuses a pretty girl's friendship?"
Clodia pouted and looked so charmingly piquant in her affected anger, that my resolution began to melt away like spring snows before spring suns.
"But you will stay, won't you?" she reiterated. "What of my companions, who expect me back, and may—and may—ahem—" The rest of my sentence involved an awkward reference to the treatment of the Professor, Anstey, and Rodgers; so that I hesitated to complete it. Torquatus did it for me.
"And may think he is a prisoner, and batter down a few more of our temples," was the half-angry, half-jocular remark.
"Well, you would get no more than you deserved for infringing the duties of hospitality," retorted Clodia, with a mischievous moue at the stately consul, with whom she was evidently a prime favourite.
"O you unpatriotic little witch! Begone with you, for I believe you would sooner have a handsome stranger's goodwill than see the honour of your country vindicated."
"Perhaps I might," she replied coquettishly; "but I wish a reply from our friend here."
What could I do? What other man but would have done the same for such a pleader? The lovely Clodia had won the day. Yet it was not without many and serious misgivings that I consented to stay. I had a presentiment of coming evil. Only stipulating with my kind friends that I should be allowed to return to the Fitzroy that night for an hour to see my companions, I promised to be the guest of the consul. Meantime, I tore a leaf from my pocket-book, and wrote a few lines thereon, telling Bob Anstey what I had arranged, and what I intended to do, also bidding them expect me on board that night.
I then turned to Piso, and asked him if he could send the letter on board the Fitzroy at once. He undertook to do so. I was accordingly placed in the care of the beautiful Clodia, while the consuls and the two philosophers repaired to the Senate House for the daily meeting of the Senate.
Alas, alas! I had taken many a foolish step in life before, but none so foolish as this.
CLODIA seemingly was in a state of exuberant delight that she had carried her point, and that she was to be the sole guide and cicerone to one of the "Sons of the Thunderbolt," as we had already been called. So great had been the terror inspired by our fire-arms and cannon amongst well-nigh all classes in Messana that we were virtually masters of the situation. Whether the same dread would have been infused into the minds of the hardy Romans of the ancient republic I could not say. Certainly after the first shock of surprise was over they did not exhibit any overpowering dread of the African elephants which Pyrrhus brought over with him to fight his battles. They speedily devised means to neutralize the force of their attacks. But long residence in an enervating climate like that of the South Seas had necessarily lessened the average courage of their descendants. Still, the terror they had conceived of our fire-arms was out of all proportion to its cause, until I mentioned the matter to Cratinus, and he explained that they associated the sound with the roar of the volcanic eruptions, to them the most terrible of all sounds, as it meant the possible destruction of the city.
Clodia led me through some covered passages lighted by lattices of exquisitely delicate cane-work until we reached the houses allocated to the Consuls during their year of office. They were situated immediately behind the Senate House. Noble gardens stretched away into the distance, adorned with fine statuary and fountains casting cooling jets of water high in air. But it was not to look on these my fair guide brought me hither. It was to cast around herself a mantle of some soft, fleecy clinging material that covered her head and neck from the rays of the sun, until she seemed like one of Fra Angelico's saints or Madonnas looking out from a nimbus or halo of sheeny radiance.
The next house belonged to Stolo, and in its portico stood Cornelia watching us. She smiled a greeting to me.
"Will you not come with us, Cornelia?" cried Clodia. "We'll be back soon."
"Nay, although I would like to; but I am going with my father to sacrifice a kid to Proserpine, and one to Aesculapius in gratitude for my escape from death."
"Ah! then, we dare not keep you. Vive et vale, carissima."
Then Clodia pointed to a light chariot that was standing near, drawn by two fine horses, the driver of which, to my surprise, exhibited in the cast of his features a close approximation to the negroid type. I could not help asking Clodia to what race he belonged.
"He is one of the natives who has taken service with us," she replied. She then beckoned to me to enter, and presently we were travelling through the town at great speed, the light vehicle evidently proving a mere feather in weight to the strong animals who drew it.
The drive was apparently undertaken with the object of giving me as thorough an idea of the extent of the town as possible. From a back road constructed far up the side of the mountain range we were able to look down on the bay beneath, with the city covering all its shores. The proportions of its noble buildings stood out in bold relief against the abundant green foliage visible everywhere. Entrancingly beautiful was the view which met our gaze, of ocean, mountain, city, and verdant plains covered with crops of various kinds, the contrasts in colour being so vivid, yet so subtly harmonious with the beauty of the picture in its entirety.
I will not describe the splendour of the Pantheon, of the Coliseum, of the theatres, of the Hanging Gardens, all of which we visited. The latter were formed on the face of a cliff overlooking a deep ravine, through which rushed a brawling stream on its way to the ocean. So precipitous was the cliff, and so nearly vertical the side of it, that the gardens veritably appeared to hang in air. They were kept in perfect order, the arrangement showing great taste and artistic skill, though a little strange and bizarre to my severe European ideas.
At last Clodia seemed to divine from my silence that the places we had as yet visited did not sufficiently interest me. Ah! if only she knew, an object of greater beauty and interest was seated beside me in the chariot, from which I could scarce remove my gaze for a moment to view the places she was good enough to point out to me. I felt it pleasanter to watch the smiles and blushes coming and going on her beautiful face as some new feature of interest presented itself. She seemed but a child yet in her innocent glee and unrestrained mirth. Nay, when at last I had to admit that the Hanging Gardens surpassed anything I had yet seen in all my travels, she clapped her hands and cried aloud:
"I am so glad we have something here that excels Europe."
She had evidently been reserving her best surprise for the last. After we had admired the gardens to satiety, I heard her tell Quintus, the charioteer, to drive to the Golden Mountain and the "Cave of Gems," and the heads of the horses were turned towards a gloomy defile, the mouth of which was situated about half a mile from the gardens.
"You will see something now that will delight you. I heard you saying to my father you wondered how the people here set so little store on gold and precious stones, and how even the poorest wore splendid ornaments."
"Yes, I did say so, and your father told me you would tell me the reason, Clodia."
"I prefer to show it to you in place of telling."
Her language was so simple and her articulation so clear and distinct that I had very little difficulty in grasping the meaning of all she said. I fear she had more trouble in gathering my precise meaning from my lame attempts to make myself understood. Nevertheless, not by the faintest approach to a smile did she betray any amusement over my efforts to talk Latin. But it is wonderful how love sharpens the faculties. I had not been more than an hour or so in Clodia's company before I had learned more than from all the previous intercourse I had had with her father and the two philosophers. Certainly the language of the eye is intelligible among all races. When a man allows his gaze to rest fondly, yet respectfully, on a pretty girl's features, it is a thousand chances to one that she understands perfectly well that he admires her. The unspoken language of love is very much the same in all parts of the world.
We advanced into the darksome defile already referred to. It was formed by two spurs of the great volcanic peak, which ran out like the prongs of a fork from the side of the parent mountain. At no place was the pass more than fifty yards in width. So deep was it also that the light of the sun never penetrated into many parts of it. Melancholy funereal-looking pines clothed its sides, while ever and anon jagged shafts of rock, twisted into the most fantastic shapes, reared themselves high above the surrounding wood. In sooth, it was a wild spot; so much so, that I said to Clodia:
"Are you not afraid to visit such a desolate and dreary place?"
But for answer she only allowed her beautiful eyes to rest on me a moment and said, "Not with you."
Deeper and deeper we pierced into the heart of the mountain gorge, the scene at every step becoming more awe-inspiring and terrific. The defile also began to narrow rapidly, until we saw it ended at the mouth of a huge cavern which yawned in front of us. Never in my life had I beheld a spot that seemed to realize more vividly the awful descriptions in Dante's Inferno.
"Here we are at last," said Clodia. "We have not far to go now, but we shall have to leave the chariot here."
As soon as we reached the entrance the driver pulled up and we descended from the vehicle, Quintus being told to wait beside an ancient spring just outside the cavern, the inscription on the masonry round which gave evidence of great age.
The vast cliffs towering around on all sides, the aspect of utter desolation stamped on every detail of the scenery, the dreary forest of pines, through which a melancholy wind moaned sadly like the wail of a lost spirit, and the yawning blackness of the great cavern, all impressed me so vividly that I involuntarily shuddered.
"What is wrong?" said Clodia, looking up into my face with a coquettish grace. "Are you afraid now?"
"I may give the same answer as you did—'Not with you.' But what about torches to explore the depths of the cavern?"
"Proceed, my friend; you will find all ready for us."
As we seemed living amid a world of wonders, I asked no more, but followed my beautiful guide into the cavern.
As soon as we entered I observed that the cave was of immense height and of well-nigh endless length. Chamber after chamber opened the one off the other, and ran seemingly into the very heart of the great mountain range. Our eyesight had scarce time to become accustomed to the dim light around us, when the whole interior was illuminated in the most wonderful manner. I noticed, far up in the face of the mighty walls of rock surrounding us, what seemed to be the figures of men, walking along galleries hewn out of the cliff-side. They did not, however, seem to carry with them any torches. What, then, caused the illumination? At last I detected the trick. High up in the cavern there blazed one gigantic torch whose light was thrown all round the cavern, but its glare was multiplied and intensified a thousandfold by the sparkling and glitter of millions of precious stones, wherewith the walls of the place seemed to be studded. Diamonds, rubies, opals, sapphires, all seemed to have a place in this weird cave of jewels; while, go where one might, on all sides was perceptible the dull yellow gleam of gold, reefs of the solid metal actually present to the touch, while solid knobs or nuggets were imbedded in the clayey strata which broke at intervals the mighty cliffs of quartz wherewith we were surrounded. This, then, was the "Golden Mountain" and the wonderful "Cave of Gems" of which Clodia had spoken. Here was wealth incalculable to be had for the mere picking up. It was to this Captain Webster had referred in his "message from the sea," which had come to us through "Big Jake." Here was the explanation of the mystery why so little value was attached to gold and precious stones in Nova Sicilia. That which all men can have for the taking is valued by none. I stooped down and picked up a diamond almost as large as a pigeon's egg—perfect, without a flaw. How priceless would be its value in Europe, how worthless it was in Nova Sicilia! The fact was a screaming satire upon wealth and the standards of wealth. Were the contents of this cavern thrown upon the European market, gems would be as common as marbles, and gold would sink in price below lead.
I feasted my eyes on this strange spectacle. My very reason reeled as I contemplated the millions upon millions of pounds that would be represented by a few square yards of this extraordinary storehouse of wealth. The riches of the world appeared to have been deposited here. Yet so little did the New Sicilians value the treasure lying so near them that iron constituted their standard of currency.
I suppose Clodia must have read some of my thoughts in my face. She said smilingly, "Why do you seem so much surprised?"
"Why, there is as much wealth here now as exists in the whole world at the present time."
"Well, what of it? What good is it to us? If it were an iron mine, it would be a find worth having."
"But look what you can buy with the wealth that lies there."
"Buy what—we have all we need—and where could we buy save from our own people?"
"No, in Europe; and you would have the benefits of European civilization brought here to you."
Clodia shook her head. She did not grasp my meaning. She could not understand a different unit of value from the iron one to which she had always been accustomed.
She saw my surprise, and hastily added, "We don't want to be known in Europe, my father says. Our safety lies in not being known. Were we known we might be conquered by the Romans, our own kinsmen."
I smiled at the curious ignorance of the maiden of all the history-making that had taken place since this last and greatest of the Roman colonies had sailed from the shores of the Old World.
"Why do you smile? Because we despise gold? We cannot understand your fondness for it. It is so plentiful, yet so useless. What can you do with gold? You cannot make an axe out of it. It won't cut. You cannot make knives out of it. It won't take an edge. What can you do with it? Then, those gems you covet so much. You can fill your galley with them from our yard at home. They line our walks. What is the good of them?"
Never had I realized how arbitrary a notion is that of "value." Here was a part of the world where gold was accounted as dross, and precious stones as rubbish. I felt completely nonplussed.
"Why, Clodia, this one stone I hold in my hand now would make me a wealthy man for life in Europe. It is a diamond of the finest water. It cannot be worth less than £50,000."
"How much is that?" was Clodia's naive response.
I shook my head and gave up the attempt.
"If you would bring out a galley load of iron to us, or of lead, which I hear father say is the most valuable of metals, you would be a wealthy man here."
"What do you mean?"
"Listen and I will tell you as well as I can, but you mustn't laugh at my blunders. We have only two places where iron ore is found, and the supply is limited. As to lead, it is exceedingly scarce, save among the Ariutas. As for that yellow dross—it is useless. But, come, let us go farther into the cavern. You have not seen half its wonders."
I followed Clodia in a very stupefied state. Amongst what strange and unaccountable people had I fallen?
"Then do these men we see up there, work at the gold and precious stones to bring them out for any purpose?"
"Well, you see the poor people have to use gold utensils, because they cannot afford iron ones, and our earthenware ones are very dear, because the clay is so scarce. But it is not nice having to use golden dishes. They soon get bent and shapeless."
"Then what do they do with the diamonds and precious stones?"
"Many of them are built into our dwellings. They save oil to the poor people, because the light of one small lamp when reflected by several large diamonds will illuminate a whole house. But the workmen who labour here are mostly unskilled men, who cannot get employment elsewhere."
"Dear me, Clodia, the world seems upside down here."
"No, no; it is upside down with you people in Europe, who could be so foolish as to run after gold and diamonds, and place any value on a red ruby."
The deeper we went into this wonderful cavern, the more extraordinary appeared the evidence of the treasures scattered about on all sides. Here were blocks of opal and sapphire, rubies as large as beans, and diamonds rivalling those I used to read about in the Arabian Nights.
Then we approached a hot geyser which was throwing up its waters into the air. There was a piece of stick lying at my feet.
"Take that stick," said Clodia, "and hold it in the water for a few moments." I did so.
"Now, draw it out and look at it."
I obeyed. To my profound surprise it was thickly coated with gold. Here was one of those thermal springs, actually in operation, about which colonial geologists are always talking, as being the chief factor in throwing up such mountains of gold as Mount Morgan. I was struck dumb with amazement.
Proceeding a little farther on, we found evidences around us that the waters of the spring had once upon a time flowed over the greater portion of the cavern, in place of escaping back into the bowels of the earth. The cliffs of the chamber, the rocks round about us, nay, the very pebbles at our feet, were all coated with thick layers of gold. The experience of King Midas could not have been more strange than mine.
On we pressed until we came to what appeared to be an immense molten sea of gold mixed with lava. It was boiling, fretting, and seething, as though it were an immense pot set on the fire to boil.
"We always consider this lake as the feeder of the great volcano overhead. There is a gigantic vent or funnel that runs up through the mountain, and the lava is drawn up through it to the top of the crater."
"O, Clodia, Clodia, what a world of wonders you have here!" I said. "It will be hard to leave all these extraordinary sights, and go back to tame, commonplace Europe."
"Why should you go back?" was Clodia's naive reply. "Why not stay here with me?"
Ah! those beautiful eyes were looking into mine with a pleading fascination in them, when suddenly we seemed caught in a violent whirlwind, which eddied through the cavern with a low, booming sound, like the distant noise of surf thundering on some unseen shore.
We had just time to ensconce ourselves in a cleft in the rocky side of the cavern, to avoid being blown into the molten lake, when the full fury of the subterranean storm was upon us.
Louder than the yell of countless siren whistles the tempest wailed up the vent leading to the awful mouth of the volcano. Then came a glare of fire as though a sheet of liquid flame enveloped the whole place. It threw every rock and cliff into startling relief. Though the vent was more than a quarter of a mile distant, the sound seemed at our very ears.
To this succeeded crash after crash of the loudest artillery firing. The whole lake became a fretting, seething sea of tumbling, tossing fire. Then some omnipotent force seemed to draw the liquid flame towards the funnel with a roar like thunder.
"Jove be our protector!" cried Clodia, with a shriek of anguish. "The volcano has broken out, and we are doomed."
YES, it was true! The volcano had remained semi-active for some years, but an eruption on a grand scale had now commenced. Peal after peal, louder than the loudest thunder, broke over us. Then there would be a cessation for a few minutes, during which the horrible sucking sound of the great funnel, drawing up the lava like the suckers of an immense pump, was all we heard.
So far we had been perfectly safe. We had run for shelter into a small cave hollowed out some few feet up the side of the main cavern. Clouds of fiery steam were rising from the lava basin, on whose surface tongues of bluish, sulphurous flames were constantly playing. Ever and anon the same mournful, wailing wind would pass through the cavern, with a sigh like that of departing Time passing into the bosom of measureless Eternity. Then the roar of the crater would resound as with a note of defiance, and the terrible drama would be finished with the muttering sound of the suction, which seemed to go on ceaselessly.
Clodia was pale, and trembling with terror, but the pluck of her ancestors was in her. She only slipped her hand into mine, and together we awaited our terrible death. The opening whereby we had entered the caverns seemed completely obliterated. Not even in the strong light which arose from the boiling lava and the eternal fires below could I discern it. To our horror we observed also that the Titanic force of the eruption had altered the shape of the mountain. We were to be buried in a living tomb.
Oh, what were all the wretched mockeries of gold and jewels now, when death stared us in the face? What good would all the wealth of the world avail us? It would not buy us a moment's respite from the pitiless forces of nature. It was an awful situation. Yet I felt far less anguish over my own fate than I did over that of this peerlessly lovely girl, who, to do me a kindness, and to show me the wonders of her land, had thus sacrificed herself.
"Oh, Clodia, I am so sorry! Had it not been for me, you would not have been caught in this frightful death-trap."
"Never mind that, my friend. We are here. It is the will of the gods. The might of necessity cannot be resisted."
Once more a terrible convulsion seemed to rend the entire mountain. I noticed that the lava covering the floor of the cavern below us was sensibly rising. A few hours, and it would flow into our little cave of refuge. At this moment, during a lull in the awful tempest of sound, we thought we heard human voices calling to one another in distant parts of the cavern. We listened, for we could see nothing.
"Oh, that they could find us out! They might save us."
"Perhaps they are, like ourselves, lost and in extremis."
"No, the sound seems to come from some gallery far up in the roof of the cavern. The caves are intersected by workings extending for miles and miles. Remember, this mountain has been worked for over sixteen hundred years."
"Clodia, might not this little cave connect with some of them?"
A look of hope flashed into Clodia's face, and by the fitful glare of the burning lava I could see that my suggestion was not without probability. The lava meantime was rapidly rising, and ere long we should have to move out of the cave or be burned like rats in it. But where were we to go?
The cave was narrow, but it seemed to stretch farther back into the side of the great mountain. I noticed several pieces of stick lying at our feet, the remains probably of broken tools and staves. They were all thickly coated with sulphur. Bending down towards the lava covering the floor, I succeeded in lighting one of the pieces of stick.
"Come, Clodia," I cried, "let us explore this cave while we have time. If you will carry a few of these sticks I will do the same, and they will last us for some time."
Clodia eagerly consented. She took my hand, and we plunged together into the deep, dense darkness of the passage, which shut us off by walls of rock from the crater and the lake of molten lava.
The passage, as I suspected, extended right up towards the roof of the cavern. The track was steep, but it was not rough, and we rushed on with the resolution of despair. Like distant thunder, we could hear at intervals the roar of the eruption, but we seemed to be receding from it, as the sound was becoming fainter. On we pushed, ascending ever higher and higher. At last, in the distance, a light appeared, gleaming fitfully. We struggled towards it. As we approached, we saw it must be the light from the molten lake, as it waxed and waned in the manner with which we were, alas! so familiar.
At last we issued upon a broad, open gallery, about a hundred feet above the floor of the cavern, from which we could look down on the scene below.
"We are saved, Clodia, for the time being, but what better are we?"
"Never despair!" replied the intrepid girl. "We'll make a brave struggle for life, and then, if we cannot get out, well, we'll die like Romans."
There was a pride, mingled with a magnificent courage, visible in her features as she uttered these words, that went far to instil hope into my breast that we should yet escape.
"Is there only one means of egress from the caverns?" I asked.
"Only one known to me. They say there are two others known to the natives of the country, but which they will never reveal, as they lead to the sacred temples of their gods."
"Do they worship in the caverns, then?"
"My grandfather, long, long ago, had an adventure with them. He got lost in the cavern, and, it is said, discovered the secret passage leading into the temple of the Ariutas—that is the name we give the natives. They have a high civilization for savages, and are very tenacious in clinging to their religious rites," said Clodia. "My grandfather appeared amongst their priests in their sacred temple just when they were in the middle of celebrating some very mysterious rite, upon which not even the common people may look without death. He would have been killed at once, to avenge the offended majesty of the god, but suddenly a strange thing happened. A thunderbolt seemed to flash from the hand of the statue of the deity, and the priest, who was about to slay him, rolled over dead. My ancestor was dismissed, bound under the most solemn promises never to reveal what he had seen, or the means whereby he had discovered the temple. He never did so."
"Clodia, might we not discover that passage, and so escape?"
"But a miracle would not happen twice to save those who were in such danger. The Ariutas would kill us without pity, because no miracle would occur to save us."
"But I tell you it would! For here are the very means to produce it."
With these words I pulled out my revolver and fired it. Clodia was overcome with astonishment.
"You people of these latter times are verily sons of the gods," she remarked, in an awe-stricken tone.
While we were standing on the gallery over-looking the eternal fires below, we became conscious that the same sounds of distant voices we had heard before were audible again. They seemed approaching us, however; and presently two men stepped out into the gallery. On observing us they uttered a cry of horror, and would have fled, had not Clodia stopped them with a call. On hearing their own tongue they stayed their steps.
"What do you here?" they cried. "Are you mad to be in the mountain at such a time?"
"The eruption occurred when we were viewing the cavern, and we are imprisoned within it. We cannot get out."
"Jove befriend you! You are in as evil a case as ourselves. Our companions all fled at the first sound of the eruption. We returned to get our tools. When we sought the entrance it was blocked up."
"And is there no way of getting out?" I asked.
"None that we know of. We are searching for the entrance known to the natives, but as yet we have not met with any passage likely to lead us to it."
"But it is death to be discovered by the natives, Icilius," said the other man, who had not spoken.
"Never fear regarding that," I replied hastily. "I have the means to rescue us from them, if only we could get out into the open air again."
"Who are you, who speak so loftily?" remarked the first speaker, whose name his companion had disclosed as Icilius. "Who can he be, Marcus? He is not one of us."
Then Clodia stepped forward, and said: "Icilius, you are the son of Titus Flaminius, and you know me, the daughter of the Consul Piso. This is one of the strangers whose vessel is in the bay, 'the Sons of the Thunderbolt'."
"What! Clodia, the daughter of Piso the Consul, here, with one of the mysterious strangers whom we heard of last night! This is extraordinary. What does it mean?"
"My good fellow, don't waste time bandying words. If you can find the entrance leading to the temple of the Ariutas, I'll do all the rest. If you are sceptical, look!" and once more I pulled out my revolver and fired it, to satisfy the doubts of the gem-seekers.
The two men shrank away in alarm at the report. But Clodia, laying her hand on the arm of Icilius, said: "He will do you no harm. He is your friend, as he is mine."
I thanked her for these words with an expressive look.
"I suppose you know all the passages which connect with the main galleries in the cavern?" I asked hurriedly, anxious to lose no time in getting Clodia out of the horrible surroundings into which she had been cast.
"Ah, no! there are many, constructed over a thousand years ago, that are well-nigh choked up now. The more modern passages we do know."
"And where do you think the passage leading to the entrance of the Ariutas is likely to lie?"
"My idea is," said Marcus, "that it lies away to the west of the molten lake, and that it is in some way connected with the River of Death."
"What is that?"
"It is a mysterious underground river, dark and deep, which seems to flow underneath the entire range of mountains. I believe it enters the ranges away to the west, in the heart of a mountainous, impenetrable tract of country covered with dense forests. But for miles and miles this river flows underground. It must go somewhere."
"Has it ever been traced to its mouth, or at least to where it leaves the mountains?"
"Never. At least I have never heard of any one who followed it up so far, that returned to tell his experiences," was the somewhat alarming remark of Icilius.
"By the way, have you any food here?" said Clodia.
"Yes, plenty; our week's supplies for the whole of the workers were only brought in yesterday. There was sufficient to serve forty men. We are only four."
"That should last us, with care, for some time," I said. "Now, I would advise that Icilius and Marcus go first as guides, and that you and I follow, Clodia. But I think, before we do anything, we should refresh ourselves with some food, and then take with us what should supply each of us for a week."
My companions, one and all, fell in with the suggestion. We were not long in reaching the chamber where the food supplies were stored.
Here we ate heartily of some cakes, not unlike the oatcakes of Scotland, but sweet, some raisins, olives, and mangoes, washed down with a cup of light wine that was most refreshing.
Clodia enjoyed her repast, and would fain have had a few minutes' sleep, as she felt thoroughly worn out. But I had to be cruel enough to deny her, as I knew she would only have felt worse on awakening.
After our meal we packed our supplies, and tied them knapsackwise with light rope across our backs. I insisted on carrying Clodia's share also, as the poor girl had enough to do to drag herself along without burdening her with anything else.
Then we commenced to descend the long passages and galleries leading towards the River of Death. We explored several other passages by the way, in the hope that some of them would give us a due towards finding the Ariuta entrance; but one and all seemed only to lead towards the main cavern, and to the molten lake. On we pushed. Oh, how weary we were! The journey was excessively tedious, and we never seemed to be getting any nearer to the river.
At last poor Clodia broke down. With a faint cry she stumbled, and would have fallen had I not caught her.
"Go on, go on," she said faintly, "I cannot go farther. I feel as if I were dying. Just let me lie down here, and leave me to die."
"Clodia, Clodia," I said, throwing my arm round her, and supporting her, "you must not let such despairing thoughts take possession of you. We will rest here for a few hours. A sleep will restore you, and we will push on again refreshed."
Marcus and Icilius were kindness itself. They insisted on taking off their outer blouses and forming a rude couch for her. The air was warm and pleasant, although slightly impregnated with sulphur.
With a long sigh of relief Clodia threw herself down. I made her rest her head against my breast, while I leant my back against the wall of the passage. Within a few moments, I believe, none of us were awake.
I must have slept very heavily. When I awoke I felt a suffocating sensation in my lungs, and I had considerable difficulty in breathing. I looked hastily around. To my horror I saw that the fiery lava stream had invaded the passage wherein we were, and was now not more than twenty yards from us. It had slowly pursued us, creeping along the way we had come.
I awoke my companions with no little difficulty. They were nearly overpowered with the fumes. A few mouthfuls of wine, however, restored us, and, gathering up our belongings, we hastily proceeded along the passage. After we had walked for nearly an hour we suddenly entered another large chamber where the air was sensibly cooler, and more free from the sulphurous fumes. A dim light, as of day, illuminated it also, and on looking up we observed, about 150 feet above us, a huge fissure in the mountain side, through which dim daylight was entering. As far as I could gather, the night was nearly spent, and dawn was breaking over the world. Oh, what would we not have given to be standing outside that fissure! But it was too high up to be reached; besides, the cliffs on all sides were very precipitous. Nothing remained for us but to struggle forward.
We now began to advance into the older workings of the cavern, which some centuries before had entered the mountains at a different point. We saw relics of the artistic taste of workers long dead. Their very names were forgotten, but their memorials survived in huge monoliths, roughly-executed but vigorously-conceived statuary, faces carved out of the solid rock, and figures of human beings so lifelike in their pose that again and again we mistook them for some of our fellow-creatures.
In one chamber we came upon a statue of Tisiphone, the Fury, before which we all stopped in sheer fascination of horror. The subtle skill whereby the most peerless earthly beauty of feature was wedded to the most diabolically malicious and pitilessly cruel expression of face, awed us so much that to this day I shudder when I think of it. For some time we lingered round it, like birds spell-bound by the gaze of some snake, until an exclamation of horror from Marcus caused us to gaze in the direction whither he pointed.
"What is it, Marcus?" I asked.
"A heap of skulls—scores of them."
"Skulls? how did they get there?—what does it all mean?"
Icilius it was who replied.
"I may be wrong, but I believe we have stumbled on the secret chamber of the League of Light."
"The League of Light—what is that?" I inquired.
"Oh I it does not exist now. It was a secret society which, about 200 years ago, was very powerful in Nova Sicilia. It was professedly formed to resist the intolerable oppression of the patricians, which had become just as grinding here as in Rome. The society, which was plebeian in origin, avenged itself on those who were cruel or harsh oppressors of the poor. It struck terror into the patrician order, when one and another and another of their class disappeared and were never heard of again."
"But did the authorities make no attempt to put it down?" I said wonderingly.
"I only speak from what I have read and heard; I believe several attempts were made to stamp it out, but they all failed, owing to the support the society received among the poor. Those who made the attempt invariably became its victims."
"And how long did it last?"
"For over a hundred years at least; then it became a purely political organization, and was in turn guilty of the grossest acts of tyranny and oppression."
"It is always so. But who suppressed it?"
"Well, I believe internal dissensions crept in; some of the members became traitors, and acted as spies for the Government, until during the Consulship of Marcus Titurius Balbus and Spurius Lartius, the latter, by a clever stroke, captured the whole of the members while they were in meeting, and thus caught them in the act. A number of very incriminating tablets were found, and the whole of the officers, without exception, were executed. No one ever knew where they conveyed their victims. Tisiphone was their patron, and probably this is the statue which, in some way, was associated with the death of the League's victims. Do not touch it, or approach too near. There are hidden springs in it, I believe."
"Hidden springs!" I added; "and what effect do they produce?"
"I do not know. I have only heard a rumour that the victim was ordered to grasp the outstretched hand of the statue which you see there, and that his death followed."
"Let us try the effect with this long pole," I remarked, going to a corner where I saw a wand leaning against the wall.
Marcus and I took the pole and pressed the palm of the hand. Suddenly the hand of the statue gripped the pole and dragged it towards its bosom, which at the same time opened up on either side, showing within a deadly arrangement of daggers all pointing outward, against which the body of the luckless victim would be squeezed.
"O horrible," shrieked Clodia, "that such iniquities should have existed!"
The contrivance was much the same as that in the dungeons of the Inquisition at Naples, but the Roman invention showed a greater refinement of cruelty than its analogue in the possession of the Holy Brotherhood. Singular indeed it was that two minds in different hemispheres of the world should have developed similar ideas for torturing poor humanity almost at one and the same time.
"Here's an altar," cried Icilius, who had been searching the chamber; "it is all splashed with some dark substance, evidently blood. Ha! what's the inscription? Diti Deo Acherontis—to Pluto, God of Hell!"
"O, let us get away from these horrors!" said Clodia, clinging to my arm, "they chill me with dread."
"Yes, we will go, this is no place for you, Clodia. Come, Marcus and Icilius."
"One moment. There is a recess here containing a number of things. For instance, what are these, and these, and these?" Saying this, to my exceeding surprise he dragged out from the recess an old flint-lock pistol rusty with age, a sailor's knife with the name "J. Smith" distinctly cut upon it, and finally, a little book, "The Shepherd's Calendar of Edmund Spenser, imprinted for Thomas Rowe, and are to be sold at the Golden Key, in St. Paul's Churchyard. Anno 1656." On the fly-leaf was written "John Smith, Bristol, 1662". Eagerly I seized upon these memorials. "Would they could speak," I murmured, "what a tale they would tell!" It seemed probable at least that some countryman of my own had been done to death in that awful chamber of torture. I thought of his last moments, how his mind would fly back to "Merry England," where mayhap his friends were waiting and watching for the ship that never came home, for the voice they were never again to hear.
I was aroused from my reverie by Clodia again pulling my arm and begging me to leave the terrible chamber.
"Yes, Clodia, we will go," I said, hastily gathering up the mementoes of my dead countryman; "the associations here are not pleasant, but I am glad those villains of the League caught their deserts in the end."
"That they did," said Marcus; "our historian Tertius Fabricius specially mentions the terrible revenge the Consul Balbus took on the members of the League."
"I am glad to hear it. Those who could devise cruelties like these were not men, but fiends."
We left the silent chamber, with its awful memorials of bygone bloodthirstiness and cruelty, and recommenced our journey along the passage. The workings now ceased, and we were wholly dependent upon the successive caverns for furnishing us with the means of pushing onwards towards our salvation. Our progress was very slow. So rough and dangerous was the track, which, however, seemed still well marked, that it took us over an hour to advance two or three hundred yards.
Poor Clodia was unable to travel rapidly. Again and again she besought us to leave her to die. I told her that come what might we would never desert her, and that if she had to die, we would all die together.
After struggling along the best part of another day we were once more obliged to encamp in one of the numerous little chambers that opened off the main caverns. After we had refreshed ourselves with food we lay down, though, alas! the hope of extrication from our awful predicament seemed growing weaker with the lapse of every hour.
The others fell asleep almost at once, but I could not, although I felt utterly exhausted. The hours passed heavily by. I struck my chronometer watch and found it was after midnight.
Then in the silence strange weird sounds began to force themselves on my attention. Grotesque and terrible faces projected themselves out of the semi-darkness upon my gaze, but vanished the moment I looked intently in their direction. Shadowy flitting forms seemed to pass and repass before the entrance to the chamber where we were resting—forms that cast lingering looks of mingled sadness and hate upon me as they were swallowed up by the primeval gloom. Never-ending friezes in pompous processional order appeared before the doorway, the stories in the mythology of Greece and of Rome unfolded themselves in mysterious dramas, without beginning and without end. The figures of the great ones of ancient story gazed upon me with eyes out of which an eternity of horror seemed united to a universe of woe—Hector and Achilles, Ulysses and Agamemnon, Apollo the god of youth, and Venus the goddess of beauty, all mingled in some hideous masquerade. Then there fell upon my ears, as though it had been the whispering of some vast multitude, a soft sibilation of words sounding like the rustling of leaves in the intercalary lulls of some Titanic storm.
Voices I certainly did hear, of that I was assured, and laying Clodia's head gently on a pillow formed of my coat, I started out to discover the cause.
But I had scarcely risen to my feet when there fell upon my ear, ravishingly beautiful as the distant songs of angels, or of a multitude of Aeolian harps swept by the west wind, the swelling strains of the most divine music it had ever been my fortune to hear. Spell-bound I stood listening. The voices of males and of females were subtly intermingled, while like an undertone of bliss sounded an accompaniment of stringed instruments evidently played by master-hands.
Like the cadences of the heavenly choir the music rose and fell, now swelling loud and overpowering, now sinking into a whisper like the murmur of many distant waters in the leafy month of June. To venture out I dared not, lest I should lose some of the bewitching harmony.
Then the sounds began to recede. Fainter and yet more faint they grew, as though vanishing into infinite distance. Then they died on the air, though that very air seemed tremulous with harmony for many a moment after all actual sounds were silent.
Yet somehow I felt comforted by the very fact of having listened to these ravishing sounds. I realized that sooner or later we should be saved. With these ideas in my mind I resumed my seat by Clodia's side, and soon slept like my companions.
WE slept long and heavily. Exhaustion sealed our eyes, and it was far on in the succeeding morning when I awoke, to discover Marcus and Icilius endeavouring to prepare a light meal for us before we set out once more on our weary way.
We ate a few cakes, some raisins and olives, and washed them down with a draught of Massic wine, occupying the time the while with pleasant conversation. At last, all being in readiness, we once more began our journey, full of determination to use every endeavour to save our lives from this living tomb.
On we pushed along the track, Clodia now the most eager of us all to reach our destination. Passage after passage we traversed, now in doubt whether we were wandering from the main track or were straying in a circle round the path, now encouraged by signs of previous travellers along the same road. Sometimes the pathway was narrow, so that two could scarce walk abreast: sometimes it expanded into a magnificent chamber, capable of containing two thousand people. Birds and bats at length began to fly around us, showing that we were not far from the life of the great glad world without.
At length we entered a spacious cavern, where the stalactites and stalagmites on roof and floor conveyed the impression to us of being within some vast cathedral. The air was cool, and in the distance we seemed to hear the murmur and the music of many waters. Frequent fissures high up in the roof of the cavern admitted a dim light.
At last, on turning a huge projecting cliff we saw before us—dark, sullen, and silent—the almost motionless waters of the River of Death. What a dreary spectacle it presented, yet how glad we were to see it! The track for a time seemed to run alongside the bank of the river, but stopped on reaching what appeared to be a primitive landing-place,—for an old stone quay stood there, evidently long disused. The width of the river at this place might be from twenty to thirty yards, but its depth was well-nigh fathomless.
Here we were at a stand-still. The track seemed to stop, and we were in ignorance how to proceed, when Icilius gave a cry of surprise and delight, and pointed to a dark object lying on the surface of the water close in to the quay.
"What is it, Icilius?" I inquired eagerly.
"A canoe, the gods be thanked—we are saved!"
Poor Clodia was so overcome with delight that her feelings gave way, and, hiding her face in her hands, she wept aloud.
I endeavoured to moderate Clodia's almost hysterical joy, and then, turning to Icilius, I said:
"Is it fit to travel in?—will it hold us all?"
"I think so—so far as I can see, it would hold five times as many. It may even prove too unwieldy."
"There's not much chance of that, Icilius. However, see what you can make of it, and whether we might, with safety, embark in it in place of so wearily footing it along the shore."
"We'll soon put that beyond a doubt," cried Marcus, going to the assistance of Icilius.
Yes, there was no doubt about the fact. Here was an old canoe; it was large, heavy, and roomy, and had evidently been used to convey articles of no small bulk from place to place. Icilius at once leaped into it and began to test it. He found that, although it had probably been disused for many years, it was perfectly water-tight and fit for use. The paddles still lay by its sides, where they had been laid down by the unknown rowers a long time before.
It was evidently a canoe of Ariuta construction, the character and richness of the carving placing this beyond a doubt; and this seemed to hint that we were on the right track to discover the entrance to the cavern known to the natives.
We accordingly got into the canoe, and our combined weight did not seem, in any respect, to overload it.
"The gods are propitious, O my friend!" said Clodia, as we sat together in the stern of the boat, while Marcus and Icilius, allowing the current to carry us onward, merely used the paddles to keep us in the centre of the channel. I gently pressed her hand, but did not venture on replying. My heart was too full.
We were evidently far away from the crater, whose roar only faintly reached us. As we passed along from cavern to cavern under the mountains, we saw the same evidences of gems past all compare, and gold in quantities absolutely inexhaustible, meeting us everywhere.
The river seemed to flow through subterranean valleys and plains, through narrow gorges and beneath the frowning face of sheer impending cliffs. A dull semi-twilight prevailed, amidst which we could discern objects at a great distance both before and behind us. Gems of a value almost incalculable sparkled here and there, and by their sheen, even in the dull light, lent their quota to the illumination of the gloom.
Now and again we would pass on the left-hand bank the faces of gigantic figures sculptured in the rock. Also mysterious blocks of masonry, showing that mankind had been there before us. Both the sculpture and the architecture were different from anything we had seen at the New Sicilian end of the great caverns. Different entirely were these from Roman art in any of its phases, resembling early Egyptian carving of the third and fourth dynasties.
This betokened, however, that we were now within the sphere of influence dominated by Ariuta art and Ariuta civilization.
For hour after hour we steadily progressed down the course of the River of Death. We were all strangely silent. The spirit of reverie had fallen upon us. I had been sitting beside Clodia, and perhaps had allowed my thoughts to stray away homeward to Old England's shores, wondering if I ever should see the chalk cliffs of Dover again, when suddenly my attention was drawn to a cluster of diamonds imbedded in the soil of the cliff-side, which literally blazed with brilliancy, even in their rough state. They were almost within my reach, and involuntarily I put out my hand to see if I could touch the place. Clodia observed the action, and smiled sadly. She misinterpreted my motives in the matter, and thinking I was sorrowing over being compelled to allow such wealth to slip through my fingers, she remarked:
"Do not trouble yourself over them; you will get more than you can carry away in Nova Messana."
"My dear Clodia, I was scarcely thinking about them."
"Ah! my friend, think no more of them," said Clodia, laying her hand caressingly on my arm. "We are escaping with our lives. Thank the gods, thank the gods! What does our Horace say in two places in his Odes?—Carpe diem et permitte divis cetera."
"My dear Clodia, I am too thankful for our escape to think of aught but the goodness of Heaven to us."
"Who are your gods to whom you can show your gratitude?" she asked naively.
"Ah! Clodia, it makes little difference. The same Providence takes watchful care over us all, under whatever form we may render adoration to it."
"What do you mean? Have you no gods? Have you not deities that you worship as we do?"
"Ah! yes, Clodia, we worship the same great Power under the name of God as you do under the name of Jove. What I mean is, that it is immaterial under what name we worship the great Father of all, whether as Jove, or God, or Siva, or whatever else; our thankfulness for mercies can be the same."
"I vow a kid to Proserpine for snatching us from her gloomy husband's power," replied Clodia, smiling.
Onward the stream bore us, Marcus and Icilius at times chanting in a low tone a boating-song familiar to the New Sicilians. The water was black as ink, and as oilily smooth as the wells of Baku; while a dead silence brooded over all, like the quiet of a desert solitude.
Onward we passed. At last a hasty exclamation from one of our companions induced us to raise our eyes. Immediately ahead of us, with its towers and pillars, its columns and obelisks, imperfectly discernible in the dim light of the cavern, was a subterranean city, evidently of vast extent. We were as yet a considerable distance from it, but every yard we travelled made the wonder seem more mysterious.
Nearer and nearer we drew to it; its Cyclopean masonry and towering battlements, its minarets and gigantic buildings, frowned down upon us. Then a blaze of light flashed before us, and we saw hundreds of dim white-robed ghostly presences thronging the banks, and calling to us in a strange, unknown tongue.
A SCENE more extraordinary than that wherein we now were placed could scarcely be conceived. Here were we being borne along on the bosom of this mysterious river, a party of as diversely-constituted human beings as could well be supposed, the orbits of whose lives a day or two before were as unlikely to intersect each other as that Jupiter and the earth should cross each other's course when revolving within their own planetary paths. Yet now the anomaly had been brought about that I, a stranger from England—a terra incognita to most of the others—with Clodia, the daughter of one of the Consuls for the year, and finally with Marcus and Icilius, the gold-seekers and gem-gatherers, should have floated down to this weird, unknown city in one another's company. What a singularly-assorted gathering we were! what a mysterious situation was that wherein we were placed!
The banks of the River of Death were crowded with these strange, white-robed figures, ghost-like in the gloom, which flitted hither and thither, uttering peculiar cries, and beckoning us to draw in nearer to the shore. The towering and massive battlements of the great subterranean city, the domes and minarets and obelisks rising on all sides of us, the stupendous architecture, and the evidences of splendour present on every side, all seemed to imply that we were on the threshold of some remarkable discovery, perhaps the remains of a dead or a dying civilization.
Meantime the cries of the white-robed figures on the bank increased as the current seemed to bear us more rapidly onward. The crowd followed us along the shores. Then it was I felt that, if an impression was to be made on them that would guard against our ill-treatment in the future, now would be the time. Standing up, therefore, in the canoe, I shouted several words aloud so as to attract the attention of the strangers, and then fired off two chambers of my revolver into the air. The effect was electrical; the whole multitude of ghostly figures fell prostrate on their faces, and low cries and wails, evidently of supplication, broke from them.
Marcus knew the Ariuta language through having learned it many years before, when as a prefect's assessor he had been stationed in the northern part of the island. He therefore addressed the suppliant crowd by my instructions.
"Fear nothing. We come in peace. The great gods of the Nova Sicilians have spoken; ye have heard their voice; so do, then, as may be required of you, lest the wrath of these gods be kindled."
The people rose from their humble posture, evidently encouraged by the friendly words of Marcus.
One who was seemingly a man of authority among them stepped forward and spoke as follows, Marcus acting as interpreter:
"O strangers, since ye come in peace, ye are welcome. Death would have been your portion under ordinary circumstances, because ye have intruded upon the secret worship and meditations of the Hidden Disciples of Motuala, the Almighty God of gods; but you evidently are His children. This is His city and temple, tenanted alone by us, His servants and priests. It is called Chimalo. I am Kisho, the chief priest here, and director of the worship in this secret temple, whose mysteries no unhallowed eye ever looked upon save one."
"Kisho, you have spoken wisely. We are your friends. We desire you well. We come from the city of Messana; and, owing to the great eruption that has taken place in the mountain, we could not get out by the ordinary entrance, and had to seek this one, which we knew existed, but which we had never been able to find till now. Will you assist us?"
"Why should the Sons of the Gods need help from those who are children of men? Have you not come unto us in the canoe of the Sacrifices?"
"Because we are wandering through strange lands we come, and the Spirits of Evil are striving with the Spirits of Good. The great Motuala himself is anxious, and hath sent the Son of the Thunderbolt to war against his enemies, and to subdue them unto himself," I replied thus through Marcus, feeling that our safety depended on keeping up the illusion.
"Land, then, O Sons of the Gods, and we will give unto you what we have for the sake of the great Motuala," said Kisho.
Our canoe was therefore headed for the shore. Along the banks were certain ancient landing-places built of masonry, with steps leading down to the water. We landed, and were assisted up the stairs by the Ariuta priests. Their dress consisted of one long, white garment, with a hood attached to it, a richly-wrought girdle, and shoes of a very peculiar pattern.
As we ascended the steps at the landing-place, I insisted on Clodia taking my arm, and determined to show her in the presence of the Ariutas such marks of honour and respect, that any attempt to steal her from us might be prevented by the feeling of dread which the Ariutas themselves would entertain for her.
I dropped a hint of my intentions to Marcus and Icilius, and also to Clodia. The latter was much opposed to it.
"We should kneel to you, not you to me. Oh, my friend, you are too thoughtful for me. The gods alone can reward you. But let me pay the homage to you."
"No, Clodia, that would not serve the end in view."
"Why not? You look much more like a person to be reverenced than I, a feeble girl."
Alas! poor Clodia could not realize the danger wherein she stood. Her beauty was so surpassing that the Ariutas might wish to retain her amongst them as one of the wives of their monarch, or, on the other hand, as an acceptable sacrifice to the gods. I had caught a whisper of something of this kind in the talk of Marcus and Icilius. I determined to prevent it.
Therefore the moment I reached the bank of the river and stood on the landing-place, I fell at Clodia's feet, and with great show of humility requested her blessing. She gave it with a sweet assumption of dignity that was very captivating. Marcus and Icilius followed my example. To our surprise, the old priest Kisho, whose long white beard and venerable aspect gave him the appearance of a Biblical patriarch, fell on his knees beside us, in which act he was imitated by all the attendant priests.
"Why do you kneel?" I asked in surprise.
"Do not forbid us," murmured the aged priest. "Down with you there," he cried to some of the priests, "down and implore the blessing of the maiden."
"But why should you do so?" I urged; "your own gods are your protectors, although we also worship Motuala, or God, under a different name."
His answer has often recurred to my recollection as being full of that calm wisdom that comes alone from the experience of age.
"O, strangers," he said, "if the maiden be of such surpassing power, let us unite our prayers to yours, that she may take our sacred city under her protection!"
While all were kneeling before Clodia, I quietly reloaded my revolvers, and at the close of the ceremony fired off two more shots, as though to stamp with the seal of Heaven our devotions. Through the kneeling multitudes a long shiver as of dread passed, when the report of the shots pealed through the mighty caverns.
Then Kisho conducted us from the banks of the river through the gates into the mysterious sacred city of the Ariutas. Everything appeared to have been done on a gigantic scale. Marcus acted as our interpreter with Kisho, and from him we learned that the city was at least 10,000 years old, dating back to the times when the whole of the South Sea Islands were populated by that mysterious race which hailed from Atlantis, whose marvellous works are still traceable on Easter Island. He informed us that the people had records reaching back over 6000 years, when a great king and warrior, Kauwaristanai by name, had flourished. He was a mighty lawgiver and social organizer, and to him was due the constitution, sacred and secular, of the Ariutas, which had prevailed all over the island, until the advent of the Romans 1800 years before had slightly altered the character of the polity, and of the civilization. Only in the centre of the island, and in this sacred city of Chimalo, did the worship of Motuala and his inferior divinities still exist in its pristine purity.
The architecture of the buildings in this subterranean cavern was Cyclopean in its massiveness. The temples, the palaces, the halls, the pyramids, the sphinxes, the colossal statues, were all executed in a style of great artistic beauty and power. Yet the whole circumstances of the case were so strange as to impress me with a vivid sense of the unreality of the scene. The city was situated not far from the mouth of the cavern. The light, therefore, reaching its inhabitants was that of a mellowed twilight. Yet was it most suitable to the sacred character of the city in the estimation of the Ariutas. The garish light of day would have been out of place.
With Clodia hanging on my arm, and attended by Kisho, the chief priest, Marcus, Icilius, and I pursued our way through the city until we reached the house of Kisho, who had insisted on entertaining us. The streets of the city through which we passed were unlike anything I had ever seen. They were gloomy, dark, and funereal-looking, and were lighted by lamps day and night. No wheeled vehicle was visible in the town: Mules and asses were the beasts of burden, and everything that required to be transported was carried on the backs of pack-mules.
The inhabitants wore a grave, absorbed, sorrowful expression of countenance, due in large measure to their sacred character. The majority of the residents of the town were priests, their wives and families, only a few merchants and traders being allowed to take up their residence in the sacred city.
When we were seated in Kisho's house, in a lofty room of which the sole furniture was a low table about eighteen inches high and some mats with rich cushions, and after we had partaken of the refreshment he set before us—fruits, cakes, and wine—the old priest inquired whither we intended to go.
"Back to Nova Messana, of course, as quickly as possible."
Kisho shook his head. "You will have many difficulties to overcome before you reach there."
"Difficulties—of what kind?—of men?"
"Both of men and of the country. The roads are known to few, and I fear if you fall into the hands of King Ranamea, death would be your only portion."
"His death would follow on the slightest injury being inflicted on one of the party before you. You know I carry the thunder of heaven with me: it would be awakened instantly against anyone who attempted to wrong us."
"But King Ranamea is surrounded by thousands of guards."
"No matter, the thunderbolt seeks its goal through rings innumerable of armed retainers. It is the great defender of the feeble. Under its protection the weak are equal to the strong."
Kisho was thoughtful for a moment, then, turning to me, he said:
"I believe you are all you say. I feel the voice of Motuala speaking to me through you, and I pledge my word to assist you in every way possible. Perhaps the influence of this fair maiden, whether she be beloved of Motuala or not, may have had something to do with my decision."
Was I deceived in thinking that for one moment a scintillation of humour seemed to gleam in his eyes as he spoke? Clodia was very tired, and was easily induced to retire into an inner chamber and rest, while Icilius, curling himself up where he sat, was speedily fast asleep. This left Kisho and me to enjoy a chat, though Marcus had still to act as our interpreter.
I was anxious to learn something of this mysterious people, and, therefore, my first question to him, after he had declared his willingness to afford me any information I desired, was how they believed themselves to have come from Atlantis, or "Aztlan," as he called it.
"I do not pretend to know where 'Aztlan' was; all we know is that it was destroyed in a frightful earthquake. But in ancient days there was a great deal more land in the world than there is now."
"Oh! I see, you believe in the theory that Atlantis was united to South America, and that all those islands in the South Seas once formed a part of the South American Continent. The theory is not a new one.
"My son, you confuse me: I do not know any of the names you mention: they are all strange to me. All I know is that we had land communication from 'Aztlan' to Ariuta, but it took many long moons, over seven or eight, to traverse the distance."
"Quite so; the Aztecs had the same tradition, and the Quiches hold it to-day."
But Kisho shook his head. My speech was as Greek to him, and I let him tell his story in his own way.
"It is about a hundred thousand moons ago, according to the records of our priesthood, since Priwastra, the son of Tau, set out for the farthest confines of the world, where the great Motuala or Ra foretold he should found a mighty empire. He brought 500 companions of both sexes with him, and established here our sacred city. Five hundred moons after their arrival the great convulsion or strife between the upper and the nether world took place, in which Aztlan was destroyed, and land communication between the two places broken up. A band of men, who had escaped the terrible rain of fire that overwhelmed Aztlan, reached here after travelling over twenty moons, seeking our country. Thus we learned about Aztlan, and here we have abode until this day."
While Kisho had been speaking, my eyes had been wandering round the apartment, the walls of which were covered with paintings. Suddenly I started with surprise unutterable. The designs on the walls had seemed strangely familiar. No wonder they should be so. In every particular they were the same as those of Egypt. In other words, the art of Egypt and of the Ariutas was absolutely identical. On the walls were representations of the pyramid, the obelisks, the sarcophagi, the hieroglyphic writings, so familiar in the cities of the Nile. There, too, I saw the figure of Ra, the bird-headed, of Ptahsocharis-Osiris, of Pasht, of Mut, of Isis and Horus, of Anubis and Thoth. In every particular they were exactly alike. What did it mean? I determined to ask Kisho.
"Have you ever heard of Egypt—Aegyptus, Kisho?" I inquired.
For a moment the old priest looked puzzled. Then his countenance cleared.
"I remember seeing in one of the New Sicilian books, which was translated into our tongue by my predecessor in the high priesthood, a reference to it. It is one of the countries in that division of the world you call Africa, is it not?"
"Right. It is the oldest country known to our Western scholars. Its history, its civilization, its science, its religion, all date back to a period so distant as practically to be unknown. In other words we have no reliable information regarding its beginning as a nation."
"Humph! how far does it go back?" replied Kisho almost contemptuously.
"That I cannot say. Hundreds of thousands of moons! But what I wish to bring under your notice is, that its architecture, its art, its religion, its natural customs, nay, its system of hieroglyphic writing, all were identical with your own."
Kisho seemed startled. He gazed at me incredulously.
"I am not deceiving you, Kisho; what I say is absolutely true," I continued. "But the writers of Greece, of whom you have doubtless heard, Plato and Plutarch, both mention the fact that the priests of Sais had informed certain travellers that the Egyptians were descended from a colony sent out from Aztlan or Atlantis, an island far out in the Atlantic Ocean. The account was long regarded as mere fable. I believe, Kisho, there was no fable in the matter, but that the account in question represented absolute truth."
The effect on Kisho was not a little wonderful. Rising to his feet, he seized my hands in his. "It is truth, absolute truth!" he cried. "I myself can show you in our ancient tile libraries, which contain information dating back to the beginning of things, that such an expedition did leave Aztlan about three hundred moons before Priwastra started on his journey hither. The expedition went east, and, after much travelling, settled on the banks of a fertile river, where a great empire was founded. Twice they sent embassies to Aztlan to acknowledge the authority of our lord and master Meru. That is the country you call Egypt to-day."
"Did you say you had records in your tile libraries dating back so far?" I inquired eagerly.
"Assuredly. They were used long before we discovered the secret of making paper from the fibres of the bark that is found on the trees here."
"What a treasure that would be!" I rejoined. "The history of the world might be written with some approximation to truth."
While we were conversing together, some of the subordinate priests who were friendly to us had come in and had been listening to the discussion. During a lull in the conversation, one of them remarked to Kisho:
"Ktando has been trying to work mischief."
Kisho's face became clouded. His eyes blazed with wrath.
"What is that arch-mischief-maker doing now?" he cried.
"He says the strangers ought to be offered as a sacrifice to Motuala: that they have broken the laws of the order and contaminated the sacredness of the city with their presence."
Marcus repeated what had been said to me. "Let him come and take us," I said in reply to the young priest who had brought the intelligence. "We have come to you under the protection and by the will of Motuala, and he who is the great Ra will shield us with his buckler. Let Ktando put a hand on us and that day will be his last."
But while I was speaking I noticed that Kisho's face grew momentarily sadder. He seemed oppressed by a secret melancholy that weighed upon his spirits. I observed it, and the thought suddenly flashed across me that perhaps in defending and protecting us the good old man was endangering his own life. I taxed him with it. He appeared very confused.
"My son, do not harbour any such ideas in your mind. My authority here is still supreme."
"But, Kisho, is it not the case that your enemies are using your protection of us as a handle against you?" I was distressed that I had not thought of the contingency before.
"Well, even though it is so, what of it? What can they do?—nothing."
But that was not sufficient for me, and turning to Kisho I inquired:
"Who is Ktando, and what power has he?"
"He is the brother of the king's favourite wife, and has great influence among the younger priests. He is deeply versed in our religious customs and traditions."
"Then, Kisho, you must risk no more for us. Whatever his party may wish us to do we will accomplish, but I warrant that if he means to do us any injury he will come off second best."
"Do not be alarmed," replied the grand old man calmly, raising his eyes to heaven. "The Supreme One knows I have always endeavoured to glorify Him at all costs, and to do His will. If I am to die, I die in a glorious cause, in protecting His children from wrongs that would be put upon them."
While we were speaking Ktando suddenly entered the apartment, and made a profound obeisance to the High Priest. He was a beetle-browed, evil-visaged man, on whose features all the worst passions of human nature were written large. Yet there was a power and a dynamic fascination about the man's mien and personality that could not fail to have an effect on weaker men.
Approaching Kisho, and again saluting him, Ktando said, as Marcus informed me: "Oh, father, wherefore is it that the strangers who have contaminated the sacred city with their presence are not to be offered up as usual to assuage the wrath of the offended deity?"
"Because they are under the direct protection of Motuala."
"But how do we know that?"
"Did you not see the sacred fire from heaven proceeding from their hands, or at least from the hand of him who now honours my guest-chamber with his presence?"
"I did so; but are we to believe that it proceeded from the great Motuala, and was as deadly as it is represented?"
Kisho turned to me appealingly.
"Would you like to try whether or not it could stretch you dead on the spot where you now stand?" I said to Ktando angrily, through Marcus.
Ktando drew himself up. His hood was wider in its borders, his girdle richer, and his tunic more flowing than those of any of his companions. He evidently knew himself to be a person of consideration, and he wished to make an impression on me by the force of his own individuality. But my proposal staggered him. He drew back. But the smile of scorn which I permitted to rest on my lips for a moment seemed to sting him into ungovernable rage. Springing forward he shook his fist in Kisho's face:
"You are dishonouring the gods of your nation. You are afraid of these accursed foreigners, and Motuala is to be contemned because of your craven heart. At least, the foreigners should undergo the ordeal of touch to see what is Motuala's will concerning them."
It was now Kisho's turn to draw himself up with dignity, and with calm, cutting sarcasm to rebuke Ktando for his violence. The proud priest writhed under his superior's condemnation, as it was so public. But I considered the scene had gone far enough. In Kisho's interests, it was time to stop it, lest the kindly old man should suffer. Therefore, as soon as Marcus had informed me what Ktando had said, I stood forward and remarked:
"I am willing to undergo any such ordeal as you may demand."
Over the faces of Ktando and his friends I saw a gleam of triumph pass when they understood my words. They appeared to imagine that my very consent to undergo the ordeal they spoke of was a victory for their party. They went away in great glee to make preparations.
On inquiring what they desired us to do, Marcus turned to me and said, "Ktando and some of the priests insist on us undergoing the ordeal by touch, that is, to touch the forehead of their sacred statue with our finger. If the god is displeased with us, he would signify it by striking the daring intruder dead on the spot; if not, no change will follow."
"Well, Marcus, do you think all is fair and square?"
"Oh, I think so! I don't see how they could injure us in any way. It is merely some superstition they have with regard to the statue."
"If I thought we ran any danger by consenting to undergo the ordeal, I would make short work of Ktando and his friends without distinction."
"Of course it is well to be prepared against everything; but I do not think any treachery can be accomplished against us in connection with the ordeal, and it is as well to satisfy them. It will please Kisho also, for I fear the poor old fellow is in a bit of a hole over us."
"True, Marcus; we owe it to Kisho. Let us rouse Clodia and Icilius and tell them. I will be guided by what they think."
After having the situation explained to her, Clodia was strongly in favour of agreeing to it. In her idea a refusal was not to be thought of.
"Oh, no! there would be nothing gained by that," said she. "Let us consent and undergo it. We will thereby render the Ariutas more ready to assist us, and to furnish us with guides home again. Although the direct road through the mountain is only some twenty miles, I have heard that the distance from Chimalo to Messana is fully fifty miles by very rugged and tortuous roads."
That decided us. Poor Kisho had been very much put out when his colleague Ktando, next in rank in the priesthood, proposed the trial, and referred to their sacred writings, where it was inculcated that every stranger must touch the forehead of Motuala so as to learn his pleasure about him. But the High Priest was immensely relieved when, on his excusing himself regarding it, I laughed, and said:
"Oh, certainly; there is nothing to object to in that. Our motives are pure, and the gods who see the heart will recognize that."
Kisho smiled in turn, and said, "Motuala will never injure those who love the good. But the impure in heart will be swept off the face of the earth."
We accordingly prepared to set out at once to the place where the trial was to be made. From the residence of the High Priest we walked slowly through the streets of this mysterious town. The silence and the awe brooding over all seemed oppressive. The strange, dim light of the semi-subterranean city presented everything to us as though viewed in a dream.
Oh, the wonder and dread of impending disaster which hang over me during all that time! Every hour of the time I had been in Clodia's company had served to impress upon me her beauty, her unselfishness, and the winning gentleness of her nature and manners. More and more I realized how much she had become to me in those few days, how deeply her image had imprinted itself on my heart. Dear little Clodia! the very idea of her being in danger thrilled through me as if with a sensation of acute pain. I solemnly vowed that her safety should be guarded with the last drop of blood in my body.
At length we reached a wide, open square, in the centre of which stood a colossal stone statue. The features of this figure were of a calm, majestic beauty, singularly impressive and awe-inspiring.
"That is the statue of the great god Motuala. It is 4000 years old, and has more than once proved the salvation of the Ariutas in the day of trouble," was Kisho's remark.
"That is the statue which my ancestor had seen," said Clodia in low tones to me. "Surely they will respect their promise to us, and let us go in peace."
"Do not fear anything, beautiful Clodia," I replied warmly. "You have played your part well, and Kisho and his priests are sufficiently impressed with your appearance and actions to be very glad to show us all the kindness they can."
But Kisho and his attendant priests at this stage of the proceedings exhibited unmistakable signs of uneasiness over some matter. Ktando was in evidence everywhere. He seemed to have taken over the office of master of ceremonies, and the suggestion of the trouble seemed to proceed from him. To Icilius and Marcus I confided my suspicions, but found they did not share them, and thought Kisho's agitation proceeded from Ktando's usurpation. However, I let them know that if any treachery were intended against us, and especially against my beautiful companion, Clodia, I had determined to empty my revolver into the body of the villainous-looking priest, who, I was convinced, was at the bottom of the business.
At last Kisho advanced to give us our instructions.
"All you have to do is to ascend, one by one, to the platform around the features of the statue, and to touch its forehead with your fingers. Motuala will do all the rest, and in his grace you may safely rely, though not in the good faith of wicked men."
Something in Kisho's tone seemed to give me a warning, but I dismissed the thought as unworthy. The ceremony was only a formal one; what could there be to object to in it?
It was evidently desired that I should touch the forehead of the statue first. This I declined to do; not from fear, but with the determination that if anything happened to Clodia I might be able to fly to her rescue, while if I were rendered hors de combat at the outset she would be at the mercy of the others.
It was therefore arranged that Marcus and Icilius should lead off with the trial of the ordeal. They advanced one after the other to the mighty head of the statue—the features alone of which were about eight feet in height—and ascending the steps that wound up behind the neck of the great bust, and then in by the ear to the eyes and the forehead, they touched the latter reverently. A deep silence prevailed while this was taking place. When all was over a shout of satisfaction went up from the surrounding priests.
So far all had gone well. There was not even a suspicion of foul play, and the joy the priests evinced at the success of Marcus and Icilius seemed genuine.
"Now, Clodia, you go next," I said.
Clodia left me standing at the foot of the great statue earnestly watching her progress upwards. I saw her attain the open gallery at the foot of the forehead and immediately under the eyehole. I saw her stretch out her hand as though to touch the forehead of the statue. Then I received a smart blow from some unseen source. I looked away from the platform for an instant, to see who was my assailant. My attention was recalled to the spot by a low murmur of excitement. When I looked again Clodia had disappeared, as though by enchantment, from the platform.
I COULD scarcely believe my eyes. That Clodia should have disappeared in so mysterious a manner was incredible! In an instant I had bounded up the steps until I reached the forehead of the statue. On my way up I had noticed a heavy hatchet lying beside a coil of rope. In a moment I had possessed myself of the former. Then, when I had reached the forehead of the great statue, in place of reverently touching it as the others had done, I swung back the heavy axe over my shoulder, and struck at the features of Motuala with all the force of which I was capable. From the interior came a hollow, twanging sound, showing me that the statue was not solid throughout. A yell of horror greeted my action. The white-robed priests swarmed up the steps of the statue, but halted when they saw me standing with my revolver presented so as to cover those who should approach.
With them came Marcus, who at once ranged himself by my side.
"Where is Icilius?" I cried.
"Gone. He disappeared at the very moment when we saw Clodia disappear."
"But where can they be?"
"That I know not. Icilius was standing by my side, leaning against the wall of the gallery, when suddenly, when I looked again, he was no longer with me."
"Marcus, we are evidently surrounded with pitfalls. We must stick together, and rescue our friends. Now, you tell them, please, that if they do not surrender Clodia and Icilius without delay, the thunderbolts of heaven will kill every one of them without exception."
The priests meanwhile had been talking earnestly among themselves. Kisho was no longer present. The leader of those who were so hostile to us was the evil-visaged priest, Ktando. He was talking and gesticulating to the others, evidently inciting them to rush forward and seize us. The old scoundrel did not lack courage.
Then Marcus stepped forward, and, beckoning with his hand for them to keep silence, said:
"You have offended the gods by laying hands upon the 'Light Maiden', whose beauty is the beauty of the morning; also by seizing my comrade. Now, therefore, the Son of the Thunderbolt hath spoken, and it shall be done, namely, that all you shall be killed by the unseen bolts of the gods, which the Son of the Thunderbolt carries. Deliver up our companions if you wish to escape."
A yell of defiance was the only reply to our demands.
As Marcus finished speaking I again raised my revolver, and took steady aim.
Ktando saw I was determined to single him out as my first victim. With remarkable agility for so old a man he rushed across the intervening space, brandishing a dagger, and shouting the words, afterwards translated for me by Marcus,—"Death! death! Motuala has been desecrated! The Son of the Thunderbolt is a demon!" He had nearly reached me when I fired. The bullet struck him a little above the heart, and he rolled over and over in his dying agonies.
Yet even then his courage did not desert him. In a moment he raised himself on his elbow and shouted to his followers:
"Cowards, rush on them: they are only two: do not fear death: avenge Motuala and me."
There seemed a disposition on the part of the younger priests to adopt Ktando's dying advice. But again Marcus proved of invaluable service. Raising his voice once more he shouted aloud:
"Why will you rush on your death? The Son of the Thunderbolt does not wish to slay you, but you compel him to do so: down on your knees and entreat mercy, ere worse befall you."
The words of Marcus struck terror into the crowd, especially when they saw me once more preparing to take aim. They became paralysed with fear. One by one they fell on their knees imploring mercy. "Spare us, O spare us, Son of the Thunderbolt: we have been misled and deceived."
"Where are our companions?" shouted Marcus in reply.
"Spare us, O spare us, we are not guilty," was the only response we could get from the terrified priests.
In my agony of suspense over the fate of Clodia, there is no saying what might have happened to the unfortunate priests, whom I believed guilty of at least plotting against the life and liberty of her who had now become so dear to me. But at this moment Kisho and his friends rapidly mounted the steps and advanced towards us, just in time to witness Ktando's dying agonies. Once more I prepared to fire; this time over the heads of the priests. But at the same time I pointed to Kisho, to show them that it was to him alone they owed my forbearance.
Kisho advanced to me, and, beckoning to Marcus to interpret, said, "O Son of the Thunderbolt, spare our priests. They are not to blame. He on whom the blame lay has met with his death. Motuala hath willed it. Great is Motuala!"
"But will you restore the maiden and the man whom you have taken?" I asked through Marcus.
"The man certainly, but the maiden is now—"
A great horror seized on me. Had they sacrificed poor Clodia? I sprang forward, and with a yell of defiance, shaking my revolver the while, I cried, "What have you done with her? Give her up at once—at once, or I will serve all of you as I served that dog there."
Kisho looked at me with a look of intense surprise for a moment, then he said with great dignity:
"The maiden is uninjured; how came you to think she would be injured? Come with me." And, taking my hand, he led me forward to the eye of the statue. To my infinite surprise I saw that the eye was in reality a door, very convex in shape, which slipped up into a recess in what represented the eyelids. The workmanship of the statue had been so exquisitely true to nature, that, close as I had been to the place, I had failed to detect the presence of the door.
Kisho led Marcus and me through the door, and down a magnificent staircase of pure gold. Down we went, deep into the bowels of the earth. Suddenly we stepped from semi-darkness into a glorious blaze of light. Brighter and yet brighter it grew. Kisho drew aside a drapery that seemed to veil a doorway, and we were ushered into the sacred shrine of Motuala. Seated before it were Clodia and Icilius, who exhibited signs of the greatest joy that we were reunited.
Kisho pointed sadly to them, and said, "Couldst thou not have had a little more faith, O Son of the Thunderbolt? 'Twas I who stole your maiden away, 'twas I who caused your companion to be concealed, knowing that you and your interpreter would be able to rescue yourselves."
I was speechless with surprise. But, recovering myself, I crossed over to where Kisho was standing, and, taking his hand, said warmly:
"Forgive me, Kisho, I too have been misled, but I feared that Ktando and his men had seized them."
"So they had plotted to do, and not only these two, but all of your party. Motuala forgive me, but I had to slay one of our own priests before I could beat Ktando's faction back and secure the captives myself. It was the only way to save their lives."
"We can never be sufficiently grateful to you, Kisho. But may Motuala bless you and keep you!"
"Ah! my son, the rescue has been effected at a terrible sacrifice; my own fate is, I fear, sealed."
"How is that?" I inquired anxiously.
"King Ranamea will hear of the occurrence, and will avenge the death of his favourite wife's brother."
"Nay, he will never know. We will slip away quickly, and Ktando's faction are now so thoroughly broken that they will give no further trouble."
"Let us hope so; only in his ignorance lies my safety."
"But dare he put forth his hand against a priest?"
Kisho shook his head. "He cares little for our ancient religion."
"By the way, why did Ktando conceive such a dislike to us?"
"Because you were protected by me. He hated me because I was high priest, and was over him. He tried to thwart me in every way, and to undermine my influence. He was well read, and deeply versed in the ancient religious customs of the Ariutas, and this made it easy for him to assert that anything he wished was the will of Motuala, because it had been the custom long ago. We have abolished human sacrifice. He wished to revive it; and the maiden and your companion would have been the first victims. Let us be grateful unto the gods that I was able in the end to outwit the malice of Ktando. For years he has been a sharp prick in my side. Now I am free from him."
The shrine where we were standing was a small one underground, lighted with myriads of lamps that were never allowed to go out. The sight was one of the most magnificent I ever saw. The walls of the temple were literally 'faced' with gold, studded here and there with precious stones. Rich vestments and clothes curiously inwoven were visible on all sides. The altar stood in the middle of the temple, and on it were piled fresh fruits and flowers, for Motuala was God of the Living Principle, and the Ariutas considered, like Pythagoras, that in fruits and flowers we get the Principle of Life most in evidence.
Kisho said to us after we had thanked him for preserving Clodia and Icilius, "Within a day or two, as soon as the excitement cools down, you must be far hence. I will send two faithful guides with you; but you must promise never to reveal what you have seen here, neither the way in nor the way out. You must forget you have ever been here. Were it known that I saved you alive, I should probably forfeit both my position and my life. Will you swear?" By the eyelids of Motuala we gave our pledge never to reveal aught that had passed during the last few hours.
"And now, my children," said Kisho sadly, "we have only a short time together before we part, never to meet each other in life again. You, my daughter, will return to your father, the Consul; you, my son," he continued, turning to me, "will have a long journey before you reach your home, and when you do you will discover many changes."
We started in abject astonishment at the old man. Never in one single instance had we dropped a hint to him as to who we were, yet he seemed to know all our affairs familiarly.
"How do you know who we are?" I inquired quickly.
"That, my son, is part of our religion. The study of magic and of insight into the future and the past was one of the greatest glories of Aztlan. Very few amongst us keep it up. I have always done so."
Perhaps I allowed a smile of a slightly contemptuous character at what I considered the old man's credulity to appear on my lips. He saw it, and added:
"I see you do not believe me. Will you believe your own eyesight?"
With these words he brought forward a small iron brazier, on which he placed some resinous gums and spices. Then from one of the lamps around he set fire to the heap. A thick vapour diffusing a delicious odour diffused itself throughout the shrine. Then the smoke seemed to roll together into heavy masses like the cumuli we see in the shapes of the clouds. These, in turn, parted, disclosing, as in a frame of vapour, a clear space, wherein we observed figures beginning to form themselves. Gradually these became clearer and more distinct, until we were able to recognize the harbour of Nova Messana and the deck of the Fitzroy. There, seated on the poop, we saw Piso the Consul, the Professor, Captain Anstey, and Mr. Rodgers, the mate. They were evidently discussing some subject with great earnestness, for their faces were grave and anxious-looking. The moment poor Clodia saw the representation of a scene so familiar she cried aloud, "Oh, my father, my dear father, shall I never see you again? Come to me, father!" Then, realizing how vain were her entreaties, she hid her face in my breast, even as a little child, and wept bitterly. The vapour-pictures slowly dissolved.
Kisho's powers having been so triumphantly demonstrated in this particular, he next turned to us and said:
"You will soon be leaving me, my children, but I warn you out of the love I have conceived for you, not to set foot in any vessel until you reach home. If you do, the death of the dearest of you will, I fear, follow."
"I don't think there will be any necessity for embarking in any boat whatever," said Icilius. "We can reach Nova Messana by the land route just as well."
"By all means let us take the route that is the safest," I replied anxiously, for in some dim, inexplicable way I realized that Kisho's warning pointed to Clodia. The very thought of danger threatening Clodia thrilled me with dread. With her naive childish ways, and her lovable nature, she had so endeared herself to me that already the idea was slowly taking shape that I would settle in Nova Messana for her sake. Her innocent trust in me, her manifest pleasure in being near me, all stirred reciprocal feelings in my breast.
Meantime strains of the most delicious music were softly rising and falling, seemingly in the far distance. The cadences reminded me of what I had heard in the caverns, and I inquired from Kisho what it meant.
"You probably heard the Weird Singers of the Seven Peaks, a tribe living far away to the west, among the caverns there, but who come here to bury their dead. They are a people whose worship consists in Music, and they are supposed to be an offshoot of the early settlers that came to Nova Messana long, long ago. They were probably carrying their dead down the river when you heard them. They are a strange race, very fierce when attacked, but when left alone the best of neighbours."
I was obliged to accept this explanation, though it was very far from explaining all I had heard and seen on the eventful night in question. At last, Kisho, observing that Clodia looked worn and tired with the exciting events of the day, and as the night was now far advanced, said:
"Rest yourselves here, and I will send you in some food by a trusty priest; then, when evening again falls in the forest, your guides will come for you, and you will start at once. I will see you again."
With these words he stole quietly away, and we lost sight of him, leaving us in the quiet temple rejoicing in our escape.
It was evident that the liberalizing influence of Kisho and his friends had not penetrated far into the innate superstition of these murderous-minded priests. The religion of the Ariutas seemed remarkably akin to that which we believe to have existed among the early Egyptians, among the Toltecs of Mexico and Central America, and the later Aztecs of Ecuador and Peru. There was the same colossal architecture, the prevalence of the pyramidal shape, the worship of the horned deity, and the presence of flowers and fruit on the altar as a peace-offering. But there was an alien element in their worship, this desire for human sacrifices, which I could only account for through the desire to pacify the gods, so that the eruptions might not bury the people and their mysterious city.
Before long a door was opened in the temple, and three acolytes entered, bearing a plentiful supply of food—fish, fowl, fruits, daintily served on plantain leaves, and wine in skin bottles. The white-robed novices quietly arranged them before us, and then glided away. Once more we were left alone. Nothing impressed us more than the great silence which prevailed. Not a sound reached us. Presently Clodia, at my desire, wrapped herself up in her mantle, and, leaning her head against my breast, went to sleep. The others also lay down, the understanding being that, as I alone knew how to use the revolver, I should watch now, while they would do so afterwards, when danger was less imminent.
WHILE the others slept I had abundant time for meditation. Our position was even now far from being enviable. We had many difficulties to overcome before we reached our destination. I had no reason to doubt Kisho's good-will, but the hints I had heard dropped of King Ranamea's disposition caused an anxious dread to take possession of my mind. Clodia's attractiveness was itself a matter of apprehension to me, owing to the fact that a beautiful woman would be a prize past all price in the amorous king's eyes. How, then, was I to convey the poor girl into New Sicilian territory, in the face of such a danger? But presently my fears passed away. I realized how Heaven had assisted us in the past, and somehow the advice of Cromwell to his Ironsides flashed across my recollection, "Trust in God, and keep your powder dry." It gave me strange consolation, and I determined to follow out its counsel to the last.
Hour after hour passed. The deep silence around me, broken only by the regular breathing of my companions, proved dangerously soporific. I must have been dropping off to sleep, when somehow my faculties became acutely awake once more by the subtle consciousness that someone was near me. I found that my eyes had closed, and it was with a sensation of supreme horror that I saw, on opening them, a sight that chilled my blood in my veins. Hanging down from the roof of the shrine was an enormous serpent. It was suspended head downwards, and was slowly swinging itself to and fro within a few inches of my slumbering companions. The light from the lamps showed the glistening colours on its scaly skin, beautifully marked in green and red and black. From out its mouth played its forked tongue like a fiery dart. I was speechless and spell-bound with terror, able neither to cry nor to move to the succour of my friends. Then, too, my eye fell upon the features of an old crone, whose snow-white hair and withered, parchment-like face betokened great age. On arresting my gaze, she smiled and nodded her head, then said, in fairly good Latin, while she pointed to the serpent:
"No fear. He not hurt: he tame: he sacred snake of Motuala."
With these words she passed her hand over the body of the reptile, which presently descended from the roof and curled itself round her. It was evidently so tame and harmless as to be the pet of the habitués of the shrine, yet the sight of the old woman encircled by the coils of the enormous creature, and peeping out like another Laocoon from its folds, thrilled me with horror. However, as it would not do to seem afraid in her presence, I smiled, and nodded, with the remark: "It is very fond of you."
"Ah, poor thing! it is all I have left now to love."
With these words she nodded again to me, and disappeared from the building with his snake-ship, for which, I must confess, I was devoutly thankful.
After this I fear I must have proved unfaithful to my trust by slumbering in reality. At least I was not aware of the approach of anyone until a hand was laid on my shoulder. I started, awakening Clodia with my exclamation of surprise.
Before us stood an old man, or rather a man prematurely old. His hair and beard were white as the driven snow, and fell in tangled masses over his shoulders and breast. His eyebrows, too, were white and bushy, but beneath them glowed the burning light of the most startling eyes it had ever been my fortune to see. They were like fires. He was literally clothed in rags, but a single glance showed me that I had to do with a European. But the mystery was, how did he get there? I sprang to my feet and drew my revolver. A contemptuous smile flitted across his face like a wintry gleam of sunshine over untrodden snow. Then, to my surprise, he said in excellent English: "What—will one Englishman fire at another? Fie—fie!" My arm fell by my side. I rushed forward and clasped my fellow-countryman's hand.
"Who are you?—what are you doing in this terrible place?"
"Hush! I escaped from Nova Messana, and have wandered through the caverns, coming out here;" and with these words, he pointed to a slab in the temple floor which was raised, and beneath which we could see the commencement of a flight of stairs descending into the bowels of the earth. "But oh, what I have suffered!"
"Joannes Websterius, can it be you?" cried Clodia wonderingly.
The look of terror which overspread the old man's face was pitiable to behold. "The Consul's daughter!" he cried, in utter dumbfounderment.
"John Webster, you are safe with us. Right glad am I to see you. Your brother-in-law, Professor Barlow, has been at Nova Messana looking for you."
"What!" cried Webster despairingly to me, on hearing my words, "and has he left?"
"Not that I know of. Nor will he leave, I expect, until we get back."
"O, take me with you! If a frenzied man's gratitude will carry any blessing with it, let mine call down every good gift on you if you will save me from certain death, and help me to return to Nova Messana."
"Captain Webster, it was to save you that we came into these latitudes at all." And in a few sentences I recounted to him the finding of his letter by the villain Jake Huggins, his attempt to seize the vessel, and finally, Professor Barlow's determination to bear down into these seas and look for him. Webster's emotion would not suffer him to interrupt me while I was speaking.
When I stopped, all he could say in broken tones was: "God bless him—God bless Ernest!" Then burying his face in his hands, he sobbed aloud.
Clodia's eyes were likewise full of tears when she learned the sad history of the poor old castaway.
"Yes, Joannes Websterius, you shall go back with us; and our friend there, the bearer of the thunder of the gods, will protect you as he protects us."
Captain Webster cast his eyes up to heaven as she spoke, and I distinctly saw his lips moving in prayer. Then, taking Clodia's hand, with old-fashioned courtesy he carried it to his lips, "May the sun of thy prosperity never set, may the moon of thy good fortune never withdraw itself, and may that Mighty Power whom we all worship, be his name Zeus or Motuala or Jehovah, keep his everlasting arms around you even until the end!"
"Yes, Captain Webster, keep your mind at rest. Within a very few days I hope we shall all be back at Nova Messana, and you will find your brother-in-law, hale, hearty, and well. As far as a human arm can, I will protect you."
Just as I said these words I heard a low expression of terror uttered near me, and turning hastily round I beheld Kisho standing open-mouthed gazing at Webster.
"How came he here?" the old priest murmured; and Marcus pointed to the raised slab in the floor of the temple.
"Oh, close it, close it! Do you know him?" he inquired of me, through Marcus.
I nodded, and briefly recounted the facts in Captain Webster's life, to which Kisho listened with eager attention.
When I had finished the narrative he said quickly, "He must be saved, but oh, it will be hard. He has come to us by the sacred pathway of Motuala, which it is death for any sons of men to tread. You must come with me—quick, quick!" he cried. "I will not harm you," he added, seeing that Webster hesitated. The Captain trusted him, and disappeared with him in perfect confidence.
About fifteen minutes afterwards we were surprised to see Kisho enter the shrine once more alone with a complete stranger. The latter was clean shaven, and seemed to be a man well up in years despite his youthful appearance. I was just about to greet the new-comer respectfully, though distantly, when something in his mien seemed familiar. The truth flashed upon me.
"Captain Webster, can it be you?"
"Well, I've doubts myself, I can assure you," replied the Captain.
Kisho, in the short space of time during which they were absent, had caused one of his confidential assistants in the priesthood to shave Webster's beard off and to clip his locks. He had also clothed him in the dress of the country. Had anyone seen him lurking about, he would never connect the vagabond and the white-robed acolyte who now stood before us.
"You must not speak, and above all keep out of sight until the time of departure comes round. Remember, every priest would think it his duty to kill you for profaning the sacred way."
Webster clasped the old man's hand and kissed it. "God bless you for all you have done for me!" he murmured, as Kisho moved away, after placing some food before Webster, which he greedily devoured.
We then lay down once more to rest until the time of our departure arrived. Kisho was arranging everything for us, and all we had to do was to fall in with his plans. Perhaps it was the sense of this dependence on another that made me so anxious. It was long before I slept, and when I did so I was again tormented with terrible dreams. I seemed to have been only a few minutes asleep when I felt a hand touch me. Once more I sprang up, inquiring what was wrong. Kisho stood before me. "Nothing, my son," he said, "only the hour has come. I have been twice in to see you before, but each time you were all so fast asleep I thought it a pity to disturb you, considering the difficult journey before you. You have slept over four hours, and the evening is fast falling outside the cavern. The hour for your departure has come."
"Has it? Well, I must say I am sorry. We have been quietly happy and comfortable here."
Kisho smiled once more, then raising Clodia, he said, "Your guides are now awaiting you. Everything is in readiness: you will find horses, provisions, and all you require with the guides. Go, my children. I am sorry it must be so, but there is no help for it."
"I am very sorry to leave you, Father Kisho," said Clodia, looking up into his face.
"And I to part with you, my daughter; but this life is nothing but a succession of meetings and partings. Go, my children, but I pray you, avoid the city of King Ranamea. It is about seven miles distant, and is called Chichihua. Thence it is only about twelve miles to the seaport you call Brundusium."
"There we shall be safe," cried Clodia, gleefully clapping her hands after she had heard the interpretation given by Marcus of the priest's words.
"Even so; but you have many dangers to overcome before reaching that point. One thing you may rely on—the absolute fidelity of your guides. They are my own sons, and belong to the bodyguard of the king. They are at home just now on leave."
We thanked the kindly old priest warmly for all his exertions on our behalf, and took a warm farewell of him; I said we might meet again. He shook his head.
"Our race is disappearing—yours is increasing. Soon the Ariutas will be a name of the past. But when you conquer us, remember to be merciful, for the sake of old Kisho, the High Priest."
As we were moving off, he said to Marcus, "If by any chance you meet with the king's party and have to go to Chichihua, do not mention anything of having been here." Finally, turning to Captain Webster, he placed around him a heavy mantle which completely concealed his acolyte's dress. "Be prudent," he said in a low tone.
Then the old man, having thrown around Clodia's neck a chain formed of some exquisitely beautiful stones, raised his hands over us in token of blessing, and turning away from us we saw him no more.
Many great and good men I have met in life, men whose characters have been as noble and beautiful as they could well be. But for sheer Christ-like humility and holiness of life I have never met the equal of that grand old priest of the Ariutas, whom I shall ever regard as one of the elect of God. Truly amongst those I hope to meet in that divine apocalypse of bliss that awaits us hereafter, one at least will not be absent from the general assembly of the just above, and that is Kisho, the High Priest of Chimalo.
And so we bade farewell to the mysterious city of Chimalo, the last surviving link uniting the world of to-day with the glories of the lost Atlantis.
Our guides were waiting for us at the door of the temple—two noble-looking youths, Lano and Perizal by name. They were seemingly deeply attached to each other, and their contest each to exhibit the virtues of the other—not his own—in a favourable light, was very interesting and beautiful.
Both of them had learned to talk Latin, and though they made many mistakes, about which Clodia smilingly rallied them, it was a great matter to have men with us who could understand our instructions, so that everything had not to be done through Marcus. The latter, I could see, was beginning to give himself airs over his indispensability. It was therefore a needed check to him to discover that his services were no longer required.
We left the temple, and after traversing a long underground passage we suddenly emerged into the open air. Oh, how delightful it was to feel the cool breezes playing on our cheeks after we had been cooped up for so long in a living tomb! We regained the open air on the banks of a noble river, which issued from some towering cliffs a little farther up the valley.
"What river is this?" I asked.
"The River of Death—the one you came down to us by. This is the part of it after it escapes from its long subterranean journey." Although night had fallen, and the moon was not yet risen, I could detect the luxuriant foliage with which the banks were clothed. Nature herself was still vocal with manifold forms of life. The crickets and the locusts still whirred and sang in the balmy air of the night. The frogs were croaking in the marshes, the bitterns were booming on the river banks. Oh, the luxury of sound after the death-like stillness we had so long experienced.
Our way lay along the banks of the river, but it was merely a track, not a road. I commented on it to Lano as we were mounting our horses.
"Ah, yes! we cannot make roads like the New Sicilians. Their roads last for centuries," said he sadly; "ours, like ourselves, last only for a day."
"True; but as the descendants of the Romans, the road-makers of the world, they would do little credit to their ancestry if they did not excel in that particular," was my reply.
"That does not make our roads any better, or our negligence any the more excusable," interjected Perizal smiling.
Then I remembered that one of the first things I had noted on landing in New Sicilia was the excellence of the roads. The secret of constructing them was one which the early colonists had brought with them from Rome and communicated to their posterity.
Behind us now, like a vast towering barrier, lay the mighty mountain chain in whose inmost recesses we had been travelling so long. As I looked back on its gigantic peaks, seeming to pierce the very heavens with their spire-like points, I felt thankful to Heaven that our lot had not been to be buried in the heart of them when the eruption took place, but that we had been able to discover the Ariuta entrance. Far away to the south-east we could see the lurid glare of the volcanic peak, and could even hear the low rumbling of its eruption. Clodia's mind seemed running on the same subject. Our eyes met. Clodia's were moist with tears.
"The Queen Mother of the Gods has been truly gracious to us, has she not, oh friend?" said the maiden, as she once more slipped her hand into mine, her familiar action so expressive of confidence.
"Indeed, Providence has been good to us, Clodia, under whatever name we worship it; and no after-gratitude on our part will be a whit too great in such circumstances."
"Let us unite our thanksgiving to the gods that have been so beneficent to us. We are saved!—we are saved!"
"Nay, my Clodia, let us wait. Thanksgiving never loses by being delayed until all our dangers are past. When we reach Nova Messana you and I will render our grateful vows to Heaven together."
Meanwhile we pushed on, Lano and Perizal beguiling our journey with pleasant converse, and with comparisons of the customs amongst the Romans and the Ariutas. Poor Webster, however, was terribly depressed and anxious. He feared that his brother-in-law would have gone before he reached Nova Messana. I assured him of the opposite, and endeavoured to cheer him.
Before long the moon rose, and we were able to see our way more clearly. The face of the country seemed covered with heavy forests, cleared away here and there to give space for some tiny farm or vineyard. Like the Romans of old, the New Sicilians were in the habit of styling all other races "barbarians." A glance, however, was sufficient to show that the Ariutas were no savages. Far from it. They possessed a culture and a civilization even more complex and more advanced than that of the New Sicilians, who represented Rome. Their architecture, their sculpture, their polity, their worship, their music, their habits, conversation, and dress, all proved to me beyond a doubt that though the descendants of the Romans had proved their superiors in arms and warfare, the Ariutas had greatly modified the stern Roman customs through intermarriage and constant association. Singular indeed it was that I should be able to study side by side two existing phases of life so diverse yet so alike as the Roman and those of Atlantis, of which race I had now no doubt the Ariutas were the survivors. "Oh that Professor Barlow were here!" I murmured to myself.
Meantime we were pushing onward. Lano had attached himself to Webster and to me, while Perizal was entertaining Clodia. Marcus and Icilius rode on our right hand, conversing with one another in low tones, and often casting sidelong glances at us. With all his conceit and vanity, Marcus was a sterlingly good fellow, but Icilius had in him all the fire and heroism and steady courage of his ancestors. At last Icilius stopped and beckoned me to rein in my horse for a moment also, while Marcus rode on with Lano and Webster.
"Well, Icilius, what do you think of things now?"
"I wish to talk to you seriously, and, believe me, it is only out of my desire to serve you that I do speak. Will you forgive me?"
"My dear fellow, say what you please. I know you speak as a friend."
"I do not know your name," he began, "but I love you. You are a true man, and we must reverence truth and honour wherever it may be found."
I smiled at his strange speech, and inquired of him what he wanted with me.
"Just to warn you that we are in great danger from more causes than one."
"Indeed, I thought we were pretty well through our dangers, unless the king intercepts us."
"That is it, and the danger from that is extreme. This is the hunting season, and Ranamea is always on the move."
"But how does that affect us?"
"In this way, as you will see. If any of the king's troops from Chichihua chance to be out, we shall be caught to a certainty; and what shall we say? what story can we make up?"
"Cannot we say we are a party of New Sicilian officials; that we have lost our way, and so forth?"
"Yes, that is very good, and might be believed if well carried through. But, remember Ranamea is a man of great natural acuteness and keenness of perception. He will not be easily deceived."
"Humph! Is that so? Then what do you propose? I will fall in with anything."
"Will you? Then that is all that is required. You will admit you are not very well up in our customs. You have not seen sufficient of us."
"That is true."
"Then there is another thing that would betray you. You cannot speak our language well enough to pass as an official in the service of the Republic of New Sicilia."
"That is true," I said; "my attempts at your language are terrible failures, I admit."
Icilius smiled, but did not contradict me. He then went on: "If you would not mind exchanging some parts of your clothing with Marcus, who speaks both the Ariutan and the rural dialects of the peasantry in New Sicilian territory fluently, and would be content to pass as his servant, I think we might get through. There is a village a little farther on where the road diverges to Chichihua, and if we get past that we shall be safe."
I agreed at once, and gave Marcus my naval cap, and also my coat with the brass buttons indicative of my connection with the Government of Queensland, in whose service I was.
"That should do splendidly. Now we can pass ourselves off as one of our survey parties, and I think there is little doubt we shall get through all right," said Icilius, smiling.
Marcus donned my cap and coat, and gave me in exchange his own brown canvas coat, and the light skull-cap worn in the mines. Clodia laughed and clapped her hands when the exchange was being effected, and declared I looked like an escaped slave. I fear I whispered to her that I was her slave, but had no wish to escape. A bright blush and a meaning glance showed me my shaft had gone home. Lano and Perizal, though affecting to disguise the risk of an interruption, were very glad to see the exchange made, as I had been their only difficulty in the way of passing off the party as one engaged in road survey that had lost its way.
"I will keep by you, slave," said Clodia. "I cannot afford to lose you now we have got so near home."
"I don't think, my dear Clodia, there is much chance of you losing me unless you yourself desire it," was my reply, while Captain Webster shook his head at me meaningly. But Clodia seemed strangely silent and happy.
We had now ridden about three miles from Chimalo. But, as the road was rough, our progress was slow. We were approaching the village of Braglondia, the point where all the roads diverged. It was a village near the frontier line, dividing the territories of the Republic of Nova Sicilia from those of King Ranamea, ruler of the Ariutas. Before long we heard the barking of dogs and the shouts of men in the distance. Lano stopped, and said:
"I do not like that noise. It betokens the presence of many men, and our friends will be in all the greater danger."
"But what are we to do? We cannot remain here. We must either go forward or back, and I hate to go back when we are so near our goal," I remarked earnestly.
"That is true; but what if we are stopped and carried to Chichihua?" said Marcus.
"There comes in the danger. There is risk whichever course we take."
"Could we not wait until they retire to rest?" said Clodia.
"Or make a detour so as to escape the village," suggested Icilius.
"We can do neither. The officers of Ranamea, if he is there, will be on guard all night; and we could not strike off the road, because the country is impassable through marshes."
Here was an awkward barrier to our progress. What was to be done?
"Let us ride forward and put a bold face on it," retorted Perizal, who was the dashing warrior of the two lads, his brother delighting more in peaceful pursuits.
"I fear there will be nothing else for it; but if any of the palace officials should be here?"
"We must risk it. Come, let us ride on."
Without further parley we did so. Marcus, wearing my uniform, with Clodia on his right hand and Perizal on his left, rode on into the main street of the little town. Lano, Icilius, and I followed.
No sooner did we get into the street in question than we became aware that something unusual was occurring. There was a royal residence in the town—for it was in the heart of an excellent hunting district—and it was around that building that the bustle seemed to be centring. Crowds of men, some mounted and some on foot, were standing in front of the gate of the house. Heavy wagons, piled high seemingly with household requisites, were waiting for admission, while a small body of troops were drawn up around an open litter, which likewise awaited admission. As we advanced through the crowd we seemed to be quite unobserved by any one until we had reached a point almost opposite the open litter. Then a man of dignified and noble presence leant forward in the litter, and said in deep, commanding tones some words in the Ariuta language. In an instant we were surrounded and stopped. An officer stepped up to Marcus, and in polite tones addressed him in Latin with the words:
"The king hath observed the travellers; will they have the goodness to appear before him?"
Kisho's worst fears never took account of this. King Ranamea had met us face to face.
KING RANAMEA sat in his litter eyeing us with eager curiosity. The gold lace and brass buttons on the coat, which Marcus was then wearing, naturally led the king to address him as the leader of the party.
Ranamea's fine, intelligent features glowed with interest and excitement when we ranged ourselves before his litter.
"Whence come ye, and whither go ye?" was his first question to Marcus, couched in excellent Latin.
Marcus did not hesitate a moment.
"We belong to a party engaged in road-surveying, but, unfortunately, we mistook the track, and followed one which led us far out of our way into your dominions."
The king glanced at him keenly, then swept his gaze over the faces of the others. None of them, however, flinched in the slightest.
"Good! Were my people kind to you during your travels?"
"Those we saw were very good to us, but we met with scarcely any of them."
"Humph! Then you cannot have penetrated very far into the country. Are ye all of one party?"
"All, your Majesty—my companion, my sister, and our slaves," he added, pointing to Webster and myself.
"Your sister—she is but young to endure the fatigues of the road."
"She is, your Majesty, and it is principally on her account I am anxious to return home as quickly as possible."
"Ah! that is not wise. Will you not rest with me here until the morrow, and then when you have seen our hunting, which perhaps the maiden may never have witnessed, you can resume your journey? Is not that advice wise, my friends?" he continued, addressing his courtiers.
"True, O King, live for ever! The maiden needeth rest."
Marcus was in a quandary; he did not know what to reply. He looked at me, then at Clodia, and finally back to Ranamea.
"We are much behind our time as it is, and our friends in Brundusium will be very anxious over us. I crave permission of your Majesty to proceed on our way."
A deep frown as of displeasure mounted to the king's brow. His whole features changed. Fortunately Clodia observed this, and said in a pleading tone to Marcus, as though desirous of persuading him: "I would so much like to see the hunting, and, besides, I am very tired with the journey, Marcus."
Ranamea's features lost their displeased expression in a moment; he became all smiles and kindness.
"And stay you shall, my daughter. I am sure your brother would not be so hard-hearted as to drag you away. In fact, we will not allow him to rob you of the sight on the morrow."
"Your Majesty is very kind to your servants, who accept gratefully your offer," said Marcus. "Perhaps after my sister has enjoyed the hunting scene, you will allow us to leave in time to reach Brundusium before nightfall."
The king smiled, and as at this moment the gates leading into the grounds swung open, we were compelled to follow him into the court of the building. Ranamea gave orders that we should be well attended, and that our wants should be supplied. As soon as we were rested, we were to be conveyed back to the presence of the king.
I had noticed Ranamea casting glances I did not at all like in Clodia's direction. It was evident that her presence amongst us was an enigma to him. We had to concoct some excuse, and the best one was that she was the sister of Marcus, had been very anxious to see the country, and therefore had been allowed to join the survey party.
Clodia was attended by two female slaves in the next apartment to ours. After having bathed and partaken of what was known as the hraskaria or greeting-cup, a sweet wine not unlike curaçoa in taste, we proceeded once more into the presence-chamber of the king. Lano and Perizal had been instructed to remain in attendance on us until we returned into the presence of Ranamea.
We were conducted into Ranamea's presence-chamber, a small, richly-furnished apartment in the back portion of the hunting-lodge. Here, seated on rich carpets and cushions, reclined Ranamea, the king of the Ariutas. Over his head on the wall immediately behind him, blazed in colours of fiery red and white the mysterious symbols, a triangle within a circle, the Tau or Key of the Nile, also found in Egypt. We saw now what a splendid-looking man he was. Although past the middle age, every limb and muscle betokened strength and agility. He eyed us keenly as we entered, then, when his eye rested on Clodia, it softened into a look of admiration, and he made some remark regarding her to his courtiers.
"You are rested and refreshed?" he inquired of her kindly.
"We are, O King, and to thy goodness we owe it," was Clodia's reply.
Ranamea seemed pleased, and ordered a rich cushion to be brought that Clodia might sit near him.
"It is not often that our court is illuminated with the light of a beauty so rare," he said gallantly, as he passed his hand caressingly over her luxuriant tresses.
Meantime the presence-chamber was being filled with courtiers who continued to arrive, momentarily, having been distanced by the king's cavalcade. A brilliant assemblage it was, and although the hour was now late, no one seemed to think of retiring to rest.
At length the monarch espied our guides among his guards, and recollecting that they had been in our company when we met him, he called on them to approach him. I felt an apprehension that something might escape them that would implicate them in the movement for our escape.
Lano and Perizal knelt before him, and awaited his commands.
"Tell me, O sons of Kisho, how you met with these strangers?"
"We met them wandering towards the sacred city of Chimalo. Your servants were on their way back to the sunshine of your presence, O Ranamea, king of kings and lord of lords. They hailed us, and inquired of us if we could direct them back to the boundary-line of thy territories, O king, and we were doing so when it was our happiness to meet the glory of thy countenance, O great Ranamea," replied Perizal boldly.
"But how came it you should do so, when you know it is a standing rule in the kingdom that all strangers must be brought to me?"
"Hear, O king of kings, and if thy servants have transgressed, let their lives pay for it. Didst not thou grant unto the new-comers permission to make roads on condition that they made one running to the city of Chichihua?"
"I did, my children."
"Didst thou not order that they should receive all manner of supplies from thy subjects, O light of the universe?"
"Yea, verily, that is so."
"And moreover did not thy gracious majesty grant unto these men immunity from all hinderance by thy servants? Nay, didst thou not publish an edict ordering all to assist these road-makers? We imagined we were fulfilling thy behests, O king, be thy days eternal as the hills."
"Ah! yes—you did right, my children, only I would fain you had brought them to Chichihua, where I could have inquired of them respecting the road."
"That we knew not, O great Ranamea, or it would have been our joy to fulfil it. We were hastening their return to their works in the belief we were doing what would be well-pleasing in the sight of our lord."
"You did well, my children, you did well," returned the king kindly. "You were not to know my secret mind in the matter. You have done no wrong."
"Thy servants kiss the dust on thy feet."
"But stay," cried Ranamea gaily, "can you resolve me this mystery? Whence this rose of the wilderness? By the grave of my fathers, rarely have I seen her equal in beauty. Tell me how cometh the maiden among them. Of a truth she is fair as the sweet-scented glolo that blooms in the gardens of Amera."
"For that information the Light of the World will require to ask of the Roman lord who standeth there."
Ranamea turned to Marcus with a smile, who, however, had his answer ready.
"The maiden, O king, whose days be as everlasting as the sun, moon, and stars, is, as I already told you, mine only sister," said Marcus. "She is but a child yet, and has long been anxious to see the country through which the road was to run. I promised to take her with me some time, and on this occasion had to fulfil my promise."
"She is fair, O stranger, passing fair."
"Thy servant praises the Giver of all Good that she hath found favour in the eyes of one so great and so good as King Ranamea," replied Marcus with ready flattery, "But she is only a child; she is very young."
"Humph! according to the customs of your country perhaps, not according to ours. What is her age?"
Marcus hesitated, then made a bold guess at the truth. "Twice one hundred moons have not waxed and waned since she saw the light. As their only daughter she is her parents' treasure."
"Stranger, according to our customs she is marriageable. She is fair as the full moon when it shineth over the slumbering ocean. Say, O stranger, wilt thou wed her to me? She shall be my queen, and will be regarded as the apple of mine eye, as the rare perfume that is distilled from the blossoms of the mornola."
Marcus betrayed his confusion, so that we all detected that some untoward turn in our fortunes had taken place. "O Ranamea, thy servants are utterly unworthy of thy notice!" he stammered out.
"I will raise you to be the leading arax or noble in my kingdom."
"The maiden herself is not fitted for an honour so supreme."
"That is not so; she is fitted to adorn the noblest station. Say, wilt thou accept my offer?"
Meantime poor Clodia, conscious that something was wrong, beckoned me to come close to her. I did so, bowing with a profound obeisance. Marcus gave me one glance of despairing entreaty, then replied:
"Your Majesty's goodness exceeds all possibility of gratitude. The offer stuns me. But, alas! I cannot answer."
"Why so? Are you not her brother?"
"Only her parents can decide. With them must lie the response. The maiden comes of the noblest lineage in Nova Sicilia. She is the daughter of Piso the Consul, and therefore, as far as lineage goes, is not inferior to thee."
Ranamea's eyes flashed fire to think that any of the new-comers could claim a lineage equal to his, but he controlled himself, and said: "Then let the maiden remain at my court while you go and ask permission from her parents. You and your companions could start to-night and return in two days' time."
"Ah! great Ranamea, be not harsh with us; if we returned without the maiden it would be as the death-blow to the aged pair."
"Do you not think the offer good enough for your sister?" cried Ranamea, an angry frown on his brow.
"Alas! O king, far more than we have any right to expect."
"Then why not accept it?"
"Because by Roman law only a father can give his assent to any such proposal."
"That means you will remove the girl, and I shall never see her again."
"Nay, not so; but surely a parent has a right to be consulted in the disposal of his daughter."
"Why do you vex me by rejecting, when I have stooped to ask what I have the power to take?" retorted Ranamea fiercely, while a murmur of assent broke from his subservient courtiers.
"Because by Roman law I have no power to do anything without the permission of the father of the maiden."
"Why not leave her here, and go from me to the Consul, bearing the rich presents which I will send, and tell him that Ranamea, King of the Ariutas, desires his daughter to wife?"
"I dare not appear before him without her," said Marcus.
Clodia seemed to have some idea that the above conversation had reference to her. She looked from one to the other of the speakers, then sinking on her knees, with a pleading gesture, instinct with winning pathos, she held out her hands to the king. "See, she kneels to me, she holds out her hands to me," cried Ranamea rising, and taking Clodia by the hand he led her up to the divan, and seated her next himself.
"Oh, your Majesty, she only pleads you would show her some consideration by permitting her to return to her parents!" replied Marcus.
"Look you here. I have a hundred wives, but she shall be my queen consort, a dignity never shared by any woman yet."
"Your goodness is past telling, but I beg you to let the maiden return to her parents for the present. She is very young yet," entreated Marcus.
Then Ranamea rose up again in wrath. He half drew his sword and said, "I will not give her up; she is mine, and I mean to keep her." A low wail broke from Clodia as Marcus translated the purport of Ranamea's words.
"O save me, save me, my friend!" she cried bitterly, and looked at me with horror and dread imprinted on her features. Marcus also turned to me with consternation and alarm in his expression. The time apparently had come when, whether I would or no, I had to drop the character of the slave. Therefore grasping my revolver, and meeting Ranamea's looks with glances as haughty as his own, I ranged myself by the side of Marcus.
"Let him understand that if he does not allow Clodia to go, and our party to leave his dominions in peace, the most direful consequence will follow. We do not wish to shed blood needlessly, but we will not scruple if it is forced on us."
"But if he will not listen to reason," urged Marcus nervously, with consternation imprinted on every feature.
"Then tell him," said Webster, "that his death will be on his own head, that the thunder of the gods will awake if he does not withdraw his absurd claim. The idea of our being your servants must, I fear, be given up. Tell him that Markham here is the Son of the Thunderbolt. It is the only way to make him understand."
Marcus did so. Ranamea looked at me uneasily, but seemingly did not consider me as a person of whom he need stand in fear. A contemptuous smile played round his lips for a moment as though he thought very little of our wisdom in expecting him to be deterred by so foolish a menace.
Clodia it was who, in her dread, spoilt our little fiction. Leaping from the divan, she rushed toward us, but in place of clasping her supposed brother's arm she took hold of mine. Ranamea's suspicions were at once aroused.
"What is this?" he cried, turning to Lano and Perizal. "Here is a lady of high lineage throwing herself into the arms of a supposed servant. What does it all mean?" With these words he drew aside a curtain which hung behind his seat, and there, inscribed in jewels, was the same mysterious device as was present on the walls around us, of the triangle inside a circle, which had puzzled us so much at Chimalo. We gazed upon it for a moment before Ranamea continued: "There is the symbol of the great Motuala, otherwise called by his sacred name, Ra. I invoke his protection, and I demand that the maiden be handed over to me, otherwise your lives will pay the forfeit."
The contemptuous smile on my lips seemed to enrage Ranamea. "Do you not respect the sacred name of Ra, who from his palace at Aztlan looks down and beholds your impiety?" he cried in Latin to me.
Even at this critical moment a flash of surprise vibrated through me to discover here, in this remote part of the Pacific, so emphatic a confirmation of the old legend of the destruction of Atlantis. The theory of the existence of a continent extending from the Atlantic Ocean far out into the Pacific, of which the South Sea Islands were the remains, seemed to receive as strange a confirmation as from the historical record of Kisho.
"Even the name of Ra will not protect you from the consequences of ill-doing," I said. "The great God will not tolerate that, and I swear to you that if you do not let this girl go, I will kill you by the thunderbolt of heaven."
For an instant Ranamea hesitated. Then the native courage of the man returned. He threw back his head with a haughty gesture, and clapped his hands. In an instant some of the guards rushed into the hall.
"I have no wish to proceed to extremities with you," he cried. "Consent to leave the girl with me, and not only shall you go free, but you shall be advanced to high honour in my dominions; refuse, and you seal your death-warrants. This girl is in my power, and I mean to claim her for my own."
"You will only lay hands on her, King Ranamea, across my dead body. I will protect her with my life. I swear to you also that if you put forth a finger to touch her, the next moment you will be a dead man. I am equally averse to proceeding to extremities and to shedding blood, but if you force me, on your own head be the consequences."
My words seemed to goad Ranamea into madness. Turning to the guards:
"Seize those men," he cried, "and take them away for instant execution. Take the maiden to my own apartments. I swear she shall be mine." These were his last words. In another moment I took steady aim at him and fired. He fell, casting at me an awful look of terror. Then I faced the guards; but they were appalled by the sound of the firearms, and, throwing themselves on the ground, besought me, as Marcus stated, to have mercy on them. I had no wish to take more life than was absolutely necessary. I motioned them to rise. They did so. Then I gave orders for them to raise Ranamea from the position into which he had fallen.
He was still living, but it was evident that his hours were numbered. We laid him on the divan and endeavoured to staunch the bleeding, but in vain. Twice he made an effort to speak, but failed. To the last, inextinguishable hate blazed in his eyes towards us. In a few minutes he had ceased to breathe. Ranamea the Great was dead. Then went up the wail throughout the palace—"O Ranamea—Ranamea—our father, is dead!"
As we stood watching the life ebb away from him who only a minute or two before had been the dreaded lord of the Ariutas, Clodia burst into tears, and, turning away, sobbed out:
"O why was I born? this is the second life that has been sacrificed on account of me. Already I feel the Eumenides beginning to lay their fiery scourges of remorse on my soul. Would to Mother Cybele I had died before causing such trouble."
"My dear Clodia, it was the will of God. What sacrifice of life has taken place has been only in defence of our own. That could not be laid at our charge."
Still she mourned with all a woman's tenderness and sympathy, that on account of her any of her fellow-creatures should have been hurled into eternity.
Meantime one of the old courtiers, who introduced himself as Aldomoro, the brother of Kisho, came up to me, and addressing me in Latin, said: "Pardon me troubling you, but I have somewhat of great importance to say to you. Give me your attention. I lived sometime in Nova Messana on my master's business, and there learned to admire the strict sense of justice and respect for law governing the people. But the same sentiment does not exist here. When the people come to hear that Ranamea is dead, unless a successor is immediately appointed the most terrible outbreaks of lawlessness will ensue. How are you going to provide against that?"
I was appalled. I had no desire to have the responsibilities of a kingdom thrust upon me, and therefore said to Aldomoro:
"I do not know what is to be done. Has Ranamea left no sons?"
"Who then are the heirs to the throne?"
"There are none of Ranamea's line. But he was himself a usurper. He dispossessed Glandover—Kisho's father and mine—of the throne. Our father was a peaceful man, with no heart for warfare, and Ranamea, who was his greatest warrior and general in the campaign against the New Sicilians, easily overcame him."
"Then you or Kisho ought legitimately to be the king," I said.
"Nay, neither of us would care for the throne now. But Kisho's youngest lad, Perizal, is one of the grandest of our young men."
"Would he take the position?"
"Verily he would, and do honour to it withal."
"That is enough. Why, then, do you not proclaim him king?"
"Nay, not so; but as you have brought about the crisis by slaying Ranamea, why not supply the cure by proclaiming Perizal?"
"But I have no right to do so."
"You have the right of the strongest, and you are the only man who would be listened to at the present time."
Seeing, therefore, that Ranamea had left no sons, and feeling convinced that the country would be plunged into the horrors of a civil war by divers claimants unless something were done at once, I agreed to act as old Aldomoro advised. First of all, I informed Perizal of what I intended to do. Both he and Lano seemed overwhelmed by the news. Then I suggested to Aldomoro that when Perizal was proclaimed king, he and his party should at once raise the cry hailing him as monarch. The old courtier was not long in obtaining support in all quarters, and informed me that all was in readiness. Therefore, taking Perizal by the hand, I led him forward to the soldiery, and, having placed the tiara of Ranamea on his head, I caused Marcus to announce, "There is your king—a descendant of the true blood royal; obey him." Then I retired to the background again. Immediately thereafter Aldomoro and his friends broke forth into the cry: "Long live King Perizal!"—a cry which was speedily taken up by all present. Then all the guards who were present, amounting in all to two or three hundred, also echoed the cry, and declared for Perizal. Within an hour he was the acknowledged king of the Ariutas.
And thus was a revolution accomplished in the land of the descendants of the Atlantides, and the original line of kings restored to the throne.
After all was over, and Perizal had been firmly seated on the throne of his fathers, his brother and he came to me where I was sitting, with Clodia and Webster, quietly watching the proceedings. After embracing me with deep emotion, Perizal said, "My brother, to thank you for all you have done for us were vain. You have done us the greatest service man could do, by restoring us to our ancient honours. Command us, therefore, to the uttermost for all you may need."
I thanked Perizal warmly, but added that all we required was to be sent to our destination as rapidly as possible. Perizal promised that this should be done. Then, as the night was far spent, we all retired to snatch a few hours of sleep before day.
In a cellar, damp, dirty, and noisome, lay a dead body, well-nigh naked, and covered with a piece of coarse sacking. It was that of Ranamea the Great. Ah, the mutations that attend human destiny!
ON the following morning, by the advice of Aldomoro, whom Perizal had appointed his minister, we waited until the chief men of the State had arrived from Chichihua, to which place messengers had been sent the night before to acquaint the citizens of the capital with all that had transpired. By the next evening we were surrounded with thousands of persons attracted by curiosity from the city to see the man who had been commissioned by the great Ra to restore the original dynasty to their honours. I gave them some exhibitions of fire-arms to increase their fidelity to their new monarch. Two days passed in this necessary work, and then we prepared to resume our journey towards Brundusium.
"I am about to leave you, Perizal," I said, as the time drew near for our departure, "but I cannot go without saying something that is on my mind. You will pardon me, I know, as you are aware that I only speak to you in love."
"My brother, say what you please. I would hear anything and everything from you with the deepest respect, as I know you love me."
"Well, Perizal, we may never meet again; in fact it is very unlikely that we shall, unless something happens in Nova Messana that I fear may never take place."
Perizal smiled, and grasped my hand.
"My brother, I think I know, but do not fear; she loves you as fondly as woman ever loved man, and only awaits the declaration of your love."
"Ah, Perizal! there are others to be considered besides her. Her parents may have other destinies in view."
Perizal shook his head. "Consul though he be, he will only be honoured by such an alliance. O, my friend," he continued, "I would I had you beside me here. Then I should fear nothing."
"Nay, Perizal, that will never do. You have your duties to perform to your people. You are placed where you are by God. Realize that fact, and remember the gods will love you and continue to prosper you in your undertakings only so long as you practise truth, justice, and impartiality to all men."
"I thank you for the advice. When you are far hence I will remember it, and in the years that are to come, be they long or short, I will strive to act as though you were with me to counsel me."
"Stop, stop, Perizal, that will never do! I am only a man like yourself, and a very weak one at that. You must have a higher model than any poor fellow-creature on which to mould yourself. You read Latin, I know. I will give you one of my greatest treasures; it is a little book, and I pray you to let the character of the Man called Jesus Christ, therein presented to you, be your model, as He is the model for us all." With these words I placed in his hand my pocket copy of Beza's Novum Testamentum, that had been with me all over the world. "Than that I could give you no greater proof of my love."
"Believe me, my friend, I will read it and study it, and, as you say, model my life on that of Him whom you mention as described therein. But I assure you that your own life will have as weighty an influence with me as any. How many men would have resisted the temptation to make themselves king of this country? One in ten thousand."
I shook my head and expressed vigorous dissent, but Perizal only stuck to his point the closer.
"You are leaving us," he continued, "and we shall miss you sorely, my brother; but oh! return unto us, that we may see your face again and hear the words of wisdom from your lips. Nay, I will not let you go until you promise to return."
"Well, perhaps, Perizal, but not at present; and you, Lano, see that you support your brother in all things; be his right-hand man, and, above all things, cultivate a friendship with the Senate of Nova Sicilia that will result in good to both sides."
"And where are you going?" said Lano.
"Than what I have already told you I can say no more. After I have restored Clodia to her parents I shall see how my fortunes shape. If they go not as I desire, I shall disappear from these climes and visit my countrymen that live far away over the sea."
"But you will return to us?"
"That will depend on many chances. But now, Perizal and Lano, I leave you with the opportunity of your life before you: see that you do not cast away so magnificent a chance."
Our leave-taking was a very impressive ceremony. But before that took place I went to see if Clodia were ready. I found her strangely sad and tearful.
"What is wrong, Clodia? Now that we are so near our journey's end, surely you are not going to break down."
"No—no—" she replied hesitatingly; "but—it is the very fact we are so near our journey's end that makes me so sorrowful."
I was surprised at her words, and said gaily: "Why—would you like to go through it all again?"
To my astonishment she rejoined, "I should, indeed. I have been so very—very—happy."
"What has made you so happy? Dangers and difficulties do not usually produce that feeling."
Clodia turned away, but I noticed the tears trickling down her cheeks, which she vainly sought to hide, but she spoke not a word.
"My dear little Clodia, do tell me what is the matter? Have I done anything that has vexed you?"
A look of deep reproach was my only reply.
"Then, Clodia, what is wrong? I must know in order to remove, if possible, the cause of your grief. Is it anything concerning me?"
"Then tell me what I have done?"
"It is not concerned with anything you have done, but about something you are going to do."
"My dear child, what can that be?"
"Cannot you guess?"
"I have not an idea."
"Oh, I cannot tell you, you will think me so foolish!"
"I can never think of you otherwise than as I do now, as the dearest little friend a man ever had."
"Then why are you going away from me when we get home to Messana?"
Ah, poor little Clodia, the cat was out of the bag now! But just as I was about to say something that would have dried the tears upon her cheeks, Marcus and Icilius entered the room, and when I looked again Clodia had mysteriously disappeared.
"The horses and everything are now in readiness for us," said Icilius, with a peculiar smile, "and if we wish to reach Brundusium by the morning we most start at once."
"We are all ready, Icilius."
Yet somehow there was a feeling of deep disappointment and dissatisfaction in my heart. In the cool of the evening we commenced our journey towards Brundusium. We were attended to the frontiers by both Perizal and Lano, and a large number of the chief men of the Ariutas, from whom we took leave with many expressions of regret. Before dawn next morning we were entering Brundusium, the next seaport to Nova Messana. While there we heard of the strange occurrences that had taken place at the capital.
BRUNDUSIUM, though not so old a town by any means as Nova Messana, was an exceedingly interesting one. Situate on a broad and noble river, about half a mile from its mouth, it was connected with its harbour on the seashore by substantial tram lines. Even at that early hour the wharves were crowded, and business was being briskly prosecuted. The city rose in successive terraces along the banks of the river, but at the seaport another town had already sprung up. The scene was one of great natural beauty; the blue, heaving ocean, the deep-green foliage around the town, with the white houses peeping out from amongst it, forming a picture not easily excelled. Then the magnificent river wound its way like a gigantic snake into the heart of the country, to be lost finally in those terrible mountains in connection with which we had undergone an experience so wonderful. Of a truth, the picture was passing fair, but when I looked towards the mountains I shuddered with horror. Only a week ago Clodia and I had left Messana, so full of life and hope, to see the Hanging Gardens and the Caverns of Gems, and what had happened since then? More than once we had been face to face with death. Yet our star had always been in the ascendant, and now we were well-nigh in sight of home. But we were not home yet, and, alas! although we knew it not, were not destined to see home again without passing through the direst danger in all our experiences.
The sun rose in all its splendour, and poured a flood of splendour over stately temples with their Doric or Corinthian pillars, over a magnificent amphitheatre where already athletes were beginning to practise for the games in honour of Jupiter Capitolinus, over circuses and hippodromes, over stately dwelling-houses and long lines of streets filled with shops for the sale of all conceivable commodities, over the shipping in the harbour, representing the ebb and flow of commerce. Brundusium was the commercial or manufacturing centre of Nova Sicilia. Tall, black chimneys and curious, conical-shaped firing-houses denoted the pursuit of pottery and glass-making, while a purple cloth, little inferior to that of Tyre—despite the absence of its murex—was woven and dyed here. Armourers' stithies, vast ship-building yards, where the quinquereme galley of war and the bireme of commerce were being built, met our gaze on all sides. In a word, we were introduced into a busy commercial town from the quiet and the silence of the country.
We were entering the city by the great eastern thoroughfare. Already chariots and horsemen were passing us, some on pleasure bent, some on business.
"Where are we to go, Clodia?" I asked.
"Why, we will go to the house of the Prefect. He is an old friend of my father's. He will gladly do all for us we need."
"But, my dear Clodia, what claim have I on him? I do not know him. I am not a citizen of the Republic, nor am I in the service of the State."
"Hush! you make me angry. You have the claim of every honest and true man who has assisted a woman when she was in extremity."
"But what of that? Every man would do the same, I hope, if he got the chance."
"Would they?" replied Clodia, with a contemptuous look. "I should not like to trust them. Nay, if it comes to that, I should not have cared to trust even Marcus and Icilius in the hours of extreme danger. They would have looked to themselves, and have left me to shift for myself. But you, oh my friend, have been goodness and devotion itself! A brother could not have been more truly considerate."
"Please do not talk like that, Clodia; I have only done my duty."
"Your duty!" she retorted, smilingly; "has it been a very unpleasant one, then? Your duty!" she added, laying emphasis on the words.
"I shall always look back on this week as the happiest of my life. When I am far away from you, I shall recall the incidents of it with a melancholy pleasure."
I fear my voice was very tremulous and husky as I uttered these words.
Clodia turned very pale, and the tears welled once more into her eyes. She turned aside, and said in low tones, so that the others might not hear:
"You are talking again of leaving us. Why will you go away? Why will you not stay with us, and we will be so happy?"
Was it an accident that her hand rested so pleadingly on mine, as I smoothed involuntarily her horse's mane.
"Ah, Clodia, there are many things taking me away! For example, you will have your own friends that are near and dear to you, and besides, I must return to my home; my father and mother are aged, and they long to see me again before the great end comes."
"But will you not return to us and live amongst us, and teach us the ways of that new Europe which are so different from that of the days of our fathers?"
I shook my head sorrowfully, and walked on with her in silence, for my pride could not bear to contemplate being patronized by her family. Once more she spoke, looking at me from out her wonderful eyes with a wistful pleading.
"My friend, you must not go from us for ever."
"Why so, Clodia?"
My heart throbbed painfully. Strange new sensations began to vibrate through every fibre of my being. My deepest heart-springs were stirred at the thought that perhaps this glorious creature cared for me—for me, the lonely, reserved, unsociable exile, whom men had sneered at and women pitied for my seeming dislike of female society and for my taciturn ways. Was it possible that I, who had yearned for love as the salvation of my moral nature, but had never found it, was to be blessed with a woman's love at last? The reflection of a great joy even now entering my life, coloured all my thoughts. I turned eagerly to Clodia as we were advancing towards the town, and ranging my horse alongside hers, I said:
"Clodia, what does it matter to you whether I go or stay?"
Her head sank upon her breast; her face was suffused with blushes; the hand holding her horse's bridle-rein was trembling with agitation. Then, faint as the rustle of leaves gently moved by the summer's breeze, she replied:
"Everything in life. If you go, I shall feel as though the light of my life were gone out," was her answer, spoken amid great agitation. Then, turning to me with a gesture of infinite grace and fascination, she drew my hand in hers with the words:
"Think me not unmaidenly in what I do, oh my friend! But if you go from me, I die, for I love you—I love you, carissime."
Low I bent over my saddle-bow, and kissed the fair little hand that lay in mine. "Clodia," I said in ecstatic tones, "you have made my life—that life henceforth is yours."
"And you will not leave us now?"
"Not unless you accompany me."
And into the expression on Clodia's face there flashed the glory of an infinite joy lighting up its features, and beautifying every detail of its composition.
"I am very, very happy," she murmured, as we rode on to join the others.
We were not long in reaching the house of the Prefect Aulus Mamertius Afer—a palatial edifice overlooking the town.
Clodia sent a message in by the porter, and in a moment the Prefect came running out, his arms spread out, and joy imprinted on his countenance. He was an elderly man, whose face had the most benevolent cast of expression of any I had ever seen.
"Welcome, daughter of mine ancient host! What a joy to your father to know you are alive! I will send off a messenger at once to relieve his anxiety. The story of your supposed death during the eruption of Mount Titicala reached us here. Your father was nearly frantic when the charioteer returned with the news of what had happened. Much sympathy has been expressed for him, but not so much as would otherwise have been the case had not nearly every one in the quarter of the city abutting on the mountain lost some members of their family."
"Why, what has happened?"
"The eruption has been terribly desolating; hundreds have lost their lives. Then it appears that the 'Sons of the Thunderbolt', whose ship was lying in the harbour, seemed to think the Consul and the Senate had made away with one of their number who had accompanied you. They awoke their thunder, and before the matter could be explained immense damage had been done to the quarter of the town where the poorer classes live."
"Oh dear, dear, what madness!" I cried, unable to restrain my vexation. Afer looked at me curiously. In a few words, spoken in a low tone of voice, Clodia recounted all that had passed since our departure. When she concluded, Afer approached me, and taking my hand said:
"I honour a man who acts as you have done. It gives one a renewed faith in human nature. I will let your companions know of your safety."
I bowed low in response, while Afer passed on to greet Marcus and Icilius. In a few moments we were comfortably seated at breakfast in the house of the hospitable Prefect. That day we spent in resting and in seeing Brundusium, but Clodia could not rest until she had once more seen her father. She begged Afer to devise means whereby she might be able to return home with the greatest expedition.
"My father must be undergoing tortures of anguish. Why should he be kept so?" she said to me.
"You are right, my dear Clodia; the sooner now we can return to Messana the better for all concerned."
"Alas! no, I have only one on board who would sorrow for me—my cousin, the captain of the vessel," I replied. "Let us get away as soon as possible."
"The Prefect tells me there is a state trireme leaving for Messana to-night, which would land us home to-morrow about the sixth hour (noon)."
"Why, then, let us go in it, carissima."
"Ah! but do not you remember old Kisho's warning—not to go by sea anywhere until we reached home?"
"The old man's magic is, I fear, not much worth, Clodia. If that is all that holds you from accepting the offer to go, I think it is a mistake."
Oh, how often have I remembered the look of supreme affection wherewith she gazed up into my face, saying, "If you are with me I care not where or how we go!" Alas, alas! and it was I who advised her to go.
Clodia therefore agreed to go by the trireme, if passages could be secured for us. The Prefect at once repaired to the commander of the vessel, and explained the situation to him. He willingly agreed to convey us back to Messana, although his was not a passenger galley.
We visited the Forum or market-place that afternoon, and heard the cases being tried before the judges. Some of the oratory was very fine. One pleader, Crispus by name, as he stood up in his fluttering toga, and called upon the gods to reveal the justice of his client's contention, had quite a Ciceronian look about him, and not a little suspicion of Ciceronianism about his rolling periods. Then we visited the public library. The New Sicilians had independently discovered printing many years before. If their craftsmanship was not equal to the best British, still it was very fine, though the lack of steam in printing these volumes was painfully perceptible. In the public library there were over 40,000 volumes, while a museum attached contained many curious relics regarding the early history of the island.
The people of the town showed us every kindness, though they looked at us a little strangely at first. But the story of our narrow escape from death acted as a charm, and the difficulty was to decline their hospitality without offending them.
At length the hour came for us to leave. The wind had been steadily rising all day, and at night was blowing strongly from the south-west. This would mean a head-wind for a part of the way, but we hoped it would lull before we needed to run in its teeth.
The worthy Prefect and his friends, as well as many of the chief citizens of Brundusium, accompanied us down to the wharf, and introduced us to the captain of the trireme, Ancus Hostilius by name. They had evidently been awaiting us, for the moment we arrived the order was given to let go the moorings, after which we heard the voices of the hortatores encouraging the rowers to bend to their work. Then arose the chant of the oarsmen as they began to pull in concert, farewells were shouted from both sides, and we bade good-bye to Brundusium and its kindly Prefect. The night was fast falling as we drew out from the shore. The wind was momentarily increasing in violence, but it was as yet rather a help than anything else, and all went merrily as a marriage bell. Small cabins branched off from the main cabin, and into one of the former Clodia had been conducted to rest after her fatigues. The captain, a jovial, good-natured salt, had been much interested in questioning me about the kind of vessels we had in Europe at the present day. He could not realize the idea of a steamer, and I fear the description I gave him of a warship only made him think I was a colossal liar.
The time, however, passed quickly enough as we sat together in his cabin; and I obtained a great deal of useful information from him regarding the customs of the country. There was a considerable difference in details between the New Sicilians and the ancient Romans, but substantially they were the same. For example, the New Sicilians had developed the use of the mariner's compass, though the needle with them, as with the Chinese, pointed towards the south. They had also discovered the knack of tacking and of running "close to the breeze," so as to lose as little as possible by a head-wind.
It was late when I retired to rest that night, but we seemed to be spinning along right briskly. I was tired out, and glad to lay myself down. It was not long before I fell into a deep sleep.
An hour or two afterwards I was aroused by someone shaking me. I sprang up; it was Marcus.
"Come on deck, for the sake of Heaven; we are wrecked, and the ship is sinking."
I rushed up with Marcus. The vessel was tossing and pitching, but I could not hear the rhythmic beat of the oars. Only cries and shrieks were to be heard. Through the gloom of the thick night I could see that we had struck on a reef jutting out from the shore. Overhead towered the frowning mass of jagged, perpendicular cliffs, against which the sea broke with a hiss and a wail that was unspeakably horrible.
"We have struck on Pluto's Portals, about fifteen miles from Messana. No power on earth can save us," cried Marcus.
"Good God! and where is Clodia?" I cried.
Yes, where was she? The vessel was rapidly going to pieces, but I could not see her anywhere. Back I rushed to the cabin, and hastily calling her name, received no answer. There was no time to lose; every moment was of value. I opened the door of her cabin. She was sleeping as peacefully as a babe. I caught her up in my arms, and threw her cloak around her.
"What is wrong?" she asked faintly, yet surrendered herself with perfect trust into my arms, as though the very fact of my being beside her was sufficient source of confidence to her. She clung to me as I carried her on deck, but not a cry or an expression of terror broke from her. If death were inevitable, it was sufficient that we were to die together.
I lashed us both to a portion of the bulwarks in as sheltered a spot as I could find, but the sea was breaking over us continually, and the cold was intense. Around us were Webster, Icilius, and one or two of the rowers that had not been washed away.
O the horror of that terrible night! Bravely my Clodia bore it with all that grand Roman fortitude that inspired a Horatius, a Regulus, and the other heroes of story.
At first she talked at intervals as though to keep up my courage. Then her words became fewer and fewer, and at last ceased altogether. I tried to protect her with my body as much as possible, but the pitiless waves baffled all my endeavours, and as the night wore on towards dawn I felt my darling was growing colder and colder.
At last, when the first ruddy streaks of morn were running up in the eastern horizon, and the early labourers of Messana would be turning out to work, Clodia said faintly, as she wound her arms in a last embrace around my neck:
"Kiss me, carissime, that I may die with your lips on mine."
Wildly I kissed her lips and strove to infuse warmth into her frame; passionately I called on her to take heart of courage, for the morn was breaking. But answer I got none, and ere long the queenly little head drooped forward on my bosom, and then—the rest was silence. My senses reeled; unconsciousness mercifully supervened.
When next I remembered anything I was lying in a room, through the lattices of which the afternoon sun was gloriously streaming. For a moment I was puzzled to recall my surroundings; all seemed a blank. I saw Piso the Consul, the Professor, Anstey, and others surrounding my bed, but their faces were grave and anxious. Then I remembered all—the terrible shipwreck, the slow death of my darling, and the sufferings we had both undergone.
Presently a curtain was drawn aside, and Stolo entered, accompanied by a man whom I recognized as one of the most skilful physicians in Nova Sicilia. He gazed at me compassionately, but in answer to a remark by Stolo, he shook his head, murmuring, "There is no hope now, I fear."
Then I found my voice, and, in feeble quavering accents cried: "No, I am glad there is no hope. Clodia is gone, and I am going too. I shall not be long behind you, Clodia carissima."
A look of surprise was exchanged between them. The physician stepped hastily forward and laid his finger on my pulse. Stolo whispered something to Piso, then to the doctor, after which the latter said hesitatingly: "Well, it might be tried as a last resource; it can do little harm if it does no good, for he is so near the end."
Thereafter I saw Stolo leave the room, apparently at Piso's desire, then a great weariness seemed to come upon me. I closed my eyes, and endeavoured feebly to think of nothing but the end I felt to be so near. Then a sound caused me to open them once more with a start. Was I dreaming? Was not that the voice of Clodia pronouncing my name? I gazed upward, and looked straight into the glorious eyes of Clodia carissima gazing into mine with a glance of unspeakable affection.
I started once more. Was I dead, and were we re-united in death?
"Clodia—Clodia," I murmured.
"Yes, carissime, I am here," came the reply.
In another moment my arms were thrown around her, and our lips met in a kiss that brought me back from the gates of the grave. Clodia carissima was not dead!
When, on the day after the wreck, the rescue-party, among which were Piso the Consul, the Professor, and Anstey reached the vessel, they discovered evident signs of life only in Webster and myself. All the others were dead, save the few, Icilius and Marcus amongst them, who had reached the shore, after fighting for hours with the waves.
Piso found the body of his daughter clasped in my arms, and thereby sheltered from a part of the violence of the storm. At first they thought she was dead, but by and by, under the application of proper remedies, she recovered, little the worse. On me the worst of the tempest had spent itself, and when they succeeded in restoring animation in my frame, it was to find that I was suffering from a severe attack of brain fever. For weeks I hovered between life and death, nursed in the house of Piso, with a tender care that lacked nothing of being paternal.
The meeting between the Professor and Webster, his brother-in-law, was affecting in the extreme. He fell on Barlow's neck, sobbing for sheer joy. "O, thank God, thank God, I shall see my Mary once more!" When the Professor heard of all we had done for Webster his gratitude knew no bounds.
THERE is little more to tell. I soon recovered from my illness when tended by such a nurse as Clodia, and then one day, when my lucky star seemed in the ascendant, I begged the gift of my darling from her father.
"Take her, my son, you are well worthy of her, for you have purchased her with your life," were the old man's words as he placed her hand in mine.
We came home, my fair young wife and I, to England, partly to accompany our friends and comrades to their fatherland and mine, partly to show her the mighty difference between the Europe of the Caesars and the Europe of to-day, and also to obtain many articles which were not procurable in Nova Sicilia. We had some little difficulty in working our way through the narrow straits between the banks of algae, until we got two or three of the strongest quinqueremes in the New Sicilian navy to take the Fitzroy in tow, and at last we reached the open bosom of the blue Pacific. When next we passed through the straits it was to return again no more.
My beautiful wife excited much admiration in England, and her presence, as well as our own, awakened the utmost interest in scientific and geographical circles, to the members of which the discovery of a terra incognita on the surface of the globe was the event of their lives. Soon exploring and commercial expeditions were fitted out to proceed to Nova Sicilia—for among the last and best things we achieved before leaving, was to dissipate the dread the New Sicilians entertained of being overrun by Rome. Piso even longed to see some others of my countrymen, and he soon had his wish gratified.
After a stay in England of some months, during which we made many friends, having obtained all that we required in the way of modern necessaries of life, we set sail in our own steam yacht for our home far away in the sunny Pacific. From then till now, our life has been one of idyllic peace and happiness. Little prattling tongues and tiny pattering feet came ere long to bless our home. I am writing these lines after years of bliss such as it has fallen to the share of few to enjoy. Never have I regretted taking farewell of Old England, dear though it shall ever be to me, nor of severing all ties of race and kindred in the land of my fathers, to take up my lot under the cloudless blue of New Sicilian skies, with Clodia Carissima.
Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
Go to Home Page
This work is out of copyright in countries with a copyright
period of 70 years or less, after the year of the author's death.
If it is under copyright in your country of residence,
do not download or redistribute this file.
Original content added by RGL (e.g., introductions, notes,
RGL covers) is proprietary and protected by copyright.