The Last American by John Ames Mitchell, part 1

Explore an ancient, advanced, lost civilization… Lauded by connoisseurs of weird fiction, this fun tale is a superior example of a “Lost World” story.
⁓The Voice before the Void

The Last American

John Ames Mitchell

part 1

A Fragment from the journal of Khan-li, Prince of Yoo-Chur and Admiral in the Persian Navy

TO THOSE THOUGHTFUL PERSIANS WHO CAN READ A WARNING IN THE SUDDEN RISE AND SWIFT EXTINCTION OF A FOOLISH PEOPLE THIS VOLUME IS DEDICATED

A FEW WORDS BY HEDFUL
SURNAMED “THE AXIS OF WISDOM”
Curator of the Imperial Museum at Shiraz
Author of “The Celestial Conquest of Kaly-phorn-ya,” and of “Northern Mehrika under the Hy-Bernyan Rulers”

The astounding discoveries of Khan-li of Yoo-Chur have thrown floods of light upon the domestic life of the Mehrikan people. He little realized when he landed upon that sleeping continent what a service he was about to render history, or what enthusiasm his discoveries would arouse among Persian archaeologists.

Every student of antiquity is familiar with these facts.

But for the benefit of those who have yet to acquire a knowledge of this extraordinary people, I advise, first, a visit to the Museum at Teheran in order to excite their interest in the subject, and second, the reading of such books as Nofuhl’s “What we Found in the West,” and Yt-ahl’s “History of the Mehrikans.” The last-named is a complete and reliable history of these people from the birth of the Republic under George-wash-yn-tun to the year 1990, when they ceased to exist as a nation. I must say, however, that Yt-ahl leaves the reader much confused concerning the period between the massacre of the Protestants in 1927, and the overflow of the Murfey dynasty in 1940.

He holds the opinion with many other historians that the Mehrikans were a mongrel race, with little or no patriotism, and were purely imitative; simply an enlarged copy of other nationalities extant at the time. He pronounces them a shallow, nervous, extravagant people, and accords them but few redeeming virtues. This, of course, is just; but nevertheless they will always be an interesting study by reason of their rapid growth, their vast numbers, their marvellous mechanical ingenuity and their sudden and almost unaccountable disappearance.

The wealth, luxury, and gradual decline of the native population; the frightful climatic changes which swept the country like a mower’s scythe; the rapid conversion of a vast continent, alive with millions of pleasure-loving people, into a silent wilderness, where the sun and moon look down in turn upon hundreds of weed-grown cities,—all this is told by Yt-ahl with force and accuracy.

“Here’s Truth. ‘Tis a bitter pill but good physic.”

ABOARD THE ZLOTUHB IN THE YEAR 2951

10th May

There is land ahead!

Til-lah was first to see it, and when he shouted the tidings my heart beat fast with joy. The famished crew have forgotten their disconsolate stomachs and are dancing about the deck. ‘Tis not I, forsooth, who shall restrain them! A month of emptiness upon a heavy sea is preparation for any folly. Nofuhl alone is without enthusiasm. The old man’s heart seems dead.

We can see the land plainly, a dim strip along the western horizon. A fair wind blows from the northeast, but we get on with cruel hindrance, for the Zlotuhb is a heavy ship, her bluff bow and voluminous bottom ill fitting her for speed.

11th May

Sighted a fine harbor this afternoon, and are now at anchor in it. Til-lah thinks we have reached one islands mentioned by
A-Bout. Nofuhl, however, is sure we are further North.

12th May

What a change has come over Nofuhl! He is the youngest man aboard. We all share his delight, as our discoveries are truly marvellous. This morning while I was yet in my bunk he ran into the cabin and, forgetting our difference in rank, seized me by the arm and tried to drag me out. His excitement so had the better of him that I captured little meaning from his words. Hastening after him, however, I was amazed to see such ancient limbs transport a man so rapidly. He skipped up the narrow stairs like a heifer and, young though I am, it was faster than I could follow.

But what a sight when I reached the deck! We saw nothing of it yesterday, for the dusk of evening was already closing about us when we anchored.

Right ahead, in the middle of the bay, towered a gigantic statue, many times higher than the masts of our ship. Beyond, from behind this statue, came the broad river upon whose waters we were floating, its surface all a-glitter with the rising sun. To the East, where Nofuhl was pointing, his fingers trembling with excitement, lay the ruins of an endless city. It stretched far away into the land beyond, further even than our eyes could see. And in the smaller river on the right stood two colossal structures, rising high in the air, and standing like twin brothers, as if to guard the deserted streets beneath. Not a sound reached us—not a floating thing disturbed the surface of the water. Verily, it seemed the sleep of Death.

I was lost in wonder.

As we looked, a strange bird, like a heron, arose with a hoarse cry from the foot of the great image and flew toward the city.

“What does it all mean?” I cried. “Where are we?”

“Where indeed!” said Nofuhl. “If I knew but that, O Prince, I could tell the rest! No traveller has mentioned these ruins. Persian history contains no record of such a people. Allah has decreed that we discover a forgotten world.”

Within an hour we landed, and found ourselves in an ancient street, the pavements covered with weeds, grass, and flowers, all crowding together in wild neglect. Huge trees of great antiquity thrust their limbs through windows and roofs and produced a mournful sight. They gave a welcome shade, however, as we find the heat ashore of a roasting quality most hard to bear. The curious buildings on either side are wonderfully preserved, even sheets of glass still standing in many of the iron window-frames.

We wandered along through the thick grass, Nofuhl and I, much excited over our discoveries and delighted with the strange scene. The sunshine is of dazzling brightness, birds are singing everywhere, and the ruins are gay with gorgeous wild flowers. We soon found ourselves in what was once a public square, now for the most part a shady grove. (NOTE: Afterward ascertained to be the square of the City Hall.)

As we sat on a fallen cornice and gazed on the lofty buildings about us I asked Nofuhl if he was still in ignorance as to where we were, and he said:

“As yet I know not. The architecture is much like that of ancient Europe, but it tells us nothing.”

Then I said to him in jest, “Let this teach us, O Nofuhl! the folly of excessive wisdom. Who among thy pupils of the Imperial College at Ispahan would believe their venerable instructor in history and languages could visit the largest city in the world and know so little about it!”

“Thy words are wise, my Prince,” he answered; “few babes could know less.”

As we were leaving this grove my eyes fell upon an upturned slab that seemed to have a meaning. It was lying at our feet, partly hidden by the tall grass, having fallen from the columns that supported it. Upon its surface were strange characters in bold relief, as sharp and clear as when chiselled ten centuries ago. I pointed it out to Nofuhl, and we bent over it with eager eyes.

It was this:

ASTOR HOUSE

“The inscription is Old English,” he said. “‘House’ signified a dwelling, but the word ‘Astor’ I know not. It was probably the name of a deity, and here was his temple.”

This was encouraging, and we looked about eagerly for other signs.

Our steps soon brought us into another street, and as we walked I expressed my surprise at the wonderful preservation of the stone work, which looked as though cut but yesterday.

“In such an atmosphere decay is slow,” said Nofuhl. “A thousand years at least have passed since these houses were occupied. Take yonder oak, for instance; the tree itself has been growing for at least a hundred years, and we know from the fallen mass beneath it that centuries had gone by before its birth was possible.”

He stopped speaking, his eyes fixed upon an inscription over a doorway, partly hidden by one of the branches of the oak.

Turning suddenly upon me with a look of triumph, he exclaimed:

“It is ours!”

“What is ours?” I asked.

“The knowledge we sought;” and he pointed to the inscription:

NEW YORK STOCK EXC….

He was tremulous with joy. “Thou hast heard of Nhu-Yok, O my Prince?”

I answered that I had read of it at school.

“Thou art in it now!” he said. “We are standing on the Western Continent. Little wonder we thought our voyage long!”

“And what was Nhu-Yok?” I asked. “I read of it at college, but remember little. Was it not the capital of the ancient Mehrikans?”

“Not the capital,” he answered, “but their largest city. Its population was four millions.”

“Four millions!” I exclaimed. “Verily, O Fountain of Wisdom, that is many for one city!”

“Such is history, my Prince! Moreover, as thou knowest, it would take us many days to walk this town.”

“True, it is endless.”

He continued thus:

“Strange that a single word can tell so much! Those iron structures, the huge statue in the harbor, the temples with pointed towers, all are as writ in history.”

Whereupon I repeated that I knew little of the Mehrikans save what I had learned at college, a perfunctory and fleeting knowledge, as they were a people who interested me but little.

“Let us seat ourselves in the shade,” said Nofuhl, “and I will tell thee of them.”

We sat.

“For eleven centuries the cities of this sleeping hemisphere have decayed in solitude. Their very existence has been forgotten. The people who built them have long since passed away, and their civilization is but a shadowy tradition. Historians are astounded that a nation of an hundred million beings should vanish from the earth like a mist, and leave so little behind. But to those familiar with their lives and character surprise is impossible. There was nothing to leave. The Mehrikans possessed neither literature, art, nor music of their own. Everything was borrowed. The very clothes they wore were copied with ludicrous precision from the models of other nations. They were a sharp, restless, quick-witted, greedy race, given body and soul to the gathering of riches. Their chiefest passion was to buy and sell. Even women, both of high and low degree, spent much of their time at bargains, crowding and jostling each other in vast marts of trade, for their attire was complicated, and demanded most of their time.”

“How degrading!” I exclaimed.

“So it must have been,” said Nofuhl; “but they were not without virtues. Their domestic life was happy. A man had but one wife, and treated her as his equal.”

“That is curious! But as I remember, they were a people of elastic honor.”

“They were so considered,” said Nofuhl; “their commercial honor was a jest. They were sharper than the Turks. Prosperity was their god, with cunning and invention for his prophets. Their restless activity no Persian can comprehend. This vast country was alive with noisy industries, the nervous Mehrikans darting with inconceivable rapidity from one city to another by a system of locomotion we can only guess at. There existed roads with iron rods upon them, over which small houses on wheels were drawn with such velocity that a long day’s journey was accomplished in an hour. Enormous ships without sails, driven by a mysterious force, bore hundreds of people at a time to the farthermost points of the earth.”

“And are these things lost?” I asked.

“We know many of the forces,” said Nofuhl, “but the knowledge of applying them is gone. The very elements seem to have been their slaves. Cities were illuminated at night by artificial moons, whose radiance eclipsed the moon above. Strange devices were in use by which they conversed together when separated by a journey of many days. Some of these appliances exist to-day in Persian museums. The superstitions of our ancestors allowed their secrets to be lost during those dark centuries from which at last we are waking.”

At this point we heard the voice of Ja-khaz in the distance; they had found a spring and he was calling to us.

Such heat we had never felt, and it grew hotter each hour. Near the river where we ate it was more comfortable, but even there the perspiration stood upon us in great drops. Our faces shone like fishes. It was our wish to explore further, but the streets were like ovens, and we returned to the Zlotuhb.

As I sat upon the deck this afternoon recording the events of the morning in this journal Ja-khaz and El-pate approached, asking permission to take the small boat and visit the great statue. Thereupon Nofuhl informed us that this statue in ancient times held aloft a torch illuminating the whole harbor, and he requested El-pate to try and discover how the light was accomplished.

They returned toward evening with this information: that the statue is not of solid bronze, but hollow; that they ascended by means of an iron stairway into the head of the image, and from the top looked down upon us; that El-pate, in the dark, sat to rest himself upon a nest of yellow flies with black stripes; that these flies inserted stings into El-pate’s person, causing him to exclaim loudly and descend the stairs with unexpected agility; that Ja-khaz and the others pushed on through the upraised arm, and stood at last upon the bronze torch itself; that the city lay beneath them like a map, covering the country for miles away on both sides of the river. As for illuminating the harbor, Ja-khaz says Nofuhl is mistaken; there are no vestiges of anything that could give a light—no vessel for oil or traces of fire.

Nofuhl says Ja-khaz is an idiot; that he shall go himself.

 

Continued in part 2.