The wonders of wandering a lost city… And apocalyptic portent of wealth disparity.
⁓The Voice before the Void
The Last American
John Ames Mitchell
To-day a scorching heat that burns the lungs. We started in the morning prepared to spend the night ashore, and explore the northern end of the city. It was a pleasant walk through the soft grass of the shady streets, but in those places unsheltered from the sun we were as fish upon a frying-pan. Other dwellings we saw, even larger and more imposing than the one we entered yesterday. We were tempted to explore them, but El-Hedyd wisely dissuaded us, saying the day was waxing hotter each hour and it could be done on our return.
In the northern part of the town are many religious temples, with their tall towers like slender pyramids, tapering to a point. They are curious things, and surprisingly well preserved. The interiors of these temples are uninteresting. Nofuhl says the religious rites of the Mehrikans were devoid of character. There were many religious beliefs, all complicated and insignificant variations one from another, each sect having its own temples and refusing to believe as the others. This is amusing to a Persian, but mayhap was a serious matter with them. One day in each week they assembled, the priests reading long moral lectures written by themselves, with music by hired singers. They then separated, taking no thought of temple or priest for another seven days. Nofuhl says they were not a religious people. That the temples were filled mostly with women.
In the afternoon we found it necessary to traverse a vast pleasure-ground, now a wild forest, but with traces still visible of broad promenades and winding drive-ways. (Baldeh thinks this must be the Centralpahk sometimes alluded to in Mehrikan literature.) There remains an avenue of bronze statues, most of them yet upright and in good condition, but very comic. El-Hedyd and I still think them caricatures, but Nofuhl is positive they were serious efforts, and says the Mehrikans were easily pleased in matters of art.
We lost our way in this park, having nothing to guide us as in the streets of the city. This was most happy, as otherwise we should have missed a surprising discovery.
It occurred in this wise.
Being somewhat overcome by the heat we halted upon a little hill to rest ourselves. While reclining beneath the trees I noticed unusual carvings upon a huge block against which El-Hedyd was supporting his back. They were unlike any we had seen, and yet they were not unfamiliar. As I lay there gazing idly at them it flashed upon me they were Egyptian. We at once fell to examining the block, and found to our amazement an obelisk of Egyptian granite, covered with Egyptian hieroglyphics of an antiquity exceeding by thousands of years the most ancient monuments of the country!
Verily, we were puzzled!
“When did the Egyptians invade Mehrika?” quoth Ja-khaz, with a solemn look, as if trying to recall a date.
“No Egyptian ever heard of Mehrika,” said Nofuhl. “This obelisk was finished twenty centuries before the first Mehrikan was weaned. In all probability it was brought here as a curiosity, just as we take to Persia the bronze head of George-wash-yn-tun.”
We spent much time over the monument, and I think Nofuhl was disappointed that he could not bring it away with him. Also while in this park we came to a high tower, standing by itself, and climbed to the top, where we enjoyed a wide-spreading view.
The extent of the city is astounding.
Miles away in the river lay the Zlotuhb, a white speck on the water. All about us in every direction as far as sight can reach were ruins, and ruins, and ruins. Never was a more melancholy sight. The blue sky, the bright sunshine, the sweet-scented air with the gay flowers and singing birds only made it sadder. They seemed a mockery.
We have encamped for the night, and I can write no more. Countless flying insects gather about us with a hateful buzz, and bite us beyond endurance. They are a pest thrice accursed.
I tell Nofuhl his fine theory concerning the extinction of the Yahnkis is a good tale for those who have never been here.
No man without a leather skin could survive a second night.
Poor Ja-khaz is worse than sick.
He had an encounter last night with a strange animal, and his defeat was ignoble. The animal, a pretty thing, much like a kitten, was hovering near when Ja-khaz, with rare courage and agility, threw himself upon it.
And then what happened none of us can state with precision. We know we held our noses and fled. And Ja-khaz! No words can fit him. He carries with him an odor to devastate a province. We had to leave him ashore and send him fresh raiment.
This is, verily, a land of surprises. Our hands and faces still smart from the biting insects, and the perfume of the odorous kitten promises to be ever with us.
Nofuhl is happy. We have discovered hundreds of metal blocks, the poorest of which he asserts would be the gem of a museum. They were found by Fattan in the basement of a high building, all laid carefully away upon iron shelves. The flood of light they throw upon the manners and customs of this ludicrous people renders them of priceless value to historians.
I harbor a suspicion that it causes Nofuhl some pleasure to sit upon the cool deck of the Zlotuhb and watch Ja-khaz walking to and fro upon the ruins of a distant wharf.
The air is cooler. Til-lah thinks a storm is brewing.
Even Nofuhl is puzzled over the wooden image we brought aboard yesterday. It is well preserved, with the barbaric coloring still fresh upon it. They found it standing upright in a little shop.
How these idols were worshipped, and why they are found in little shops and never in the great temples is a mystery. It has a diadem of feathers on the head, and as we sat smoking upon the deck this evening I remarked to Nofuhl that it might be the portrait of some Mehrikan noble. Whereupon he said they had no nobles. “But the Mehrikans of gentle blood,” I asked, “had they no titles?”
“Neither titles nor gentle blood,” he answered. “And as they were all of much the same origin, and came to this country simply to thrive more fatly than at home, there was nothing except difference in wealth on which to establish a superior order. Being deep respecters of money this was a satisfying distinction. It soon resulted that those families who possessed riches for a generation or two became the substitute for an aristocracy. This upper class was given to sports and pastimes, spending their wealth freely, being prodigiously fond of display. Their intellectual development was feeble, and they wielded but little influence save in social matters. They followed closely the fashions of foreign aristocracies. Great attentions were paid to wandering nobles from other lands. Even distant relatives of titled people were greeted with the warmest enthusiasm.”
Then I said to him, “But explain to me, O Nofuhl, how it was possible for so shallow a nation to become so great.”
“They were great only in numbers and too weak to endure success. At the beginning of the twentieth century, huge fortunes were amassed in a day, and the Mehrikans became drunk with money.”
Whereupon I exclaimed, “O Land of Delight! For much money is cheering.”
But the old man shook his head. “Very true, O Prince; but the effect was woful. These vast fortunes soon dominated all things, even the seat of government and the courts of Justice. Tricks of finance brought fabulous gains. Young men became demoralized. For sober industry with its moderate profits was ridiculed.”
“Verily, that would be natural!” I said. “But in a land where all were rich who was found to cook and scrub, to fetch and carry and to till the soil? For none will shovel earth when his pockets are stuffed with gold.”
“All were not rich. And when the poor also became greedy they became hostile. Then began social upheavals with bloodshed and havoc.”
Continued in part 5.