A memorable encounter, and the climax of a voyage of discovery.
⁓The Voice before the Void
The Last American
John Ames Mitchell
We see ahead of us the ruins of a great dome, also a very high shaft. Probably they belong to the city we seek.
A date we shall not forget!
Little did I realize this morning when we left the Zlotuhb in such hilarious mood what dire events awaited us. I landed about noon, accompanied by Nofuhl, El-Hedyd, Ja-khaz, El-pate, Kuzundam the first mate, L-palyt the cook, Fattan, and two sailors. Our march had scarce begun when a startling discovery caused great commotion in our minds. We had halted at Nofuhl’s request, to decipher the inscription upon a stone, when El-Hedyd, who had started on, stopped short with a sudden exclamation. We hastened to him, and there, in the soft earth, was the imprint of human feet!
I cannot describe our surprise. We decided to follow the footprints, and soon found they were leading us toward the great dome more directly than we could have gone ourselves. Our excitement was beyond words. Those of us who had weapons carried them in readiness. The path was little used, but clearly marked. It wound about among fallen fragments and crumbling statues, and took us along a wide avenue between buildings of vast size and solidity, far superior to any we had seen in Nhu-Yok. It seemed a city of monuments.
As we ascended the hill to the great temple and saw it through the trees rising high above us, we were much impressed by its vast size and beauty. Our eyes wandered in admiration over the massive columns, each hewn from a single block, still white and fresh as if newly quarried. The path took us under one of the lower arches of the building, and we emerged upon the other side. This front we found even more beautiful than the one facing the city. At the centre was a flight of steps of magnificent proportions, now falling asunder and overgrown in many places with grass and flowers.
These steps we ascended. As I climbed silently up, the others following, I saw two human feet, the soles toward us, resting upon the balustrade above. With a gesture I directed Nofuhl’s attention to them, and the old man’s eyes twinkled with delight. Was it a Mehrikan? I confess to a lively excitement at the prospect of meeting one. How many were they? And how would they treat us?
Looking down upon my little band to see that all were there, I boldly marched up the remaining steps and stood before him.
He was reclining upon a curious little four-legged seat, with his feet upon the balustrade, about on a level with his head. Clad in skins and rough cloth he looked much like a hunter, and he gazed quietly upon me, as though a Persian noble were a daily guest. Such a reception was not gratifying, especially as he remained in the same position, not even withdrawing his feet. He nodded his curious head down once and up again, deeming it apparently a sufficient salutation.
The maintenance of my own dignity before my followers forbade my standing thus before a seated barbarian, and I made a gesture for him to rise. This he answered in an unseemly manner by ejecting from his mouth a brownish fluid, projecting it over and beyond the balustrade in front of him. Then looking upon me as if about to laugh, and yet with a grave face, he uttered something in an unmusical voice which I failed to understand.
Upon this Nofuhl, who had caught the meaning of one or two words, stepped hastily forward and addressed him in his own language. But the barbarian understood with difficulty and they had much trouble in conversing, chiefly from reason of Nofuhl’s pronunciation. He afterward told me that this man’s language differed but little from that of the Mehrikans, as they wrote it eleven centuries ago.
When he finally arose in talking with Nofuhl I could better observe him. He was tall and bony, with an awkward neck, and appeared at first glance to be a man of forty years. We decided later he was under thirty. His yellow skin and want of hair made him seem much older than he was. I was also much puzzled by the expression of his face. It was one of deep sadness, yet his eyes were full of mirth, and a corner of his mouth was ever drawing up as if in mockery. For myself I liked not his manner. He appeared little impressed by so many strangers, and bore himself as though it were of small importance whether we understood him or not. But Nofuhl since informed me that he asked a multitude of questions concerning us.
What Nofuhl gathered was this:
This Mehrikan with his wife and one old man were all that remained of his race. Thirty-one had died this summer. In ancient times there were many millions of his country-men. They were the greatest nation upon the earth. He could not read. He had two names, one was “Jon,” the other he had forgotten. They lived in this temple because it was cool. When the temple was built, and for what purpose, he could not tell. He pointed to the West and said the country in that direction was covered with ruined cities.
When Nofuhl told him we were friends, and presented him at my direction with a hunting-knife of fine workmanship, he pushed out his right arm toward me and held it there. For an instant Nofuhl looked at the arm wonderingly, as did we all, then with sudden intelligence he seized the outstretched hand in his own, and moved it up and down. This was interesting, for Nofuhl tells me it was a form of greeting among the ancient Mehrikans.
While all this was going on we had moved into the great circular hall beneath the dome. This hall was of vast proportions, and there were still traces of its former splendor. Against the walls were marble statues entwined in ivy, looking down upon us with melancholy eyes. Here also we met a thin old man, whose hairless head and beardless face almost moved us to mirth.
At Nofuhl’s request our host led the way into some of the smaller rooms to show us their manner of living, and it would be impossible to imagine a more pathetic mixture of glory and decay, of wealth and poverty, of civilization and barbarity. Old furniture, dishes of silver, bronze images, even paintings and ornaments of great value were scattered through the rooms, side by side with the most primitive implements. It was plain the ancient arts were long since forgotten.
When we returned to the circular hall our host disappeared for a few moments into a room which he had not shown us. He came back bringing a stone vase with a narrow neck, and was followed by a maiden who bore drinking-cups of copper and tin. These she deposited upon a fallen fragment of the dome which served as a table.
This girl was interesting. A dainty head, delicate features, yellow hair, blue eyes, and a gentle sadness of mien that touched my heart. Had she been ugly what a different ending to this day!
We all saluted her, and the Mehrikan spoke a few words which we interpreted as a presentation. He filled the cups from the stone vase, and then saying something which Nofuhl failed to catch, he held his cup before his face with a peculiar movement and put it to his lips. As he did this El-Hedyd clutched my arm and exclaimed:
“The very gesture of the ghost!”
And then as if to himself, “And this is July fourth.”
But he drank, as did we all, for our thirst was great and the odor of the golden liquid was most alluring. It tasted hotter than the fires of Jelbuz. It was also of great potency and gave a fine exhilaration to the senses. We became happier at once.
And here it was that Ja-khaz did a fatal thing. Being near the maid and much affected by her beauty, he addressed her as Hur-al-missa (the most angelic of women) which, of course, she understood not. This were well had he gone no further, but he next put his arm about her waist with intent to kiss her. Much terrified, she tried to free herself. But Ja-khaz, holding her fair chin with his other hand, had brought his lips almost to hers when the old man raised his heavy staff and brought it down upon our comrade’s head with cruel swiftness. This falling stick upon a solid skull resounded about the dome and echoed through the empty corridors.
Ja-khaz blinked and staggered back.
Then, with fury in his face, he sprang savagely toward the aged man.
But here the younger Mehrikan interfered. Rapidly approaching them and shutting tight his bony hand, he shot it from him with startling velocity, so directing that it came in contact with the face of Ja-khaz who, to our amazement, sat roughly upon the marble pavement, the blood streaming from his nostrils. He was a pitiful sight.
Unaccustomed to such warfare we were seriously alarmed, and thought him killed perhaps. El-pate, a mighty wrestler, and of powerful build, rushed furiously upon the Mehrikan for whom I trembled. But his arm again went out before him, and El-pate likewise sat. A mournful spectacle, and every Persian felt his heart beat fast within him.
By this time Ja-khaz was on his feet again, purple with rage. With uplifted scimitar he sprang toward our host. The old man stepped between. Ja-khaz, with wanton cruelty, brought his steel upon the ancient head, and stretched him upon the floor. For an instant the younger one stood horror-stricken, then snatching from the floor the patriarch’s staff—a heavy stick with an iron end—he jumped forward, and, quicker than words can tell it, dealt a frightful blow upon the head of Ja-khaz which sent him headlong to the ground with a broken skull.
All this had happened in a moment, and wild confusion followed. My followers drew their arms and rushed upon the Mehrikan. The girl ran forward either from terror or to shield her spouse, I know not which, when a flying arrow from a sailor’s cross-bow pierced her to the heart.
This gave the Mehrikan the energy of twenty men.
He knocked brave Kuzundam senseless with a blow that would have killed an ox. Such fury I had not conceived. He brought his flying staff like a thunderbolt from Heaven upon the Persian skulls, yet always edging toward the door to prevent his enemies surrounding him. Four of our number, in as many minutes, joined Ja-khaz upon the floor. Kuzundam, El-pate, Fattan, and Ha-tak, a sailor, lay stretched upon the pavement, all dead or grievously wounded.
So suddenly had this taken place, that I hardly realized what had happened. I rushed forward to stay the combat, but he mistook the purpose, struck my scimitar with a force that sent it flying through the air, and had raised his staff to deal a second for myself, when brave El-Hedyd stepped in to save me, and thrust quickly at him. But alas! The Mehrikan warded off his stroke with one yet quicker, and brought his stick so swiftly against my comrade’s head that it laid him with the others.
When El-Hedyd fell I saw the Mehrikan had many wounds, for my comrades had made a savage onslaught. He tottered as he moved back into the doorway, where he leaned against the wall for an instant, his eyes meeting ours with a look of defiance and contempt that I would willingly forget. Then the staff dropped from his hand; he staggered out to the great portico, and fell his length upon the pavement. Nofuhl hastened to him, but he was dead.
As he fell a wonderful thing took place—an impossible thing, as I look back upon it, but both Nofuhl and I saw it distinctly.
In front of the great steps and facing this doorway is a large sitting image of George-wash-yn-tun. As the Mehrikan staggered out upon the porch, his hands outstretched before him and with Death at his heart, this statue slowly bowed its head as if in recognition of a gallant fight.
Perhaps it was the sorrowful acceptance of a bitter ending.
Again upon the sea.
This time for Persia, bearing our wounded and the ashes of our dead; those of the natives are reposing beneath the Great Temple. The skull of the last Mehrikan I shall present to the museum at Teheran.