Chapter 22 ESCAPE

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Chapter 22 ESCAPEOn the following jom I told everything to Almah. I told her that Layelah was urging me to fly with her, and that I had found out all about her plans. I described the athalebs, informed her about the direction which we were to take, the island of fire, and the country of the Orin. At this intelligence Almah was filled with delight, and for the first time since we had come to the amir there were smiles of joy upon her face. She needed no persuasion. She was ready to set forth whenever it was fitting, and to risk everything upon this enterprise. She felt as I did, and thought that the wildest attempt was better than this dull inaction. Death was before us here, and every jom as it passed only brought it nearer. True, we were treated with the utmost kindness, we lived in royal splendor, we had enormous retinues; but all this was a miserable mockery, since it all served as the prelude to our inevitable doom. For that doom it was hard indeed to wait. Anything was better. Far better would it be to risk all the dangers of this unusual and amazing flight, to brave the terrors of that drear isle of fire, Magones; better to perish there of starvation, or to be killed by the hands of hostile Gojin, than to wait here and be destroyed at last by the sacrificial knife of these smiling, generous, kind-hearted, self-sacrificing fiends; to be killed—ay, and afterward borne to the tremendous Mista Kosek. There was a difficulty with Layelah that had to be guarded against: in the first place that she might not suspect, and again that we might choose our time of escape when she would not be at all likely to find us out. We resolved to make our attempt without any further delay. Layelah was with us for the greater part of that jom, and the Kohen Gadol also gave us much of his company. Layelah did not seem to have any suspicions whatever of my secret purpose; for she was as bright, as amiable, and as devoted to me as ever, while the Kohen Gadol sought as before to make himself agreeable to Almah. I did not think fit to tell her about Layelah's proposal, and therefore she was quite ignorant of the secret plans of the Kohen Gadol, evidently attributing his attention to the unfailing amiability of the Kosekin. Layelah came again after Almah had retired, and spent the time in trying to persuade me to fly with her. The beautiful girl was certainly never more engaging, nor was she ever more tender. Had it not been for Almah it would have been impossible to resist such sweet persuasions; but as it was I did resist. Layelah, however, was not at all discouraged, nor did she lose any of her amiability; but when she took leave it was with a smile and sweet words of forgiveness on her lips for what she called my cruelty. After she left I remained for a time with a painful sense of helplessness. The fact is my European training did not fit me for encountering such a state of things as existed among the Kosekin. It's very easy to be faithful to one's own true-love in England, when other fair ladies hold aloof and wait to be sought; but here among the Kosekin, women have as much liberty in making love as men, and there is no law or custom about it. If a woman chooses she can pay the most desperate attentions, and play the part of a distracted lover to her heart's content. In most cases the women actually take the initiative, as they are more impressible and impulsive than men; and so it was that Layelah made me the object of her persistent assault—acting all the time, too, in accordance with the custom of the country, and thus having no thought whatever of indelicacy, since, according to the Kosekin, she was acting simply in accordance with the rights of every woman. Now, where a woman is urged by one ardent lover to dismiss her other lover, she may sometimes find it difficult to play her part satisfactorily; but in my case I did not play my part satisfactorily at all; the ordeal was too hard, and I was utterly unable to show to Layelah that firmness and decision of character which the occasion demanded. Yet, after all, the ordeal at last ended. Layelah left, as I have said, with sweet words of forgiveness on her lips, and I after a time succeeded in regaining my presence of mind. Almah was waiting, and she soon joined me. We gathered a few articles for the journey, the chief of which were my rifle and pistol, which I had not used here, and then we set forth. Leaving our apartments we traversed the long passages, and at length came to the cavern of the athalebs. We met several people on the way, who looked at us with smiles, but made no other sign. It was evident that they had no commission to watch us, and that thus far Layelah's information was correct. Upon entering the cavern of the athalebs my first feeling was one of helplessness; for I had no confidence whatever in my own powers of managing these awful monsters, nor did I feel sure that I could harness them; but the emergency was a pressing one, and there was no help for it. I had seen where Layelah had left the harness, and now my chief desire was to secure one of the athalebs. The faint light served to disclose nothing but gloom; and I waited for a while, hoping that one of them would come forward as before. But waiting did no good, for no movement was made, and I had to try what I could do myself to rouse them. So I walked farther in toward the back part of the cavern, peering through the gloom, while Almah remained near the entrance. As I advanced I heard a slight noise, as of someone moving. I thought it was one of the athalebs, and walked on farther, peering through the gloom, when suddenly I came full upon a man who was busy at some work which I could not make out. For a moment I stood in amazement and despair, for it seemed as though all was lost, and as if this man would at once divine my intent. While I stood thus he turned and gave me a very courteous greeting, after which, in the usual manner of the Kosekin, he asked me with much amiability what he could do for me. I muttered something about seeing the athalebs, upon which he informed me that he would show them to me with pleasure. He went on to say that he had recently been raised from the low position of Athon to that of Feeder of the Athalebs, a post involving duties like those of ostlers or grooms among us, but which here indicated high rank and honor. He was proud of his title of "Epet," which means servant, and more than usually obliging. I at once took advantage of his complaisance, and requested him to show me the athalebs. Upon this he led the way farther on, where I could see through the gloom the shadowy outlines of four monsters, all of which were resting in an upright posture against the wall, with their claws fixed on a shelf of rock. They looked more than ever like dragons, or rather like enormous bats, for their wings were disclosed hanging in loose leathern folds. "Can they be roused," I asked, "and made to move?" "Oh yes," said the Epet, and without waiting for any further request he proceeded to pull at the loose fan-like wing of the nearest one. The monster drew himself together, gave a flutter with his wings, and then moved back from the wall. "Make him walk," said I, eagerly. The Epet at this pulled upon his wing once more, and the athaleb moved forward. "Bring him to the portal, so that I may see him," said I. The Epet, still holding the athaleb's wing, pulled at him, and thus guided him toward the portal. I was amazed at the docility of this terrific monster; yet, after all, I thought that it was no more astonishing than the docility of the elephant, which in like manner allows itself to be guided by the slightest pressure. A child may lead a vast elephant with ease, and here with equal ease the Epet led the athaleb. He led him up near to the portal, where the aurora light beamed through far brighter than the brightest moon, and disclosed all the vast proportions of the monster. I stood and looked on for some time in silence, quite at a loss what to do next. And now Layelah's words occurred to me as to the perfect willingness of the Kosekin to do anything which one might wish. She had insisted on it that they would not prevent our flight, and had given me to understand that they would even assist me if I should ask them. This is what now occurred to me, and I determined to make a trial. So I said: "I should like to fly in the air on the athaleb. Will you harness him?" I confess it was with some trepidation that I said this, but the feeling was soon dissipated. The Epet heard my words with perfect coolness, as though they conveyed the most natural request in the world, and then proceeded to obey me, just as at home a servant might hear and obey his master, who might say, "I should like to take a ride; will you harness the bay mare?" So the Epet proceeded to harness the athaleb, and I watched him in silence; but it was the silence of deep suspense, and my heart throbbed painfully. There was yet much to be risked. The gates had to be opened. Others might interfere. Layelah might come. All these thoughts occurred to me as I watched the Epet; and though the labor of harnessing the athaleb was simple and soon performed, still the time seemed long. So the collar was secured around the neck of the athaleb, with the grapple attached, and the lines were fastened to the wings, and then Almah and I mounted. The Epet now stood waiting for further orders. "Open the gates," said I. The Epet did so. Almah was seated on the back of the athaleb before me, holding on to the coarse mane; I, just behind, held the reins in my hand. The gates were opened wide. A few people outside, roused by the noise of the opening gates, stood and looked on. They had evidently no other feeling but curiosity. All was now ready and the way was open, but there was an unexpected difficulty—the athaleb would not start, and I did not know how to make him. I had once more to apply for help to the Epet. "How am I to make him start?" I asked. "Pull at the collar to make him start, and pull at both reins to make him stop," said the Epet. Upon this I pulled at the collar. The athaleb obeyed at once. He rose almost erect, and moved out through the gate. It was difficult to hold on, but we did so. On reaching the terrace outside, the athaleb expanded his vast wings, which spread out over a space of full fifty feet, and then with vigorous motions raised himself in the air. It was a moment full of terror to both of us; the strange sensation of rising in the air, the quivering muscles of the athaleb at the working of the enormous pinions, the tremendous display of strength, all combined to overwhelm me with a sense of utter helplessness. With one hand I clung to the stiff mane of the monster; with the other I held Almah, who was also grasping the athaleb's hair; and thus for some time all thought was taken up in the one purpose of holding on. But at length the athaleb lay in the air in a perfectly horizontal position; the beat of the wings grew more slow and even, the muscular exertion more steady and sustained. We both began to regain some degree of confidence, and at length I raised myself up and looked around. It did not seem long since we had left; but already the city was far behind, rising with its long, crescent terraces, sparkling and twinkling with innumerable lights. We had passed beyond the bay; the harbor was behind us, the open sea before us, the deep water beneath. The athaleb flew low, not more than a hundred feet above the water, and maintained that distance all the time. It seemed, indeed, as if he might drop into the water at any time; but this was only fancy, for he was perfect master of all his movement and his flight was swift and well sustained. Overhead the sky was filled with the glory of the aurora beams, which spread everywhere, flashing out from the zenith and illuminating the earth with a glow brighter than that of the brightest moon; beneath, the dark waters of the sea extended, with the waves breaking into foam, and traversed by galleys, by merchant-ships, and by the navies of the Kosekin. Far away the surface of the sea spread, with that marvellous appearance of an endless ascent, as though for a thousand miles, rising thus until it terminated half-way up the sky; and so it rose up on every side, so that I seemed to be at the bottom of a basin-shaped world—an immense and immeasurable hollow—a world unparalleled and unintelligible. Far away, at almost infinite distances, arose the long lines of mountains, which, crowned with ice, gleamed in the aurora light, and seemed like a barrier that made forever impossible all ingress and egress. On and on we sped. At length we grew perfectly accustomed to the situation, the motion was so easy and our seats were so secure. There were no obstacles in our way, no roughness along our path; for that pathway was the smooth air, and in such a path there could be no interruption, no jerk or jar. After the first terror had passed there remained no longer any necessity for holding on—we could sit and look around with perfect freedom; and at length I rose to my feet, and Almah stood beside me, and thus we stood for a long time, with all our souls kindled into glowing enthusiasm by the excitement of that adventurous flight, and the splendors of that unequalled scene. At length the aurora light grew dim. Then came forth the stars, glowing and burning in the black sky. Beneath there was nothing visible but the darkness of the water, spotted with phosphorescent points, while all around a wall of gloom arose which shut out from view the distant shores. Suddenly I was aware of a noise like the beat of vast wings, and these wings were not those of our athaleb. At first I thought it was the fluttering of a sail, but it was too regular and too long continued for that. At length I saw through the gloom a vast shadowy form in the air behind us, and at once the knowledge of the truth flashed upon me. It was another monster flying in pursuit! Were we pursued? Were there men on his back? Should I resist? I held my rifle poised, and was resolved to resist at all hazards. Almah saw it all, and said nothing. She perceived the danger, and in her eyes I saw that she, like me, would prefer death to surrender. The monster came nearer and nearer, until at last I could see that he was alone, and that none were on his back. But now another fear arose. He might attack our athaleb, and in that way endanger us. He must be prevented from coming nearer; yet to fire the rifle was a serious matter. I had once before I earned the danger of firing under such circumstances, when my opmahera had fled in terror at the report, and did not wish to experience the danger which might arise from a panic-stricken athaleb; and so as I stood there I waved my arms and gesticulated violently. The pursuing athaleb seemed frightened at such an unusual occurrence, for he veered off, and soon was lost in the darkness.
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