THE AWFUL "MISTA KOSEK"The terrible sacrifice marked the end of the light season. The
dark season had now begun, which would last for half the coming
year. No more sunlight would now be visible, save at first for a
few joms, when at certain times the glare would be seen shooting up
above the icy crests of the mountains. Now the people all moved out
of the caverns into the stone houses on the opposite side of the
terraces, and the busy throng transferred themselves and their
occupations to the open air. This with them was the season of
activity, when all their most important affairs were undertaken and
carried out; the season, too, of enjoyment, when all the chief
sports and festivals took place. Then the outer world all awoke to
life; the streets were thronged, fleets of galleys came forth from
their moorings, and the sounds of labor and of pleasure, of toil
and revelry, arose into the darkened skies. Then the city was a
city of the living, no longer silent, but full of bustle, and the
caverns were frequented but little. This cavern life was only
tolerable during the light season, when the sun-glare was over the
land; but now, when the beneficent and grateful darkness pervaded
all things, the outer world was infinitely more agreeable.
To me, however, the arrival of the dark season brought only
additional gloom. I could not get rid of the thought that I was
reserved for some horrible fate, in which Almah might also be
involved. We were both aliens here, in a nation of kind-hearted and
amiable miscreants—of generous, refined, and most self-denying
fiends; of men who were highly civilized, yet utterly wrong-headed
and irreclaimable in their blood-thirsty cruelty. The stain of
blood-guiltiness was over all the land. What was I, that I could
hope to be spared? The hope was madness, and I did not pretend to
The only consolation was Almah. The manners of these people were
such that we were still left as unconstrained as ever in our
movements, and always, wherever we went, we encountered nothing but
amiable smiles and courteous offices. Everyone was always eager to
do anything for us—to give, to go, to act, to speak, as though we
were the most honored of guests, the pride of the city. The Kohen
was untiring in his efforts to please. He was in the habit of
making presents every time he came to see me, and on each occasion
the present was of a different kind; at one time it was a new robe
of curiously wrought feathers, at another some beautiful gem, at
another some rare fruit. He also made incessant efforts to render
my situation pleasant, and was delighted at my rapid progress in
acquiring the language.
On the jom following the sacrifice I accompanied Almah as she
went to her daily task, and after it was over I asked when the new
victims would be placed here. "How long does it take to embalm
them?" I added.
Almah looked at me earnestly. "They will not bring them here;
they will not embalm them," said she.
"Why not?" I asked; "what will they do with them?"
"Do not ask," said she. "It will pain you to know."
In spite of repeated solicitation she refused to give me any
satisfaction. I felt deeply moved at her words and her looks. What
was it, I wondered, that could give me pain? or what could there
still be that could excite fear in me, who had learned and seen so
much? I could not imagine. It was evidently some disposal of the
bodies of the victims—that was plain. Turning this over in my mind,
with vague conjectures as to Almah's meaning, I left her and walked
along the terrace until I came to the next cavern. This had never
been open before, and I now entered through curiosity to see what
it might be. I saw a vast cavern, quite as large as the cheder
nebilin, full of people, who seemed to be engaged in decorating it.
Hundreds were at work, and they had brought immense tree-ferns,
which were placed on either side in long rows, with their branches
meeting and interlacing at the top. It looked like the interior of
some great Gothic cathedral at night, and the few twinkling lights
that were scattered here and there made the shadowy outline just
visible to me.
I asked one of the bystanders what this might be, and he told me
that it was the Mista Kosek, which means the "Feast of Darkness,"
from which I gathered that they were about to celebrate the advent
of the dark season with a feast. From what I knew of their
character this seemed quite intelligible, and there was much beauty
and taste in the arrangements. All were industrious and orderly,
and each one seemed most eager to assist his neighbor. Indeed,
there seemed to be a friendly rivalry in this which at times
amounted to positive violence; for more than once when a man was
seen carrying too large a burden, someone else would insist on
taking it from him. At first these altercations seemed exactly like
the quarrels of workmen at home, but a closer inspection showed
that it was merely the persistent effort of one to help
I learned that the feast was to take place as soon as the hall
was decorated, and that it would be attended by a great multitude.
I felt a great interest in it. There seemed something of poetic
beauty in this mode of welcoming the advent of a welcome season,
and it served to mitigate the horrible remembrance of that other
celebration, upon which I could not think without a shudder. I
thought that it would be pleasant to join with them here, and
resolved to ask Almah to come with me, so that she might explain
the meaning of the ceremonies. Full of this thought, I went to her
and told her my wish. She looked at me with a face full of
amazement and misery. In great surprise I questioned her
"Ask me nothing," said she. "I will answer nothing; but do not
think of it. Do not go near it. Stay in your room till the fearful
repast is over."
"Fearful? How is it fearful?" I asked.
"Everything here is fearful," said Almah, with a sigh. "Every
season it grows worse, and I shall grow at length to hate life and
love death as these people do. They can never understand us, and we
can never understand them. Oh, if I could but once more stand in my
own dear native land but for one moment—to see once more the scenes
and the faces that I love so well! Oh, how different is this land
from mine! Here all is dark, all is terrible. There the people love
the light and rejoice in the glorious sun, and when the dark season
comes they wait, and have no other desire than long day. There we
live under the sky, in the eye of the sun. We build our houses, and
when the dark season comes we fill them with lamps that make a
blaze like the sun itself."
"We must try to escape," I said, in a low voice.
"Escape!" said she. "That is easy enough. We might go now; but
"Back," said I, "to your own country. See, the sky is dotted
with stars: I can find my way by them."
"Yes," said she, "if I could only tell you where to go; but I
cannot. My country lies somewhere over the sea, but where, I know
not. Over the sea there are many lands, and we might reach one even
worse than this."
"Perhaps," said I, "the Kohen might allow us to go away to your
country, and send us there. He is most generous and most amiable.
He seems to spend most of his time in efforts to make us happy.
There must be many seamen in this nation who know the way. It would
be worth trying."
Almah shook her head. "You do not understand these people," said
she. "Their ruling passion is the hatred of self, and therefore
they are eager to confer benefits on others. The only hope of life
that I have for you and for myself is in this, that if they kill us
they will lose their most agreeable occupation. They value us most
highly, because we take everything that is given us. You and I now
possess as our own property all this city and all its buildings,
and all the people have made themselves our slaves."
At this I was utterly bewildered.
"I don't understand," said I.
"I suppose not," said Almah; "but you will understand better
after you have been here longer. At any rate, you can see for
yourself that the ruling passion here is self-denial and the good
of others. Everyone is intent upon this, from the Kohen up to the
most squalid pauper."
"Up to the most squalid pauper?" said I. "I do not
understand you. You mean down to the most squalid
"No," said Almah; "I mean what I say. In this country the
paupers form the most honored and envied class."
"This is beyond my comprehension," said I. "But if this is
really so, and if these people pretend to be our slaves, why may we
not order out a galley and go?"
"Oh, well, with you in your land, if a master were to order his
slaves to cut his throat and poison his children and burn his
house, would the slaves obey?"
"Well, our slaves here would not—in fact could not—obey a
command that would be shocking to their natures. They think that we
are in the best of all lands, and my request to be sent home would
be utterly monstrous."
"I suppose," said I, "they would kill us if we asked them to do
"Yes," said Almah; "for they think death the greatest
"And if at the point of death we should beg for life, would they
"Certainly not," said Almah. "Would you kill a man who asked for
death? No more would these people spare a man who asked for
All this was so utterly incomprehensible that I could pursue the
subject no further. I saw, however, that Almah was wretched,
dejected, and suffering greatly from home-sickness. Gladly would I
have taken her and started off on a desperate flight by sea or
land—gladly would I have dared every peril, although I well knew
what tremendous perils there were; but she would not consent, and
believed the attempt to be useless. I could only wait, therefore,
and indulge the hope that at last a chance of escape might one day
come, of which she would be willing to avail herself.
Almah utterly refused to go to the feast, and entreated me not
to go; but this only served to increase my curiosity, and I
determined to see it for myself, whatever it was. She had seen it,
and why should not I? Whatever it might be, my nerves could surely
stand the shock as well as hers. Besides, I was anxious to know the
very worst; and if there was anything that could surpass in
atrocity what I had already witnessed, it were better that I should
not remain in ignorance of it.
So at length, leaving Almah, I returned to the hall of the
feast. I found there a vast multitude, which seemed to comprise the
whole city—men, women, children, all were there. Long tables were
laid out. The people were all standing an waiting. A choir was
singing plaintive strains that sounded like the chant of the
sacrifice. Those nearest me regarded me with their usual amiable
smiles, and wished to conduct me to some place of honor; but I did
not care about taking part in this feast. I wished to be a mere
spectator, nothing more. I walked past and came to the next cavern.
This seemed to be quite as large as the other. There was a crowd of
people here also, and at one end there blazed an enormous fire. It
was a furnace that seemed to be used for cooking the food of this
banquet, and there was a thick steam rising from an immense
cauldron, while the air was filled with an odor like that of a
All this I took in at a glance, and at the same instant I saw
something else. There were several very long tables, which stood at
the sides of the cavern and in the middle, and upon each of these I
saw lying certain things covered over with cloths. The shape of
these was more than suggestive—it told me all. It was a sight of
horror—awful, tremendous, unspeakable! For a moment I stood
motionless staring; then all the cavern seemed to swim around me. I
reeled, I fell, and sank into nothingness.
When I revived I was in the lighted grotto, lying on a couch,
with Almah bending over me. Her face was full of tenderest anxiety,
yet there was also apparent a certain solemn gloom that well
accorded with my own feelings. As I looked at her she drew a long
breath, and buried her face in her hands.
After a time my recollection returned, and all came back to me.
I rose to a sitting posture.
"Do not rise yet," said Almah, anxiously; "you are weak."
"No," said I; "I am as strong as ever; but I'm afraid that you
"If you had told me exactly what it was, I would not have
"I could not tell you," said she. "It is too terrible to name.
Even the thought is intolerable. I told you not to go. Why did you
She spoke in accents of tender reproach, and there were tears in
"I did not think of anything so hideous as that," said I. "I
thought that there might be a sacrifice, but nothing worse."
I now learned that when I fainted I had been raised most
tenderly, and the Kohen himself came with me as I was carried back,
and he thought that Almah would be my most agreeable nurse. The
Kohen was most kind and sympathetic, and all the people vied with
one another in their efforts to assist me—so much so that there was
the greatest confusion. It was only by Almah's express entreaty
that they retired and left me with her.
Here was a new phase in the character of this mysterious people.
Could I ever hope to understand them? Where other people are cruel
to strangers, or at best indifferent, these are eager in their acts
of kindness; they exhibit the most unbounded hospitality, the most
lavish generosity, the most self-denying care and attention; where
others would be offended at the intrusion of a stranger, and
enraged at his unconquerable disgust, these people had no feeling
save pity, sympathy, and a desire to alleviate his distress. And
yet—oh, and yet!—oh, thought of horror!—what was this that I had
seen? The abhorrent savages in the outer wilderness were surely of
the same race as these. They too received us kindly, they too
lavished upon us their hospitality, and yet there followed the
horror of that frightful repast. Here there had been kindness and
generosity and affectionate attention, to be succeeded by deeds
without a name. Ah me! what an hour that was! And yet it was as
nothing compared to what lay before me in the future.
But the subject was one of which I dared not speak—one from
which I had to force my thoughts away. I took the violin and played
"Lochaber" till Almah wept, and I had to put it away. Then I begged
her to play or sing. She brought an instrument like a lute, and
upon this she played some melancholy strains. At length the Kohen
came in. His mild, benevolent face never exhibited more gentle and
affectionate sympathy than now. He seated himself, and with eyes
half closed, as usual, talked much; and yet, with a native delicacy
which always distinguished this extraordinary man, he made no
allusion to the awful Mista Kosek. For my own part, I could not
speak. I was absent-minded, overwhelmed with gloom and despair, and
at the same time full of aversion toward him and all his race. One
question, however, I had to put.
"Who were the victims of the Mista Kosek?"
"They?" said he, with an agreeable smile. "Oh, they were the
victims of the sacrifice."
I sank back in my seat, and said no more. The Kohen then took
Almah's lute, played and sang in a very sweet voice, and at length,
with his usual consideration, seeing that I looked weary, he