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Old Fires and Profitable Ghosts: A Book of Stories By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 10391

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


I cannot remember precisely at what point in our ride the country had ceased to be familiar. But by-and-by we were climbing the lower slopes of a great down which bore no resemblance to the pastoral country around Sevenhays. We had left the beaten road for short turf-apparently of a copper-brown hue, but this may have been the effect of the moonlight. The ground rose steadily, but with an easy inclination, and we climbed with the wind at our backs; climbed, as it seemed, for an hour, or maybe two, at a footpace, keeping silence. The happiness of having Harry beside me took away all desire for speech.

This at least was my state of mind as we mounted the long lower slopes of the down. But in time the air, hitherto so exhilarating, began to oppress my lungs, and the tranquil happiness to give way to a vague discomfort and apprehension.

"What is this noise of water running?"

I reined up Grey Sultan as I put the question. At the same moment it occurred to me that this sound of water, distant and continuous, had been running in my ear for a long while.

Harry, too, came to a halt. With a sweep of the arm that embraced the dim landscape around and ahead, he quoted softly-

en detithei potamoio mega spenos Okeanoio antyga par pymaten sakeos pyka poietoio . . . .

and was silent again.

I recalled at once and distinctly the hot summer morning ten years back, when we had prepared that passage of the Eighteenth Book together in our study at Clifton; I at the table, Harry lolling in the cane-seated armchair with the Liddell and Scott open on his knees; outside, the sunny close and the fresh green of the lime-trees.

Now that I looked more attentively the bare down, on which we climbed like flies, did indeed resemble a vast round shield, about the rim of which this unseen water echoed. And the resemblance grew more startling when, a mile or so farther on our way, as the grey dawn overtook us, Harry pointed upwards and ahead to a small boss or excrescence now lifting itself above the long curve of the horizon.

At first I took it for a hummock or tumulus. Then, as the day whitened about us, I saw it to be a building-a tall, circular barrack not unlike the Colosseum. A question shaped itself on my lips, but something in Harry's manner forbade it. His gaze was bent steadily forward, and I kept my wonder to myself, and also the oppression of spirit which had now grown to something like physical torture.

When first the great barrack broke into sight we must have been at least two miles distant. I kept my eyes fastened on it as we approached, and little by little made out the details of its architecture. From base to summit-which appeared to be roofless-six courses of many hundred arches ran around the building, one above the other; and between each pair a course, as it seemed, of plain worked stone, though I afterwards found it to be sculptured in low relief. The arches were cut in deep relief and backed with undressed stone. The lowest course of all, however, was quite plain, having neither arches nor frieze; but at intervals corresponding to the eight major points of the compass-so far as I who saw but one side of it could judge-pairs of gigantic stone figures supported archways pierced in the wall; or sluices, rather, since from every archway but one a full stream of water issued and poured down the sides of the hill. The one dry archway was that which faced us with open gate, and towards which Harry led the way; for oppression and terror now weighted my hand as with lead upon Grey Sultan's rein.

Harry, however, rode forward resolutely, dismounted almost in the very shadow of the great arch, and waited, smoothing his mare's neck. But for the invitation in his eyes, which were solemn, yet without a trace of fear, I had never dared that last hundred yards. For above the rush of waters I heard now a confused sound within the building-the thud and clanking of heavy machinery, and at intervals a human groan; and looking up I saw that the long friezes in bas-relief represented men and women tortured and torturing with all conceivable variety of method and circumstance-flayed, racked, burned, torn asunder, loaded with weights, pinched with hot irons, and so on without end. And it added to the horror of these sculptures that while the limbs and even the dress of each figure were carved with elaborate care and nicety of detail, the faces of all-of those who applied the torture and of those who looked on, as well as of the sufferers themselves-were left absolutely blank. On the same plan the two Titans beside the great archway had no faces. The sculptor had traced the muscles of each belly in a constriction of anguish, and had suggested this anguish again in moulding the neck, even in disposing the hair of the head; but the neck supported, and the locks fell around, a space of smooth stone without a feature.

Harry allowed me no time to feed on these horrors. Signing to me to dismount and leave Grey Sultan at the entrance, he led me through the long archway or tunnel. At the end we paused again, he watching, while I drew difficult breath. . . .

I saw a vast amphitheatre of granite, curving aw

ay on either hand and reaching up, tier on tier, till the tiers melted in the grey sky overhead. The lowest tier stood twenty feet above my head; yet curved with so lordly a perspective that on the far side of the arena, as I looked across, it seemed almost level with the ground; while the human figures about the great archway yonder were diminished to the size of ants about a hole. . . For there were human figures busy in the arena, though not a soul sat in any of the granite tiers above. A million eyes had been less awful than those empty benches staring down in the cold dawn; bench after bench repeating the horror of the featureless carvings by the entrance-gate-repeating it in series without end, and unbroken, save at one point midway along the semicircle on my right, where the imperial seat stood out, crowned like a catafalque with plumes of purple horse-hair, and screened close with heavy purple hangings. I saw these curtains shake once or twice in the morning wind.

The floor of this amphitheatre I have spoken of as an arena; but as a matter of fact it was laid with riveted sheets of copper that recalled the dead men's shelves in the Paris morgue. The centre had been raised some few feet higher than the circumference, or possibly the whole floor took its shape from the rounded hill of which it was the apex; and from an open sluice immediately beneath the imperial throne a flood of water gushed with a force that carried it straight to this raised centre, over which it ran and rippled, and so drained back into the scuppers at the circumference. Before reaching the centre it broke and swirled around a row of what appeared to be tall iron boxes or cages, set directly in face of the throne. But for these ugly boxes the whole floor was empty. To and from these the little human figures were hurrying, and from these too proceeded the thuds and panting and the frequent groans that I had heard outside.

While I stood and gazed, Harry stepped forward into the arena.

"This also?" I whispered.

He nodded, and led the way over the copper floor, where the water ran high as our ankles and again was drained off, until little dry spaces grew like maps upon the surface, and in ten seconds were flooded again. He led me straight to the cages, and I saw that while the roof and three sides of these were of sheet iron, the fourth side, which faced the throne, lay open. And I saw-in the first cage, a man scourged with rods; in the second, a body twisted on the rack; in the third, a woman with a starving babe, and a fellow that held food to them and withdrew it quickly (the torturers wore masks on their faces, and whenever blood flowed some threw handfuls of sawdust, and blood and sawdust together were carried off by the running water); in the fourth cage, a man tied, naked and helpless, whom a masked torturer pelted with discs of gold, heavy and keen-edged; in the fifth a brasier with irons heating, and a girl's body crouched in a corner-

"I will see no more!" I cried, and turned towards the great purple canopy. High over it the sun broke yellow on the climbing tiers of seats. "Harry! someone is watching behind those curtains! Is it-HE?"

Harry bent his head.

"But this is all that I believed! This is Nero, and ten times worse than Nero! Why did you bring me here?" I flung out my hand towards the purple throne, and finding myself close to a fellow who scattered sawdust with both hands, made a spring to tear his mask away. But Harry stretched out an arm.

"That will not help you," he said. "The man has no face."

"No face!"

"He once had a face, but it has perished. His was the face of these sufferers. Look at them."

I looked from cage to cage, and now saw that indeed all these sufferers-men and women-had but one face: the same wrung brow, the same wistful eyes, the same lips bitten in anguish. I knew the face. We all know it.

"His own Son! O devil rather than God!" I fell on my knees in the gushing water and covered my eyes.

"Stand up, listen and look!" said Harry's voice.

"What can I see? He hides behind that curtain."

"And the curtain?"

"It shakes continually."

"That is with His sobs. Listen! What of the water?"

"It runs from the throne and about the floor. It washes off the blood."

"That water is His tears. It flows hence down the hill, and washes all the shores of earth."

Then as I stood silent, conning the eddies at my feet, for the first time Harry took my hand.

"Learn this," he said. "There is no suffering in the world but ultimately comes to be endured by God."

Saying this, he drew me from the spot; gently, very gently led me away; but spoke again as we were about to pass into the shadow of the arch-

"Look once back: for a moment only."

I looked. The curtains of the imperial seat were still drawn close, but in a flash I saw the tiers beside it, and around, and away up to the sunlit crown of the amphitheatre, thronged with forms in white raiment. And all these forms leaned forward and bowed their faces on their arms and wept.

So we passed out beneath the archway. Grey Sultan stood outside, and as

I mounted him the gate clashed behind. . . .

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