Monday, March 10, 2014

"The Face of Isis" by Cyril G. Wates, part 4

This is the fourth installment of "The Face of Isis" by Cyril G. Wates, a Gernsback-era science fiction story first published in the March 1928 issue of Amazing Stories and never reprinted.

The story so far: the narrator, Pete the Polliwog, runs into Elliott Courtland, an old schoolchum, during a business trip to Boston. Courtland casually mentions a story about their chemistry professor, Myron Wadsworth, and an adventure involving "the Face of Isis". At Courtland's house, Courtland shows Pete an ancient Egyptian casket made of solid gold, and tells how he came by it.

Two years after graduating from Harvard, Courtland was invited by Wadsworth to take part in an expedition to the Atlas Mountains in Morocco to look for traces of an Egyptian migration to Mexico. They found an ancient gold musical instrument on top of a mound next to a tall pillar known to the locals as Djibel el Sheetan, Satan Mountain. A passing British aviator mentioned to Wadsworth and Courtland that he noticed an ancient Egyptian temple on top of the pillar, and the two were able to climb a set of steps carved into it to reach the temple.

They found that the temple sat above a hole dug into the pillar, with a set of stairs spiraling down around it. At the bottom of the stairs they found a mausoleum with a sarcophagus that was empty except for the golden casket, which was filled with a mysteriously heavy metallic powder. After five hours exploring inside Djibel el Sheetan, they emerged from a passage atop the mound...

The Face of Isis
By Cyril G. Wates

Chapter IV: The Secret of the Casket

The Professor's first care was to translate the hieroglyphics on the golden casket. For two days he shut himself in his tent and refused to be disturbed except at meal times; even then he turned a deaf ear to Courtland's enquiries.

"Wait until I have finished," was all he would say.

Courtland spent the idle hours while the Professor was closeted with the precious casket, in exploring the interior of the great pinnacle. It seemed strange to be able to go and come at his pleasure to the aerial temple which it had almost cost him his life to reach the first time. He found other subterranean chambers, some of which were evidently the living quarters of the priests who had served in the temple above, but nowhere did he find any sign of human occupancy.

Gradually the feeling grew upon him that this ancient structure had been used for only a short period and then vacated. What could have caused the builders suddenly to desert the place of worship which it had cost them such labor to produce, he was unable to guess, but from the temple roof to the bottom of the chamber of the sarcophagus he found no remnant or remains of human life, save the pitiful bleached bones before the great altar of Isis.

Late in the afternoon of the second day of Professor Wadsworth's seclusion, Courtland was sitting on the natural coping which surrounded the summit of the Djibel el Sheetan, absorbed in visions of those far distant days when this silent spot had been the scene of human activity. He looked across the miles of desert to the horizon where the Atlantic shone in the westering sun like a sea of blood, and pictured the Egyptians, the forgotten forerunners of Leif Ericsson and Columbus, setting sail for their great adventure.

His reverie was broken by the sound of hurrying steps. The Professor came scrambling up the tiers of seats, waving aloft some sheets of paper. He sank down beside Courtland and struggled to regain the breath he had expended in his ascent of the long, spiral stairway. He gasped, he puffed, he wheezed, he tried in vain to speak. It was plain that he was under the stress of tremendous excitement. He had some unprecedented discovery to reveal, but his vocal cords refused to obey the dictates of his will. His eyes seemed about to fly from his head.

At last he thrust the sheets of paper into Courtland's hands.

"Read!" he exploded, and then subsided into another fit of wheezing.

So Courtland read the words which had been carved on that golden casket by the hand of the man whose bones lay before the altar.

"Kut-Amen-Pash, the mighty Pharaoh, King of Kings, Lord of the Upper and Lower Lands, wearer of the Double Crown, Prince of Ethiopia, Emperor of Syria and Persia, at whose tread the Evil Ones tremble, at whose smile the Doers of Good are rewarded, by the hand of his servant Osrah, Chief Astrologer and Magician, High Priest of Isis, the divine Mother of Horus.

"The all-powerful Pharaoh, who consorteth with Ra in his courses and setteth his foot upon the face of Isis, having departed from the sight of his servant, to establish a new kingdom, therefore I, Osrah, am left desolate and being desirous of waiting upon my Lord, purpose to offer myself a great sacrifice to the divine mother, Isis, who has taken the Great One into her all-embracing arms.

"Now in the time past, by virtue of my skill in magic, I found in the mountains of Ethiopia, a certain strange mineral, whereof the remnant is within this casket, and by whose power the Mighty One has been enabled to go hence. When I revealed unto Pharaoh the marvelous thing which I had discovered, he would fain make trial of its power in his own person. My dissuasions were in vain, neither would he permit me to accompany him, but commanded that I should use my skill in astrology to bring his desires to fruition.

"With a sad heart, therefore, I come to this place, whereof I already knew, and, with many slaves, carved out this temple in honor of the divine Mother, that all things might be done in due order. When all things were ready, the Mighty One came hither and departed hence to his kingdom.

"Now whether the Great One hath reached that kingdom or whether the dog-faced Seth hath utterly destroyed Him, I know not, but being far on in years and weary with waiting for my King to return, I go hence to join him.

"Let him who would follow, read within."

* * *

"Funny mix up!" Commented Courtland, when he had finished perusing this remarkable document. "Don't see that it adds much to what we had already guessed."

"My dear boy," panted the Professor, "that is exactly what I thought when I first translated it, but I have changed my mind. We came here looking for traces of an Egyptian exodus to Mexico and quite by accident we have made the most extraordinary discovery in the history of mankind!"

"Don't quite get you, Professor," said Courtland.

"Evidently not!" chuckled the old man. "Before I explain my meaning, I want you to tell me yourself your interpretation of this paper."

"It seems to me quite simple," said Courtland. "This old codger, the high priest, discovered a mineral, and put a sample in the box. The mineral was useful for something connected with ship building. Kut something-or-other, the Pharaoh, used the mineral for building his fleet and when he sailed for Mexico, he left old thingummy behind. After waiting for a few years for the king to come back, the old priest gets fed up and kills himself in the temple."

"That, in slightly more formal language, was what I thought at first," said the Professor, "and then I began to notice certain curious phrases which did not seem to fit in with this simple explanation. For example, 'who consorteth with Ra in his courses.' Ra was the Sun God. 'Who setteth his foot upon the face of Isis.' Not a very respectful thing to do to the great Goddess Mother of the Universe!"

"It's all Greek to me still," said Courtland.

"Nonsense! Nonsense, my dear boy," cried the Professor impatiently. "It's as clear as crystal. Isis was the divine mother. In other words, Nature. Her symbol was the moon. Just as the Romans used the name Diana indifferently for the goddess and for the moon which was her symbol, so the Egyptians spoke of the moon as Isis. 'Who setteth foot upon the face of Isis.' Now do you understand?"

Courtland stared at him stupified.

"Well -- but -- Good Heavens! Surely you don't mean -- this old Egyptian king ---"

"Exactly!" cried the Professor, triumphantly. "He used this metallic powder and went to the moon! No wonder he wouldn't take the high priest along. There wasn't room."

Courtland was dumfounded. Faint suspicions entered his mind that the strain of the last three days had been too much for the Professor's brain. Or perhaps that little red fez was not sufficient protection from the heat of a tropical sun. His face must have revealed his thoughts, for the Professor burst out laughing.

"No, my dear Courtland, I am not crazy. Now listen, and I will tell you my idea of what took place. The high priest accidentally discovered a deposit of some mineral substance which, under certain conditions, has the power of becoming opaque to gravity."

"Like cavorite in Wells' book," interjected Courtland.

"I have not had the pleasure of reading the work you mention," said the Professor. "However, the priest told his master of the discovery and perhaps suggested to him that it might be the solution to aerial flight. The ancient Egyptians were no fools in scientific matters and the Pharaoh became ambitious to experiment with this mysterious substance. He decided to attempt to reach the moon. The ancients had a marvelous knowledge of astronomy but had no conception of the distance separating the heavenly bodies. Pharaoh probably thought the moon was about twenty miles away and that he could go there and come back in a few hours.

"Be that as it may, he ordered the high priest to find some secluded spot and prepare for his flight into space. The priest organized an expedition to the west coast of what we now know as Morocco and carved out this temple, probably to propitiate the goddess, whose symbol the Pharaoh was intending to violate. When everything was ready, Pharaoh came here and departed for the moon. I fear it is exceedingly unlikely he ever arrived!"

Courtland was silent. He was at a loss for any reply to the Professor's fantastic theory. The whole thing was so ridiculously impossible. That an Egyptian King who had lived and died nearly thirty centuries ago, could have actually solved the problem of interplanetary flight was too wild an idea to be entertained, and yet he could find no arguments with which to refute the Professor's line of reasoning.

"After all," he said at last, hesitatingly, "we don't know that your interpretation of the inscription is the correct one. Perhaps it has quite a different meaning; a much simpler meaning. The ancients were rather given to flowery language, you know. All this stuff about the 'Face of Isis' and 'Ra in his courses' may be just for rhetorical effect."

"I thought you might say something like that, my boy," said the Professor, "and if I had nothing but this inscription upon which to base my theory, I might agree with you, but I have other evidence which will convince even the most skeptical. First, have you thought of the possible connection between my theory and the great shaft?"

"Why, no. I can't say I have," replied Courtland.

"Poo! Where's your imagination, boy? That shaft is just what you jokingly suggested it might be: a cannon! Only instead of a bullet there was a hollow cage and in place of explosive, they used this anti-gravitational powder. The Pharaoh probably waited until the moon was visible through the shaft and then started. Just as one would point a gun. That's why the shaft is polished so highly. The slightest friction would have been fatal."

"You have an answer to everything," said Courtland, "but -- somehow I can't seem to see the thing as you do. It all seems so outlandishly impossible. And another thing: If this metallic powder is antigravitational, why doesn't it fly off into space of its own accord?"

"Do you see the last words of the inscription?" asked the Professor. " 'Let him who would follow, read within.' I have read within."

"Do you mean that there's another inscription within the casket?" cried Courtland.

"Precisely!" exclaimed the Professor, producing a second sheet of paper. "Read this," he said triumphantly.

Courtland read aloud:

"Let him who would follow the flight of the omnipotent Pharaoh, make for himself a chariot of brass like unto the design upon the bottom of the casket. And the floor thereof shall be of cedar. And it shall be placed in the pit that is beneath the floor of the temple.

"And when the Divine Mother unveileth her face at the full, let him fast and purify his heart and offer sacrifices at the altar. Let him do these things from the going down of Ra to the sixth hour thereafter. Then let him enter into the brazen chariot and strew upon the floor thereof, the powder that is within this casket.

"And when the face of the Divine Mother looketh down upon him through the roof of the temple, let him take the fleshburner and pour it upon the powder which is upon the floor of the chariot. Then shall he be gathered unto the Divine Mother, Isis; even unto the mighty King, Kut-Amen-Pash, who hath gone before."

"Well, are you satisfied, my boy?" said the Professor, when Courtland had finished reading. "Do you wonder that I said we had made the greatest discovery in the history of mankind?"

"For the future I'm ready to believe anything!" Courtland replied. "But what about this design he speaks of?"

"There is a drawing," explained the Professor, "incised in the bottom of the casket. It represents a cylindrical cage of metal strips, with a circular wooden floor. Of course the Egyptian astronomers knew nothing about the cold of space, or the absence of any air, so they simply built a lattice cage. I am afraid that Kut-Amen-Pash was dead within ten seconds of leaving the earth."

"The usual fate of the pioneer!" philosophized Courtland. "But what about this fleshburner he refers to?"

* * *

"At first that puzzled me too," replied the Professor. "Then I realized that since the powder has no gravity screening properties in its normal state, it must be necessary to submit it to the action of some reagent. As the result of the chemical transformation which takes place, a compound is produced which has the property of being opaque to gravity. That is no more surprising than the familiar phenomenon of two transparent liquids which, when mingled, produce an opaque precipitate."

"Then you think the 'fleshburner' is some kind of chemical?"

"I have no doubt of it. Furthermore, there is one class of compounds notable for their power of burning flesh; the acids. It is probable that sulphuric acid, one of the most active substances of which we have any knowledge, is the reagent that was used."

For a few seconds Courtland sat silently considering the professor's revelation. Suddenly he sprang to his feet and began to execute a wild dance, in dangerous proximity to the edge of the cliff. The Professor watched his antics in amazement.

"My dear boy, do be careful!" he exclaimed. "Whatever is the matter?"

"Why, don't you see?" cried Courtland, slapping the Professor on the back, "if old what's-his-name could go to the moon, so can we! We can build an air-tight chariot, stock it with food, sprinkle the powder on the floor and we're off! Hurrah for Wadsworth and Courtland, Interplanetary Explorers, Limited!"

It was the Professor's turn to be amazed. To him the discovery of the golden casket and the astonishing revelation of the hieroglyphics had meant nothing more than that he, Professor Myron Wadsworth, had taken his place with the greatest archeologists of all time. That there was any material value in this mysterious powder, anything that could conceivably affect his personal life, had never entered his mind.

And yet, why not? It this thing were indeed so; if this powder really did what the old high priest claimed; if the Pharaoh had really been shot out of the shaft by virtue of some unknown force and had never returned; why should not modern man, with all the resources of modern science at his command, harness this force and actually extend his kingdom to other planets?

To be Professor Wadsworth, the man who discovered the proofs of an Egyptian migration to Mexico, was much. To be Myron Wadsworth, the man who took his life in his hands and reached the moon -- why, that was more, infinitely more! Look at Lindbergh! He flew a mere three thousand miles and became, almost overnight, the most talked of man in history. But to fly to the moon and back; that was equal to more than a hundred times the distance from New York to Paris!

The chemistry class at Blantford College would have been much amazed to see their dignified, if somewhat portly professor, dancing "ring-a-round-a-rosie" with a former pupil on the summit of a pinnacle eight hundred feet high in the Atlas Mountains and shouting at the top of his voice:

"Hurrah for Isis!"

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