Saturday, March 8, 2014

"The Face of Isis" by Cyril G. Wates, part 2

This is the second 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: 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 prepares to tell him the story.  And now

The Face of Isis
By Cyril G. Wates

Chapter II: The Mountains of Morocco

During his last two years at school, Courtland was one of Professor Wadsworth's favorite pupils, not on account of any special aptitude in chemistry, but because the professor discovered Courtland in the school library one day, absorbed in a book on ancient Inca civilization. It happened that archeology was Old Waddles' special hobby and he had devoted much time to the theory that the Aztec culture was an offshoot of that of the ancient Egyptians.

In Courtland, he found a devoted disciple and the friendship which developed as the result of a common interest, continued after Courtland left school and entered Harvard. It came as no surprise to Courtland, therefore, when, shortly after his graduation, he received a letter from the professor, inviting him to act as his assistant in an expedition to the west coast of Morocco, where Waddles hoped to find evidence of an Egyptian migration to Mexico.

Courtland, who was under no material necessity to work for his living, snatched at the opportunity for adventure, and after hurried but thorough preparations, the last week of October found him embarked with the Professor on the S.S. Glaconic, bound for Southampton. Here they trans-shipped to Havre and thence journeyed by train through France and over the border to Cadiz on the southern coast of Spain.

At Cadiz they succeeded in chartering a small sailing vessel with a villainous looking captain and a still more disreputable crew.

And five days later they and their belongings were put ashore at Ifni, a Spanish port on the coast of Morocco.

Courtland explained to me at considerable length Old Waddles' reasons for believing that if relics of an ancient Egyptian migration existed at all, they would be found in the vicinity of the southern branch of the Atlas Mountains, which come down almost to the shore line at Ifni, but as this explanation has absolutely no bearing upon the remarkable events which arose from the expedition, I will omit it here and refer the curious reader to Prof. Wadsworth's monumental work, History of the Egyptian Migration in the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties.

Although the travelers were now within a few miles of their destination, their difficulties had only begun. They sought out Captain André Guilemont, the French Consul, with whom the professor had been in correspondence, and by him they were introduced to Signor Ostora, the Spanish governor of Ifni. They finally succeeded in persuading the governor that they were neither treasure hunters nor American brigands, and after much shrugging of shoulders and many Spanish expletives, he agreed to assist them in organizing a transport train to take them into the interior.

And so, ten days after their arrival in Morocco, a motley procession wound its way through the outskirts of Ifni and plodded across the sandy waste beyond. First came Achmed Idrees, the guide, astride a rawboned nag and looking very patriarchal in his kaftan and tarboosh. Next in order were Courtland and Professor Wadsworth, on ponies, the professor presenting quite an oriental appearance in a red fez, which he held on by means of the crook of his inseparable walking stick; then came a train of donkeys and camels, laden with tents, bedding, boxes of food, water-skins, spades, picks, and all the mingled paraphernalia of an exploring party. As they wound their way amongst sand dunes and over dried water courses, they could see the snow-capped summits of the so-called Anti-Atlas range, glistening in the blazing sunlight, far to the northeast.

The professor had told Achmed that they wished to go to the mountains, but that he would decide upon their exact destination after they left Ifni. They had been traveling for two hours, when the guide reined in his steed.

"You tell Achmed where you want to go, Sidi. Achmed take. Take nenyplace. You tell where."

The Professor, who had been scanning the jagged outline of the mountains through his binoculars, pointed to a deep notch, on either side of which rose mighty peaks.

"Do you see that notch, Achmed?"

"What mean 'Nosh,' Sidi."

"The opening in the mountains."

"Yes. Me see. Me know. Dat called Djibel el Sheetan. Same you call Debil Hill. You want me take?"

"Yes, that's the place. How long will it take us to get there, Achmed?"

"One, two, t'ree day, Sidi. Country lot rough. Rocks, mountain, no much water."

Achmed spurred his horse.

"Yallah, halluf!" he yelled.

"If I am not wrong in my surmise," remarked the professor, "that notch is the only pass through which the Egyptian explorers could have reached the coast when traveling by the route which I am confident they followed."

"But wouldn't there be a better chance of finding traces of their passage on the coast itself?" suggested Courtland. "Shipyards, stone causeways, workmen's dwellings and that sort of thing."

"You are undoubtedly correct that such engineering works existed in great abundance, Courtland, but it would be useless to search for any traces of them now. The western shore line of Africa has been sinking for many centuries and the Egyptian shipyards are sunk fathoms deep in the ocean. If any buildings remain above the water, the Moors have torn them down long ago and used the material for other purposes."

"But why should we have any better luck in the mountains, Professor? It seems to me that the Egyptians would have merely camped en route. Just tents and shacks. No permanent remains."

"That's because you're thinking in terms of modern exploration, Courtland. You must remember that the ancients traveled very slowly and in large parties, establishing themselves step by step, more or less permanently. The journey from Egypt to the coast of Morocco was a matter of years, perhaps of generations. Besides, the crossing of the mountains must have been a very laborious undertaking, so it seems logical that they would erect their permanent dwellings and storehouses at the foot of the pass, rather than at the coast. However, we shall see when we get there."

That night the party camped at a well, surrounded by scraggy palms. The following day they began to enter the foothills and the mighty peaks, which flanked the pass, rose higher and higher on each hand as they advanced. Courtland's attention was especially attracted by an extraordinary pinnacle of rock which dominated the entrance to the pass. It towered up to a height of perhaps eight hundred feet above the surrounding terrain, and its sides were so smooth and vertical, that it gave the impression of a monolith erected by the hand of man.

"Dat Djibel el Sheetan," Achmed replied to Courtland's question. "Igrament feller say Debil lib on top of he. Achmed no believe dat."

* * *

They made camp on the third day on a broad expanse of level ground west of the great rock tower. Beyond rose the precipitous walls of the gorge leading to the pass and in the misty distance shone the sea, like a silver shield.

The scenery was grand and wild beyond description, but the professor displayed no interest in the beauties of nature when Courtland called his attention to them. His mind was entirely taken up with certain rounded humps which broke the even level of the plain at intervals. As soon as the tents were pitched and a meal eaten, the archeologist started off on a tour of investigation. He was confident that treasures were to be found in the mysterious mounds; treasures which would put the far famed "Valley of the Kings" utterly in the shade. Already he saw the name of Professor Myron Wadsworth in glaring headlines on the front page of all the principal newspapers.

The following day the men were put to work excavating one of the mounds which the professor had selected. Courtland superintended the digging, while the professor waddled from place to place, very much excited and very much in the way. Nor was his enthusiasm abated in the slightest as days passed into weeks without anything more valuable being found than rocks and sand.

The workmen moved from one mound to another, sinking a vertical well in the top of each to the level of the base, but without results. Courtland was fast losing hope and even the professor was becoming discouraged. Then, one day, came a discovery of such unquestioned genuineness, that their spirits were raised to the heights again.

There was one very large mound which actually touched the beetling cliffs of the Djibel el Sheetan. The exploration of this had been left until the last. The Moorish workmen were turning over the rocks at the top of the mound in preparation for digging, when Courtland's eye caught the glint of something metallic in the loose gravel underneath. In a moment he was on his hands and knees burrowing and he extracted a peculiarly shaped object which he handed to the professor, who was jumping up and down with excitement and thumping the crown of his fez with his cane.

The article which Courtland had found was apparently of solid gold, encrusted with the dirt of centuries. It consisted of a flat bar bent into the shape of an elongated horseshoe. A handle was affixed to the narrow end and there were five thin rods running crossways through holes in the sides of the horseshoe.

On each of the bars were a number of rings which tinkled like little bells when the thing was taken by the handle and shaken.

"A SISTRUM! AN UNDOUBTED SISTRUM!" shouted the professor.

"A cistern?" queried Courtland, puzzled.

"A sistrum!" reiterated the savant. "If we don't find anything else, our case is proved." And he hopped up and down in his excitement, while the Moors stood in a circle staring and muttering Arabic exclamations, evidently convinced that El Tebib Sidi, as they called Wadsworth, had taken leave of his senses.

"But what is it?" asked Courtland.

"Musical instrument! Fifth Dynasty!" panted the professor. "Used in celebrating rites of the Goddess Isis!"

How long the professor might have continued his gyrations of delight will never be known, for his attention and that of the others was attracted by a purring sound coming from the direction of the pass. A moment later an airplane shot out from between the sides of the gorge and swooping gracefully downward, landed on the level surface near the camp.

The Moors had become too well accustomed to having their soldiers attacked by French aviators to display any emotion save that of curiosity at the sight of the plane, but the two Americans were at a loss to imagine what any pilot could be doing, flying across the Atlas Mountains. Could it be that the French authorities at Tangier had got wind of their expedition and had sent a plane to put a stop to any further excavations? That would have been a bitter pill to swallow after their recent find!

Courtland and the Professor hurried down the slope, the latter still clasping his precious sistrum to his breast. Half way to camp, they met the pilot, a tall, slender fellow with a little sandy moustache and a most woe-begone expression on his countenance.

"Little bit of luck, what? Finding you chaps here. Forced landing, you know. Engine trouble, just as I got through the mountains."

"Darned lucky you didn't have to land up in the gorge," remarked Courtland. "Come far?"

"Cairo. Trying to make a non-stop flight to Tangier. That confounded valve settled my hash."

"You are a long way south of your direct route, sir," said the Professor.

"Yes, worse luck!" the pilot replied. "Big sandstorm over the Sahara. Had to turn south or I shouldn't have made it at all. You fellows starting a mine of sorts, what?"

Courtland introduced himself and Professor Wadsworth and explained that they were archeologists. Their visitor returned the compliment by giving his name as Roderick Ainsley, pilot for a big English aviation company. The explorers extended him a cordial invitation to lunch.

"By Jove! I shall be jolly glad to put on the old feedbag!" exclaimed Ainsley. "Expected to make the trip in five hours or less and didn't carry any fodder."

* * *

Later, after a hearty meal and a good cigar, Ainsley began to display interest in the activities of the two Americans.

"So you're archeologists. Must be jolly interesting, hunting for dinosaur bones and fossils and what not!"

The Professor explained the difference between geology and archeology, and proudly displayed the golden sistrum.

Ainsley fingered it and looked thoughtful.

"So this doo-dad was used by priests, eh? Of course it would be lying close to the temple, wouldn't it?"

"That is what we hope," said the Professor, "and with this remarkable discovery to encourage us, we shall continue our excavations until we find it."

Ainsley puffed at his cigar and looked still more thoughtful.

"If I were you fellows, I wouldn't bother doing any more digging," he drawled. "You don't need to if you don't want to, you know."

"What do you mean?  Why don't we need to?" cried the two explorers in a breath.

"Because I've seen the temple, you know. Regular Egyptian, like the one at Philae," replied the Englishman simply, quite unaware of the bomb he was exploding.

"Where? Where?" cried the Professor.

"Just over there," replied Ainsley, pointing to the west.

"But that's the way we came!" sputtered the Professor. "There's nothing over that way except the Djibel el Sheetan and the foothills."

"So that's what they call it. Devil Mountain. Appropriate name, what? Bally temple's on top of it."

"On top of the rock? We can see the whole of the pinnacle from here and there's no sign of a temple!"

"Saw it as I came over the pass," said Ainsley. "Top's hollow and the temple stands in the middle. Thought you chaps would know all about it."

The Professor's excitement was unbounded and Courtland was equally astonished. No wonder they had found the sistrum close to the foot of the pinnacle. Some priest had evidently dropped it from the parapet and had been unable to find it. The golden trinket had lain where it fell for over two thousand years. The mound at the foot of the tower probably represented the debris from the building on the summit.

Professor Wadsworth was all for rushing off to verify Ainsley's astonishing discovery, but Courtland reminded him that their first duty as hosts was to assist the aviator to repair the damage to his machine. Fortunately the trouble proved to be a small matter and before sunset repairs were affected. The Professor suggested that Mr. Ainsley might take them up to the temple in his airplane, but the pilot pointed out the sheer impossibility of landing a plane on a space only about fifty feet in diameter, and the archeologist reluctantly abandoned the idea.

Courtland and the Professor got little sleep that night. The latter tossed and turned on his camp cot, his mind a whirl of joyful anticipation of what the morrow might bring forth. Courtland's thoughts were equally wakeful but more practical. How could they ever reach the aerial temple? By what means could they hope to scale those awful cliffs?

But Ainsley's mind was free from either worry or anticipation. His beloved plane was repaired and he slept the sleep of the tired aviator, while the others listened enviously to the even flow of his breathing.

At the first peep of dawn they were up and eating breakfast. Ainsley shook hands and wished them luck with their explorations. He clambered into the pilot's seat and presently the roar of his engine echoed from the cliffs as he taxied across the level ground and rose into the clear air.

The plane swept in a wide circle around the mysterious summit of the Djibel el Sheetan and Ainsley waved his hand encouragingly as he set his course to the north.

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