Sunday, March 9, 2014

"The Face of Isis" by Cyril G. Wates, part 3

This is the third 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 began making plans to scale it. And now...

The Face of Isis
By Cyril G. Wates

Chapter III: The Hidden Temple

As soon as the purr of the engine passed out of hearing, Courtland and Wadsworth started for a thorough examination of the rock pinnacle with a view to its ascent. They circled it repeatedly, looking for the slightest crack or ledge by which they might hope to worm their way up the sheer precipice, but were obliged to confess that they could see no means by which they would be able to climb even part of the distance to their goal. Courtland, who had considerable experience in the art of mountaineering, decided that the rock-tower was unclimbable.

At last Courtland suggested that they should abandon their search for the present and walk part way up thte slopes of one of the peaks adjoining to the pass, in order, if possible, to get a glimpse of the hidden temple through their glasses. They had walked about a mile from the base of the tower, when the Professor, happening to look back, was struck by a peculiar marking on the rock and called Courtland's attention to it.

"Yes. I see what you mean," said Courtland. "Dark line. Absolutely vertical. Runs from base to summit. Vein in the rock, probably."

"I'm quite sure we should have noticed any such vein if it existed," replied Wadsworth. "Let us go back. Who knows? It may be a crack we have overlooked. You see, it terminates at the bottom just to the left of the mound."

They hurried back, but as they approached the pinnacle, the dark line gradually faded until it vanished completely. A careful inspection at the place where the line had been seen, failed to reveal any explanation of this peculiar phenomenon. At last Courtland suggested walking back to the spot where the mark was visible and examining it through a telescope.

At once the mystery was cleared away! The line consisted of a series of notches or steps at intervals of about twelve inches. The upper side of these notches was sloped off gradually to allow room for the leg and knee of the person ascending them. This explained their invisibility from below, for the steps blended into the rock when viewed from this position. A more careful inspection revealed the fact that the lowest step came within about twenty feet of the ground level. It was evident that a ladder had been used to start the ascent or that the ground had been lowered in the course of centuries by the process of erosion.

The Professor was exultant. They had only to build a short ladder, set it against the rock walk up the steps and the summit with its ancient secrets was theirs.

And this they actually did. Late that night the ladder was completed. The following morning it was carried over to the Djibel el Sheetan and set against the rock at the point they had marked. Wadsworth insisted that he should be the first to make the ascent, but Courtland finally succeeded in persuading the old man that his youth and slender build gave him the advantage, to say nothing of his previous experience in Alpine climbing. So Courtland it was who tied one end of a light line to his belt and started up the ladder.

Eight hundred feet. Eight hundred steps. It was the task of half an hour at the most. And yet, if Courtland lives to be a thousand, he is never likely to forget the horrors of that fearful climb! It was one thing to make some perilous ascent in Switzerland with a trusty guide ahead to hold the rope secure in case of a slip. It was quite another matter to crawl up the face of this obelisk of polished granite, where the slightest misstep meant a sudden and awful death.

As he got higher and higher, a sense of terrible loneliness oppressed him. What if he should tire before he reached the top? What if cramp should seize him? He could do nothing but simply allow himself to fall; to fall hundreds of feet through the warm, life-giving sunlight to a horrible death on the cruel rocks below.

Up! Up! Up! How heavy the rope was becoming! Would its accumulated weight finally pull him backwards from his holds? How his fingers ached with the effort of clinging to the edges of these cursed, rough-hewn steps!

* * *

An eternity passed. The steady reaching upward of hand and foot had become a mere mechanical repetition, a treadmill over an abyss. And then, he reached his hand for the next hold and felt -- nothing!

The shock almost sent him flying into space. Then came the realization like a breath of Paradise, that he was at the summit. A moment and he stood on a wide circular platform looking down into a depression like an artificial crater carved in the top of the pinnacle. And in the center of the cup was the temple, just as Ainsley had described it.

A few feet below him, Courtland discovered a huge boss of rock like the capstan on a ship. To this he attached the end of his line and then, returning to the edge of the parapet, signaled for a heavier rope to be coupled on. When this had been hauled up in turn, the Professor tied the lower end around his waist and commenced the terrible ascent, while Courtland drew in the slack of the rope, belaying it around the knob which was now serving for the first time in perhaps twenty centuries, the purpose for which it was designed.

What the professor lacked in physical strength he more than made up in stoutness of heart, and it was not long before Courtland saw his red fez appear over the edge of the parapet and the two explorers, once more united, stood where no human foot had trod since the days when Cleopatra's navy fled in disorder, leaving her lover to his fate.

The entire summit of the Djibel el Sheetan was hollowed out to a depth of forty or fifty feet, the sides being carved out in a series of steps which ran all the way round, giving the effect of a miniature stadium, with a diameter of a hundred feet. The floor of the bowl was perfectly level and in the center of this circular platform stood the temple, a gem of Egyptian architecture in perfect preservation. The building was square, measuring about ten yards each way. The roof of stone slabs was supported on four rows of exquisitely graceful columns. The floor was slightly raised above the general level and was as smooth as glass.

For a long time the two men stood spellbound. For Courtland this amazing discovery was the climax of a great adventure. The realization that he was looking upon a sight which no human eye had beheld for nearly three milleniums wiped out the memory of the terrible danger he had braved. His imagination pictured the little temple as it had been when swarthy priests in flowing white robes, celebrated their mysterious rites amongst those silent pillars, while rows of bowing worshippers filled the seats around.

Professor Wadsworth's emotions were different in kind but no less intense. For him it was the culmination of a lifetime of study, the fulfillment of a lifelong ambition. The world, or at least his world, the world of science, would acclaim him in no uncertain voice. He would take rank with the greatest archeologists of all time.

But they were only at the beginning of their discoveries. Greater wonders than any they had yet seen were to come. When they walked down the flight of granite steps, or seats, and approached the central temple, the Professor gave voice to an exclamation of amazement.

"Great Heavens!" he cried, "this is even more marvelous than I had realized. Do you notice anything especially strange in the structure of this building?"

"Well, no, I can't say I do," replied Courtland, "unless you mean the masonry. Those old workmen must have been wonderful stonecutters. Can't see the joints at all."

"Exactly!" agreed the Professor. "But the reason you cannot see the joints is because there are no joints to see. This entire structure, the steps, the pillars, the roof, the polished floor, all have been hewn out of the living rock. What modern achievement of engineering skill can compare with this? To what perfection must those ancient designers have carried their art to carve this gem of architecture from the solid granite, when one error, no matter how slight, would have spoiled the whole?"

By a flight of three steps, they gained the floor of the temple. The first thing that caught their attention was a large circular hole piercing the roof exactly in the center.

"This temple must have been dedicated to the Sun God," remarked the Professor, pointing to the opening. "There was probably an altar in such a position that the sun's rays would strike it exactly at noon."

"There's the altar," said Courtland, pointing to a huge square block of stone on the opposite side of the temple. "And there's the priest, if I'm not mistaken," he added, indicating a pile of bones lying in front of the altar.

In a moment the professor was waddling across the floor to submit this new discovery to examination, when Courtland with a cry of warning, rushed after the little man and seizing him unceremoniously by the collar, jerked him backward so violently that the Professor sat down on the floor with great suddenness.

"For Heaven's sake, be careful, sir!" Courtland cried. "I thought you were done for!"

"Why! What!" sputtered the Professor. "What's the matter?"

Courtland pointed to the floor directly under the circular opening in the roof.

"You almost stepped into that!" he panted.

The even surface of the granite floor was broken by a round hole like the mouth of a well, about six feet in diameter. Its highly polished sides dropped away into impenetrable gloom.

They lay on their faces on the floor and peered down into the gulf which had almost proved the end of Professor Wadsworth's career. The rays of Courtland's flashlight failed to reveal any bottom to the pit. An empty cartridge case was dropped and the professor's stop-watch showed the interval before a faint tinkle announced that the bottom had been reached.

* * *

The Professor made a rapid calculation in his notebook. "Allowing for the speed of sound and using thirty-two feet per second for the acceleration of gravity, with proper allowance for the resistance of the air," he announced, "the pit is about eight hundred feet deep. That would make the bottom practically level with the ground."

"Why, the pinnacle is like an enormous cannon!" exclaimed Courtland.

"More like a great elevator shaft," amended the Professor. "Ever since we arrived I have been puzzled as to how the ancient priests reached their aerial place of worship. The steps by which we made the ascent are too perilous and laborious for every-day use. They were evidently designed for an emergency."

"Well, if this is an elevator shaft," commented Courtland dryly, "they must have left the car at the first floor. I don't see any push button, so I guess it's the steps for us."

"It is probable that the car was operated by means of a rope running over a pulley on a wooden framework spanning the hole in the roof," the Professor elucidated. "The woodwork has long since rotted away and followed the car into the shaft."

"But how did they get out when they got to the ground floor?" asked Courtland. "There's no sign of an opening in the rock outside."

"The outlet is probably closed by a skilfully concealed door," said the Professor. "Well, there is nothing to be gained by looking down the shaft. Let us examine the altar. There may be an inscription which will throw some light on the purpose of the temple."

They carefully skirted the mouth of the well and approached the place of sacrifice. The altar was a perfectly cubical mass of granite, hewn, like the temple, from the solid rock. It bore no inscription and was unornamented save for a globe and crescent, the latter with its horns turned upwards, rendered in bas-relief.

"The symbol of the goddess Isis," remarked the Professor. "One of the great trinity of deities who dominated the religion of Egypt during the Fifth Dynasty. This building closely resembles the famous temple of Isis at Philae and it is possible that it was constructed under the supervision of some priest from that temple."

"And perhaps this is the old codger himself," said Courtland, motioning to the heap of bones which lay at their feet.

Although the ligaments which united the bones had long since mouldered away, they could still trace the outlines of the skeleton of a man of large stature. A golden sistrum, the duplicate of the one they had found at the foot of the rock, lay close to the left hand, while the right arm was bent under the body and a dagger with a bronze blade and golden shaft lay among the ghastly ribs.

"Do you see what has happened?" asked Wadsworth in a low voice. "He was the last living soul in this awful place and he offered himself as a sacrifice to the goddess."

"Poor old Buffer," said Courtland. "Perhaps he was left alone up here, and he couldn't work the elevator and killed himself rather than climb down the outside. Don't know that I blame him!"

While Courtland was philosophizing, the Professor walked around to the rear of the altar. Suddenly he emitted a tremendous shout, which startled Courtland out of his reverie.

"The Stairs! Eureka, the Stairs!" yelled the Professor.

The altar was nothing but a shell!  The whole back was hollowed out, for all the world like a miniature subway station, and a flight of steps was visible descending into darkness. A huge slab of granite which had formed the back of the altar, lay on the stone floor. The aged priest, if such he were, had apparently lacked the strength to replace the slab, after making his last ascent.

The Professor was in a frenzy of excitement. He could hardly wait until Courtland had made sure that he had a spare bulb for the flashlight, before rushing down the tunnel. They started, Courtland in the lead. The steps led steeply downward, sweeping round in a great spiral.

Round and round they went, Courtland counting the steps aloud. The flashlight gleamed faintly on the rough-hewn walls and roof of the tunnel. They had long since lost all sense of direction, but they knew that they could not get beyond the confines of the pinnacle.

At last, when Courtland had counted just over a thousand steps, he came to a sudden halt.

"The bottom!" he said.

The Professor plodded down the last few steps and stood beside him. They were in a tiny room, hardly six feet square, and facing them was a door which gave forth a metallic gleam in the rays of the electric light.

The door, which was of solid bronze and bore the globe and crescent of Isis, hung on massive hinges. Courtland put his shoulder against it and swung it open with little effort, revealing a passage through which came a dim light. This must be the entrance from the ground level. But if so, where was the bottom of the shaft? And what was the object of the shaft, since the spiral stairway did away with the Professor's rather fantastic theory of an elevator?  Was it possible that the shaft was nothing more than an oubliette, a pit of death like those in old French castles, into which unfortunate victims were cast, as part of the mysterious rites of the goddess?

* * *

Some of these questions were soon to be answered. The explorers passed through the door, walked down a short passage and emerged, not into the open air, but into a large chamber, perfectly circular, at least forty feet in diameter, but barely six feet in height. In the center of the floor was a circular spot of phosphorescence, a ghostly shimmering glow as though a concealed source of light were shining through a slab of opal glass.

The mysterious light was reflected from the low roof and dimly revealed the limits of this rock-hewn chamber.

"What a weird place!" exclaimed Courtland. "What do you suppose it was used for? And what is that uncanny light?"

"This was probably the burial place for the mummies of the priests," said the Professor. "We may find their tombs carved out of the rock walls. As for the light, it must be due to some radioactive substance in the rock. Let us examine it more closely."

As they approached the uncanny spot of light, Courtland noticed that its surface was not uniform but was broken at one point by a small, dark object. Suddenly he burst into a shout of laughter and running forward, picked up this object and exhibited it to the Professor.

It was the empty cartridge case!

"One on you, Professor!" he chuckled. "Radioactive substance in the rock! It's the light coming down the elevator shaft and shining on the floor!"

So it was nothing very mysterious after all. They stepped into the circle of light, and looking upward, they could see a tiny disk of blue sky, visible through the hole in the temple roof, eight hundred feet above them.

It was Courtland who drew the Professor's attention to the fact that there was no debris of any sort at the bottom of the shaft.

"So that disposes of the idea that it was used as an elevator," he said. "But the question still remains, what was it used for?"

"The most puzzling thing," said the Professor, "is the extreme smoothness of the walls of the shaft. They are polished like the surface of a mirror. If it were merely intended to transmit light or air, the builders, or rather excavators, would hardly have gone to the trouble to polish the sides like that."

"My original notion may be right after all," laughed Courtland. "It may be a cannon and this is the breach we're standing in! Well, let's see if they've left any gunpowder."

Courtland turned the rays of his flashlight on the walls of the circular chamber. At one point a large alcove had been carved out, the roof being raised so that it formed a semi-circular room like a chapel. On the back wall of this alcove was an immense bas-relief representing a bull with its forehoofs resting on a crescent. On the brow of the animal was a scarab inscribed with certain hieroglyphics and on the floor below stood a massive sarcophagus or coffin cut out of a solid block of granite.

The lid of the sarcophagus also bore the design of the bull and crescent. Wadsworth eagerly examined the cartouche or signature on the scarab.

"My dear boy!" he cried. "This discovery is far more important than we have realized. This sarcophagus contains the mummy of no petty priest. It is the burial place of one of the mightiest Pharaohs of the Fifth Dynasty, Kut-Amen-Pash. Here we have proof, not only of the early settlement of Mexico by the Egyptians, but that the expedition was actually led by Pharaoh himself. Let us attempt to open the coffin."

After tremendous exertion, the two men succeeded in raising the heavy stone lid and sliding it to one side. Courtland flashed the light into the interior. It was empty!

No, not quite empty, for where the head of the mummy should have been, was a golden casket; the casket which Courtland had shown me in his house in Cambridge.

Courtland reached in and laid hold of the casket, but in spite of its small size it took all his strength to lift it. He set it on the floor and the Professor seized the flashlight and began eagerly examining their find.

The lid was secured by a simple bolt. When it was raised, the reason for the great weight of the casket was revealed. It was filled to the brim with a fine powder, apparently of a metallic nature. When Courtland took some of it in the palm of his hand it seemed heavier than any known metal. It was bluish in color with a prismatic sheen, almost like mother-of-pearl.

The hieroglyphics upon the casket were the first, and in fact the only inscription which the explorers found in any part of the hidden temple. Professor Wadsworth was wild to get at the work of translating it, confident that it would open the way to new and more marvelous revelations. He wanted to start the return journey at once, but Courtland pointed out that they had still to decide whether some outlet existed from this chamber to the open air at the foot of the Djibel el Sheetan. So, leaving the golden casket by the empty sarcophagus, they started to examine the walls of the circular room.

Their investigations were at once rewarded. Diametrically opposite the passage by which they had entered was another bronze door, opening into another passage through which came the unmistakable gleam of daylight. They hurried along it. Fifty feet from the door they were brought to a stop at an archway, blocked with masses of broken rock. They daylight they saw, was seeping through the interstices between the rocks and they could hear the excited voices of their Moorish workmen discussing the probable fate of the "Christian Pigs" who had dared the wrath of the Devil by violating the secrets of His Satanic Majesty's special mountains.

Courtland shouted and there was instant silence. After considerable persuasion, he convinced Achmed that the Sidis were unharmed but in need of assistance. At last, guided by Courtland's voice, the Moors pulled the rocks away and the two explorers stepped forth at the top of the mound where they had found the first sistrum. They had been in the bowels of the Djibel el Sheetan for over five hours!

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