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Authors: John Cowper Powys

Atlantis

BOOK: Atlantis
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JOHN COWPER POWYS

ATLANTIS

Dedicated to
PHYLLIS PLAYTER

There had been an unusual tension all that Spring night in the air of the arched corridor that led into the royal dwelling. It was a weird, hushed, premonitory tension, the sort of tension that implies a secret fore-knowledge shared among a number of
so-called
inanimate things. It was the sort of tension that strikes human beings as ominous, and from which all sub-human creatures instinctively shrink.

Even when the phantom-light that comes before dawn and is known in the island of Ithaca as “Lykophos” or “wolf-light,” touched with its ghostly greyness that silent portico the tension did not relax. Some chroniclers would no doubt declare that if this palace of the aged Odysseus had been on the mainland, or if Ithaca had been a larger island, the elemental vibration that was bringing this tension would have been less active. This is extremely doubtful. Such chroniclers would be laying too much stress upon the purely physical capacity of the inanimate to convey the shock of far-away outbreaks, and too little stress upon whatever it may be in the composition of any form of matter that partakes, however faintly, of the nature of emotional
consciousness
.

The corridor which was thus affected that Spring night was a narrow one but it was about eighty feet in length and its arched roof was reached by—it would be incorrect to say “was supported  upon”—six huge pillars. These pillars were not of great height, for the arched roof was low; but they were of colossal girth and were by no means identical in appearance.

In fact the first impression any stranger who visited the House of Odysseus received from them was that they had been dragged to this royal entrance by long-forgotten generations of slaves and
had belonged to more than one pre-historic temple in the primal age of the Island of Ithaca, an age so fabulously remote that these terrific pillars had probably beheld creatures that were neither gods nor men nor centaurs nor satyrs moving about beneath them.

The entrance to the corridor was from a garden of very ancient olive-trees, at one side of which was the slaves’ burying-ground. The stones that supported the entrance-arch were so enormous that they made the porch itself look just what in all probability it was, the mouth of a subterranean river that aeons ago had dried up.

A stranger entering it could make out at once the half-open brazen doors at the end and at most hours could feel the fragrant smoke emerging from beside the throne and floating out down the row of pillars.

The tension at any rate that welcomed that particular dawn had been created, so it was gradually made evident, by some world-upheaval that was nearer human consciousness than the most insidious constituents of these last eddies of wood-smoke that were at that moment being wafted out between those brazen doors from the whitening ashes of the fire by the empty throne, nearer human consciousness than even the sepulchral mist that at this hour was slowly drifting in over the stunted olive-trees from the slaves’ burying-ground.

Whatever was the nature of the revolutionary event that was happening or was just going to happen, and however important it may have been or was going to be for human consciousness, one thing can be counted upon as certain: it meant absolutely nothing to the dust of the dead slaves out there in that unhistoric enclosure. What did it mean to those Six Pillars? Now this was a significant question. To dispose of those centuries-old layers of slave-dust not a great deal of nourishing soil had had to be
disturbed
; but with these Six Pillars it was a different matter.

Odysseus himself, who had known them from childhood, and whose homesick imagination had turned to them again and again under the walls of Troy and in the Nymph-tended gardens of
Circe and Calypso, found it impossible even now, as he went out or came in between the polished rondures of their preoccupied surfaces, to imagine them as anything but still erect in their majestic immunity, whatever convulsion at the heart of the island might make the rest of his home a heap of ruins.

But if the aged lord of that place could himself only too easily imagine its final desolation and see in those Six Pillars its only lasting memorial, by what tremors of vibration or currents of magnetism was the appalling tension caused that now filled that corridor?

One of the most startling things in human experience, whether the person be old or young, occurs whenever such a person is left alone for a while with another of its species who is sunk in sleep. It is then that the wakeful one suddenly becomes aware of the chasm that exists, a chasm resembling a crevasse in scoriac rock, between its consciousness and a consciousness like its own that is functioning in a completely different dimension.

There are some who find themselves questioning when they are fully awake, but of course they may have been influenced during their sleep, whether it is true that of all the things in the world the most precious is human consciousness. The champions of human consciousness defend its preciousness on the ground that it is consciousness alone that makes it possible for one living creature to respond to the feelings of another living creature.

Among ourselves however there are so many varieties of
consciousness
that it would seem as if it ought to be possible for us to relax the thought-pattern of human beings, or perhaps stretch it a little, till we could pass into the consciousness of a fish or a reptile or an insect or even of a plant or a tree.

Indeed if we have known the weird discomfort and strange uneasiness of the isolation of a brain awake lying close to a brain asleep, we have also known the annoying frustration of our
complete
failure to feel what the inanimate entities around us feel.

In the pre-dawn of the February day that brought this odd tension into the corridor of the palace of Odysseus the human sensibility that was really needed before any adequate solution
of the mysterious shock lately received by this portion of the earth’s surface could be obtained was the peculiar and special sensibility of a virgin who had never known a man, in other words of an old maid, a sensibility that the mere experience of
copulation
, whether resulting in pregnancy or not, wholly destroys, a sensibility that is as impossible for a mother as it is for a father.

The only human beings in the corridor at this hour were neither paternal nor maternal, nor were they on the watch. They were both male and they were both asleep. Thus it was left for the last of the six enormous Pillars to give the first articulation to the curious suspense that pulsed from one end to the other of that corridor.

One aspect of this magnetic vibration was naturally outside the Sixth Pillar’s field of awareness. We refer to the possibility that being so rocky an isle Ithaca may simply have been the highest peak in an under-sea range of precipitous mountains and that thus, whatever it was that had happened whether of a psychical or of a physical nature, whether an insurrection of Titans or a revolt of Women, the news of it had travelled by way of Ithaca from the extreme East to the extreme West and from the extreme North to the extreme South.

The Sixth Pillar was the one nearest the olive-trees and the slaves’ burial-ground outside the porch; and it was the furthest from the throne-room inside the porch. Its difference from the rest lay in the fact that it had been hammered and chipped and scooped and carved by none other than a son of the great
craftsman
Hephaistos, who was himself the son of Zeus and had been endowed with a peculiar sensitivity much nearer human
awareness
than anything possessed by the other five. So sensitive indeed was the Sixth Pillar that this particular Spring-night had seemed to it as long as three ordinary nights.

In this mood of nervous apprehension it had been distressingly aware of all the other entities in that corridor. One of these was an extraordinary-looking club from the Nemean forest on the
mainland
. Another was a still-living olive-stump, not more than a foot high, growing between two flagstones in the centre of the corridor.

A third had a quite different sort of identity and was a small brown moth with a way of flying that sometimes was faint, weak, fluttering, drooping and drifting, and at other times was jerky, violent, desperate, almost suicidal; while the fourth among them was just an ordinary house-fly.

All these had been struggling frantically for five hours of suspense to convey to one another, each with its own private interpretation, their particular
version
of the terrific shock that was now turning that dawn in the palace of the King of Ithaca into such a shattering experience.

“How extraordinary it is,” the Sixth Pillar pondered, as it felt a breath of cooler wind, “that these two human bipeds, this simple Tis and this sly little rogue Nisos, can go on sleeping quietly among us here like a pair of acorn-surfeited swine, when someone or something who has a friend outside is telling us in here what the dawn-goddess has just confirmed, namely that things have begun to happen in our universe that may prove to be the beginning of its end.”

Having uttered these words in a tone that was barely
distinguishable
from a sad soft air that had just crossed the slaves’ graves, the Sixth Pillar decided that until new revelations should reach it, it would revert to the hieroglyphical if egotistical problem that was dearest of all to its un-roofed heart, namely the mysterious “U” and “H” carved upon its pediment which had been interpreted for generations as meaning “the Son of
Hephaistos
”.

Further and further into the corridor, implacably moving from pillar to pillar, and throwing a phantom-like chilly greyness over the dark flagstones as she moved, came the dawn-goddess. The one solitary ancient olive-stump that grew inside the corridor near its entrance and thrust forward one crooked bough like a raised hand with fleshless fingers lifted by a long-dead corpse from between the flagstones, could not hinder the dawn’s
ashen-pale
luminosity from enveloping it but it hardly seemed to be welcoming this pallid illumination.

On the contrary it seemed to be imploring the dawn to
approach more slowly so that the awkward nakedness of its reluctant resurrection should not put either of them to shame. Between this corpse-like protuberance from beneath the floor and an enormous fire-blackened club that was propped against the inner side of the low entrance-arch there was now flitting through the grey light a small but alert house-fly.

This small creature seemed as conscious of the unnatural tension as was the over-vigilant Sixth Pillar itself. For though the little fly appeared to be using the resurrected bough solely for the purpose of cleaning its front legs, the visits it paid to the formidable club resting beside the entrance-arch were clearly actuated by a quite different motive.

Obviously what was urging the fly in this case was the necessity it felt of talking to somebody about this tension who had a philosophic mind. But the awakened house-fly was not the only insect in the place who feared, like the Sixth Pillar, that there was some planetary catastrophe imminent, either happening now, or just going to happen.

There was also a very disturbed light-brown moth. This moth seemed for some definite reason of its own to avoid alighting upon the olive-stump; but it also, like the fly, kept paying repeated visits to that Heraklean weapon by the entrance.

It must have been clear to the Sixth Pillar by this time that the dawn-goddess was not going to reveal to them anything beyond what they had all instinctively known, namely that
something
momentous, something that probably affected them all, had really occurred; otherwise the Pillar would hardly have relapsed into her ancient ponderings about those letters that had been engraved ages ago upon her marmoreal flesh. They must have been engraved there before she had had time to become a conscious, separate, inanimate entity. In fact they must have been engraved when all she felt was what her mother, the earth, felt.

Meanwhile the two human sleepers, lying discreetly apart on their goat-skin mats, one the middle-aged cow-herd, Tis, and the other the princely boy-helper of the household, Nisos, were both
vaguely aware, even in their dreams, that psychic disturbing tremors of some sort were troubling that rocky palace and
probably
that whole rocky island.

What this especially simple cow-herd and what this especially alert princely house-boy would actually do, if, their dreams shaken off, they found themselves conscious, whether they
understood
its nature or not, of a catastrophic, all-affecting event, remained to be seen. None of their sub-human neighbours, animate or inanimate, not the club, not the olive-stump, not the moth, not the fly, had any doubt about the existence – for they had all learnt it from pleasant and unpleasant personal experience – of a very considerable gulf or gap or lacuna between the
feelings
, impressions, intimations, instincts, and, above all,
reasonings
, of all human beings, and their consequent action.

“It all depends, my pretty one,” whispered the olive-stump to the house-fly as the latter in its agitation tried to clean its left back leg by brushing it against its gauzy transparent right wing, as it laid its square black head sideways against the smoothest portion of the upspringing shoot, “whether Nisos had a visit from Hierax his pet hawk while both you and I were still fast asleep.”

“Why doesn’t Pyraust come to ask you things like I do?” whispered the fly to the olive-shoot.

The older creature hesitated a moment. Then he said: “Because, Myos darling, she knows that I know who sends her here.”

The fly, who had balanced itself very carefully on its front-legs and had begun to clean both its back-legs with its gauzy wings pressed its huge black head still closer against the skin of the olive-shoot and allowed its unemotional staring black eye to drink up the conversation that was now proceeding between the brown moth and the club of Herakles.

BOOK: Atlantis
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