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Title: The Cuneiform Inscription
Author: Melville Davisson Post
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Language: English
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The Cuneiform Inscription

by

Melville Davisson Post


Published 1922


It was the signal that I had so long awaited. I had just come in when the porter brought me the telegram. I was wet, my riding boots were covered with mud, and I was tired. I had been all day in the saddle at a distant meet of the Devon and Somerset Staghounds. We had killed in a great wooded gorge beyond Porlock; the rain had fallen constantly, and the vast moors, covered with heather and gorse, swept by the gusts of rain, were like a sponge. A call to a ninety-mile run in a motor on this evening of early September was a thing to shudder at. But I received it with a great upward sweep of the heart! The thing which I knew would eventually happen had arrived, and it was bringing my golden hour with its wreckage.

I sat in the long hall of the hotel; a rain-drenched, mud-splashed figure with a sun-filled face. I must have seemed a strange creature to the hunting folk who passed and the servants who came to take my directions. I was a strange creature; one is always a strange creature when the event on which his life is turning begins to come up in the sky line!

I ordered the best in the kitchen and the cellar, and went up to my rooms for a hot bath and clothes for the road.

Her house was falling in about her, and she had sent for me! At last the thing I had to offer would have a value. That which was nothing to her when she thought her fortune was inexhaustible would now mean the things she could not give up: the stud of hunters in the Dukes country; the string of polo ponies here in Somerset; the gowns, the jewels, all the extravaganza of a gilded life! Two hours later I was on the road north. The big American roadster moved under my hands like a live thing. My driver was in the box behind. I wished some outlet for the inexhaustible vigor that possessed me. The day in the saddle had been nothing; this night in the rain and the dark was nothing. I had the strength of ten like the Galahad of legend—but not for his noble reason. The love of a woman moved me. Would she take, now, what I had vainly offered for three months in England?

For what else could her cryptic telegram say—come?

I knew something from the daily press. Her man of business had hanged himself in London and she was bankrupt; the very house over her head would go. The thing had fallen like an arrow out of the sky; in a moment, as at a witch word; as at the striking of a clock, she had only a pumpkin coach, mice, and the rags of an evening dress—and I raced to her with the fairy lamp that would restore them!

It was a devil's night; a cold chill on the fields, rain, no breath of wind, a vague darkness that seemed to make the visible objects only more indistinct. But it was a night in character with the event. The evil spirit of that hanged man of business would have some favor of the elements—some luck yet. He had surprised every solicitor in London.

His father and his father's father had handled the business of this family for a century with care, with that extreme caution that one can find only in a dingy English office, up two flights of stairs. The hanged man had, in particular, an exclusive control of this estate. The girl's uncle, that eccentric old antiquarian Sir Hector Bartlett, would not be bothered with a business matter. His signature was all the concern Sir Hector granted, and that went over finally to the man of business in a power of attorney to sign. Sir Hector was usually in the East, engrossed with the lost languages of Asia.

He was the greatest authority in the world on these lost languages; he was the one authority. When one mentioned Sir Hector, the learned societies about in the world, so to speak, uncovered. But they had a notion, these learned societies, that toward the end he was mad—perhaps it was out of his bitter contempt for a slower wit; perhaps it was the puzzle he left them for an inheritance, after he had deciphered the great inscription of Darius on the rocks at Behistun and got what it concealed. The learned men said the inscription Sir Hector left for them was an absurdity; but Sir Hector, dying, said it would fit their wits, and the one that could decipher it would get what he had dug up in Asia.

At any rate, unfortunately, the power to sign given by Sir Hector had been extended by his niece, and the man of business had flung the fortune into every wild thing that the intelligence of crooks could bring in to him—as though caution in his race, pressed too far, had gone awfully drunken. The thing had the completeness of a curse—as though the gods of the ancient races, violated in their sanctuaries by Sir Hector, had taken their vengeance on his heir. I smiled in the darkness. If such powers were the authors of this disaster they would not stand aside while I came in to the rescue; they would ditch the car. And the next moment the car very nearly was ditched. A human figure appeared suddenly in the road before me, and to avoid it I skirted the coping of an open bridge. The car skidded and stopped, with a rear wheel within an inch of the edge.

The figure came forward into the light and hailed me. Would I take him up? I could not see the man's face distinctly, but there was something in the voice that was familiar; somewhere, in some distant memory, I had known that voice. It was the voice of a gentleman by some vague quality remaining in it. And so, uncertain whom I had before me, I took him up. But when he had climbed beside me into the seat I was disillusioned. His drenched clothes had about them the odors of a dirty ship, and the man was drunk. His voice was thick, and he had the abominable familiarity of rum-soaked creatures.

He talked; he was going a long way; he had landed in England on this afternoon; he was going to see his godchild. I would be surprised, I would be amazed to know who his godchild was! How far did I go on the road? I hoped to get rid of him, and so told the truth. I would turn at the next crossing for Red House, sixty miles to the north.

The creature tittered. "That's luck," he stuttered in the laugh; "there's where I'm going."

I stopped the car and turned a flash on him. What mysterious creature had I taken up?

At first I was unable to attach a memory; a foul, sodden face appeared under a dirty cap; red-lidded eyes, blue sagging jowls, a nose swollen with liquor, and a slack mouth. It was the face of the worst human derelict I ever saw, and yet its abominations were laid down over something that was well bred in the beast. The creature had one time been a gentleman, but a gentleman gone with every loathsome bestiality to the pit.

"Do you know me, eh, what?" The sodden voice was in a sort of friendly whine.

And all at once I did know him.

"Good Heavens!" I said. "It's Backmartin!"

"Righto!" The whine went up into a little triumphant note. "Lord Backmartin of the Downs in the old day." He buttoned his rain-soaked rag of a coat, and drew his flabby body together in the seat.

"The best back in England, if I do say it...did you see me in the match with the Americans in 'ninety? Great polo, believe me...they win now, these Americans, but we rode 'em off in 'ninety. Did you see me pick out the ball in the last chukker and carry it through to their goal with every devil's son of them after me?...Did you see that game, eh, what? Were you there?" I was there, and I did see it!

The goals were coming up slowly, and one-all was the score up to within three minutes of the last bell. Hudson of the Americans was carrying the ball toward the English end. Victory was in their hands, when Lord Rose cut the ball out by a sort of accident and shouted to Backmartin to take it. And he did take it like a god; the ball went like an arrow; near-side and off-side were alike to him. He had the fastest pony in England; no one of the Americans could reach him; the ball, speeding like a bullet, crossed the goal before the bell rang.

Backmartin was the hero of England on that day.

The Downs joined Red House, where a daughter was newly born to the sporting squire who was brother to Sir Hector Bartlett, and so Backmartin had stood—at the next weekend—in the little chapel at Red House, as godfather to her. And here he was!

I fumbled about the levers and got the car ahead.

What should I do with him?

He was unspeakable. His reputation for seven years in England had been beyond words; and for seven more years his name had not been mentioned. He had been in China, in the Malay Peninsula, in the South Seas. Word of the creature came only when some of the great missionary organizations asked to have him expelled from a district for pretending to be a member of its order. The wrath of God was in their insistence to the Foreign Office. Backmartin and his abominations must get out; and he would journey to some new field of endeavor.

The creature was unspeakable.

And here he was riding with me on a journey to his goddaughter. I was twisted in Satan's fingers. If I put him down I would have no line on the hell plan that he came with. And how could I take him on?

I considered the damned thing as we raced north, and while the creature driveled.

He would be going out of his missionary trade—true it had its benefits, and the customs of the patriarchs as he taught them in the old book of the Scriptures came easy to the savage—but there was a fortune in rum running just now northwest of the Barbados if he could fit a ship. His goddaughter would no doubt be glad to help him—he mentioned a pensioner in her house as the alternative. So that was what the beast was after. And I carried him forward on that purpose; to force a levy for his rum running by the threat of sitting in her door! I could have killed the creature and thrown his rotten carcass into a ditch. My fingers itched for a clutch on him. But when I thought the matter calmly out, there seemed, after all, only one thing to do. I must hold him under my eye until I could get him out of England—when one fought the devil one needed to keep him in the light.

I took him on!

There is a long flag-paved terrace on the garden side of Red House, with casement doors entering the library and the drawing-room. It was very nearly midnight, and the strange events that I set out to write down here were on their way. The night had cleared; the air was warm and sweet as from distant hayfields; the stars were out.

And I waited on this terrace for the woman God denied me!

She had gone a moment to make sure that Backmartin had every comfort the house could give. He had already levied upon it for every use; and now dined and bathed and shaven and in the old squire's evening clothes, he sat in a great leather chair smoking a Havana, with a bottle of Burgundy opened beside him. I could see the smug creature through the glass doors to the library.

It raised the bristles on me. The transformation in this derelict seemed only to make him more perfidious. He blew the smoke thinly out at the corners of his slack mouth, lying back in the chair, his half-closed, red-lidded eyes on the little long-smoked frame above the mantelshelf containing the cuneiform inscription that Sir Hector had left, as a jest, for his contemporaries.

It was painted in India ink on a strip of vellum.

Two things had reduced me from the starry spaces: that Backmartin should be welcomed as a royal guest, and that I should be called here to be thanked for all my courtesies, and dismissed out of her life. My suit was now impossible. She would go up to London on tomorrow to seek some way to live and keep her selfrespect.

She wished to see me while a day of the old life remained. It was a whim I must forgive her. It had put me to some discomfort and a heavy journey; but she wished to say good-by while she remained an equal.

I offered my fairy lamp in vain to her.

I had far more than she imagined. I was, in fact, absurdly rich. What would be needed to clear off every debt I could advance out of an idle income. But she only shook her heavenly head at me. It would be a bribe now! And on that, as on an iron pike, I was impaled. If the thing had been possible before, did I not see that it was now out of the question? When she had a fortune, too, it was myself I offered, and she could consider that, but I offered a bribe now, and she could not take a bribe!

Did I not see how the bribe would taint her? When my blood had cooled, something would whisper to me, "And so it was these baubles that she wanted." She could not face a life against that whisper. And the abominable thing about it was that I was permitted to see how very nearly I had won her. All along she had been extremely fond of me; my admiration of her had not gone unnoticed. She had been attracted to me. We had tastes in common. She might have come in time to consider what I offered. That I was older by some twenty years had been no matter. Women wished experience of life in men and a tough fiber; one could not trust oneself to a callow boy. Youth was selfish, and it was, in particular, this unselfishness of man that a woman longed for.

I walked the great length of the terrace with my fingers locked behind me. What sort of devil was it that ran the world?

In my abstraction I struck my foot against the square of tiles laid down on the terrace as a sort of step before the library door and caught the latch to keep my balance. The noise brought Backmartin up in his chair, and he called to me.

"Oh! I say, come in."

And I had to go in. I could not have the beast feel that I was spying on him. I pretended to be seeking a match for my cigarette. I got one from his candlestick on the table and turned to go out, but he stopped me.

I do not know whether it was a word or a gesture that arrested my attention. I thought the beast, at his ease and with his cocky air, was now more loathsome. One could bear with him, perhaps, in his misery and in his habiliments of squalor, but cleaned and fed and comfortable and turned out for a gentleman he was beyond the patience of the saints. And yet I had to treat him with the courtesies of a guest—a distinguished guest in this country house; a godfather of this girl welcomed back to England!

He made a little gesture toward the framed strip of vellum on the mantelpiece. "Is that the old cock's secret cipher?"

I said it was the puzzle Sir Hector Bartlett had left to his contemporaries: two crowned Assyrian figures preceded by two wedge-signs; followed by a cuneiform inscription, all painted in India ink on a strip of vellum.

"Tell me about it," he said.

I loathed the creature, but I could not fail in what my hostess would expect of me with a guest. And I told him what was well known about the thing.

Sir Hector Bartlett had been the ablest Assyriologist in Europe. Under his hands the ancient writing in Asia had taken the completeness and the uniformity of a national language; before him these languages had been mere fragments puzzled out; and with a large conception he had welded these fragments together and shown this to have been the learned written speech of a great vanished age in Asia. This big conception had lifted the whole thing onto an elevated plane; it had laid forever the claims of HalÚvy that this wedge-writing was a mere cabalistic script of the Sumerian priests. He had shown it to be the speech of a people.

But the little skepticisms of his contemporaries had enraged Sir Hector. He said they were pretentious persons fit to work out puzzles, and so he had left a puzzle for them in his will. Let them work it out and they would find the treasure that he had found by deciphering the great inscription of Darius on the rocks of Behistun.

"Did he find a treasure?"

Backmartin cut in, shooting out his head with a sort of reptilian eagerness. I explained that such was the common rumor at the time. He was known to have got some concession from the Crown to confirm his right in what he might discover, and a report was current that the Louvre had offered him seventy thousand pounds for what he had shown the director of fine arts in Paris on his way home.

"What did he show him?"

The reptilian gesture was even, if possible, more eager in its appeal.

One did not know, I went on; there was every conjecture. Backmartin's big, loose face worked like soft rubber.

"And he said that thing up there," he indicated the mantel with his hand, "would tell where he hid it, if anybody could understand what it meant?"

"Yes."

"And what did the other learned Johnnies say about it?"

They said it was nonsense, I continued. They said it was an absurdity on its face. No inscription ever had two royal figures drawn in; the wedge was never inclined to the left; it was always pointed toward the right, or downward or aslant to the right, or two combined at their heads to form an angle. They said no word or syllable or gunu-sign of either the Persian, Susian, or Babylonian language was indicated; they said the thing was a hoax.

"But the old cock said they were only fit for puzzles, didn't he?—an' he would make one to fit their wits—eh, what?"

It was what Sir Hector had uttered about it, I told him. He held these learned men in a bitter contempt. Their knowledge of deciphering inscriptions, he said, was confined to the Black Cabinets of Berlin and Vienna, and their knowledge of Assyriology to the sacred books of the Jews—he would leave them an inscription within the zone of their intelligence.

I heard the casement door of the drawing-room to the terrace open, and I went out, Backmartin followed me with a sharp look. He had grasped the situation. He knew that things had gone to pieces and why I came; some of it by inquiry, no doubt, and the remainder by a sort of instinct. He was slack and despicable— baggy in the chair—and the glance seemed to emerge from a trace, in the beast, of something firmer.

I found Marjorie on the terrace; and I advanced toward her as toward something heavenly and denied. She was lovely beyond any descriptive words that I can write here. To catalogue her would be to give no adequate impression. Dark hair, and great deep eyes, and the alluring figure of a Nereid are not descriptive phrases, but they are fragments of fancy that another man—to know the thing I mean—must fit his own beloved woman into.

I loved her, and, to me, she possessed the charm of dreams.

And now that God denied her to me I adored her more. There is this quality, strange and bitter, in a loss, that it doubles the value of the thing removed; when it is gone once, wholly, one sees with an uncanny clearness how incomparable it was. To-night this terrace was some delicate, vague kingdom of illusion. It would presently vanish. There would be only an hour of it with her. And it seemed to me, as I walked slowly beside her the length of the flag-paved terrace, that this hour was priceless. Into it the mysterious purpose of every day that I had lived, of every day that I would yet live, seemed to converge, and to escape with the sound of my footsteps moving on the flag. I must convince her! And I labored to that end with every argument, with every insistence. And in the vague light I noted every detail of her: the long lashes, the exquisite mouth, the slender body. But it was not these visible things, however potent, that so wholly overcame me. It was a thing for which we have no word, of which there is no material evidence, that moved subtly from this girl into every fiber of me. The perennial charm of romance attended her. She came forth from haze, from shadow; there clung about her the freshness, the mystery of those fairy women that the soul of a man eternally longs for.

And unless I could persuade her, she was lost to me!

I cannot remember what I said; it must have been to offer what I had, to replace the things this disaster had swept out. My insistence must have revolved about this fixed idea; for she would only shake her heavenly head. I must not bribe her—she could not take a bribe.

I looked up finally like a man sinking in the pit, and I saw, beyond her across the terrace, a face pressed against the glass door of the library. For a moment the face seemed unfamiliar—or was I unhinged by my emotion?—there was something fine in it; something having a momentary control; something that had no proper being in the sodden features; something long submerged, trodden down, filth-covered, in a sort of awful effort to get on its feet.

Then the face relaxed into its vacuous abominations, and Backmartin opened the door.

"Oh! I say," he called to us, "if I might have a Bible I would read a chapter before I turn in—it's a sort of habit, y' know."

I had to turn, sharp, to conceal the disgust in me. But Marjorie went in to him with some courteous word—I don't remember—found a big old family Bible on a shelf among the dictionaries, and put it on his table. He was stooping over it when she came out to me.

She made no comment.

And I returned to my labor of a cursed Sisyphus. But I changed the tenor of it. If we must be equal before she would listen to me, then I would make us equal. If she would not be as well off as I was, then I would be as poor as she. I would abandon what I had, and we would go empty-handed into some new land. I was as good a man as that first one in Asia. I would till the earth and build a home and face the wilderness for her. And I would do it like one who finds a kingdom! We would go this very night, the two of us, with nothing. We would step out of the world leaving forever the rubbish of these great possessions!

She looked at me with a high face.

She stood with her arms hanging, her lips parted, her slender face gleaming like a flower; her hair spun darkness—her great eyes on me as though she saw a man there that she had never seen before.

Then a voice startled us as from another world.

Backmartin was standing before the library, with his hand on the latch of the closed door behind him. He was speaking to us, he was making some interrogation. Whether he had come out at that moment, or been there a long time, I do not know.

My forbearance with the beast very nearly went to pieces; but something in the voice, something strange, peculiar, unlike the creature, restrained me. "Is any place about this house paved with stones?"

There was an unstable quality in Backmartin's voice, as though it issued from one holding himself together with an immense effort. And there was sincerity in it. I could not see the man's face.

"This terrace," I said, "is paved."

He came running out, at that, and over the whole length of the terrace. Then he came back to the library door and stood with his hand pressed against his mouth as in some reflection.

"But upon it!" he said. "There is nothing upon it."

Then he flung the door open.

"Come in here," he said.

We went in behind him.

I was astonished at the man when the light uncovered him. He was the Backmartin of the old days; a ruin of that man, surely, and yet the man returned as by some sorcery into a brief, unstable control of this debauched, abandoned creature. That this control was unstable, at the virtue of a breaking effort, and uncertain of continuance, the aspect of him and the quavering voice evidenced. But while it held the ruin of the man together it gave that ruin a certain authority of life and a certain dignity of manner.

"And put it upon a pavement of stones!" he repeated; "that's the direction, 'upon a pavement of stones.'"

"What direction?" I said. "What are you talking about?"

He indicated the vellum with its cuneiform inscription above the mantel.

"The direction in that cipher," he replied. "It says, 'upon a pavement of stones.'"

"You have deciphered that inscription?" I was incredulous. "After all the learned men in Europe failed on it?"

A faint smile struggled into his tense, hard-held face.

"Did not Sir Hector say that their knowledge of Assyriology was confined to the sacred books of the Jews, and that they were only fit to work out puzzles?— well, that's what it is, a puzzle, connected with the sacred books of the Jews!"

He went over to the mantel and took up the framed inscription. He put his finger on the two royal Assyrian figures.

"That's a 'King,'" he said; "there are two of them, that would be 'Kings,' and there are two wedges before them, that would be two 'Kings.' And the remainder of it is made up of cuneiform characters put together to form the reference in Roman numerals: sixteen, seventeen, five. That is to say: 'Two Kings, sixteen, seventeen, five.' That would be 'Second Kings, chapter sixteen, verse seventeen, line five.'"

He turned about and put his big finger on a line of the Bible open on the table before him.

"And that line says: 'And put it upon a pavement of stones.'" He turned about to us. "Somewhere on a pavement of stones Sir Hector has concealed whatever it was that he brought out of Asia."

We looked at him in a sort of wonder. The girl's fingers were on my arm; she was tense now in a consuming interest.

Backmartin went on: "The terrace out there is paved with stones, and if this verse said under a pavement of stones I would know where to look. But it doesn't say under; it says upon...now, how could it be upon that terrace? There's nothing upon it."

Marjorie suddenly cried out as with an inspiration. "But there is something 'upon it'; there is a square of tiles laid down before this door; they would be 'upon' it."

Backmartin stood up at that; he looked a moment at the mosaic making a wide step before the door. Then he turned to me.

"Your car is standing out there; get a chisel and a hammer from the tool box."

I got the implements and we raised the tiles. Under them, upon the flag pavement, was a thin, square copper box. We took it into the library and put it on the table. No one spoke.

Backmartin carried the box, and we followed after him. He put it on the table. And then he did an inexplicable thing. He went on through the library door into the hall. I thought he went to seek a tool to cut the copper, and I followed. I found him in the hall putting on my greatcoat. In the light his contorted face was covered with sweat.

"Awaken your driver," he said, "and get me to the coast."

I hesitated in my profound astonishment.

And he turned suddenly on me, the sweat trickling in the lines of his hardpressed, dreadful face.

"Hurry, man." He very nearly spat on me in his extremity.

I stood outside, with my head uncovered, until the roar of the car racing south was a faint echo. Then I went in. Marjorie was standing by the library table. She had got the lid of the box unfastened, and within were row upon row of emeralds, big, gleaming, priceless.

But I was not happy. I felt a little man beside the big one who was gone. God, only, in His heaven knew the mortal struggle of this damned creature, or the dreadful thing he had considered and been held back from by the thin line of something noble that never wholly dies in us.

I spoke to the girl, looking strangely at me, from her place beyond the box of jewels.

"You will never love me?"

"Never!" she said, "...never, but for what has happened on this night."

"The finding of the emeralds?"

She made a gesture as of one who tosses away a bauble.

"The finding of a man...out there on the terrace...when I was poor."


THE END

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