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THE BLOCK FROM BABYLON
John Kenton stared down at the great rock vaguely puzzled, vaguely disturbed. Strange, he thought, yes, strange indeed, how all his unrest, his formless longings, his haunting unhappiness seemed to center upon it. It was as though the block drew them to it like a magnet of stone. And was there subtle promise in that focusing?
He stirred impatiently; drew out again Forsyth's letter. It had come to him three days before, that message from the old archaeologist who, by means of Kenton's wealth, was sifting for its age-long-lost secrets the dust of what had once been all-conquering Babylon.
Eagerly had Kenton desired, eagerly had he planned, to go with that expedition. All his life the past had called to him. During all his years he had hearkened to its calling. He had wandered in the forgotten places; had slept upon the sites of forgotten civilizations, dead empires, vanished cities. In those years he had let love pass him by; had thrilled to ghostly romance rather than to living. Scholarly, half an ascetic, if he amassed no lore of the heart he garnered another knowledge vivid enough to make savants listen with respect when he spoke.
But on the very eve of his sailing, America had entered into the World War. And Kenton had bade Forsyth go without him. He himself had gone into training for a commission; he had fought and been wounded in Belleau Wood; had been invalided home. Hag-ridden by a great restlessness, thus he had returned; his attitude toward life, like thousands of others, profoundly changed. The world he knew had lost its zest; the one in which he could be happy he did not know where to find; he could not formulate even what it mightbe. The war had turned the present to quicksand beneath his feet: worse, it had destroyed that bridge to the past over which his soul had been gay to tread.
Yet something in Forsyth's letter had touched with life an interest he had believed dead; had evoked specter of that once familiar span between the then and the now: there was an echo within him as from some far, faint, summoning voice bidding that old self of his to awaken; to awaken and to beware!
And with a certain grim wonder he had found himself awaiting with impatience the arrival of the thing the letter had promised.
It had been cleared through the customs that afternoon, the block from Babylon. Alone, with an ever more eager curiosity, he had opened the crate that held it. Nested within that crate among cotton strips and soft sheathings of reeds had been the great stone block. Stone? Then why had it been so curiously light? Again that thought came to him as he stood there beside it. The long mirror at the end of the room reflected him as he mused. Slender, a little above the medium height, face dark and keen, suggestion of the hawk in it with the thin, curved nose and clear blue eyes set widely apart, chin a bit pointed and cleft. And at the corners of the firm lips and deep within the clear eyes a touch of bitterness and of weary disillusionment; the hallmark of the war. Such was John Kenton as the long mirror showed him on the night-dawn of his great adventure.
He read once more the letter, which Forsyth had written:
"I send you the block because it bears a record of Sargon of Akkad, one of the few ever discovered of that king. It is unusual in many ways. Frankly, I have not been able to discover its purpose. I send it to you to amuse you in your convalescence; with the leisure time at your disposal you may be able to interpret what I, in the press of immediate work, cannot.
"In the inscriptions upon it there is over and over again the name of Ishtar, Mother Goddess, Goddess of Love, Goddess of War and Wrath and Vengeance as well. It is mostly in this last aspect of her that I read the symbols. The name of Nabu, the Babylonian God of Wisdom, appears many times; but text and context are so mutilated that, beyond words that seem to carry a warning of some kind, the references to Nabu are undecipherable. The name of Nergal, God of the Assyrian Underworld, appears frequently. But here, too, the text is too far gone to reconstruct, at least, in the little time that I have.
"There are other names: Zarpanit--a woman's, Alusar--all names, in the Babylonian pantheon, as you know, Zarpanit or Sarpanit was the wife of the God Bel Merodach, and a lesser form of Ishtar. But in the absence of certain characters I believe that the Zarpanit referred to here was an actual woman, probably some priestess of the goddess. As the name of Alusar occurs always near the name of Nergal, he was probably a priest of that exceedingly grim deity.
"We found the block in the mound called Amran, just south of the Qser or 'palace' of Nabopolassor. There is evidence that the Amran mound is the site of E-Sagilla, the ziggurat or terraced temple which was the Home of the Gods in Babylon. It must have been held in considerable reverence, for only so would it have been saved, from the destruction of the city by Sennacherib and afterward have been placed in the rebuilt temple."
Kenton folded the letter; looked down again upon the block. Once more his eyes measured it; four feet long, probably a trifle more, four feet high and about three wide. A faded yellow, its centuries hung about it like a half visible garment. Its surfaces were scarred and pitted; originally they must have been smooth and polished as porcelain. Through the scratches and defacements the inscriptions ran, now submerged, now emerging like bent straws in a frozen, yellow pool.
He ran a hand over it. The material mystified him; it was not stone nor any of the baked clays of the age with which he was so familiar. It was some composite, unknown. Most was it like cement of ivory sifted with dust of pearls; compact and finely grained, with tiny iridescent glints darting out of the wan yellows.
Kenton began to study the inscriptions. Archaic cuneatic, these; most ancient. There were the names of Zarpanit and Alusar. There were the arrowed symbols of Ishtar the Glorious, of the Dark Nergal, of Blue Nabu, the Giver of Wisdom. They were repeated many, many times all of them. And always there was the persistent sign of warning over and over again and linked always with the name of Nabu.
Curious, he thought, how baffling the inscriptions were. It was fanciful--of course it was fanciful--yet it was as though a veil lay between him and them; as though, just when he was on the brink of understanding, something reached out and muddied his mind.
And now Kenton became aware of a fragrance stealing about him; a fragrance vague and caressing, wistful and wandering like entwined souls of flowers that had lost their way. Sweet was that fragrance and alluring; wholly strange and within it something that changed the rhythm of his life to its own alien pulse. He leaned over the block, the scented swirls drew round him, clinging like little hands; scented spirals of fragrance that supplicated, that pleaded softly, passionately.
Pleaded for release!
A wave of impatience swept him; he drew himself up. The fragrance was nothing but perfumes mixed with the substance of the block and now sending forth their breath through the heated room. What nonsense was this that he was dreaming. He struck the block sharply with closed hand.
The block answered the blow!
It murmured. The murmuring grew louder. Louder still, with muffed bell tones like muted carillons of jade deep within. They grew stronger, more vibrant. The murmuring ceased; now there were only the high, sweet chimings. Clearer and ever more clear they sounded, drawing closer, ringing up and on through endless tunnels of time.
There was a sharp crackling. It splintered the chimings; shattered and stilled them. The block split. Pulsed from the break a radiance as of rosy pearls, and throbbing in its wake came wave after wave of the fragrance. But no longer questing, no longer wistful nor supplicating.
Jubilant now! Triumphant!
Something was inside the block! Something hidden there since Sargon of Akkad had reigned, sixty centuries ago!
Kenton started to ring for his servants, stopped jealously.
For the radiance streaming from the block was more than that of a jewel. It was like the living breast of a goddess breaking through a shroud of stone.
Let other than himself uncover what lay within? Behold it uncovered?
He ran from the room; came swiftly back with tools to free whatever was that shining wonder which for sixty centuries had been entombed within the block.