Part 1 out of 4
This etext was created by Judith Boss, Omaha, Nebraska, and updated by
Len Budney, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Gulliver of Mars
by Edwin L. Arnold
Original Title: Lieut. Gulliver Jones
Dare I say it? Dare I say that I, a plain, prosaic lieutenant in the
republican service have done the incredible things here set out for the
love of a woman--for a chimera in female shape; for a pale, vapid ghost
of woman-loveliness? At times I tell myself I dare not: that you will
laugh, and cast me aside as a fabricator; and then again I pick up my
pen and collect the scattered pages, for I MUST write it--the pallid
splendour of that thing I loved, and won, and lost is ever before me,
and will not be forgotten. The tumult of the struggle into which that
vision led me still throbs in my mind, the soft, lisping voices of the
planet I ransacked for its sake and the roar of the destruction which
followed me back from the quest drowns all other sounds in my ears!
I must and will write--it relieves me; read and believe as you list.
At the moment this story commences I was thinking of grilled steak and
tomatoes--steak crisp and brown on both sides, and tomatoes red as a
Much else though I have forgotten, THAT fact remains as clear as the
last sight of a well-remembered shore in the mind of some wave-tossed
traveller. And the occasion which produced that prosaic thought was a
night well calculated to make one think of supper and fireside, though
the one might be frugal and the other lonely, and as I, Gulliver Jones,
the poor foresaid Navy lieutenant, with the honoured stars of our Republic
on my collar, and an undeserved snub from those in authority rankling in
my heart, picked my way homeward by a short cut through the dismalness
of a New York slum I longed for steak and stout, slippers and a pipe,
with all the pathetic keenness of a troubled soul.
It was a wild, black kind of night, and the weirdness of it showed up
as I passed from light to light or crossed the mouths of dim alleys
leading Heaven knows to what infernal dens of mystery and crime even
in this latter-day city of ours. The moon was up as far as the church
steeples; large vapoury clouds scudding across the sky between us and
her, and a strong, gusty wind, laden with big raindrops snarled angrily
round corners and sighed in the parapets like strange voices talking
about things not of human interest.
It made no difference to me, of course. New York in this year of grace
is not the place for the supernatural be the time never so fit for
witch-riding and the night wind in the chimney-stacks sound never so
much like the last gurgling cries of throttled men. No! the world was
very matter-of-fact, and particularly so to me, a poor younger son with
five dollars in my purse by way of fortune, a packet of unpaid bills
in my breastpocket, and round my neck a locket with a portrait therein
of that dear buxom, freckled, stub-nosed girl away in a little southern
seaport town whom I thought I loved with a magnificent affection. Gods!
I had not even touched the fringe of that affliction.
Thus sauntering along moodily, my chin on my chest and much too absorbed
in reflection to have any nice appreciation of what was happening about
me, I was crossing in front of a dilapidated block of houses, dating
back nearly to the time of the Pilgrim Fathers, when I had a vague
consciousness of something dark suddenly sweeping by me--a thing like
a huge bat, or a solid shadow, if such a thing could be, and the next
instant there was a thud and a bump, a bump again, a half-stifled cry,
and then a hurried vision of some black carpeting that flapped and shook
as though all the winds of Eblis were in its folds, and then apparently
disgorged from its inmost recesses a little man.
Before my first start of half-amused surprise was over I saw him by the
flickering lamp-light clutch at space as he tried to steady himself,
stumble on the slippery curb, and the next moment go down on the back
of his head with a most ugly thud.
Now I was not destitute of feeling, though it had been my lot to see men
die in many ways, and I ran over to that motionless form without an idea
that anything but an ordinary accident had occurred. There he lay, silent
and, as it turned out afterwards, dead as a door-nail, the strangest old
fellow ever eyes looked upon, dressed in shabby sorrel-coloured clothes
of antique cut, with a long grey beard upon his chin, pent-roof eyebrows,
and a wizened complexion so puckered and tanned by exposure to Heaven
only knew what weathers that it was impossible to guess his nationality.
I lifted him up out of the puddle of black blood in which he was lying,
and his head dropped back over my arm as though it had been fixed to
his body with string alone. There was neither heart-beat nor breath in
him, and the last flicker of life faded out of that gaunt face even as
I watched. It was not altogether a pleasant situation, and the only thing
to do appeared to be to get the dead man into proper care (though little
good it could do him now!) as speedily as possible. So, sending a chance
passer-by into the main street for a cab, I placed him into it as soon
as it came, and there being nobody else to go, got in with him myself,
telling the driver at the same time to take us to the nearest hospital.
"Is this your rug, captain?" asked a bystander just as we were driving
"Not mine," I answered somewhat roughly. "You don't suppose I go
about at this time of night with Turkey carpets under my arm, do you?
It belongs to this old chap here who has just dropped out of the skies
on to his head; chuck it on top and shut the door!" And that rug,
the very mainspring of the startling things which followed, was thus
carelessly thrown on to the carriage, and off we went.
Well, to be brief, I handed in that stark old traveller from nowhere at
the hospital, and as a matter of curiosity sat in the waiting-room while
they examined him. In five minutes the house-surgeon on duty came in
to see me, and with a shake of his head said briefly--
"Gone, sir--clean gone! Broke his neck like a pipe-stem. Most
strange-looking man, and none of us can even guess at his age. Not a
friend of yours, I suppose?"
"Nothing whatever to do with me, sir. He slipped on the pavement and
fell in front of me just now, and as a matter of common charity I brought
him in here. Were there any means of identification on him?"
"None whatever," answered the doctor, taking out his notebook and,
as a matter of form, writing down my name and address and a few brief
particulars, "nothing whatever except this curious-looking bead hung
round his neck by a blackened thong of leather," and he handed me a thing
about as big as a filbert nut with a loop for suspension and apparently
of rock crystal, though so begrimed and dull its nature was difficult to
speak of with certainty. The bead was of no seeming value and slipped
unintentionally into my waistcoat pocket as I chatted for a few minutes
more with the doctor, and then, shaking hands, I said goodbye, and went
back to the cab which was still waiting outside.
It was only on reaching home I noticed the hospital porters had omitted to
take the dead man's carpet from the roof of the cab when they carried him
in, and as the cabman did not care about driving back to the hospital with
it, and it could not well be left in the street, I somewhat reluctantly
carried it indoors with me.
Once in the shine of my own lamp and a cigar in my mouth I had a closer
look at that ancient piece of art work from heaven, or the other place,
only knows what ancient loom.
A big, strong rug of faded Oriental colouring, it covered half the floor
of my sitting-room, the substance being of a material more like camel's
hair than anything else, and running across, when examined closely,
were some dark fibres so long and fine that surely they must have come
from the tail of Solomon's favourite black stallion itself. But the
strangest thing about that carpet was its pattern. It was threadbare
enough to all conscience in places, yet the design still lived in solemn,
age-wasted hues, and, as I dragged it to my stove-front and spread
it out, it seemed to me that it was as much like a star map done by a
scribe who had lately recovered from delirium tremens as anything else.
In the centre appeared a round such as might be taken for the sun, while
here and there, "in the field," as heralds say, were lesser orbs which
from their size and position could represent smaller worlds circling
about it. Between these orbs were dotted lines and arrow-heads of the
oldest form pointing in all directions, while all the intervening spaces
were filled up with woven characters half-way in appearance between
Runes and Cryptic-Sanskrit. Round the borders these characters ran into
a wild maze, a perfect jungle of an alphabet through which none but a
wizard could have forced a way in search of meaning.
Altogether, I thought as I kicked it out straight upon my floor, it was
a strange and not unhandsome article of furniture--it would do nicely
for the mess-room on the Carolina, and if any representatives of yonder
poor old fellow turned up tomorrow, why, I would give them a couple of
dollars for it. Little did I guess how dear it would be at any price!
Meanwhile that steak was late, and now that the temporary excitement of
the evening was wearing off I fell dull again. What a dark, sodden world
it was that frowned in on me as I moved over to the window and opened
it for the benefit of the cool air, and how the wind howled about the
roof tops. How lonely I was! What a fool I had been to ask for long
leave and come ashore like this, to curry favour with a set of stubborn
dunderheads who cared nothing for me--or Polly, and could not or would
not understand how important it was to the best interests of the Service
that I should get that promotion which alone would send me back to her
an eligible wooer! What a fool I was not to have volunteered for some
desperate service instead of wasting time like this! Then at least life
would have been interesting; now it was dull as ditch-water, with wretched
vistas of stagnant waiting between now and that joyful day when I could
claim that dear, rosy-checked girl for my own. What a fool I had been!
"I wish, I wish," I exclaimed, walking round the little room, "I wish
While these unfinished exclamations were actually passing my lips I
chanced to cross that infernal mat, and it is no more startling than
true, but at my word a quiver of expectation ran through that gaunt
web--a rustle of anticipation filled its ancient fabric, and one frayed
corner surged up, and as I passed off its surface in my stride, the
sentence still unfinished on my lips, wrapped itself about my left leg
with extraordinary swiftness and so effectively that I nearly fell into
the arms of my landlady, who opened the door at the moment and came in
with a tray and the steak and tomatoes mentioned more than once already.
It was the draught caused by the opening door, of course, that had made
the dead man's rug lift so strangely--what else could it have been?
I made this apology to the good woman, and when she had set the table
and closed the door took another turn or two about my den, continuing
as I did so my angry thoughts.
"Yes, yes," I said at last, returning to the stove and taking my stand,
hands in pockets, in front of it, "anything were better than this, any
enterprise however wild, any adventure however desperate. Oh, I wish I
were anywhere but here, anywhere out of this redtape-ridden world of ours!
I WISH I WERE IN THE PLANET MARS!"
How can I describe what followed those luckless words? Even as I spoke
the magic carpet quivered responsively under my feet, and an undulation
went all round the fringe as though a sudden wind were shaking it.
It humped up in the middle so abruptly that I came down sitting with
a shock that numbed me for the moment. It threw me on my back and
billowed up round me as though I were in the trough of a stormy sea.
Quicker than I can write it lapped a corner over and rolled me in its
folds like a chrysalis in a cocoon. I gave a wild yell and made one
frantic struggle, but it was too late. With the leathery strength of a
giant and the swiftness of an accomplished cigar-roller covering a "core"
with leaf, it swamped my efforts, straightened my limbs, rolled me over,
lapped me in fold after fold till head and feet and everything were
gone--crushed life and breath back into my innermost being, and then,
with the last particle of consciousness, I felt myself lifted from the
floor, pass once round the room, and finally shoot out, point foremost,
into space through the open window, and go up and up and up with a
sound of rending atmospheres that seemed to tear like riven silk in
one prolonged shriek under my head, and to close up in thunder astern
until my reeling senses could stand it no longer. and time and space
and circumstances all lost their meaning to me.
How long that wild rush lasted I have no means of judging. It may
have been an hour, a day, or many days, for I was throughout in a
state of suspended animation, but presently my senses began to return
and with them a sensation of lessening speed, a grateful relief to a
heavy pressure which had held my life crushed in its grasp, without
destroying it completely. It was just that sort of sensation though
more keen which, drowsy in his bunk, a traveller feels when he is aware,
without special perception, harbour is reached and a voyage comes to
an end. But in my case the slowing down was for a long time comparative.
Yet the sensation served to revive my scattered senses, and just as I
was awakening to a lively sense of amazement, an incredible doubt of my
own emotions, and an eager desire to know what had happened, my strange
conveyance oscillated once or twice, undulated lightly up and down, like
a woodpecker flying from tree to tree, and then grounded, bows first,
rolled over several times, then steadied again, and, coming at last to
rest, the next minute the infernal rug opened, quivering along all its
borders in its peculiar way, and humping up in the middle shot me five
feet into the air like a cat tossed from a schoolboy's blanket.
As I turned over I had a dim vision of a clear light like the shine
of dawn, and solid ground sloping away below me. Upon that slope was
ranged a crowd of squatting people, and a staid-looking individual with
his back turned stood nearer by. Afterwards I found he was lecturing
all those sitters on the ethics of gravity and the inherent properties
of falling bodies; at the moment I only knew he was directly in my line
as I descended, and him round the waist I seized, giddy with the light
and fresh air, waltzed him down the slope with the force of my impetus,
and, tripping at the bottom, rolled over and over recklessly with him
sheer into the arms of the gaping crowd below. Over and over we went
into the thickest mass of bodies, making a way through the people, until
at last we came to a stop in a perfect mound of writhing forms and waving
legs and arms. When we had done the mass disentangled itself and I was
able to raise my head from the shoulder of someone on whom I had fallen,
lifting him, or her--which was it?--into a sitting posture alongside of
me at the same time, while the others rose about us like wheat-stalks
after a storm, and edged shyly off, as well as they might.
Such a sleek, slim youth it was who sat up facing me, with a flush of
gentle surprise on his face, and dapper hands that felt cautiously about
his anatomy for injured places. He looked so quaintly rueful yet withal
so good-tempered that I could not help bursting into laughter in spite
of my own amazement. Then he laughed too, a sedate, musical chuckle,
and said something incomprehensible, pointing at the same time to a cut
upon my finger that was bleeding a little. I shook my head, meaning
thereby that it was nothing, but the stranger with graceful solicitude
took my hand, and, after examining the hurt, deliberately tore a strip
of cloth from a bright yellow toga-like garment he was wearing and bound
the place up with a woman's tenderness.
Meanwhile, as he ministered, there was time to look about me. Where
was I? It was not the Broadway; it was not Staten Island on a Saturday
afternoon. The night was just over, and the sun on the point of rising.
Yet it was still shadowy all about, the air being marvellously tepid
and pleasant to the senses. Quaint, soft aromas like the breath of
a new world--the fragrance of unknown flowers, and the dewy scent of
never-trodden fields drifted to my nostrils; and to my ears came a sound
of laughter scarcely more human than the murmur of the wind in the trees,
and a pretty undulating whisper as though a great concourse of people
were talking softly in their sleep. I gazed about scarcely knowing
how much of my senses or surroundings were real and how much fanciful,
until I presently became aware the rosy twilight was broadening into day,
and under the increasing shine a strange scene was fashioning itself.
At first it was an opal sea I looked on of mist, shot along its upper
surface with the rosy gold and pinks of dawn. Then, as that soft,
translucent lake ebbed, jutting hills came through it, black and crimson,
and as they seemed to mount into the air other lower hills showed
through the veil with rounded forest knobs till at last the brightening
day dispelled the mist, and as the rosy-coloured gauzy fragments went
slowly floating away a wonderfully fair country lay at my feet, with
a broad sea glimmering in many arms and bays in the distance beyond.
It was all dim and unreal at first, the mountains shadowy, the ocean
unreal, the flowery fields between it and me vacant and shadowy.
Yet were they vacant? As my eyes cleared and day brightened still more,
and I turned my head this way and that, it presently dawned upon me
all the meadow coppices and terraces northwards of where I lay, all
that blue and spacious ground I had thought to be bare and vacant, were
alive with a teeming city of booths and tents; now I came to look more
closely there was a whole town upon the slope, built as might be in a
night of boughs and branches still unwithered, the streets and ways of
that city in the shadows thronged with expectant people moving in groups
and shifting to and fro in lively streams--chatting at the stalls and
clustering round the tent doors in soft, gauzy, parti-coloured crowds
in a way both fascinating and perplexing.
I stared about me like a child at its first pantomime, dimly understanding
all I saw was novel, but more allured to the colour and life of the
picture than concerned with its exact meaning; and while I stared
and turned my finger was bandaged, and my new friend had been lisping
away to me without getting anything in turn but a shake of the head.
This made him thoughtful, and thereon followed a curious incident which
I cannot explain. I doubt even whether you will believe it; but what
am I to do in that case? You have already accepted the episode of my
coming, or you would have shut the covers before arriving at this page
of my modest narrative, and this emboldens me. I may strengthen my
claim on your credulity by pointing out the extraordinary marvels which
science is teaching you even on our own little world. To quote a single
instance: If any one had declared ten years ago that it would shortly
be practicable and easy for two persons to converse from shore to shore
across the Atlantic without any intervening medium, he would have been
laughed at as a possibly amusing but certainly extravagant romancer.
Yet that picturesque lie of yesterday is amongst the accomplished facts
of today! Therefore I am encouraged to ask your indulgence, in the name
of your previous errors, for the following and any other instances in
which I may appear to trifle with strict veracity. There is no such
thing as the impossible in our universe!
When my friendly companion found I could not understand him, he looked
serious for a minute or two, then shortened his brilliant yellow toga,
as though he had arrived at some resolve, and knelt down directly in
front of me. He next took my face between his hands, and putting his nose
within an inch of mine, stared into my eyes with all his might. At first
I was inclined to laugh, but before long the most curious sensations took
hold of me. They commenced with a thrill which passed all up my body,
and next all feeling save the consciousness of the loud beating of my
heart ceased. Then it seemed that boy's eyes were inside my head and not
outside, while along with them an intangible something pervaded my brain.
The sensation at first was like the application of ether to the skin--a
cool, numbing emotion. It was followed by a curious tingling feeling,
as some dormant cells in my mind answered to the thought-transfer, and
were filled and fertilised! My other brain-cells most distinctly felt
the vitalising of their companions, and for about a minute I experienced
extreme nausea and a headache such as comes from over-study, though both
passed swiftly off. I presume that in the future we shall all obtain
knowledge in this way. The Professors of a later day will perhaps keep
shops for the sale of miscellaneous information, and we shall drop in
and be inflated with learning just as the bicyclist gets his tire pumped
up, or the motorist is recharged with electricity at so much per unit.
Examinations will then become matters of capacity in the real meaning
of that word, and we shall be tempted to invest our pocket-money by
advertisements of "A cheap line in Astrology," "Try our double-strength,
two-minute course of Classics," "This is remnant day for Trigonometry
and Metaphysics," and so on.
My friend did not get as far as that. With him the process did not take
more than a minute, but it was startling in its results, and reduced me
to an extraordinary state of hypnotic receptibility. When it was over
my instructor tapped with a finger on my lips, uttering aloud as he did
so the words--
"Know none; know some; know little; know morel" again and again; and the
strangest part of it is that as he spoke I did know at first a little,
then more, and still more, by swift accumulation, of his speech and
meaning. In fact, when presently he suddenly laid a hand over my eyes
and then let go of my head with a pleasantly put question as to how I
felt, I had no difficulty whatever in answering him in his own tongue,
and rose from the ground as one gets from a hair-dresser's chair, with
a vague idea of looking round for my hat and offering him his fee.
"My word, sir!" I said, in lisping Martian, as I pulled down my cuffs
and put my cravat straight, "that was a quick process. I once heard of
a man who learnt a language in the moments he gave each day to having
his boots blacked; but this beats all. I trust I was a docile pupil?"
"Oh, fairly, sir," answered the soft, musical voice of the strange being
by me; "but your head is thick and your brain tough. I could have taught
another in half the time."
"Curiously enough," was my response, "those are almost the very words
with which my dear old tutor dismissed me the morning I left college.
Never mind, the thing is done. Shall I pay you anything?"
"I do not understand."
"Any honorarium, then? Some people understand one word and not the
other." But the boy only shook his head in answer.
Strangely enough, I was not greatly surprised all this time either
at the novelty of my whereabouts or at the hypnotic instruction in a
new language just received. Perhaps it was because my head still spun
too giddily with that flight in the old rug for much thought; perhaps
because I did not yet fully realise the thing that had happened. But,
anyhow, there is the fact, which, like so many others in my narrative,
must, alas! remain unexplained for the moment. The rug, by the way, had
completely disappeared, my friend comforting me on this score, however,
by saying he had seen it rolled up and taken away by one whom he knew.
"We are very tidy people here, stranger," he said, "and everything
found Lying about goes back to the Palace store-rooms. You will laugh
to see the lumber there, for few of us ever take the trouble to reclaim
Heaven knows I was in no laughing mood when I saw that enchanted web
When I had lain and watched the brightening scene for a time, I got up,
and having stretched and shaken my clothes into some sort of order, we
strolled down the hill and joined the light-hearted crowds that twined
across the plain and through the streets of their city of booths.
They were the prettiest, daintiest folk ever eyes looked upon,
well-formed and like to us as could be in the main, but slender and
willowy, so dainty and light, both the men and the women, so pretty of
cheek and hair, so mild of aspect, I felt, as I strode amongst them, I
could have plucked them like flowers and bound them up in bunches with
my belt. And yet somehow I liked them from the first minute; such a
happy, careless, light-hearted race, again I say, never was seen before.
There was not a stain of thought or care on a single one of those white
foreheads that eddied round me under their peaked, blossom-like caps,
the perpetual smile their faces wore never suffered rebuke anywhere;
their very movements were graceful and slow, their laughter was low and
musical, there was an odour of friendly, slothful happiness about them
that made me admire whether I would or no.
Unfortunately I was not able to live on laughter, as they appeared to
be, so presently turning to my acquaintance, who had told me his name
was the plain monosyllabic An, and clapping my hand on his shoulder
as he stood lost in sleepy reflection, said, in a good, hearty way,
"Hullo, friend Yellow-jerkin! If a stranger might set himself athwart
the cheerful current of your meditations, may such a one ask how far
'tis to the nearest wine-shop or a booth where a thirsty man may get a
mug of ale at a moderate reckoning?"
That gilded youth staggered under my friendly blow as though the hammer
of Thor himself had suddenly lit upon his shoulder, and ruefully rubbing
his tender skin, he turned on me mild, handsome eyes, answering after a
moment, during which his native mildness struggled with the pain I had
unwittingly given him--
"If your thirst be as emphatic as your greeting, friend Heavy-fist,
it will certainly be a kindly deed to lead you to the drinking-place.
My shoulder tingles with your good-fellowship," he added, keeping two
arms'-lengths clear of me. "Do you wish," he said, "merely to cleanse
a dusty throat, or for blue or pink oblivion?"
"Why," I answered laughingly, "I have come a longish journey since
yesterday night--a journey out of count of all reasonable mileage--and
I might fairly plead a dusty throat as excuse for a beginning; but as
to the other things mentioned, those tinted forgetfulnesses, I do not
even know what you mean."
"Undoubtedly you are a stranger," said the friendly youth, eyeing me from
top to toe with renewed wonder, "and by your unknown garb one from afar."
"From how far no man can say--not even I--but from very far, in truth.
Let that stay your curiosity for the time. And now to bench and ale-mug,
on good fellow!--the shortest way. I was never so thirsty as this since
our water-butts went overboard when I sailed the southern seas as a
tramp apprentice, and for three days we had to damp our black tongues
with the puddles the night-dews left in the lift of our mainsail."
Without more words, being a little awed of me, I thought, the boy led
me through the good-humoured crowd to where, facing the main road to the
town, but a little sheltered by a thicket of trees covered with gigantic
pink blossoms, stood a drinking-place--a cluster of tables set round an
open grass-plot. Here he brought me a platter of some light inefficient
cakes which merely served to make hunger more self-conscious, and some
fine aromatic wine contained in a triple-bodied flask, each division
containing vintage of a separate hue. We broke our biscuits, sipped
that mysterious wine, and talked of many things until at last something
set us on the subject of astronomy, a study I found my dapper gallant
had some knowledge of--which was not to be wondered at seeing he dwelt
under skies each night set thick above his curly head with tawny planets,
and glittering constellations sprinkled through space like flowers in
May meadows. He knew what worlds went round the sun, larger or lesser,
and seeing this I began to question him, for I was uneasy in my innermost
mind and, you will remember, so far had no certain knowledge of where
I was, only a dim, restless suspicion that I had come beyond the ken of
all men's knowledge.
Therefore, sweeping clear the board with my sleeve, and breaking the
wafer cake I was eating, I set down one central piece for the sun, and,
"See here!" I said, "good fellow! This morsel shall stand for that sun
you have just been welcoming back with quaint ritual. Now stretch your
starry knowledge to the utmost, and put down that tankard for a moment.
If this be yonder sun and this lesser crumb be the outermost one of our
revolving system, and this the next within, and this the next, and so on;
now if this be so tell me which of these fragmentary orbs is ours--which
of all these crumbs from the hand of the primordial would be that we
stand upon?" And I waited with an anxiety a light manner thinly hid,
to hear his answer.
It came at once. Laughing as though the question were too trivial,
and more to humour my wayward fancy than aught else, that boy circled
his rosy thumb about a minute and brought it down on the planet Mars!
I started and stared at him; then all of a tremble cried, "You trifle
with me! Choose again--there, see, I will set the symbols and name them
to you anew. There now, on your soul tell me truly which this planet is,
the one here at our feet?" And again the boy shook his head, wondering at
my eagerness, and pointed to Mars, saying gently as he did so the fact was
certain as the day above us, nothing was marvellous but my questioning.
Mars! oh, dreadful, tremendous, unexpected! With a cry of affright,
and bringing my fist down on the table till all the cups upon it leapt,
I told him he lied--lied like a simpleton whose astronomy was as rotten
as his wit--smote the table and scowled at him for a spell, then turned
away and let my chin fall upon my breast and my hands upon my lap.
And yet, and yet, it might be so! Everything about me was new and
strange, the crisp, thin air I breathed was new; the lukewarm sunshine
new; the sleek, long, ivory faces of the people new! Yesterday--was it
yesterday?--I was back there--away in a world that pines to know of other
worlds, and one fantastic wish of mine, backed by a hideous, infernal
chance, had swung back the doors of space and shot me--if that boy spoke
true--into the outer void where never living man had been before: all
my wits about me, all the horrible bathos of my earthly clothing on me,
all my terrestrial hungers in my veins!
I sprang to my feet and swept my hands across my eyes. Was that a dream,
or this? No, no, both were too real. The hum of my faraway city still
rang in my ears: a swift vision of the girl I had loved; of the men I
had hated; of the things I had hoped for rose before me, still dazing
my inner eye. And these about me were real people, too; it was real
earth; real skies, trees, and rocks--had the infernal gods indeed heard,
I asked myself, the foolish wish that started from my lips in a moment of
fierce discontent, and swept me into another sphere, another existence?
I looked at the boy as though he could answer that question, but there
was nothing in his face but vacuous wonder; I clapped my hands together
and beat my breast; it was true; my soul within me said it was true;
the boy had not lied; the djins had heard; I was just in the flesh I
had; my common human hungers still unsatisfied where never mortal man
had hungered before; and scarcely knowing whether I feared or not,
whether to laugh or cry, but with all the wonder and terror of that
great remove sweeping suddenly upon me I staggered back to my seat,
and dropping my arms upon the table, leant my head heavily upon them
and strove to choke back the passion which beset me.
It was the light touch of the boy An upon my shoulder which roused me.
He was bending down, his pretty face full of concernful sympathy, and
in a minute said--knowing nothing of my thoughts, of course,
"It is the wine, stranger, the pink oblivion, it sometimes makes one
feel like that until enough is taken; you stopped just short of what you
should have had, and the next cup would have been delight--I should have
"Ay," I answered, glad he should think so, "it was the wine, no doubt;
your quaint drink, sir, tangled up my senses for the moment, but they
are clearer now, and I am eager past expression to learn a little more
of this strange country I have wandered into."
"I would rather," said the boy, relapsing again into his state of kindly
lethargy, "that you learnt things as you went, for talking is work,
and work we hate, but today we are all new and fresh, and if ever you
are to ask questions now is certainly the time. Come with me to the
city yonder, and as we go I will answer the things you wish to know;"
and I went with him, for I was humble and amazed, and, in truth, at that
moment, had not a word to say for myself.
All the way from the plain where I had awoke to the walls of the city
stood booths, drinking-places, and gardens divided by labyrinths of
canals, and embowered in shrubberies that seemed coming into leaf
and flower as we looked, so swift was the process of their growth.
These waterways were covered with skiffs being pushed and rowed in every
direction; the cheerful rowers calling to each other through the leafy
screens separating one lane from another till the place was full of their
happy chirruping. Every booth and way-side halting-place was thronged
with these delicate and sprightly people, so friendly, so gracious,
and withal so purposeless.
I began to think we should never reach the town itself, for first my
guide would sit down on a green stream-bank, his feet a-dangle in the
clear water, and bandy wit with a passing boat as though there were
nothing else in the world to think of. And when I dragged him out of
that, whispering in his ear, "The town, my dear boy! the town! I am
all agape to see it," he would saunter reluctantly to a booth a hundred
yards further on and fall to eating strange confections or sipping
coloured wines with chance acquaintances, till again I plucked him by
the sleeve and said: "Seth, good comrade--was it not so you called your
city just now?--take me to the gates, and I will be grateful to you,"
then on again down a flowery lane, aimless and happy, wasting my time
and his, with placid civility I was led by that simple guide.
Wherever we went the people stared at me, as well they might, as I walked
through them overtopping the tallest by a head or more. The drinking-cups
paused half-way to their mouths; the jests died away upon their lips;
and the blinking eyes of the drinkers shone with a momentary sparkle of
wonder as their minds reeled down those many-tinted floods to the realms
of oblivion they loved.
I heard men whisper one to another, "Who is he?"; "Whence does he come?";
"Is he a tribute-taker?" as I strolled amongst them, my mind still so
thrilled with doubt and wonder that to me they seemed hardly more than
painted puppets, the vistas of their lovely glades and the ivory town
beyond only the fancy of a dream, and their talk as incontinent as the
babble of a stream.
Then happily, as I walked along with bent head brooding over the
incredible thing that had happened, my companion's shapely legs gave out,
and with a sigh of fatigue he suggested we should take a skiff amongst
the many lying about upon the margins and sail towards the town, "For,"
said he, "the breeze blows thitherward, and 'tis a shame to use one's
limbs when Nature will carry us for nothing!"
"But have you a boat of your own hereabouts?" I queried; "for to tell
the truth I came from home myself somewhat poorly provided with means
to buy or barter, and if your purse be not heavier than mine we must
still do as poor men do."
"Oh!" said An, "there is no need to think of that, no one here to hire
or hire of; we will just take the first skiff we see that suits us."
"And what if the owner should come along and find his boat gone?"
"Why, what should he do but take the next along the bank, and the master
of that the next again--how else could it be?" said the Martian, and
shrugging my shoulders, for I was in no great mood to argue, we went
down to the waterway, through a thicket of budding trees underlaid with
a carpet of small red flowers filling the air with a scent of honey, and
soon found a diminutive craft pulled up on the bank. There were some
dainty cloaks and wraps in it which An took out and laid under a tree.
But first he felt in the pouch of one for a sweetmeat which his fine
nostrils, acute as a squirrel's, told him was there, and taking the lump
out bit a piece from it, afterwards replacing it in the owner's pocket
with the frankest simplicity.
Then we pushed off, hoisted the slender mast, set the smallest lug-sail
that ever a sailor smiled at, and, myself at the helm, and that golden
youth amidships, away we drifted under thickets of drooping canes
tasselled with yellow catkin-flowers, up the blue alley of the water into
the broader open river beyond with its rapid flow and crowding boats,
the white city front now towering clear before us.
The air was full of sunshine and merry voices; birds were singing,
trees were budding; only my heart was heavy, my mind confused. Yet why
should I be sad, I said to myself presently? Life beat in my pulses;
what had I to fear? This world I had tumbled into was new and strange,
no doubt, but tomorrow it would be old and familiar; it discredited my
manhood to sit brow-bent like that, so with an effort I roused myself.
"Old chap!" I said to my companion, as he sat astride of a thwart
slowly chewing something sticky and eyeing me out of the corner of
his eyes with vapid wonder, "tell me something of this land of yours,
or something about yourself--which reminds me I have a question to ask.
It is a bit delicate, but you look a sensible sort of fellow, and will
take no offence. The fact is, I have noticed as we came along half your
population dresses in all the colours of the rainbow--'fancy suitings'
our tailors could call it at home--and this half of the census are
undoubtedly men and women. The rub is that the other half, to which you
belong, all dress alike in YELLOW, and I will be fired from the biggest
gun on the Carolina's main deck if I can tell what sex you belong to!
I took you for a boy in the beginning, and the way you closed with the
idea of having a drink with me seemed to show I was dead on the right
course. Then a little later on I heard you and a friend abusing our
sex from an outside point of view in a way which was very disconcerting.
This, and some other things, have set me all abroad again, and as fate
seems determined to make us chums for this voyage--why--well, frankly,
I should be glad to know if you be boy or girl? If you are as I am,
no more nor less then--for I like you--there's my hand in comradeship.
If you are otherwise, as those sleek outlines seem to promise--why,
here's my hand again! But man or woman you must be--come, which is it?"
If I had been perplexed before, to watch that boy now was more curious
than ever. He drew back from me with a show of wounded dignity, then
bit his lips, and sighed, and stared, and frowned. "Come," I said
laughingly, "speak! it engenders ambiguity to be so ambiguous of gender!
'Tis no great matter, yes or no, a plain answer will set us fairly in
our friendship; if it is comrade, then comrade let it be; if maid, why,
I shall not quarrel with that, though it cost me a likely messmate."
"You mock me."
"Not I, I never mocked any one."
"And does my robe tell you nothing?"
"Nothing so much; a yellow tunic and becoming enough, but nothing about
it to hang a deduction on. Come! Are you a girl, after all?"
"I do not count myself a girl."
"Why, then, you are the most blooming boy that ever eyes were set upon;
and though 'tis with some tinge of regret, yet cheerfully I welcome you
into the ranks of manhood."
"I hate your manhood, send it after the maidhood; it fits me just
"But An, be reasonable; man or maid you must be."
"Must be; why?"
"Why?" Was ever such a question put to a sane mortal before? I stared
at that ambiguous thing before me, and then, a little wroth to be played
with, growled out something about Martians being all drunk or mad.
"'Tis you yourself are one or other," said that individual, by this time
pink with anger, "and if you think because I am what I am you can safely
taunt me, you are wrong. See! I have a sting," and like a thwarted
child my companion half drew from the folds of the yellow tunic-dress
the daintiest, most harmless-looking little dagger that was ever seen.
"Oh, if it comes to that," I answered, touching the Navy scabbard
still at my hip, and regaining my temper at the sight of hers, "why,
I have a sting also--and twice as long as yours! But in truth, An,
let us not talk of these things; if something in what I have said has
offended nice Martian scruples I am sorry, and will question no more,
leaving my wonder for time to settle."
"No," said the other, "it was my fault to be hasty of offence; I am not
so angered once a year. But in truth your question moves us yellow
robes deeply. Did you not really know that we who wear this saffron
tunic are slaves,--a race apart, despised by all."
"'Slaves,' no; how should I know it?"
"I thought you must understand a thing so fundamental, and it was that
thought which made your questions seem unkind. But if indeed you have
come so far as not to understand even this, then let me tell you once
we of this garb were women--priestesses of the immaculate conceptions of
humanity; guardians of those great hopes and longings which die so easily.
And because we forgot our high station and took to aping another sex
the gods deserted and men despised us, giving us, in the fierceness of
their contempt, what we asked for. We are the slave ants of the nest,
the work-bees of the hive, come, in truth, of those here who still be
men and women of a sort, but toilers only; unknown in love, unregretted
in death--those who dangle all children but their own--slaves cursed
with the accomplishment of their own ambition."
There was no doubt poor An believed what she said, for her attitude was
one of extreme dejection while she spoke, and to cheer her I laughed.
"Oh! come, it can't be as bad as that. Surely sometimes some of you
win back to womanhood? You yourself do not look so far gone but what
some deed of abnegation, some strong love if you could but conceive
it would set you right again. Surely you of the primrose robes can
Whereat unwittingly I troubled the waters in the placid soul of that
outcast Martian! I cannot exactly describe how it was, but she bent her
head silently for a moment or two, and then, with a sigh, lifting her
eyes suddenly to mine, said quietly, "Yes, sometimes; sometimes--but
very seldom," while for an instant across her face there flashed the
summer lightning of a new hope, a single transient glance of wistful,
timid entreaty; of wonder and delight that dared not even yet acknowledge
Then it was my turn to sit silent, and the pause was so awkward that in
a minute, to break it, I exclaimed--
"Let's drop personalities, old chap--I mean my dear Miss An. Tell me
something about your people, and let us begin properly at the top:
have you got a king, for instance?"
To this the girl, pulling herself out of the pleasant slough of her
listlessness, and falling into my vein, answered--
"Both yes and no, sir traveller from afar--no chiefly, and yet perhaps
yes. If it were no then it were so, and if yes then Hath were our king."
"A mild king I should judge by your uncertainty. In the place where
I came from kings press their individualities somewhat more clearly on
their subjects' minds. Is Hath here in the city? Does he come to your
An nodded. Hath was on the river, he had been to see the sunrise; even
now she thought the laughter and singing down behind the bend might be
the king's barge coming up citywards. "He will not be late," said my
companion, "because the marriage-feast is set for tomorrow in the palace."
I became interested. Kings, palaces, marriage-feasts--why, here was
something substantial to go upon; after all these gauzy folk might turn
out good fellows, jolly comrades to sojourn amongst--and marriage-feasts
reminded me again I was hungry.
"Who is it," I asked, with more interest in my tone, "who gets
married?--is it your ambiguous king himself?"
Whereat An's purple eyes broadened with wonder: then as though she would
not be uncivil she checked herself, and answered with smothered pity
for my ignorance, "Not only Hath himself, but every one, stranger, they
are all married tomorrow; you would not have them married one at a time,
would you?"--this with inexpressible derision.
I said, with humility, something like that happened in the place I came
from, asking her how it chanced the convenience of so many came to one
climax at the same moment. "Surely, An, this is a marvel of arrangement.
Where I dwelt wooings would sometimes be long or sometimes short, and
all maids were not complacent by such universal agreement."
The girl was clearly perplexed. She stared at me a space, then said,
"What have wooings long or short to do with weddings? You talk as if
you did your wooing first and then came to marriage--we get married
first and woo afterwards!"
"'Tis not a bad idea, and I can see it might lend an ease and certainty
to the pastime which our method lacks. But if the woman is got first and
sued subsequently, who brings you together? Who sees to the essential
preliminaries of assortment?"
An, looking at my shoes as though she speculated on the remoteness of
the journey I had come if it were measured by my ignorance, replied,
"The urn, stranger, the urn does that--what else? How it may be in that
out-fashioned region you have come from I cannot tell, but here--'tis so
commonplace I should have thought you must have known it--we put each
new year the names of all womenkind into an urn and the men draw for
them, each town, each village by itself, and those they draw are theirs;
is it conceivable your race has other methods?"
I told her it was so--we picked and chose for ourselves, beseeching the
damsels, fighting for them, and holding the sun of romance was at its
setting just where the Martians held it to rise. Whereat An burst out
laughing--a clear, ringing laugh that set all the light-hearted folk in
the nearest boats laughing in sympathy. But when the grotesqueness of
the idea had somewhat worn off, she turned grave and asked me if such
a fancy did not lead to spite, envy, and bickerings. "Why, it seems to
me," she said, shaking her curly head, "such a plan might fire cities,
desolate plains, and empty palaces--"
"Such things have been."
"Ah! our way is much the better. See!" quoth that gentle philosopher.
"'Here,' one of our women would say, 'am I to-day, unwed, as free of
thought as yonder bird chasing the catkin down; tomorrow I shall be
married, with a whole summer to make love in, relieved at one bound of
all those uncertainties you acknowledge to, with nothing to do but lie
about on sunny banks with him whom chance sends me, come to the goal of
love without any travelling to get there.' Why, you must acknowledge
this is the perfection of ease."
"But supposing," I said, "chance dealt unkindly to you from your nuptial
urn, supposing the man was not to your liking, or another coveted him?"
To which An answered, with some shrewdness--
"In the first case we should do what we might, being no worse off than
those in your land who had played ill providence to themselves. In the
second, no maid would covet him whom fate had given to another, it were
too fatiguing, or if such a thing DID happen, then one of them would
waive his claims, for no man or woman ever born was worth a wrangle,
and it is allowed us to barter and change a little."
All this was strange enough. I could not but laugh, while An laughed
at the lightest invitation, and thus chatting and deriding each other's
social arrangements we floated idly townwards and presently came out
into the main waterway perhaps a mile wide and flowing rapidly, as
streams will on the threshold of the spring, with brash or waste of
distant beaches riding down it, and every now and then a broken branch
or tree-stem glancing through waves whose crests a fresh wind lifted and
sowed in golden showers in the intervening furrows. The Martians seemed
expert upon the water, steering nimbly between these floating dangers
when they met them, but for the most part hugging the shore where a more
placid stream better suited their fancies, and for a time all went well.
An, as we went along, was telling me more of her strange country,
pointing out birds or flowers and naming them to me. "Now that," she
said, pointing to a small grey owl who sat reflective on a floating log
we were approaching--"that is a bird of omen; cover your face and look
away, for it is not well to watch it."
Whereat I laughed. "Oh!" I answered, "so those ancient follies have come
as far as this, have they? But it is no bird grey or black or white that
can frighten folk where I come from; see, I will ruffle his philosophy
for him," and suiting the action to the words I lifted a pebble that
happened to lie at the bottom of the boat and flung it at that creature
with the melancholy eyes. Away went the owl, dipping his wings into
the water at every stroke, and as he went wailing out a ghostly cry,
which even amongst sunshine and glitter made one's flesh creep.
An shook her head. "You should not have done that," she said; "our
dead whom we send down over the falls come back in the body of yonder
little bird. But he has gone now," she added, with relief; "see, he
settles far up stream upon the point of yonder rotten bough; I would
not disturb him again if I were you--"
Whatever more An would have said was lost, for amidst a sound of flutes
and singing round the bend of the river below came a crowd of boats
decked with flowers and garlands, all clustering round a barge barely
able to move, so thick those lesser skiffs pressed upon it. So close
those wherries hung about that the garlanded rowers who sat at the oars
could scarcely pull, but, here as everywhere, it was the same good temper,
the same carelessness of order, as like a flowery island in the dancing
blue water the motley fleet came up.
I steered our skiff a space out from the bank to get a better view,
while An clapped her hands together and laughed. "It is Hath--he
himself and those of the palace with him. Steer a little nearer still,
friend--so! between yon floating rubbish flats, for those with Hath are
good to look at."
Nothing loth I made out into mid-stream to see that strange prince go by,
little thinking in a few minutes I should be shaking hands with him,
a wet and dripping hero. The crowd came up, and having the advantage
of the wind, it did not take me long to get a front place in the ruck,
whence I set to work, with republican interest in royalty, to stare at
the man who An said was the head of Martian society. He did not make
me desire to renounce my democratic principles. The royal fellow was
sitting in the centre of the barge under a canopy and on a throne which
was a mass of flowers, not bunched together as they would have been
with us, but so cunningly arranged that they rose from the footstool
to the pinnacle in a rhythm of colour, a poem in bud and petals the
like of which for harmonious beauty I could not have imagined possible.
And in this fairy den was a thin, gaunt young man, dressed in some sort of
black stuff so nondescript that it amounted to little more than a shadow.
I took it for granted that a substance of bone and muscle was covered by
that gloomy suit, but it was the face above that alone riveted my gaze
and made me return the stare he gave me as we came up with redoubled
interest. It was not an unhandsome face, but ashy grey in colour and
amongst the insipid countenances of the Martians about him marvellously
thoughtful. I do not know whether those who had killed themselves by
learning ever leave ghosts behind, but if so this was the very ideal for
such a one. At his feet I noticed, when I unhooked my eyes from his at
last, sat a girl in a loose coral pink gown who was his very antipode.
Princess Heru, for so she was called, was resting one arm upon his knee
at our approach and pulling a blue convolvulus bud to pieces--a charming
picture of dainty idleness. Anything so soft, so silken as that little
lady was never seen before. Who am I, a poor quarter-deck loafer,
that I should attempt to describe what poet and painter alike would
have failed to realise? I know, of course, your stock descriptives:
the melting eye, the coral lip, the peachy cheek, the raven tress;
but these were coined for mortal woman--and this was not one of them.
I will not attempt to describe the glorious tenderness of those eyes she
turned upon me presently; the glowing radiance of her skin; the infinite
grace of every action; the incredible soul-searching harmony of her voice,
when later on I heard it--you must gather something of these things as
I go--suffice it to say that when I saw her there for the first time in
the plenitude of her beauty I fell desperately, wildly in love with her.
Meanwhile, even the most infatuated of mortals cannot stare for ever
without saying something. The grating of our prow against the garlanded
side of the royal barge roused me from my reverie, and nodding to An, to
imply I would be back presently, I lightly jumped on to Hath's vessel,
and, with the assurance of a free and independent American voter,
approached that individual, holding out my palm, and saying as I did so,
"Shake hands, Mr. President!"
The prince came forward at my bidding and extending his hand for mine.
He bowed slow and sedately, in that peculiar way the Martians have,
a ripple of gratified civility passing up his flesh; lower and lower he
bowed, until his face was over our clasped hands, and then, with simple
courtesy, he kissed my finger-tips! This was somewhat embarrassing.
It was not like the procedure followed in Courts nearer to Washington
than this one, as far as my reading went, and, withdrawing my fingers
hastily, I turned to the princess, who had risen, and was eyeing her
somewhat awkwardly, the while wondering what kind of salutation would
be suitable in her case when a startling incident happened. The river,
as said, was full of floating rubbish brought down from some far-away
uplands by a spring freshet while the royal convoy was making slow
progress upstream and thus met it all bow on. Some of this stuff was
heavy timber, and when a sudden warning cry went up from the leading
boats it did not take my sailor instinct long to guess what was amiss.
Those in front shot side to side, those behind tried to drop back as,
bearing straight down on the royal barge, there came a log of black wood
twenty feet long and as thick as the mainmast of an old three-decker.
Hath's boat could no more escape than if it had been planted on a rocky
pedestal, garlands and curtains trailing in the water hung so heavy
on it. The gilded paddles of the slender rowers were so feeble--they
had but made a half-turn from that great javelin's road when down it
came upon them, knocking the first few pretty oarsmen head over heels
and crackling through their oars like a bull through dry maize stalks.
I sprang forward, and snatching a pole from a half-hearted slave, jammed
the end into the head of the log and bore with all my weight upon it,
diverting it a little, and thereby perhaps saving the ship herself, but
not enough. As it flashed by a branch caught upon the trailing tapestry,
hurling me to the deck, and tearing away with it all that finery.
Then the great spar, tossing half its dripping length into the air, went
plunging downstream with shreds of silk and flowers trailing from it,
and white water bubbling in its rear.
When I scrambled to my feet all was ludicrous confusion on board.
Hath still stood by his throne--an island in a sea of disorder--staring
at me; all else was chaos. The rowers and courtiers were kicking and
wallowing in the "waist" of the ship like fish newly shot out of a trawl
net, but the princess was gone. Where was she? I brushed the spray from
my eyes, and stared overboard. She was not in the bubbling blue water
alongside. Then I glanced aft to where the log, now fifteen yards away,
was splashing through the sunshine, and, as I looked, a fair arm came
up from underneath and white fingers clutched convulsively at the sky.
What man could need more? Down the barge I rushed, and dropping only my
swordbelt, leapt in to her rescue. The gentle Martians were too numb to
raise a hand in help; but it was not necessary. I had the tide with me,
and gained at every stroke. Meanwhile that accursed tree, with poor
Heru's skirts caught on a branch, was drowning her at its leisure;
lifting her up as it rose upon the crests, a fair, helpless bundle,
and then sousing her in its fall into the nether water, where I could
see her gleam now and again like pink coral.
I redoubled my efforts and got alongside, clutching the rind of that
old stump, and swimming and scrambling, at last was within reach of
the princess. Thereon the log lifted her playfully to my arms, and
when I had laid hold came down, a crushing weight, and forced us far
into the clammy bosom of Martian sea. Again we came up, coughing and
choking--I tugging furiously at that tangled raiment, and the lady, a
mere lump of sweetness in my other arm--then down again with that log
upon me and all the noises of Eblis in my ears. Up and down we went,
over and over, till strength was spent and my ribs seemed breaking;
then, with a last desperate effort, I got a knee against the stem, and
by sheer strength freed my princess--the spiteful timber made a last
ugly thrust at us as it rolled away--and we were free!
I turned upon my back, and, sure of rescue now, took the lady's head
upon my chest, holding her sweet, white fists in mine the while, and,
floating, waited for help.
It came only too quickly. The gallant Martians, when they saw the
princess saved, came swiftly down upon us. Over the lapping of the water
in my ears I heard their sigh--like cries of admiration and surprise,
the rattle of spray on the canoe sides mingled with the splash of oars,
the flitting shadows of their prows were all about us, and in less time
than it takes to write we were hauled aboard, revived, and taken to
Hath's barge. Again the prince's lips were on my fingertips; again the
flutes and music struck up; and as I squeezed the water out of my hair,
and tried to keep my eyes off the outline of Heru, whose loveliness shone
through her damp, clinging, pink robe, as if that robe were but a gauzy
fancy, I vaguely heard Hath saying wondrous things of my gallantry, and,
what was more to the purpose, asking me to come with him and stay that
night at the palace.
They lodged me like a prince in a tributary country that first night.
I was tired. 'Twas a stiff stage I had come the day before, and they
gave me a couch whose ethereal softness seemed to close like the wings
of a bird as I plunged at its touch into fathomless slumbers. But the
next day had hardly broken when I was awake, and, stretching my limbs
upon the piled silk of a legless bed upon the floor, found myself in a
great chamber with a purple tapestry across the entrance, and a square
arch leading to a flat terrace outside.
It was a glorious daybreak, making my heart light within me, the air
like new milk, and the colours of the sunrise lay purple and yellow in
bars across my room. I yawned and stretched, then rising, wrapped a
silken quilt about me and went out into the flat terrace top, wherefrom
all the city could be seen stretched in an ivory and emerald patchwork,
with open, blue water on one side, and the Martian plain trending away
in illimitable distance upon the other.
Directly underneath in the great square at the bottom of Hath's palace
steps were gathered a concourse of people, brilliant in many-coloured
dresses. They were sitting or lying about just as they might for all
I knew have done through the warm night, without much order, save that
where the black streaks of inlaid stone marked a carriageway across the
square none were stationed. While I wondered what would bring so many
together thus early, there came a sound of flutes--for these people can
do nothing without piping like finches in a thicket in May--and from the
storehouses half-way over to the harbour there streamed a line of carts
piled high with provender. Down came the teams attended by their slaves,
circling and wheeling into the open place, and as they passed each group
those lazy, lolling beggars crowded round and took the dole they were
too thriftless to earn themselves. It was strange to see how listless
they were about the meal, even though Providence itself put it into
their hands; to note how the yellow-girted slaves scudded amongst them,
serving out the loaves, themselves had grown, harvested, and baked;
slipping from group to group, rousing, exhorting, administering to a
helpless throng that took their efforts without thought or thanks.
I stood there a long time, one foot upon the coping and my chin upon
my hand, noting the beauty of the ruined town and wondering how such a
feeble race as that which lay about, breakfasting in the limpid sunshine,
could have come by a city like this, or kept even the ruins of its walls
and buildings from the covetousness of others, until presently there was
a rustle of primrose garments and my friend of the day before stood by me.
"Are you rested, traveller?" she questioned in that pretty voice of hers.
"Rested ambrosially, An."
"It is well; I will tell the Government and it will come up to wash and
dress you, afterwards giving you breakfast."
"For the breakfast, damsel, I shall be grateful, but as for the washing
and dressing I will defend myself to the last gasp sooner than submit
to such administration."
"How strange! Do you never wash in your country?"
"Yes, but it is a matter left largely to our own discretion; so, my
dear girl, if you will leave me for a minute or two in quest of that
meal you have mentioned, I will guarantee to be ready when it comes."
Away she slipped, with a shrug of her rosy shoulders, to return presently,
carrying a tray covered with a white cloth, whereon were half a dozen
glittering covers whence came most fragrant odours of cooked things.
"Why, comrade," I said, sitting down and lifting lid by lid, for the
cold, sweet air outside had made me hungry, "this is better than was
hoped for; I thought from what I saw down yonder I should have to trot
behind a tumbril for my breakfast, and eat it on my heels amongst your
sleepy friends below."
An replied, "The stranger is a prince, we take it, in his own country,
and princes fare not quite like common people, even here."
"So," I said, my mouth full of a strange, unknown fish, and a cake soft
as milk and white as cotton in the pod. "Now that makes me feel at home!"
"Would you have had it otherwise with us?"
"No! now I come to think of it, it is most natural things should be much
alike in all the corners of the universe; the splendid simplicity that
rules the spheres, works much the same, no doubt, upon one side of the sun
as upon the other. Yet, somehow--you can hardly wonder at it--yesterday
I looked to find your world, when I realised where I had tumbled to,
a world of djin and giants; of mad possibilities over realised, and here
I see you dwellers by the utterly remote little more marvellous than if
I had come amongst you on the introduction of a cheap tourist ticket,
and round some neglected corner of my own distant world!"
"I hardly follow your meaning, sir."
"No, no, of course you cannot. I was forgetting you did not know! There,
pass me the stuff on yonder platter that looks like caked mud from an
anchor fluke, and swells like breath of paradise, and let me question
you;" and while I sat and drank with that yellow servitor sitting in
front of me, I plied her with questions, just as a baby might who had
come into the world with a full-blown gift of speech. But though she
was ready and willing enough to answer, and laughed gaily at my quaint
ignorance of simple things, yet there was little water in the well.
"Had they any kind of crafts or science; any cult of stars or figures?"
But again she shook her head, and said, "Hath might know, Hath understood
most things, but herself knew little of either." "Armies or navies?" and
again the Martian shrugged her shoulders, questioning in turn--
"What for!" I cried, a little angry with her engaging dulness, "Why, to
keep that which the strong hand got, and to get more for those who come
next; navies to sweep yonder blue seas, and armies to ward what they
should bring home, or guard the city walls against all enemies,--for
I suppose, An," I said, putting down my knife as the cheering thought
came on me,--"I suppose, An, you have some enemies? It is not like
Providence to give such riches as you possess, such lands, such cities,
and not to supply the antidote in some one poor enough to covet them."
At once the girl's face clouded over, and it was obvious a tender subject
had been chanced upon. She waved her hand impatiently as though to
change the subject, but I would not be put off.
"Come," I said, "this is better than breakfast. It was the one
thing--this unknown enemy of yours--wanting to lever the dull mass of
your too peacefulness. What is he like? How strong? How stands the
quarrel between you? I was a soldier myself before the sea allured me,
and love horse and sword best of all things."
"You would not jest if you knew our enemy!"
"That is as it may be. I have laughed in the face of many a stronger
foe than yours is like to prove; but anyhow, give me a chance to judge.
Come, who is it that frightens all the blood out of your cheeks by a bare
mention and may not be laughed at even behind these substantial walls?"
"First, then, you know, of course, that long ago this land of ours was
harried from the West."
"No!" said An, with a little warmth. "If it comes to that, you know
Whereat I laughed, and, saying the reply was just, vowed I would not
interrupt again; so she wont on saying how Hath--that interminable
Hath!--would know it all better than she did, but long ago the land
was overrun by a people from beyond the broad, blue waters outside; a
people huge of person, hairy and savage, uncouth, unlettered, and poor
An's voice trembled even to describe them; a people without mercy or
compunction, dwellers in woods, eaters of flesh, who burnt, plundered,
and destroyed all before them, and had toppled over this city along with
many others in an ancient foray, the horrors of which, still burnt lurid
in her people's minds.
"Ever since then," went on the girl, "these odious terrors of the
outer land have been a nightmare to us, making hectic our pleasures,
and filling our peace with horrid thoughts of what might be, should they
chance to come again."
"'Tis unfortunate, no doubt, lady," I answered. "Yet it was long ago,
and the plunderers are far away. Why not rise and raid them in turn?
To live under such a nightmare is miserable, and a poet on my side of
the ether has said--
"'He either fears his fate too much,
Or his deserts are small,
Who will not put it to the touch,
To win or lose it all.'
It seems to me you must either bustle and fight again, or sit tamely
down, and by paying the coward's fee for peace, buy at heavy price,
indulgence from the victor."
"We," said An simply, and with no show of shame, "would rather die
than fight, and so we take the easier way, though a heavy one it is.
Look!" she said, drawing me to the broad window whence we could get
a glimpse of the westward town and the harbour out beyond the walls.
"Look! see yonder long row of boats with brown sails hanging loose reefed
from every yard ranged all along the quay. Even from here you can make
out the thin stream of porter slaves passing to and fro between them and
the granaries like ants on a sunny path. Those are our tax-men's ships,
they came yesterday from far out across the sea, as punctual as fate
with the first day of spring, and two or three nights hence we trust
will go again: and glad shall we be to see them start, although they
leave scupper deep with our cloth, our corn, and gold."
"Is that what they take for tribute?"
"That and one girl--the fairest they can find."
"One--only one! 'Tis very moderate, all things considered."
"She is for the thither king, Ar-hap, and though only one as you say,
stranger, yet he who loses her is apt sometimes to think her one too
"By Jupiter himself it is well said! If I were that man I would stir
up heaven and hell until I got her back; neither man, nor beast, nor
devil should stay me in my quest!" As I spoke I thought for a minute
An's fingers trembled a little as she fixed a flower upon my coat,
while there was something like a sigh in her voice as she said--
"The maids of this country are not accustomed, sir, to be so strongly
By this time, breakfasted and rehabilitated, I was ready to go forth.
The girl swung back the heavy curtain that served in place of door across
the entrance of my chamber, and leading the way by a corridor and marble
steps while I followed, and whether it was the Martian air or the meal
I know not, but thinking mighty well of myself until we came presently
onto the main palace stairs, which led by stately flights from the upper
galleries to the wide square below.
As we passed into the full sunshine--and no sunshine is so crisply golden
as the Martian--amongst twined flowers and shrubs and gay, quaint birds
building in the cornices, a sleek youth rose slowly from where he had
spread his cloak as couch upon a step and approaching asked--
"You are the stranger of yesterday?"
"Yes," I answered.
"Then I bring a message from Prince Hath, saying it would pleasure him
greatly if you would eat the morning meal with him."
"Why," I answered, "it is very civil indeed, but I have breakfasted
"And so has Hath," said the boy, gently yawning. "You see I came here
early this morning, but knowing you would pass sooner or later I thought
it would save me the trouble if I lay down till you came--those quaint
people who built these places were so prodigal of steps," and smiling
apologetically he sank back on his couch and began toying with a leaf.
"Sweet fellow," I said, and you will note how I was getting into their
style of conversation, "get back to Hath when you have rested, give
him my most gracious thanks for the intended courtesy, but tell him
the invitation should have started a week earlier; tell him from me,
you nimble-footed messenger, that I will post-date his kindness and come
tomorrow; say that meanwhile I pray him to send any ill news he has for
me by you. Is the message too bulky for your slender shoulders?"
"No," said the boy, rousing himself slowly, "I will take it," and then he
prepared to go. He turned again and said, without a trace of incivility,
"But indeed, stranger, I wish you would take the message yourself.
This is the third flight of stairs I have been up today."
Everywhere it was the same friendly indolence. Half the breakfasters
were lying on coloured shawls in groups about the square; the other half
were strolling off--all in one direction, I noticed--as slowly as could
be towards the open fields beyond; no one was active or had anything to
do save the yellow folk who flitted to and fro fostering the others,
and doing the city work as though it were their only thought in life.
There were no shops in that strange city, for there were no needs;
some booths I saw indeed, and temple-like places, but hollow, and used
for birds and beasts--things these lazy Martians love. There was no
tramp of busy feet, for no one was busy; no clank of swords or armour
in those peaceful streets, for no one was warlike; no hustle, for no
one hurried; no wide-packed asses nodding down the lanes, for there
was nothing to fill their packs with, and though a cart sometimes came
by with a load of lolling men and maids, or a small horse, for horses
they had, paced along, itself nearly as lazy as the master he bore,
with trappings sewed over bits of coloured shell and coral, yet somehow
it was all extraordinarily unreal. It was a city full of the ghosts of
the life which once pulsed through its ways. The streets were peopled,
the chatter of voices everywhere, the singing boys and laughing girls
wandering, arms linked together, down the ways filled every echo with
their merriment, yet somehow it was all so shallow that again and again
I rubbed my eyes, wondering if I were indeed awake, or whether it were
not a prolonged sleep of which the tomorrow were still to come.
"What strikes me as strangest of all, good comrade," I observed pleasantly
to the tripping presence at my elbow, "is that these countrymen of yours
who shirk to climb a flight of steps, and have palms as soft as rose
petals, these wide ways paved with stones as hard as a usurer's heart."
An laughed. "The stones were still in their native quarries had it
been left to us to seek them; we are like the conies in the ruins, sir,
the inheritors of what other hands have done."
"Ay, and undone, I think, as well, for coming along I have noted axe
chippings upon the walls, smudges of ancient fire and smoke upon the
An winced a little and stared uneasily at the walls, muttering below her
breath something about trying to hide with flower garlands the marks they
could not banish, but it was plain the conversation was not pleasing
to her. So unpleasant was talk or sight of woodmen (Thither-folk, as
she called them, in contradiction to the Hither people about us here),
that the girl was clearly relieved when we were free of the town and out
into the open playground of the people. The whole place down there was a
gay, shifting crowd. The booths of yesterday, the arcades, the archways,
were still standing, and during the night unknown hands had redecked
them with flowers, while another day's sunshine had opened the coppice
buds so that the whole place was brilliant past expression. And here the
Hither folk were varying their idleness by a general holiday. They were
standing about in groups, or lying ranked like new-plucked flowers on
the banks, piping to each other through reeds as soft and melodious as
running water. They were playing inconsequent games and breaking off in
the middle of them like children looking for new pleasures. They were
idling about the drinking booths, delicately stupid with quaint, thin
wines, dealt out to all who asked; the maids were ready to chevy or be
chevied through the blossoming thickets by anyone who chanced upon them,
the men slipped their arms round slender waists and wandered down the
paths, scarce seeming to care even whose waist it was they circled or into
whose ear they whispered the remainder of the love-tale they had begun
to some one else. And everywhere it was "Hi," and "Ha," and "So," and
"See," as these quaint people called to one another, knowing each other
as familiarly as ants of a nest, and by the same magic it seemed to me.
"An," I said presently, when we had wandered an hour or so through the
drifting throng, "have these good countrymen of yours no other names but
monosyllabic, nothing to designate them but these chirruping syllables?"
"Is it not enough?" answered my companion. "Once indeed I think we had
longer names, but," she added, smiling, "how much trouble it saves to
limit each one to a single sound. It is uncivil to one's neighbours to
burden their tongues with double duty when half would do."
"But have you no patronymics--nothing to show the child comes of the
same source as his father came?"
"We have no fathers."
"What! no fathers?" I said, starting and staring at her.
"No, nor mothers either, or at least none that we remember, for again,
why should we? Mayhap in that strange district you come from you keep
count of these things, but what have we to do with either when their
initial duty is done. Look at that painted butterfly swinging on the
honey-laden catkin there. What knows she of the mother who shed her life
into a flowercup and forgot which flower it was the minute afterwards.
We, too, are insects, stranger."
"And do you mean to say of this great concourse here, that every atom is
solitary, individual, and can claim no kindred with another save the loose
bonds of a general fraternity--a specious idea, horrible, impracticable!"
Whereat An laughed. "Ask the grasshoppers if it is impracticable;
ask the little buzzing things of grass and leaves who drift hither and
thither upon each breath of wind, finding kinsmen never but comrades
everywhere--ask them if it is horrible."
This made me melancholy, and somehow set me thinking of the friends
immeasurably distant I had left but yesterday.
What were they doing? Did they miss me? I was to have called for my
pay this afternoon, and tomorrow was to have run down South to see that
freckled lady of mine. What would she think of my absence? What would
she think if she knew where I was? Gods, it was too mad, too absurd!
I thrust my hands into my pockets in fierce desperation, and there
they clutched an old dance programme and an out-of-date check for a New
York ferry-boat. I scowled about on that sunny, helpless people, and
laying my hand bitterly upon my heart felt in the breast-pocket beneath
a packet of unpaid Boston tailors' bills and a note from my landlady
asking if I would let her aunt do my washing while I was on shore.
Oh! what would they all think of me? Would they brand me as a deserter,
a poltroon, and a thief, letting my name presently sink down in shame
and mystery in the shadowy realm of the forgotten? Dreadful thoughts!
I would think no more.
Maybe An had marked my melancholy, for presently she led me to a stall
where in fantastic vases wines of sorts I have described before were put
out for all who came to try them. There was medicine here for every kind
of dulness--not the gross cure which earthly wine effects, but so nicely
proportioned to each specific need that one could regulate one's debauch
to a hairbreadth, rising through all the gamut of satisfaction, from the
staid contentment coming of that flask there to the wild extravagances of
the furthermost vase. So my stripling told me, running her finger down
the line of beakers carved with strange figures and cased in silver,
each in its cluster of little attendant drinking-cups, like-coloured,
and waiting round on the white napkins as the shore boats wait to unload
a cargo round the sides of a merchant vessel.
"And what," I said, after curiously examining each liquor in turn,
"what is that which stands alone there in the humble earthen jar, as
though unworthy of the company of the others."
"Oh, that," said my friend, "is the most essential of them all--that is
the wine of recovery, without which all the others were deadly poisons."
"The which, lady, looks as if it had a moral attaching to it."
"It may have; indeed I think it has, but I have forgotten. Prince Hath
would know! Meanwhile let me give you to drink, great stranger, let me
get you something."
"Well, then," I laughed, "reach me down an antidote to fate, a specific
for an absent mistress, and forgetful friends."
"What was she like?" said An, hesitating a little and frowning.
"Nay, good friend," was my answer, "what can that matter to you?"
"Oh, nothing, of course," answered that Martian, and while she took
from the table a cup and filled it with fluid I felt in the pouch of
my sword-belt to see if by chance a bit of money was Iying there, but
there was none, only the pips of an orange poor Polly had sucked and
laughingly thrown at me.
However, it did not matter. The girl handed me the cup, and I put my
lips to it. The first taste was bitter and acrid, like the liquor of
long-steeped wood. At the second taste a shiver of pleasure ran through
me, and I opened my eyes and stared hard. The third taste grossness
and heaviness and chagrin dropped from my heart; all the complexion of
Providence altered in a flash, and a stupid irresistible joy, unreasoning,
uncontrollable took possession of my fibre. I sank upon a mossy bank
and, lolling my head, beamed idiotically on the lolling Martians all
about me. How long I was like that I cannot say. The heavy minutes of
sodden contentment slipped by unnoticed, unnumbered, till presently I
felt the touch of a wine-cup at my lips again, and drinking of another
liquor dulness vanished from my mind, my eyes cleared, my heart throbbed;
a fantastic gaiety seized upon my limbs; I bounded to my feet, and seizing
An's two hands in mine, swung that damsel round in a giddy dance, capering
as never dancer danced before, till spent and weary I sank down again
from sheer lack of breath, and only knew thereafter that An was sitting
by me saying, "Drink! drink stranger, drink and forget!" and as a third
time a cup was pressed to my lips, aches and pleasures, stupidness and
joy, life itself, seemed slipping away into a splendid golden vacuity,
a hazy episode of unconscious Elysium, indefinite, and unfathomable.
When I woke, feeling as refreshed as though I had been dreaming through
a long night, An, seeing me open-eyed, helped me to my feet, and when
I had recovered my senses a little, asked if we should go on. I was
myself again by this time, so willingly took her hand, and soon came out
of the tangle into the open spaces. I must have been under the spell
of the Martian wines longer than it seemed, for already it was late in
the afternoon, the shadows of trees were lying deep and far-reaching
over the motley crowds of people. Out here as the day waned they had
developed some sort of method in their sports. In front of us was a
broad, grassy course marked off with garlanded finger-posts, and in
this space rallies of workfolk were taking part in all manner of games
under the eyes of a great concourse of spectators, doing the Martians'
pleasures for them as they did their labours. An led me gently on,
leaning on my arm heavier, I thought, than she had done in the morning,
and ever and anon turning her gazelle-like eyes upon me with a look I
could not understand. As we sauntered forward I noticed all about lesser
circles where the yellow-girted ones were drawing delighted laughter
from good-tempered crowds by tricks of sleight-of-hand, and posturing,
or tossing gilded cups and balls as though they were catering, as indeed
they were, for outgrown children. Others fluted or sang songs in chorus
to the slow clapping of hands, while others were doing I knew not what,
sitting silent amongst silent spectators who every now and then burst out
laughing for no cause that I could see. But An would not let me stop,
and so we pushed on through the crowd till we came to the main enclosures
where a dozen slaves had run a race for the amusement of those too lazy
to race themselves, and were sitting panting on the grass.
To give them time to get their breath, perhaps, a man stepped out of the
crowd dressed in a dark blue tunic, a strange vacuous-looking fellow,
and throwing down a sheaf of javelins marched off a dozen paces, then,
facing round, called out loudly he would give sixteen suits of "summer
cloth" to any one who could prick him with a javelin from the heap.
"Why," I said in amazement, "this is the best of fools--no one could
miss from such a distance."
"Ay but," replied my guide, "he is a gifted one, versed in mystics."
I was just going to say a good javelin, shod with iron, was a stronger
argument than any mystic I had ever heard of could stand, when out of
the crowd stepped a youth, and amid the derisive cheers of his friends
chose a reed from the bundle. He poised it in his hand a minute to get
the middle, then turned on the living target. Whatever else they might
be, these Martians were certainly beautiful as the daytime. Never had
I seen such a perfect embodiment of grace and elegance as that boy as
he stood there for a moment poised to the throw; the afternoon sunshine
warm and strong on his bunched brown hair, a girlish flush of shyness
on his handsome face, and the sleek perfection of his limbs, clear cut
against the dusky background beyond. And now the javelin was going.
Surely the mystic would think better of it at the last moment! No! the
initiate held his ground with tight-shut lips and retrospective eyes,
and even as I looked the weapon flew upon its errand.
"There goes the soul of a fool!" I exclaimed, and as the words were
uttered the spear struck, or seemed to, between the neck and shoulder, but
instead of piercing rose high into the air, quivering and flashing, and
presently turning over, fell back, and plunged deep into the turf, while
a low murmur of indifferent pleasure went round amongst the onlookers.
Thereat An, yawning gently, looked to me and said, "A strong-willed
fellow, isn't he, friend?"
I hesitated a minute and then asked, "Was it WILL which turned that
She answered with simplicity, "Why, of course--what else?"
By this time another boy had stepped out, and having chosen a javelin,
tested it with hand and foot, then retiring a pace or two rushed up to
the throwing mark and flung it straight and true into the bared bosom of
the man. And as though it had struck a wall of brass, the shaft leapt
back falling quivering at the thrower's feet. Another and another tried
unsuccessfully, until at last, vexed at their futility, I said, "I have
a somewhat scanty wardrobe that would be all the better for that fellow's
summer suiting, by your leave I will venture a throw against him."
"It is useless," answered An; "none but one who knows more magic than
he, or is especially befriended by the Fates can touch him through the
envelope he has put on."
"Still, I think I will try."
"It is hopeless, I would not willingly see you fail," whispered the girl,
with a sudden show of friendship.
"And what," I said, bending down, "would you give me if I succeeded?"
Whereat An laughed a little uneasily, and, withdrawing her hand from mine,
half turned away. So I pushed through the spectators and stepped into
the ring. I went straight up to the pile of weapons, and having chosen
one went over to the mystic. "Good fellow," I cried out ostentatiously,
trying the sharpness of the javelin-point with my finger, "where are
all of those sixteen summer suits of yours lying hid?"
"It matters nothing," said the man, as if he were asleep.
"Ay, but by the stars it does, for it will vex the quiet repose of your
soul tomorrow if your heirs should swear they could not find them."
"It matters nothing," muttered the will-wrapped visionary.
"It will matter something if I take you at your word. Come, friend
Purple-jerkin, will you take the council with your legs and run while
there is yet time, or stand up to be thrown at?"
"I stand here immoveable in the confidence of my initiation."
"Then, by thunder, I will initiate you into the mysteries of a
javelin-end, and your blood be on your head."
The Martians were all craning their necks in hushed eagerness as I turned
to the casting-place, and, poising the javelin, faced the magician.
Would he run at the last moment? I half hoped so; for a minute I gave him
the chance, then, as he showed no sign of wavering, I drew my hand back,
shook the javelin back till it bent like a reed, and hurled it at him.
The Martians' heads turned as though all on one pivot as the spear sped
through the air, expecting no doubt to see it recoil as others had done.
But it took him full in the centre of his chest, and with a wild wave
of arms and a flutter of purple raiment sent him backwards, and down,
and over and over in a shapeless heap of limbs and flying raiment, while
a low murmur of awed surprise rose from the spectators. They crowded
round him in a dense ring, as An came flitting to me with a startled face.
"Oh, stranger," she burst out, "you have surely killed him!" but more
astounded I had broken down his guard than grieved at his injury.
"No," I answered smilingly; "a sore chest he may have tomorrow, but dead
he is not, for I turned the lance-point back as I spun it, and it was
the butt-end I threw at him!"
"It was none the less wonderful; I thought you were a common man, a prince
mayhap, come but from over the hills, but now something tells me you
are more than that," and she lapsed into thoughtful silence for a time.
Neither of us were wishful to go back amongst those who were raising
the bruised magician to his legs, but wandered away instead through
the deepening twilight towards the city over meadows whose damp, soft
fragrance loaded the air with sleepy pleasure, neither of us saying
a word till the dusk deepened and the quick night descended, while
we came amongst the gardened houses, the thousand lights of an unreal
city rising like a jewelled bank before us, and there An said she would
leave me for a time, meeting me again in the palace square later on,
"To see Princess Heru read the destinies of the year."
"What!" I exclaimed, "more magic? I have been brought up on more
substantial mental stuff than this."
"Nevertheless, I would advise you to come to the square," persisted
my companion. "It affects us all, and--who knows? --may affect you
more than any."
Therein poor An was unconsciously wearing the cloak of prophesy herself,
and, shrugging my shoulders good-humouredly, I kissed her chin, little
realising, as I let her fingers slip from mine, that I should see her
Turning back alone, through the city, through ways twinkling with
myriad lights as little lamps began to blink out amongst garlands
and flower-decked booths on every hand, I walked on, lost in varying
thoughts, until, fairly tired and hungry, I found myself outside a stall
where many Martians stood eating and drinking to their hearts' content.
I was known to none of them, and, forgetting past experience, was looking
on rather enviously, when there came a touch upon my arm, and--
"Are you hungry, sir?" asked a bystander.
"Ay," I said, "hungry, good friend, and with all the zest which an empty
purse lends to that condition."
"Then here is what you need, sir, even from here the wine smells good,
and the fried fruit would make a mouse's eye twinkle. Why do you wait?"
"Why wait? Why, because though the rich man's dinner goes in at his
mouth, the poor man must often be content to dine through his nose.
I tell you I have nothing to get me a meal with."
The stranger seemed to speculate on this for a time, and then he said,
"I cannot fathom your meaning, sir. Buying and selling, gold and money,
all these have no meaning to me. Surely the twin blessings of an appetite
and food abundant ready and free before you are enough."
"What! free is it--free like the breakfast served out this morning?"
"Why, of course," said the youth, with mild depreciation; "everything
here is free. Everything is his who will take it, without exception.
What else is the good of a coherent society and a Government if it cannot
provide you with so rudimentary a thing as a meal?"
Whereat joyfully I undid my belt, and, without nicely examining the
argument, marched into the booth, and there put Martian hospitality to
the test, eating and drinking, but this time with growing wisdom, till
I was a new man, and then, paying my leaving with a wave of the hand to
the yellow-girted one who dispensed the common provender, I sauntered on
again, caring little or nothing which way the road went, and soon across
the current of my meditations a peal of laughter broke, accompanied by
the piping of a flute somewhere close at hand, and the next minute I
found myself amid a ring of light-hearted roisterers who were linking
hands for a dance to the music a curly-headed fellow was making close by.
They made me join them! One rosey-faced damsel at the hither end of
the chain drew up to me, and, without a word, slipped her soft, baby
fingers into my hand; on the other side another came with melting eyes,
breath like a bed of violets, and banked-up fun puckering her dainty
mouth. What could I do but give her a hand as well? The flute began
to gurgle anew, like a drinking spout in spring-time, and away we went,
faster and faster each minute, the boys and girls swinging themselves
in time to the tune, and capering presently till their tender feet
were twinkling over the ground in gay confusion. Faster and faster
till, as the infection of the dance spread even to the outside groups,
I capered too. My word! if they could have seen me that night from the
deck of the old Carolina, how they would have laughed--sword swinging,
coat-tails flying--faster and faster, round and round we went, till
limbs could stand no more; the gasping piper blew himself quite out,
and the dance ended as abruptly as it commenced, the dancers melting
away to join others or casting themselves panting on the turf.
Certainly these Martian girls were blessed with an ingratiating
simplicity. My new friend of the violet-scented breath hung back a
little, then after looking at me demurely for a minute or two, like
a child that chooses a new playmate, came softly up, and, standing on
tiptoe, kissed me on the cheek. It was not unpleasant, so I turned the
other, whereon, guessing my meaning, without the smallest hesitation,
she reached up again, and pressed her pretty mouth to my bronzed skin
a second time. Then, with a little sigh of satisfaction, she ran an
arm through mine, saying, "Comrade, from what country have you come?
I never saw one quite like you before."
"From what country had I come?" Again the frown dropped down upon my
forehead. Was I dreaming--was I mad? Where indeed had I come from?
I stared back over my shoulder, and there, as if in answer to my
thought--there, where the black tracery of flowering shrubs waved in the
soft night wind, over a gap in the crumbling ivory ramparts, the sky
was brightening. As I looked into the centre of that glow, a planet,
magnified by the wonderful air, came swinging up, pale but splendid, and
mapped by soft colours--green, violet, and red. I knew it on the minute,
Heaven only knows how, but I knew it, and a desperate thrill of loneliness
swept over me, a spasm of comprehension of the horrible void dividing us.
Never did yearning babe stretch arms more wistfully to an unattainable
mother than I at that moment to my mother earth. All her meanness and
prosaicness was forgotten, all her imperfections and shortcomings; it was
home, the one tangible thing in the glittering emptiness of the spheres.
All my soul went into my eyes, and then I sneezed violently, and turning
round, found that sweet damsel whose silky head nestled so friendly on
my shoulder was tickling my nose with a feather she had picked up.
Womanlike, she had forgotten all about her first question, and now asked
another, "Will you come to supper with me, stranger? 'Tis nearly ready,
"To be able to say no to such an invitation, lady, is the first thing
a young man should learn," I answered lightly; but then, seeing there
was nothing save the most innocent friendliness in those hazel eyes,
I went on, "but that stern rule may admit of variance. Only, as it
chances, I have just supped at the public expense. If, instead, you
would be a sailor's sweetheart for an hour, and take me to this show of
yours--your princess's benefit, or whatever it is--I shall be obliged;
my previous guide is hull down over the horizon, and I am clean out of
my reckoning in this crowd."
By way of reply, the little lady, light as an elf, took me by the
fingertips, and, gleefully skipping forward, piloted me through the
mazes of her city until we came out into the great square fronting on the
palace, which rose beyond it like a white chalk cliff in the dull light.
Not a taper showed anywhere round its circumference, but a mysterious
kind of radiance like sea phosphorescence beamed from the palace porch.
All was in such deathlike silence that the nails in my "ammunition" boots
made an unpleasant clanking as they struck on the marble pavement; yet,
by the uncertain starlight, I saw, to my surprise, the whole square was
thronged with Martians, all facing towards the porch, as still, graven
images, and as voiceless, for once, as though they had indeed been marble.
It was strange to see them sitting there in the twilight, waiting for
I knew not what, and my friend's voice at my elbow almost startled me
as she said, in a whisper, "The princess knows you are in the crowd,
and desires you to go up upon the steps near where she will be."
"Who brought her message?" I asked, gazing vaguely round, for none had
spoken to us for an hour or more.
"No one," said my companion, gently pushing me up an open way towards
the palace steps left clear by the sitting Martians. "It came direct
from her to me this minute."
"But how?" I persisted.
"Nay," said the girl, "if we stop to talk like this we shall not be
placed before she comes, and thus throw a whole year's knowledge out."
So, bottling my speculations, I allowed myself to be led up the first
flight of worn, white steps to where, on the terrace between them and
the next flight leading directly to the palace portico, was a flat,
having a circle about twenty feet across, inlaid upon the marble with
darker coloured blocks. Inside that circle, as I sat down close by it
in the twilight, showed another circle, and then a final one in whose
inmost middle stood a tall iron tripod and something atop of it covered by
a cloth. And all round the outer circle were magic symbols--I started as
I recognised the meaning of some of them--within these again the inner
circle held what looked like the representations of planets, ending,
as I have said, in that dished hollow made by countless dancers' feet,
and its solitary tripod. Back again, I glanced towards the square where
the great concourse--ten thousand of them, perhaps--were sitting mute
and silent in the deepening shadows, then back to the magic circles,
till the silence and expectancy of a strange scene began to possess me.
Shadow down below, star-dusted heaven above, and not a figure moving;
when suddenly something like a long-drawn sigh came from the lips of
the expectant multitude, and I was aware every eye had suddenly turned
back to the palace porch, where, as we looked, a figure, wrapped in pale
blue robes, appeared and stood for a minute, then stole down the steps
with an eagerness in every movement holding us spellbound. I have seen
many splendid pageants and many sights, each of which might be the talk
of a lifetime, but somehow nothing ever so engrossing, so thrilling,
as that ghostly figure in flowing robes stealing across the piazza in
starlight and silence--the princess of a broken kingdom, the priestess
of a forgotten faith coming to her station to perform a jugglery of
which she knew not even the meaning. It was my versatile friend Heru,
and with quick, incisive steps, her whole frame ambent for the time
with the fervour of her mission, she came swiftly down to within a
dozen yards of where I stood. Heru, indeed, but not the same princess
as in the morning; an inspired priestess rather, her slim body wrapped
in blue and quivering with emotion, her face ashine with Delphic fire,
her hair loose, her feet bare, until at last when, as she stood within
the limit of the magic circle, her white hands upon her breast, her eyes
flashing like planets themselves in the starshine she looked so ghostly
and unreal I felt for a minute I was dreaming.
Then began a strange, weird dance amongst the imagery of the rings,
over which my earth planet was beginning to throw a haze of light.
At first it was hardly more than a walk, a slow procession round the
twin circumferences of the centred tripod. But soon it increased to an
extraordinary graceful measure, a cadenced step without music or sound
that riveted my eyes to the dancer. Presently I saw those mystic,
twinkling feet of hers--as the dance became swifter--were performing
a measured round amongst the planet signs--spelling out something,
I knew not what, with quick, light touch amongst the zodiac figures,
dancing out a soundless invocation of some kind as a dumb man might
spell a message by touching letters. Quicker and quicker, for minute
after minute, grew the dance, swifter and swifter the swing of the light
blue drapery as the priestess, with eager face and staring eyes, swung
panting round upon her orbit, and redder and redder over the city tops
rose the circumference of the earth. It seemed to me all the silent
multitude were breathing heavily as we watched that giddy dance, and
whatever THEY felt, all my own senses seemed to be winding up upon that
revolving figure as thread winds on a spindle.
"When will she stop?" I whispered to my friend under my breath.
"When the earth-star rests in the roof-niche of the temple it is
climbing," she answered back.
"On the tripod is a globe of water. In it she will see the destiny of the
year, and will tell us. The whiter the water stays, the better for us;
it never varies from white. But we must not talk; see! she is stopping."
And as I looked back, the dance was certainly ebbing now with such
smoothly decreasing undulations, that every heart began to beat calmer
in response. There was a minute or two of such slow cessation, and then
to say she stopped were too gross a description. Motion rather died away
from her, and the priestess grounded as smoothly as a ship grounds in
fine weather on a sandy bank. There she was at last, crouched behind
the tripod, one corner of the cloth covering it grasped in her hand,
and her eyes fixed on the shining round just poised upon the distant run.
Keenly the girl watched it slide into zenith, then the cloth was snatched
from the tripod-top. As it fell it uncovered a beautiful and perfect
globe of clear white glass, a foot or so in diameter, and obviously
filled with the thinnest, most limpid water imaginable. At first it
seemed to me, who stood near to the priestess of Mars, with that beaming
sphere directly between us, and the newly risen world, that its smooth
and flawless face was absolutely devoid of sign or colouring. Then,
as the distant planet became stronger in the magnifying Martian air,
or my eyes better accustomed to that sudden nucleus of brilliancy,
a delicate and infinitely lovely network of colours came upon it.
They were like the radiant prisms that sometimes flush the surface of a
bubble more than aught else for a time. But as I watched that mosaic
of yellow and purple creep softly to and fro upon the globe it seemed
they slowly took form and meaning. Another minute or two and they
had certainly congealed into a settled plan, and then, as I stared and
wondered, it burst upon me in a minute that I was looking upon a picture,
faithful in every detail, of the world I stood on; all its ruddy forests,
its sapphire sea, both broad and narrow ones, its white peaked mountains,
and unnumbered islands being mapped out with startling clearness for a
spell upon that beaming orb.
Then a strange thing happened. Heru, who had been crouching in a
tremulous heap by the tripod, rose stealthily and passed her hands a few
times across the sphere. Colour and picture vanished at her touch like
breath from a mirror. Again all was clear and pellucid.
"Now," said my companion, "now listen! For Heru reads the destiny;
the whiter the globe stays the better for us--" and then I felt her
hand tighten on mine with a startled grasp as the words died away upon
Even as the girl spoke, the sphere, which had been beaming in the centre
of the silent square like a mighty white jewel, began to flush with
angry red. Redder and redder grew the gleam--a fiery glow which seemed
curdling in the interior of the round as though it were filled with
flame; redder and redder, until the princess, staring into it, seemed
turned against the jet-black night behind, into a form of molten metal.
A spasm of terror passed across her as she stared; her limbs stiffened;
her frightened hands were clutched in front, and she stood cowering under
that great crimson nucleus like one bereft of power and life, and lost
to every sense but that of agony. Not a syllable came from her lips,
not a movement stirred her body, only that dumb, stupid stare of horror,
at the something she saw in the globe. What could I do? I could not
sit and see her soul come out at her frightened eyes, and not a Martian
moved a finger to her rescue; the red shine gleamed on empty faces,
tier above tier, and flung its broad flush over the endless rank of
open-mouthed spectators, then back I looked to Heru--that winsome little
lady for whom, you will remember, I had already more than a passing
fancy--and saw with a thrill of emotion that while she still kept her
eyes on the flaming globe like one in a horrible dream her hands were
slowly, very slowly, rising in supplication to ME! It was not vanity.
There was no mistaking the direction of that silent, imploring appeal.
Not a man of her countrymen moved, not even black Hath! There was
not a sound in the world, it seemed, but the noisy clatter of my own
shoenails on the marble flags. In the great red eye of that unholy globe
the Martians glimmered like a picture multitude under the red cliff of
their ruined palace. I glared round at them with contempt for a minute,
then sprang forward and snatched the princess up. It was like pulling a
flower up by the roots. She was stiff and stark when I lay hold of her,
but when I tore her from the magic ground she suddenly gave a piercing
shriek, and fainted in my arms.
Then as I turned upon my heels with her upon my breast my foot caught
upon the cloths still wound about the tripod of the sphere. Over went
that implement of a thousand years of sorcery, and out went the red fire.
But little I cared--the princess was safe! And up the palace steps,
amidst a low, wailing hum of consternation from the recovering Martians,
I bore that bundle of limp and senseless loveliness up into the pale shine
of her own porch, and there, laying her down upon a couch, watched her
recover presently amongst her women with a varied assortment of emotions
tingling in my veins.
Beyond the first flutter of surprise, the Martians had shown no interest
in the abrupt termination of the year's divinations. They melted away,
a trifle more silently perhaps than usual, when I shattered the magic
globe, but with their invariable indifference, and having handed
the reviving Heru over to some women who led her away, apparently
already half forgetful of the things that had just happened, I was
left alone on the palace steps, not even An beside me, and only the
shadow of a passerby now and then to break the solitude. Whereon a
great loneliness took hold upon me, and, pacing to and fro along the
ancient terrace with bent head and folded arms, I bewailed my fate.
To and fro I walked, heedless and melancholy, thinking of the old world,
that was so far and this near world so distant from me in everything
making life worth living, thinking, as I strode gloomily here and there,
how gladly I would exchange these poor puppets and the mockery of a town
they dwelt in, for a sight of my comrades and a corner in the poorest
wine-shop salon in New York or 'Frisco; idly speculating why, and how,
I came here, as I sauntered down amongst the glistening, shell-like
fragments of the shattered globe, and finding no answer. How could I?
It was too fair, I thought, standing there in the open; there was a fatal
sweetness in the air, a deadly sufficiency in the beauty of everything
around falling on the lax senses like some sleepy draught of pleasure.
Not a leaf stirred, the wide purple roof of the sky was unbroken by
the healthy promise of a cloud from rim to rim, the splendid country,
teeming with its spring-time richness, lay in rank perfection everywhere;
and just as rank and sleek and passionless were those who owned it.
Why, even I, who yesterday was strong, began to come under the spell
of it. But yesterday the spirit of the old world was still strong
within me, yet how much things were now changing. The well-strung
muscles loosening, the heart beating a slower measure, the busy mind
drowsing off to listlessness. Was I, too, destined to become like these?
Was the red stuff in my veins to be watered down to pallid Martian sap?
Was ambition and hope to desert me, and idleness itself become laborious,
while life ran to seed in gilded uselessness? Little did I guess how
unnecessary my fears were, or of the incredible fairy tale of adventure
into which fate was going to plunge me.
Still engrossed the next morning by these thoughts, I decided I would
go to Hath. Hath was a man--at least they said so--he might sympathise
even though he could not help, and so, dressing finished, I went down
towards the innermost palace whence for an hour or two had come sounds
of unwonted bustle. Asking for the way occasionally from sleepy folk
lolling about the corridors, waiting as it seemed for their breakfasts
to come to them, and embarrassed by the new daylight, I wandered to
and fro in the labyrinths of that stony ant-heap until I chanced upon
a curtained doorway which admitted to a long chamber, high-roofed,
ample in proportions, with colonnades on either side separated from
the main aisle by rows of flowery figures and emblematic scroll-work,
meaning I knew not what. Above those pillars ran a gallery with many
windows looking out over the ruined city. While at the further end of
the chamber stood three broad steps leading to a dais. As I entered, the
whole place was full of bustling girls, their yellow garments like a bed
of flowers in the sunlight trickling through the casements, and all intent
on the spreading of a feast on long tables ranged up and down the hall.
The morning light streamed in on the white cloths. It glittered on the
glass and the gold they were putting on the trestles, and gave resplendent
depths of colour to the ribbon bands round the pillars. All were so busy
no one noticed me standing in the twilight by the door, but presently,
laying a hand on a worker's shoulder, I asked who they banqueted for,
and why such unwonted preparation?
"It is the marriage-feast tonight, stranger, and a marvel you did not
know it. You, too, are to be wed."
"I had not heard of it, damsel; a paternal forethought of your Government,
I suppose? Have you any idea who the lady is?"
"How should I know?" she answered laughingly. "That is the secret
of the urn. Meanwhile, we have set you a place at the table-head near
Princess Heru, and tonight you dip and have your chance like all of them;
may luck send you a rosy bride, and save her from Ar-hap."
"Ay, now I remember; An told me of this before; Ar-hap is the sovereign
with whom your people have a little difference, and shares unbidden in the
free distribution of brides to-night. This promises to be interesting;
depend on it I will come; if you will keep me a place where I can
hear the speeches, and not forget me when the turtle soup goes round,
I shall be more than grateful. Now to another matter. I want to get
a few minutes with your President, Prince Hath. He concentrates the
fluid intelligence of this sphere, I am told. Where can I find him?"
"He is drunk, in the library, sir!"
"My word! It is early in the day for that, and a singular conjunction
of place and circumstance."