Part 2 out of 4
"Where," said the girl, "could he safer be? We can always fetch him if
we want him, and sunk in blue oblivion he will not come to harm."
"A cheerful view, Miss, which is worthy of the attention of our reformers.
Nevertheless, I will go to him. I have known men tell more truth in
that state than in any other."
The servitor directed me to the library, and after desolate wanderings
up crumbling steps and down mouldering corridors, sunny and lovely in
decay, I came to the immense lumber-shed of knowledge they had told me
of, a city of dead books, a place of dusty cathedral aisles stored with
forgotten learning. At a table sat Hath the purposeless, enthroned in
leather and vellum, snoring in divine content amongst all that wasted
labour, and nothing I could do was sufficient to shake him into semblance
of intelligence. So perforce I turned away till he should have come
to himself, and wandering round the splendid litter of a noble library,
presently amongst the ruck of volumes on the floor, amongst those lordly
tomes in tattered green and gold, and ivory, my eye lit upon a volume
propped up curiously on end, and going to it through the confusion I saw
by the dried fruit rind upon the sticks supporting it, that the grave
and reverend tome was set to catch a mouse! It was a splendid book when
I looked more closely, bound as a king might bind his choicest treasure,
the sweet-scented leather on it was no doubt frayed; the golden arabesques
upon the covers had long since shed their eyes of inset gems, the jewelled
clasp locking its learning up from vulgar gaze was bent and open. Yet it
was a lordly tome with an odour of sanctity about it, and lifting it
with difficulty, I noticed on its cover a red stain of mouse's blood.
Those who put it to this quaint use of mouse-trap had already had some
sport, but surely never was a mouse crushed before under so much learning.
And while I stood guessing at what the book might hold within, Heru, the
princess, came tripping in to me, and with the abrupt familiarity of her
kind, laid a velvet hand upon my wrist, conned the title over to herself.
"What does it say, sweet girl?" I asked. "The matter is learned, by
its feel," and that maid, pursing up her pretty lips, read the title to
me--"The Secret of the Gods."
"The Secret of the Gods," I murmured. "Was it possible other worlds
had struggled hopelessly to come within the barest ken of that great
knowledge, while here the same was set to catch a mouse with?"
I said, "Silver-footed, sit down and read me a passage or two," and
propping the mighty volume upon a table drew a bench before it and pulled
her down beside me.
"Oh! a horrid, dry old book for certain," cried that lady, her pink
fingertips falling as lightly on the musty leaves as almond petals on
March dust. "Where shall I begin? It is all equally dull."
"Dip in," was my answer. " 'Tis no great matter where, but near the
beginning. What says the writer of his intention? What sets he out
"He says that is the Secret of the First Great Truth, descended straight
"Many have said so much, yet have lied."
"He says that which is written in his book is through him but not of
him, past criticism and beyond cavil. 'Tis all in ancient and crabbed
characters going back to the threshold of my learning, but here upon
this passage-top where they are writ large I make them out to say,
'ONLY THE MAN WHO HAS DIED MANY TIMES BEGINS TO LIVE.'"
"A pregnant passage! Turn another page, and try again; I have an inkling
of the book already."
"'Tis poor, silly stuff," said the girl, slipping a hand covertly into
my own. "Why will you make me read it? I have a book on pomatums worth
twice as much as this."
"Nevertheless, dip in again, dear lady. What says the next heading?"
And with a little sigh at the heaviness of her task, Heru read out:
"SOMETIMES THE GODS THEMSELVES FORGET THE ANSWERS TO THEIR OWN RIDDLES."
"Lady, I knew it!
"All this is still preliminary to the great matter of the book, but the
mutterings of the priest who draws back the curtains of the shrine--and
here, after the scribe has left these two yellow pages blank as though
to set a space of reverence between himself and what comes next--here
speaks the truth, the voice, the fact of all life." But "Oh! Jones,"
she said, turning from the dusty pages and clasping her young, milk-warm
hands over mine and leaning towards me until her blushing cheek was near
to my shoulder and the incense of her breath upon me. "Oh! Gulliver
Jones," she said. "Make me read no more; my soul revolts from the task,
the crazy brown letters swim before my eyes. Is there no learning near
at hand that would be pleasanter reading than this silly book of yours?
What, after all," she said, growing bolder at the sound of her own voice,
"what, after all, is the musty reticence of gods to the whispered secret
of a maid? Jones, splendid stranger for whom all men stand aside and
women look over shoulders, oh, let me be your book!" she whispered,
slipping on to my knee and winding her arms round my neck till, through
the white glimmer of her single vest, I could feel her heart beating
against mine. "Newest and dearest of friends, put by this dreary learning
and look in my eyes; is there nothing to be spelt out there?"
And I was constrained to do as she bid me, for she was as fresh as an
almond blossom touched by the sun, and looking down into two swimming
blue lakes where shyness and passion were contending--books easy enough,
in truth, to be read, I saw that she loved me, with the unconventional
ardour of her nature.
It was a pleasant discovery, if its abruptness was embarrassing, for
she was a maid in a thousand; and half ashamed and half laughing I let
her escalade me, throwing now and then a rueful look at the Secret of
the Gods, and all that priceless knowledge treated so unworthily.
What else could I do? Besides, I loved her myself! And if there was
a momentary chagrin at having yonder golden knowledge put off by this
lovely interruption, yet I was flesh and blood, the gods could wait--they
had to wait long and often before, and when this sweet interpreter was
comforted we would have another try. So it happened I took her into my
heart and gave her the answer she asked for.
For a long time we sat in the dusky grandeur of the royal library, my
mind revolving between wonder and admiration of the neglected knowledge
all about, and the stirrings of a new love, while Heru herself, lapsed
again into Martian calm, lay half sleeping on my shoulder, but presently,
unwinding her arms, I put her down.
"There, sweetheart," I whispered, "enough of this for the moment; tonight,
perhaps, some more, but while we are here amongst all this lordly litter,
I can think of nothing else." Again I bid her turn the pages, noting
as she did so how each chapter was headed by the coloured configuration
of a world. Page by page we turned of crackling parchment, until by
chance, at the top of one, my eye caught a coloured round I could not
fail to recognise--'twas the spinning button on the blue breast of
the immeasurable that yesterday I inhabited. "Read here," I cried,
clapping my finger upon the page midway down, where there were some
signs looking like Egyptian writing. "Says this quaint dabbler in all
knowledge anything of Isis, anything of Phra, of Ammon, of Ammon Top?"
"And who was Isis? who Ammon Top?" asked the lady.
"Nay, read," I answered, and down the page her slender fingers went
awandering till at a spot of knotted signs they stopped. "Why, here
is something about thy Isis," exclaimed Heru, as though amused at
my perspicuity. "Here, halfway down this chapter of earth-history,
it says," and putting one pink knee across the other to better prop the
book she read:
"And the priests of Thebes were gone; the sand stood untrampled on the
temple steps a thousand years; the wild bees sang the song of desolation
in the ears of Isis; the wild cats littered in the stony lap of Ammon;
ay, another thousand years went by, and earth was tilled of unseen hands
and sown with yellow grain from Paradise, and the thin veil that separates
the known from the unknown was rent, and men walked to and fro."
"Go on," I said.
"Nay," laughed the other, "the little mice in their eagerness have been
before you--see, all this corner is gnawed away."
"Read on again," I said, "where the page is whole; those sips of knowledge
you have given make me thirsty for more. There, begin where this blazonry
of initialed red and gold looks so like the carpet spread by the scribe
for the feet of a sovereign truth--what says he here?" And she, half
pouting to be set back once more to that task, half wondering as she
gazed on those magic letters, let her eyes run down the page, then began:
"And it was the Beginning, and in the centre void presently there came a
nucleus of light: and the light brightened in the grey primeval morning
and became definite and articulate. And from the midst of that natal
splendour, behind which was the Unknowable, the life came hitherward;
from the midst of that nucleus undescribed, undescribable, there issued
presently the primeval sigh that breathed the breath of life into
all things. And that sigh thrilled through the empty spaces of the
illimitable: it breathed the breath of promise over the frozen hills of
the outside planets where the night-frost had lasted without beginning:
and the waters of ten thousand nameless oceans, girding nameless planets,
were stirred, trembling into their depth. It crossed the illimitable
spaces where the herding aerolites swirl forever through space in the
wake of careering world, and all their whistling wings answered to it.
It reverberated through the grey wastes of vacuity, and crossed the
dark oceans of the Outside, even to the black shores of the eternal
"And hardly had echo of that breath died away in the hollow of the
heavens and the empty wombs of a million barren worlds, when the light
brightened again, and drawing in upon itself became definite and took
form, and therefrom, at the moment of primitive conception, there came--"
And just then, as she had read so far as that, when all my faculties were
aching to know what came next--whether this were but the idle scribbling
of a vacuous fool, or something else--there rose the sound of soft flutes
and tinkling bells in the corridors, as seneschals wandered piping round
the palace to call folk to meals, a smell of roast meat and grilling
fish as that procession lifted the curtains between the halls, and--
"Dinner!" shouted my sweet Martian, slapping the covers of The Secret of
the Gods together and pushing the stately tome headlong from the table.
"Dinner! 'Tis worth a hundred thousand planets to the hungry!"
Nothing I could say would keep her, and, scarcely knowing whether to laugh
or to be angry at so unseemly an interruption, but both being purposeless
I dug my hands into my pockets, and somewhat sulkily refusing Heru's
invitation to luncheon in the corridor (Navy rations had not fitted my
stomach for these constant debauches of gossamer food), strolled into
the town again in no very pleasant frame of mind.
It was only at moments like these I had any time to reflect on my
circumstances or that giddy chance which had shot me into space in
this fashion, and, frankly, the opportunities, when they did come,
brought such an extraordinary depressing train of thought, I by no means
invited them. Even with the time available the occasion was always awry
for such reflection. These dainty triflers made sulking as impossible
amongst them as philosophy in a ballroom. When I stalked out like that
from the library in fine mood to moralise and apostrophise heaven in a
way that would no doubt have looked fine upon these pages, one sprightly
damsel, just as the gloomy rhetoric was bursting from my lips, thrust a
flower under my nose whose scent brought on a violent attack of sneezing,
her companions joining hands and dancing round me while they imitated
my agony. Then, when I burst away from them and rushed down a narrow
arcade of crumbling mansions, another stopped me in mid-career, and
taking the honey-stick she was sucking from her lips, put it to mine,
like a pretty, playful child. Another asked me to dance, another to
drink pink oblivion with her, and so on. How could one lament amongst
all this irritating cheerfulness?
An might have helped me, for poor An was intelligent for a Martian,
but she had disappeared, and the terrible vacuity of life in the planet
was forced upon me when I realised that possessing no cognomen, no fixed
address, or rating, it would be the merest chance if I ever came across
Looking for my friendly guide and getting more and more at sea amongst
a maze of comely but similar faces, I made chance acquaintance with
another of her kind who cheerfully drank my health at the Government's
expense, and chatted on things Martian. She took me to see a funeral
by way of amusement, and I found these people floated their dead off on
flower-decked rafts instead of burying them, the send-offs all taking
place upon a certain swift-flowing stream, which carried the dead
away into the vast region of northern ice, but more exactly whither my
informant seemed to have no idea. The voyager on this occasion was old,
and this brought to my mind the curious fact that I had observed few
children in the city, and no elders, all, except perhaps Hath, being in
a state of sleek youthfulness. My new friend explained the peculiarity
by declaring Martians ripened with extraordinary rapidity from infancy
to the equivalent of about twenty-five years of age, with us, and then
remained at that period however long they might live; Only when they died
did their accumulated seasons come upon them; the girl turning pale, and
wringing her pretty hands in sympathetic concern when I told her there
was a land where decrepitude was not so happily postponed. The Martians,
she said, arranged their calendar by the varying colours of the seasons,
and loved blue as an antidote to the generally red and rusty character
of their soil.
Discussing such things as these we lightly squandered the day away, and
I know of nothing more to note until the evening was come again: that
wonderful purple evening which creeps over the outer worlds at sunset,
a seductive darkness gemmed with ten thousand stars riding so low in the
heaven they seem scarcely more than mast high. When that hour was come
my friend tiptoed again to my cheek, and then, pointing to the palace
and laughingly hoping fate would send me a bride "as soft as catkin and
as sweet as honey," slipped away into the darkness.
Then I remembered all on a sudden this was the connubial evening of my
sprightly friends--the occasion when, as An had told me, the Government
constituted itself into a gigantic matrimonial agency, and, with the
cheerful carelessness of the place, shuffled the matrimonial pack anew,
and dealt a fresh hand to all the players. Now I had no wish to avail
myself of a sailor's privilege of a bride in every port, but surely
this game would be interesting enough to see, even if I were but a
disinterested spectator. As a matter of fact I was something more than
that, and had been thinking a good deal of Heru during the day. I do
not know whether I actually aspired to her hand--that were a large order,
even if there had been no suspicion in my mind she was already bespoke in
some vague way by the invisible Hath, most abortive of princes. But she
was undeniably a lovely girl; the more one thought of her the more she
grew upon the fancy, and then the preference she had shown myself was
very gratifying. Yes, I would certainly see this quaint ceremonial,
even if I took no leading part in it.
The great centre hall of the palace was full of a radiant light bringing
up its ruined columns and intruding creepers to the best effect when I
entered. Dinner also was just being served, as they would say in another,
and alas! very distant place, and the whole building thronged with folk.
Down the centre low tables with room for four hundred people were ranged,
but they looked quaint enough since but two hundred were sitting there,
all brand-new bachelors about to be turned into brand new Benedicts, and
taking it mightily calmly it seemed. Across the hall-top was a raised
table similarly arranged and ornamented; and entering into the spirit
of the thing, and little guessing how stern a reality was to come from
the evening, I sat down in a vacant place near to the dais, and only a
few paces from where the pale, ghost-eyed Hath was already seated.
Almost immediately afterwards music began to buzz all about the
hall--music of the kind the people loved which always seemed to me
as though it were exuding from the tables and benches, so disembodied
and difficult it was to locate; all the sleepy gallants raised their
flower-encircled heads at the same time, seizing their wine-cups, already
filled to the brim, and the door at the bottom of the hall opening,
the ladies, preceded by one carrying a mysterious vase covered with a
glittering cloth, came in.
Now, being somewhat thirsty, I had already drunk half the wine in my
beaker, and whether it was that draught, drugged as all Martian wines are,
or the sheer loveliness of the maids themselves, I cannot say, but as the
procession entered, and, dividing, circled round under the colonnades of
the hall, a sensation of extraordinary felicity came over me--an emotion
of divine contentment purged of all grossness--and I stared and stared
at the circling loveliness, gossamer-clad, flower-girdled, tripping by
me with vapid delight. Either the wine was budding in my head, or there
was little to choose from amongst them, for had any of those ladies sat
down in the vacant place beside me, I should certainly have accepted her
as a gift from heaven, without question or cavil. But one after another
they slipped by, modestly taking their places in the shadows until at
last came Princess Heru, and at the sight of her my soul was stirred.
She came undulating over the white marble, the loveliness of her fairy
person dimmed but scarcely hidden by a robe of softest lawn in colour
like rose-petals, her eyes aglitter with excitement and a charming blush
upon her face.
She came straight up to me, and, resting a dainty hand upon my shoulder,
whispered, "Are you come as a spectator only, dear Mr. Jones, or do you
join in our custom tonight?"
"I came only as a bystander, lady, but the fascination of the opportunity
"And have you any preference?"--this in the softest little voice from
somewhere in the nape of my neck. "Strangers sometimes say there are
fair women in Seth."
"None--till you came; and now, as was said a long time ago, 'All is
dross that is not Helen.' Dearest lady," I ran on, detaining her by
the fingertips and gazing up into those shy and star-like eyes, "must
I indeed put all the hopes your kindness has roused in me these last
few days to a shuffle in yonder urn, taking my chance with all these
lazy fellows? In that land whereof I was, we would not have had it so,
we loaded our dice in these matters, a strong man there might have a
willing maid though all heaven were set against him! But give me leave,
sweet lady, and I will ruffle with these fellows; give me a glance and I
will barter my life for your billet when it is drawn, but to stand idly
by and see you won by a cold chance, I cannot do it."
That lady laughed a little and said, "Men make laws, dear Jones, for
women to keep. It is the rule, and we must not break it." Then, gently
tugging at her imprisoned fingers and gathering up her skirts to go,
she added, "But it might happen that wit here were better than sword."
Then she hesitated, and freeing herself at last slipped from my side, yet
before she was quite gone half turned again and whispered so low that no
one but I could hear it, "A golden pool, and a silver fish, and a line
no thicker than a hair!" and before I could beg a meaning of her, had
passed down the hall and taken a place with the other expectant damsels.
"A golden pool," I said to myself, "a silver fish, and a line of hair."
What could she mean? Yet that she meant something, and something clearly
of importance, I could not doubt. "A golden pool, and a silver fish--"
I buried my chin in my chest and thought deeply but without effect while
the preparations were made and the fateful urn, each maid having slipped
her name tablet within, was brought down to us, covered in a beautiful
web of rose-coloured tissue, and commenced its round, passing slowly from
hand to hand as each of those handsome, impassive, fawn-eyed gallants
lifted a corner of the web in turn and helped themselves to fate.
"A golden pool," I muttered, "and a silver fish"--so absorbed in my own
thoughts I hardly noticed the great cup begin its journey, but when it had
gone three or four places the glitter of the lights upon it caught my eye.
It was of pure gold, round-brimmed, and circled about with a string of
the blue convolvulus, which implies delight to these people. Ay! and
each man was plunging his hand into the dark and taking in his turn a
small notch-edged mother-of-pearl billet from it that flashed soft and
silvery as he turned it in his hand to read the name engraved in unknown
characters thereon. "Why," I said, with a start, "surely THIS might
be the golden pool and these the silver fish--but the hair-fine line?
And again I meditated deeply, with all my senses on the watch.
Slowly the urn crept round, and as each man took a ticket from it, and
passed it, smiling, to the seneschal behind him, that official read out
the name upon it, and a blushing damsel slipped from the crowd above,
crossing over to the side of the man with whom chance had thus lightly
linked her for the brief Martian year, and putting her hands in his
they kissed before all the company, and sat down to their places at the
table as calmly as country folk might choose partners at a village fair
But not so with me. Each time a name was called I started and stared at
the drawer in a way which should have filled him with alarm had alarm
been possible to the peace-soaked triflers, then turned to glance
to where, amongst the women, my tender little princess was leaning
against a pillar, with drooping head, slowly pulling a convolvulus bud
to pieces. None drew, though all were thinking of her, as I could tell
in my fingertips. Keener and keener grew the suspense as name after name
was told and each slim white damsel skipped to the place allotted her.
And all the time I kept muttering to myself about that "golden pool,"
wondering and wondering until the urn had passed half round the tables
and was only some three men up from me--and then an idea flashed across
my mind. I dipped my fingers in the scented water-basin on the table,
drying them carefully on a napkin, and waiting, outwardly as calm as
any, yet inwardly wrung by those tremors which beset all male creation
in such circumstances.
And now at last it was my turn. The great urn, blazing golden,
through its rosy covering, was in front, and all eyes on me. I clapped
a sunburnt hand upon its top as though I would take all remaining in it
to myself and stared round at that company--only her herself I durst not
look at! Then, with a beating heart, I lifted a corner of the web and
slipped my hand into the dark inside, muttering to myself as I did so,
"A golden pool, and a silver fish, and a line no thicker than a hair."
I touched in turn twenty perplexing tablets and was no whit the wiser,
and felt about the sides yet came to nothing, groping here and there with
a rising despair, until as my fingers, still damp and fine of touch, went
round the sides a second time, yes! there was something, something in the
hollow of the fluting, a thought, a thread, and yet enough. I took it
unseen, lifting it with infinite forbearance, and the end was weighted,
the other tablets slipped and rattled as from their midst, hanging to
that one fine virgin hair, up came a pearly billet. I doubted no longer,
but snapped the thread, and showed the tablet, heard Heru's name, read
from it amongst the soft applause of that luxurious company with all
the unconcern I could muster.
There she was in a moment, lip to lip with me, before them all, her eyes
more than ever like planets from her native skies, and only the quick
heave of her bosom, slowly subsiding like a ground swell after a storm,
remaining to tell that even Martian blood could sometimes beat quicker
than usual! She sat down in her place by me in the simplest way, and soon
everything was as merry as could be. The main meal came on now, and as
far as I could see those Martian gallants had extremely good appetites,
though they drank at first but little, wisely remembering the strength of
their wines. As for me, I ate of fishes that never swam in earthly seas,
and of strange fowl that never flapped a way through thick terrestrial
air, ate and drank as happy as a king, and falling each moment more and
more in love with the wonderfully beautiful girl at my side who was a
real woman of flesh and blood I knew, yet somehow so dainty, so pink and
white, so unlike other girls in the smoothness of her outlines, in the
subtle grace of each unthinking attitude, that again and again I looked
at her over the rim of my tankard half fearing she might dissolve into
nothing, being the half-fairy which she was.
Presently she asked, "Did that deed of mine, the hair in the urn, offend
"Offend me, lady!" I laughed. "Why, had it been the blackest crime
that ever came out of a perverse imagination it would have brought its
own pardon with it; I, least of all in this room, have least cause to
"I risked much for you and broke our rules."
"Why, no doubt that was so, but 'tis the privilege of your kind to
have some say in this little matter of giving and taking in marriage.
I only marvel that your countrywomen submit so tamely to the quaintest
game of chance I ever played at.
"Ay, and it is women's nature no doubt to keep the laws which others
make, as you have said yourself. Yet this rule, lady, is one broken
with more credit than kept, and if you have offended no one more than me,
your penance is easily done."
"But I have offended some one," she said, laying her hand on mine
with gentle nervousness in its touch, "one who has the power to hurt,
and enough energy to resent. Hath, up there at the cross-table, have
I offended deeply tonight, for he hoped to have me, and would have
compelled any other man to barter me for the maid chance assigned to
him; but of you, somehow, he is afraid--I have seen him staring at you,
and changing colour as though he knew something no one else knows--"
"Briefly, charming girl," I said, for the wine was beginning to sing in
my head, and my eyes were blinking stupidly--"briefly, Hath hath thee
not, and there's an end of it. I would spit a score of Haths, as these
figs are spit on this golden skewer, before I would relinquish a hair
of your head to him, or to any man," and as everything about the great
hall began to look gauzy and unreal through the gathering fumes of my
confusion, I smiled on that gracious lady, and began to whisper I know
not what to her, and whisper and doze, and doze--
I know not how long afterwards it was, whether a minute or an hour, but
when I lifted my head suddenly from the lady's shoulder all the place
was in confusion, every one upon their feet, the talk and the drinking
ceased, and all eyes turned to the far doorway where the curtains were
just dropping again as I looked, while in front of them were standing
These newcomers were utterly unlike any others--a frightful vision of
ugly strength amidst the lolling loveliness all about. Low of stature,
broad of shoulder, hairy, deep-chested, with sharp, twinkling eyes, set
far back under bushy eyebrows, retreating foreheads, and flat noses in
faces tanned to a dusky copper hue by exposure to every kind of weather
that racks the extreme Martian climate they were so opposite to all
about me, so quaint and grim amongst those mild, fair-skinned folk,
that at first I thought they were but a disordered creation of my fancy.
I rubbed my eyes and stared and blinked, but no! they were real men,
of flesh and blood, and now they had come down with as much stateliness
as their bandy legs would admit of, into the full glare of the lights
to the centre table where Hath sat. I saw their splendid apparel, the
great strings of rudely polished gems hung round their hairy necks and
wrists, the cunningly dyed skins of soft-furred animals, green and red
and black, wherewith their limbs were swathed, and then I heard some
one by me whisper in a frightened tone, "The envoys from over seas."
"Oh," I thought sleepily to myself, "so these are the ape-men of the
western woods, are they? Those who long ago vanquished my white-skinned
friends and yearly come to claim their tribute. Jove, what hay they must
have made of them! How those peach-skinned girls must have screamed and
the downy striplings by them felt their dimpled knees knock together,
as the mad flood of barbarians came pouring over from the forest, and
long ago stormed their citadels like a stream of red lava, as deadly,
as irresistible, as remorseless!" And I lay asprawl upon my arms on
the table watching them with the stupid indifference I thought I could
so well afford.
Meanwhile Hath was on foot, pale and obsequious like others in the
presence of those dread ambassadors, but more collected, I thought.
With the deepest bows he welcomed them, handing them drink in a golden
State cup, and when they had drunk (I heard the liquor running down their
great throats, in the frightened hush, like water in a runnel on a wet
day), they wiped their fierce lips upon their furry sleeves, and the
leader began reciting the tribute for the year. So much corn, so much
wine--and very much it was--so many thousands ells of cloth and webbing,
and so much hammered gold, and sinah and lar, precious metal of which I
knew nothing as yet; and ever as he went growling through the list in
his harsh animal voice, he refreshed his memory with a coloured stick
whereon a notch was made for every item, the woodmen not having come
as yet, apparently, to the gentler art of written signs and symbols.
Longer and longer that caravan of unearned wealth stretched out before
my fancy, but at last it was done, or all but done, and the head envoy,
passing the painted stick to a man behind, folded his bare, sinewy arms,
upon which the red fell bristles as it does upon a gorilla's, across his
ample chest, and, including us all in one general scowl, turned to Hath
as he said--
"All this for Ar-hap, the wood-king, my master and yours; all this,
and the most beautiful woman here tonight at your tables!"
"An item," I smiled stupidly to myself, for indeed I was very sleepy
and had no nice perception of things, "which shows his majesty with
the two-pronged name is a jolly fellow after all, and knows wealth is
incomplete without the crown and priming of all riches. I wonder how
the Martian boys will like this postscript," and chin on hand, and eyes
that would hardly stay open, I watched to see what would happen next.
There was a little conversation between the prince and the ape-man;
then I saw Hath the traitor point in my direction and say--
"Since you ask and will be advised, then, mighty sir, there can be no
doubt of it, the most beautiful woman here tonight is undoubtedly she
who sits yonder by him in blue."
"A very pretty compliment!" I thought, too dull to see what was coming
quickly, "and handsome of Hath, all things considered."
And so I dozed and dozed, and then started, and stared! Was I in my
senses? Was I mad, or dreaming? The drunkenness dropped from me like
a mantle; with a single, smothered cry I came to myself and saw that it
was all too true. The savage envoy had come down the hall at Hath's
vindictive prompting, had lifted my fair girl to her feet, and there,
even as I looked, had drawn her, white as death, into the red circle of
his arm, and with one hand under her chin had raised her sweet face to
within an inch of his, and was staring at her with small, ugly eyes.
"Yes," said the enjoy, more interestedly than he had spoken yet, "it
will do; the tribute is accepted--for Ar-hap, my master!" And taking
shrinking Heru by the wrist, and laying a heavy hand upon her shoulder,
he was about to lead her up the hall.
I was sober enough then. I was on foot in an instant, and before all the
glittering company, before those simpering girls and pale Martian youths,
who sat mumbling their fingers, too frightened to lift their eyes from off
their half-finished dinners, I sprang at the envoy. I struck him with my
clenched fist on the side of his bullet head, and he let go of Heru, who
slipped insensible from his hairy chest like a white cloud slipping down
the slopes of a hill at sunrise, and turned on me with a snort of rage.
We stared at each other for a minute, and then I felt the wine fumes
roaring in my head; I rushed at him and closed. It was like embracing
a mountain bull, and he responded with a hug that made my ribs crackle.
For a minute we were locked together like that, swinging here and there,
and then getting a hand loose, I belaboured him so unmercifully that
he put his head down, and that was what I wanted. I got a new hold of
him as we staggered and plunged, roaring the while like the wild beasts
we were, the teeth chattering in the Martian heads as they watched us,
and then, exerting all my strength, lifted him fairly from his feet and
with supreme effort swung him up, shoulder high, and with a mighty heave
hurled him across the tables, flung that ambassador, whom no Martian
dared look upon, crashing and sprawling through the gold and silver of
the feast, whirled him round with such a splendid send that bench and
trestle, tankards and flagons, chairs and cloths and candelabras all
went down into thundering chaos with him, and the envoy only stayed when
his sacred person came to harbour amongst the westral odds and ends,
the soiled linen, and dirty platters of our wedding feast.
I remember seeing him there on hands and knees, and then the liquor I
had had would not be denied. In vain I drew my hands across my drooping
eyelids, in vain I tried to master my knees that knocked together.
The spell of the love-drink that Heru, blushing, had held to my lips
was on me. Its soft, overwhelming influence rose like a prismatic fog
between me and my enemy, everything again became hazy and dreamlike, and
feebly calling on Heru, my chin dropped upon my chest, my limbs relaxed,
and I slipped down in drowsy oblivion before my rival.
They must have carried me, still under the influence of wine fumes,
to the chamber where I slept that night, for when I woke the following
morning my surroundings were familiar enough, though a glorious maze of
uncertainties rocked to and fro in my mind.
Was it a real feast we had shared in overnight, or only a quaint dream?
Was Heru real or only a lovely fancy? And those hairy ruffians of whom
a horrible vision danced before my waking eyes, were they fancy too?
No, my wrists still ached with the strain of the tussle, the quaint,
sad wine taste was still on my lips--it was all real enough, I decided,
starting up in bed; and if it was real where was the little princess?
What had they done with her? Surely they had not given her to the
ape-men--cowards though they were they could not have been cowards enough
for that. And as I wondered a keen, bright picture of the hapless maid as
I saw her last blossomed before my mind's eye, the ambassadors on either
side holding her wrists, and she shrinking from them in horror while her
poor, white face turned to me for rescue in desperate pleading--oh! I
must find her at all costs; and leaping from bed I snatched up those
trousers without which the best of heroes is nothing, and had hardly got
into them when there came the patter of light feet without and a Martian,
in a hurry for once, with half a dozen others behind him, swept aside
the curtains of my doorway.
They peeped and peered all about the room, then one said, "Is Princess
Heru with you, sir?"
"No," I answered roughly. "Saints alive, man, do you think I would have
you tumbling in here over each other's heels if she were?"
"Then it must indeed have been Heru," he said, speaking in an awed voice
to his fellows, "whom we saw carried down to the harbour at daybreak by
yonder woodmen," and the pink upon their pretty cheeks faded to nothing
at the suggestion.
"What!" I roared, "Heru taken from the palace by a handful of men
and none of you infernal rascals--none of you white-livered abortions
lifted a hand to save her--curse on you a thousand times. Out of my
way, you churls!" And snatching up coat and hat and sword I rushed
furiously down the long, marble stairs just as the short Martian night
was giving place to lavender-coloured light of morning. I found my
way somehow down the deserted corridors where the air was heavy with
aromatic vapours; I flew by curtained niches and chambers where amongst
mounds of half-withered flowers the Martian lovers were slowly waking.
Down into the banquethall I sped, and there in the twilight was the litter
of the feast still about--gold cups and silver, broken bread and meat, the
convolvulus flowers all turning their pallid faces to the rosy daylight,
making pools of brightness between the shadows. Amongst the litter
little sapphire-coloured finches were feeding, twittering merrily to
themselves as they hopped about, and here and there down the long tables
lay asprawl a belated reveller, his empty oblivion-phial before him,
his curly head upon his arms, dreaming perhaps of last night's feast
and a neglected bride dozing dispassionate in some distant chamber.
But Heru was not there and little I cared for twittering finches or
sighing damsels. With hasty feet I rushed down the hall out into the
cool, sweet air of the planet morning.
There I met one whom I knew, and he told me he had been among the crowd
and had heard the woodmen had gone no farther than the river gate,
that Heru was with them beyond a doubt. I would not listen to more.
"Good!" I shouted. "Get me a horse and just a handful of your sleek
kindred and we will pull the prize from the bear's paw even yet!
Surely," I said, turning to a knot of Martian youths who stood listening
a few steps away, "surely some of you will come with me at this pinch?
The big bullies are very few; the sea runs behind them; the maid in their
clutch is worth fighting for; it needs but one good onset, five minutes'
gallantry, and she is ours again. Think how fine it will look to bring
her back before yon sleepy fellows have found their weapons. You, there,
with the blue tunic! you look a proper fellow, and something of a heart
should beat under such gay wrappings, will you come with me?"
But blue-mantle, biting his thumbs, murmured he had not breakfasted yet
and edged away behind his companions. Wherever I looked eyes dropped
and timid hands fidgeted as their owners backed off from my dangerous
enthusiasm. There was obviously no help to be had from them, and meantime
the precious moments were flying, so with a disdainful glance I turned
on my heels and set off alone as hard as I could go for the harbour.
But it was too late. I rushed through the marketplace where all was
silent and deserted; I ran on to the wharves beyond and they were empty
save for the litter and embers of the fires Ar-hap's men had made during
their stay; I dashed out to the landing-place, and there at the hythe
the last boat-loads of the villains were just embarking, two boatloads
of them twenty yards from shore, and another still upon the beach.
This latter was careening over as a dusky group of men lifted aboard
to a heap of tumbled silks and stuffs in the stern such a sweet piece
of insensible merchandise as no man, I at least of all, could mistake.
It was Heru herself, and the rogues were ladling her on board like so
much sandal-wood or cotton sheeting. I did not wait for more, but out
came my sword, and yielding to a reckless impulse, for which perhaps last
night's wine was as much to blame as anything, I sprang down the steps and
leapt aboard of the boat just as it was pushed off upon the swift tide.
Full of Bersark rage, I cut one brawny copper-coloured thief down, and
struck another with my fist between the eyes so that he went headlong
into the water, sinking like lead, and deep into the great target of
his neighbour's chest I drove my blade. Had there been a man beside me,
had there been but two or three of all those silken triflers, too late
come on the terraces above to watch, we might have won. But all alone
what could I do? That last red beast turned on my blade, and as he fell
dragged me half down with him. I staggered up, and tugging the metal
from him turned on the next.
At that moment the cause of all the turmoil, roused by the fighting, came
to herself, and sitting up on the piled plunder in the boat stared round
for a moment with a childish horror at the barbarians whose prize she was,
then at me, then at the dead man at my feet whose blood was welling in a
red tide from the wound in his breast. As the full meaning of the scene
dawned upon her she started to her feet, looking wonderfully beautiful
amongst those dusky forms, and extending her hands to me began to cry in
the most piteous way. I sprang forward, and as I did so saw an ape-man
clap his hairy paw over her mouth and face--it was like an eclipse of the
moon by a red earth-shadow, I thought at the moment--and drag her roughly
back, but that was about the last I remembered. As I turned to hit him
standing on the slippery thwart, another rogue crept up behind and let
drive with a club he had in hand. The cudgel caught me sideways on the
head, a glancing shot. I can recall a blaze of light, a strange medley
of sounds in my ears, and then, clutching at a pile of stuffs as I fell,
a tall bower of spray rising on either hand, and the cool shock of the
blue sea as I plunged headlong in--but nothing after that!
How long after I know not, but presently a tissue of daylight crept into
my eyes, and I awoke again. It was better than nothing perhaps, yet it
was a poor awakening. The big sun lay low down, and the day was all but
done; so much I guessed as I rocked in that light with an undulating
movement, and then as my senses returned more fully, recognised with
a start of wonder that I was still in the water, floating on a swift
current into the unknown on an air-filled pile of silken stuffs which
had been pulled down with me from the boat when I got my ganging from
yonder rascal's mace. It was a wet couch, sodden and chilly, but as the
freshening evening wind blew on my face and the darkening water lapped
against my forehead I revived more fully.
Where had we come to? I turned an aching neck, and all along on both
sides seemed to stretch steep, straight coasts about a mile or so apart,
in the shadow of the setting sun black as ebony. Between the two the
hampered water ran quickly, with, away on the right, some shallow sandy
spits and islands covered with dwarf bushes--chilly, inhospitable-looking
places they seemed as I turned my eyes upon them; but he who rides
helpless down an evening tide stands out for no great niceties of
landing-place; could I but reach them they would make at least a drier
bed than this of mine, and at that thought, turning over, I found all
my muscles as stiff as iron, the sinews of my neck and forearms a mass
of agonies and no more fit to swim me to those reedy swamps, which now,
as pain and hunger began to tell, seemed to wear the aspects of paradise.
With a groan I dropped back upon my raft and watched the islands
slipping by, while over my feet the southern sky darkened to purple.
There was no help there, but glancing round away on the left and a few
furlongs from me, I noticed on the surface of the water two converging
strands of brightness, an angle the point of which seemed to be coming
towards me. Nearer it came and nearer, right across my road, until I
could see a black dot at the point, a head presently developed, then as
we approached the ears and antlers of a swimming stag. It was a huge
beast as it loomed up against the glow, bigger than any mortal stag
ever was--the kind of fellow-traveller no one would willingly accost,
but even if I had wished to get out of its path I had no power to do so.
Closer and closer we came, one of us drifting helplessly, and the other
swimming strongly for the islands. When we were about a furlong apart the
great beast seemed to change its course, mayhap it took the wreckage on
which I floated for an outlying shoal, something on which it could rest a
space in that long swim. Be this as it may, the beast came hurtling down
on me lip deep in the waves, a mighty brown head with pricked ears that
flicked the water from them now and then, small bright eyes set far back,
and wide palmated antlers on a mighty forehead, like the dead branches of
a tree. What that Martian mountain elk had hoped for can only be guessed,
what he met with was a tangle of floating finery carrying a numbed
traveller on it, and with a snort of disappointment he turned again.
It was a poor chance, but better than nothing, and as he turned I tried
to throw a strand of silk I had unwound from the sodden mass over his
branching tines. Quick as thought the beast twisted his head aside and
tossed his antlers so that the try was fruitless. But was I to lose my
only chance of shore? With all my strength I hurled myself upon him,
missing my clutch again by a hair's-breadth and going headlong into the
salt furrow his chest was turning up. Happily I kept hold of the web,
for the great elk then turned back, passing between me and the ruck of
stuff and getting thereby the silk under his chin, and as I came gasping
to the top once more round came that dainty wreckage over his back,
and I clutched it, and sooner than it takes to tell I was towing to the
shore as perhaps no one was ever towed before.
The big beast dragged the ruck like withered weed behind him, bellowing
all the time with a voice which made the hills echo all round; and then,
when he got his feet upon the shallows, rose dripping and mountainous,
a very cliff of black hide and limb against the night shine, and with a
single sweep of his antlers tore the webbing from me, who lay prone and
breathless in the mud, and, thinking it was his enemy, hurled the limp
bundle on the beach, and then, having pounded it with his cloven feet
into formless shreds, bellowed again victoriously and went off into the
darkness of the forests.
I landed, stiff enough as you will guess, but pleased to be on shore
again. It was a melancholy neighbourhood of low islands, overgrown
with rank grass and bushes, salt water encircling them, and inside sandy
dunes and hummocks with shallow pools, gleaming ghostly in the retreating
daylight, while beyond these rose the black bosses of what looked like
a forest. Thither I made my way, plunging uncomfortably through shallows,
and tripping over blackened branches which, lying just below the surface,
quivered like snakes as the evening breeze ruffled each surface, until
the ground hardened under foot, and presently I was standing, hungry
and faint but safe, on dry land again.
The forest was so close to the sea, one could not advance without
entering it, and once within its dark arcades every way looked equally
gloomy and hopeless. I struggled through tangles night made more and
more impenetrable each minute, until presently I could go no further,
and where a dense canopy of trees overhead gave out for a minute on the
edge of a swampy hollow, I determined to wait for daylight.
Never was there a more wet or weary traveller, or one more desperately
lonely than he who wrapped himself up in the miserable insufficiency of
his wet rags, and without fire or supper crept amongst the exposed roots
of a tree growing out of a bank, and prepared to hope grimly for morning.
Round and round meanwhile was drawn the close screen of night, till
the clearing in front was blotted out, and only the tree-tops, black as
rugged hills one behind the other, stood out against the heavy purple of
the circlet of sky above. As the evening deepened the quaintest noises
began on every hand--noises so strange and bewildering that as I cowered
down with my teeth chattering, and stared hard into the impenetrable, they
could be likened to nothing but the crying of all the souls of dead things
since the beginning. Never was there such an infernal chorus as that
which played up the Martian stars. Down there in front, where hummock
grass was growing, some beast squeaked continuously, till I shouted at
him, then he stopped a minute, and began again in entirely another note.
Away on the hills two rival monsters were calling to each other in tones
so hollow they seemed as I listened to penetrate through me, and echo
out of my heart again. Far overhead, gigantic bats were flitting, the
shadow of their wings dimming a dozen universes at once, and crying to
each other in shrill tones that rent the air like tearing silk.
As I listened to those vampires discussing their infernal loves under
the stars, from a branch right overhead broke such a deathly howl from
the throat of a wandering forest cat that everything else was hushed for
a moment. All about a myriad insects were making night giddy with their
ghostly fires, while underground and from the labyrinths of matted roots
came quaint sounds of rustling snakes and forest pigs, and all the lesser
things that dig and scratch and growl.
Yet I was desperately sleepy, my sword hung heavy as lead at my side,
my eyelids drooped, and so at last I dozed uneasily for an hour or two.
Then, all on a sudden, I came wide awake with a shock. The night was
quieter now; away in the forest depth strange noises still arose, but
close at hand was a strange hush, like the hush of expectation, and,
listening wonderingly, I was aware of slow, heavy footsteps coming up from
the river, now two or three steps together, then a pause, then another
step or two, and as I bent towards the approaching thing, staring into
the darkness, my strained senses were conscious of another approach,
as like as could be, coming from behind me. On they came, making the
very ground quake with their weight, till I judged that both were about
on the edge of the clearing, two vast rat-like shadows, but as big as
elephants, and bringing a most intolerable smell of sour slime with them.
There, on the edge of the amphitheatre, each for the first time appeared
to become aware of the other's presence--the footsteps stopped dead.
I could hear the water dripping from the fur of those giant brutes amongst
the shadows and the deep breathing of the one nearest me, a scanty ten
paces off, but not another sound in the stillness.
Minute after minute passed, yet neither moved. A half-hour grew to a
full hour, and that hour lengthened amid the keenest tension till my
ears ached with listening, and my eyes were sore with straining into
the blackness. At last I began to wonder whether those earth-shaking
beasts had not been an evil dream, and was just venturing to stretch out
a cramped leg, and rally myself upon my cowardice, when, without warning,
at my elbow rose the most ear-piercing scream of rage that ever came
from a living throat. There was a sweeping rush in the darkness which I
could feel but not see, and with a shock the two gladiators met in the
midst of the arena. Over and over they went screaming and struggling,
and slipping and plunging. I could hear them tearing at each other,
and the sharp cries of pain, first one and then another gave as claw or
tooth got home, and all the time, though the ground was quaking under
their struggles and the air full of horrible uproar, not a thing was
to be seen. I did not even know what manner of beasts they were who
rocked and rolled and tore at each other's throats, but I heard their
teeth snapping, and their fierce breath in the pauses of the struggle,
and could but wait in a huddle amongst the roots until it was over.
To and fro they went, now at the far side of the dark clearing, now
so close that hot drops of blood from their jaws fell on my face like
rain in the darkness. It seemed as though the fight would never end,
but presently there was more of worrying in it and less of snapping;
it was clear one or the other had had enough and as I marked this those
black shadows came gasping and struggling towards me. There was a sudden
sharp cry, a desperate final tussle--before which strong trees snapped
and bushes were flattened out like grass, not twenty yards away--and
then for a minute all was silent.
One of them had killed, and as I sat rooted to the spot I was forced to
listen while his enemy tore him up and ate him. Many a banquet have
I been at, but never an uglier one than that. I sat in the darkness
while the unknown thing at my feet ripped the flesh from his half-dead
rival in strips, and across the damp night wind came the reek of that
abominable feast--the reek of blood and spilt entrails--until I turned
away my face in loathing, and was nearly starting to my feet to venture
a rush into the forest shadows. But I was spellbound, and remained
listening to the heavy munch of blood-stained jaws until presently I
was aware other and lesser feasters were coming. There was a twinkle of
hungry eyes all about the limits of the area, the shine of green points
of envious fire that circled round in decreasing orbits, as the little
foxes and jackals came crowding in. One fellow took me for a rock,
so still I sat, putting his hot, soft paws upon my knee for a space,
and others passed me so near I could all but touch them.
The big beast had taken himself off by this time, and there must have
been several hundreds of these newcomers. A merry time they had of it;
the whole place was full of the green, hurrying eyes, and amidst the
snap of teeth and yapping and quarrelling I could hear the flesh being
torn from the red bones in every direction. One wolf-like individual
brought a mass of hot liver to eat between my feet, but I gave him a kick,
and sent him away much to his surprise. Gradually, however, the sound
of this unholy feast died away, and, though you may hardly believe it,
I fell off into a doze. It was not sleep, but it served the purpose,
and when in an hour or two a draught of cool air roused me, I awoke,
feeling more myself again.
Slowly morning came, and the black wall of forest around became full
of purple interstices as the east brightened. Those glimmers of light
between bough and trunk turned to yellow and red, the day-shine presently
stretched like a canopy from point to point of the treetops on either
side of my sleeping-place, and I arose.
All my limbs were stiff with cold, my veins emptied by hunger and wounds,
and for a space I had not even strength to move. But a little rubbing
softened my cramped muscles presently and limping painfully down to the
place of combat, I surveyed the traces of that midnight fight. I will
not dwell upon it. It was ugly and grim; the trampled grass, the giant
footmarks, each enringing its pool of curdled blood; the broken bushes,
the grooved mud-slides where the unknown brutes had slid in deadly
embrace; the hollows, the splintered boughs, their ragged points tufted
with skin and hair--all was sickening to me. Yet so hungry was I that
when I turned towards the odious remnants of the vanquished--a shapeless
mass of abomination--my thoughts flew at once to breakfasting! I went
down and inspected the victim cautiously--a huge rat-like beast as far
as might be judged from the bare uprising ribs--all that was left of him
looking like the framework of a schooner yacht. His heart lay amongst
the offal, and my knife came out to cut a meal from it, but I could not
do it. Three times I essayed the task, hunger and disgust contending
for mastery; three times turned back in loathing. At last I could stand
the sight no more, and, slamming the knife up again, turned on my heels,
and fairly ran for fresh air and the shore, where the sea was beginning to
glimmer in the light a few score yards through the forest stems. There,
once more out on the open, on a pebbly beach, I stripped, spreading my
things out to dry on the stones, and laying myself down with the lapping
of the waves in my ears, and the first yellow sunshine thawing my limbs,
tried to piece together the hurrying events of the last few days.
What were my gay Martians doing? Lazy dogs to let me, a stranger, be the
only one to draw sword in defence of their own princess! Where was poor
Heru, that sweet maiden wife? The thought of her in the hands of the
ape-men was odious. And yet was I not mad to try to rescue, or even to
follow her alone? If by any chance I could get off this beast-haunted
place and catch up with the ravishers, what had I to look for from them
except speedy extinction, and that likely enough by the most painful
process they were acquainted with?
The other alternative of going back empty handed was terribly ignominious.
I had lectured the amiable young manhood of Seth so soundly on the
subject of gallantry, and set them such a good example on two occasions,
that it would be bathos to saunter back, hands in pockets, and confess I
knew nothing of the lady's fate and had been daunted by the first night
alone in the forest. Besides, how dull it would be in that beautiful,
tumble-down old city without Heru, with no expectation day by day of
seeing her sylph-like form and hearing the merry tinkle of her fairy
laughter as she scoffed at the unknown learning collected by her ancestors
in a thousand laborious years. No! I would go on for certain. I was
young, in love, and angry, and before those qualifications difficulties
Meanwhile, the first essential was breakfast of some kind. I arose,
stretched, put on my half-dried clothes, and mounting a low hummock on
the forest edge looked around. The sun was riding up finely into the
sky, and the sea to the eastward shone for leagues and leagues in the
loveliest azure. Where it rippled on my own beach and those of the low
islands noted over night, a wonderful fire of blue and red played on
the sands as though the broken water were full of living gems. The sky
was full of strange gulls with long, forked tails, and a lovely little
flying lizard with transparent wings of the palest green--like those of
a grasshopper--was flitting about picking up insect stragglers.
All this was very charming, but what I kept saying to myself was "Streaky
rashers and hot coffee: rashers and coffee and rolls," and, indeed, had
the gates of Paradise themselves opened at that moment I fear my first
look down the celestial streets within would have been for a restaurant.
They did not, and I was just turning away disconsolate when my eye caught,
ascending from behind the next bluff down the beach, a thin strand of
smoke rising into the morning air.
It was nothing so much in itself--a thin spiral creeping upwards
mast-high, then flattening out into a mushroom head--but it meant
everything to me. Where there was fire there must be humanity, and where
there was humanity--ay, to the very outlayers of the universe--there
must be breakfast. It was a splendid thought; I rushed down the hillock
and went gaily for that blue thread amongst the reeds. It was not two
hundred yards away, and soon below me was a tiny bay with bluest water
frilling a silver beach, and in the midst of it a fire on a hearth dancing
round a pot that simmered gloriously. But of an owner there was nothing
to be seen. I peered here and there on the shore, but nothing moved,
while out to sea the water was shining like molten metal with not a
dot upon it!--what did it matter? I laughed as, pleased and hungry,
I slipped down the bank and strode across the sands; it pleased Fate to
play bandy with me, and if it sent me supperless to bed, why, here was
restitution in the way of breakfast. I took up a morsel of the stuff
in the kettle on a handy stick and found it good--indeed, I knew it at
once as a very dainty mess made from the roots of a herb the Martians
greatly liked; An had piled my platter with it when we supped that night
in the market-place of Seth, and the sweet white stuff had melted into
my corporal essence, it seemed, without any gross intermediate process
of digestion. And here I was again, hungry, sniffing the fragrant breath
of a full meal and not a soul in sight--I should have been a fool not
to have eaten. So thinking, down I sat, taking the pot from its place,
and when it was a little cool plunging my hands into it and feasting
with as good an appetite as ever a man had before.
It was gloriously ambrosial, and deeper and deeper I went, with the
tall stalk of the smoke in front growing from the hearth-stones like
some strange new plant, the pleasant sunshine on my back, and never a
thought for anything but the task in hand. Deeper and deeper, oblivious
of all else, until to get the very last drops I lifted the pipkin up
and putting back my head drank in that fashion.
It was only when with a sigh of pleasure I lowered it slowly again that
over the rim as it sank there dawned upon me the vision of a Martian
standing by an empty canoe on the edge of the water and regarding me
with calm amazement. I was, in fact, so astonished that for a minute
the empty pot stood still before my face, and over its edge we stared
at each other in mute surprise, then with all the dignity that might
be I laid the vessel down between my feet and waited for the newcomer
to speak. She was a girl by her yellow garb, a fisherwoman, it seemed,
for in the prow of her craft was piled a net upon which the scales of
fishes were twinkling--a Martian, obviously, but something more robust
than most of them, a savour of honest work about her sunburnt face which
my pallid friends away yonder were lacking in, and when we had stared
at each other for a few moments in silence she came forward a step or
two and said without a trace of fear or shyness, "Are you a spirit, sir?
"Why," I answered, "about as much, no more and no less, than most of us."
"Aye," she said. "I thought you were, for none but spirits live here
upon this island; are you for good or evil?"
"Far better for the breakfast of which I fear I have robbed you, but
wandering along the shore and finding this pot boiling with no owner,
I ventured to sample it, and it was so good my appetite got the better
The girl bowed, and standing at a respectful distance asked if I would
like some fish as well; she had some, but not many, and if I would eat
she would cook them for me in a minute--it was not often, she added
lightly, she had met one of my kind before. In fact, it was obvious
that simple person did actually take me for a being of another world,
and was it for me to say she was wrong? So adopting a dignity worthy of
my reputation I nodded gravely to her offer. She fetched from the boat
four little fishes of the daintiest kind imaginable. They were each
about as big as a hand and pale blue when you looked down upon them,
but so clear against the light that every bone and vein in their bodies
could be traced. These were wrapped just as they were in a broad, green
leaf and then the Martian, taking a pointed stick, made a hollow in the
white ashes, laid them in side by side, and drew the hot dust over again.
While they cooked we chatted as though the acquaintance were the most
casual thing in the world, and I found it was indeed an island we were
on and not the mainland, as I had hoped at first. Seth, she told me,
was far away to the eastward, and if the woodmen had gone by in their
ships they would have passed round to the north-west of where we were.
I spent an hour or two with that amiable individual, and, it is to be
hoped, sustained the character of a spiritual visitant with considerable
dignity. In one particular at least, that, namely, of appetite, I did
honour to my supposed source, and as my entertainer would not hear of
payment in material kind, all I could do was to show her some conjuring
tricks, which greatly increased her belief in my supernatural origin,
and to teach her some new hitches and knots, using her fishing-line
as a means of illustration, a demonstration which called from her the
natural observation that we must be good sailors "up aloft" since we
knew so much about cordage, then we parted.
She had seen nothing of the woodmen, though she had heard they had been
to Seth and thought, from some niceties of geographical calculation which
I could not follow, they would have crossed to the north, as just stated,
of her island. There she told me, with much surprise at my desire for the
information, how I might, by following the forest track to the westward
coast, make my way to a fishing village, where they would give me a canoe
and direct me, since such was my extraordinary wish, to the place where,
if anywhere, the wild men had touched on their way home.
She filled my wallet with dried honey-cakes and my mouth with sugar plums
from her little store, then down on her knees went that poor waif of
a worn-out civilisation and kissed my hands in humble farewell, and I,
blushing to be so saluted, and after all but a sailor, got her by the
rosy fingers and lifted her up shoulder high, and getting one hand under
her chin and the other behind her head kissed her twice upon her pretty
cheeks; and so, I say, we parted.
Off into the forest I went, feeling a boyish elation to be so free nor
taking heed or count of the reckless adventure before me. The Martian
weather for the moment was lovely and the many-coloured grass lush and
soft under foot. Mile after mile I went, heeding the distance lightly,
the air was so elastic. Now pressing forward as the main interest of my
errand took the upper hand, and remembrance of poor Heru like a crushed
white flower in the red grip of those cruel ravishers came upon me,
and then pausing to sigh with pleasure or stand agape--forgetful even
of her--in wonder of the unknown loveliness about me.
And well might I stare! Everything in that forest was wonderful! There
were plants which turned from colour to colour with the varying hours of
the day. While others had a growth so swift it was dangerous to sit in
their neighbourhood since the long, succulent tendrils clambering from
the parent stem would weave you into a helpless tangle while you gazed,
fascinated, upon them. There were plants that climbed and walked; sighing
plants who called the winged things of the air to them with a noise so
like to a girl sobbing that again and again I stopped in the tangled
path to listen. There were green bladder-mosses which swam about the
surface of the still pools like gigantic frog-broods. There were on the
ridges warrior trees burning in the vindictiveness of a long forgotten
cause--a blaze of crimson scimitar thorns from root to topmost twig;
and down again in the cool hollows were lady-bushes making twilight of
the green gloom with their cloudy ivory blossoms and filling the shadows
with such a heavy scent that head and heart reeled with fatal pleasure
as one pushed aside their branches. Every river-bed was full of mighty
reeds, whose stems clattered together when the wind blew like swords on
shields, and every now and then a bit of forest was woven together with
the ropey stems of giant creepers till no man or beast could have passed
save for the paths which constant use had kept open through the mazes.
All day long I wandered on through those wonderful woodlands, and in fact
loitered so much over their infinite marvels that when sundown came all
too soon there was still undulating forest everywhere, vistas of fairy
glades on every hand, peopled with incredible things and echoing with
sounds that excited the ears as much as other things fascinated the eyes,
but no sign of the sea or my fishing village anywhere.
It did not matter; a little of the Martian leisureliness was getting
into my blood: "If not today, why then tomorrow," as An would have said;
and with this for comfort I selected a warm, sandy hollow under the roots
of a big tree, made my brief arrangements for the night, ate some honey
cakes, and was soon sleeping blissfully.
I woke early next morning, after many hours of interrupted dreams, and
having nothing to do till the white haze had lifted and made it possible
to start again, rested idly a time on my elbow and watched the sunshine
filter into the recesses.
Very pretty it was to see the thick canopy overhead, by star-light so
impenetrable, open its chinks and fissures as the searching sun came
upon it; to see the pin-hole gaps shine like spangles presently, the
spaces broaden into lesser suns, and even the thick leafage brighten and
shine down on me with a soft sea-green radiance. The sunward sides of
the tree-stems took a glow, and the dew that ran dripping down their
mossy sides trickled blood-red to earth. Elsewhere the shadows were
still black, and strange things began to move in them--things we in our
middle-aged world have never seen the likeness of: beasts half birds,
birds half creeping things, and creeping things which it seemed to me
passed through lesser creations down to the basest life that crawls
without interruption or division.
It was not for me, a sailor, to know much of such things, yet some I
could not fail to notice. On one grey branch overhead, jutting from
a tree-stem where a patch of velvet moss made in the morning glint a
fairy bed, a wonderful flower unfolded. It was a splendid bud, ivory
white, cushioned in leaves, and secured to its place by naked white
roots that clipped the branch like fingers of a lady's hand. Even as I
looked it opened, a pale white star, and hung pensive and inviting on
its mossy cushion. From it came such a ravishing odour that even I,
at the further end of the great scale of life, felt my pulses quicken
and my eyes brighten with cupidity. I was in the very act of climbing
the tree, but before I could move hand or foot two things happened,
whether you take my word for them or no.
Firstly, up through a glade in the underwood, attracted by the odour, came
an ugly brown bird with a capacious beak and shining claws. He perched
near by, and peeped and peered until he made out the flower pining on
her virgin stem, whereat off he hopped to her branch and there, with a
cynical chuckle, strutted to and fro between her and the main stem like
an ill genius guarding a fairy princess.
Surely Heaven would not allow him to tamper with so chaste a bud!
My hand reached for a stone to throw at him when happened the second
thing. There came a gentle pat upon the woodland floor, and from a
tree overhead dropped down another living plant like to the one above
yet not exactly similar, a male, my instincts told me, in full solitary
blossom like her above, cinctured with leaves, and supported by half
a score of thick white roots that worked, as I looked, like the limbs
of a crab. In a twinkling that parti-coloured gentleman vegetable
near me was off to the stem upon which grew his lady love; running
and scrambling, dragging the finery of his tasselled petals behind,
it was laughable to watch his eagerness. He got a grip of the tree
and up he went, "hand over hand," root over root. I had just time to
note others of his species had dropped here and there upon the ground,
and were hurrying with frantic haste to the same destination when he
reached the fatal branch, and was straddling victoriously down it,
blind to all but love and longing. That ill-omened bird who stood
above the maiden-flower let him come within a stalk's length, so near
that the white splendour of his sleeping lady gleamed within arms'
reach, then the great beak was opened, the great claws made a clutch,
the gallant's head was yanked from his neck, and as it went tumbling
down the maw of the feathered thing his white legs fell spinning through
space, and lay knotting themselves in agony upon the ground for a minute
or two before they relaxed and became flaccid in the repose of death.
Another and another vegetable suitor made for that fatal tryst, and as
each came up the snap of the brown bird's beak was all their obsequies.
At last no more came, and then that Nemesis of claws and quills walked
over to the girl-flower, his stomach feathers ruffled with repletion,
the green blood of her lovers dripping from his claws, and pulled her
golden heart out, tore her white limbs one from the other, and swallowed
her piecemeal before my very eyes! Then up in wrath I jumped and yelled
at him till the woods echoed, but too late to stay his sacrilege.
By this time the sun was bathing everything in splendour, and turning away
from the wonders about me, I set off at best pace along the well-trodden
path which led without turning to the west coast village where the
It proved far closer than expected. As a matter of fact the forest
in this direction grew right down to the water's edge; the salt-loving
trees actually overhanging the waves--one of the pleasantest sights in
nature--and thus I came right out on top of the hamlet before there had
been an indication of its presence. It occupied two sides of a pretty
little bay, the third side being flat land given over to the cultivation
of an enormous species of gourd whose characteristic yellow flowers and
green, succulent leaves were discernible even at this distance.
I branched off along the edge of the surf and down a dainty little flowery
path, noticing meanwhile how the whole bay was filled by hundreds of empty
canoes, while scores of others were drawn up on the strand, and then the
first thing I chanced upon was a group of people--youthful, of course,
with the eternal Martian bloom--and in the splendid simplicity of almost
complete nakedness. My first idea was that they were bathing, and fixing
my eyes on the tree-tops with great propriety, I gave a warning cough.
At that sound instead of getting to cover, or clothes, all started up
and stood staring for a time like a herd of startled cattle. It was
highly embarrassing; they were right in the path, a round dozen of them,
naked and so little ashamed that when I edged away modestly they began
to run after me. And the farther they came forward the more I retired,
till we were playing a kind of game of hide-and-seek round the tree-stems.
In the middle of it my heel caught in a root and down I went very hard and
very ignominiously, whereon those laughing, light-hearted folk rushed in,
and with smiles and jests helped me to my feet.
"Was I the traveller who had come from Seth?"
"Oh, then that was well. They had heard such a traveller was on the
road, and had come a little way down the path, as far as might be without
fatigue, to meet him."
"Would I eat with them?" these amiable strangers asked, pushing their soft
warm fingers into mine and ringing me round with a circle. "But firstly
might they help me out of my clothes? It was hot, and these things were
cumbersome." As to the eating, I was agreeable enough seeing how casual
meals had been with me lately, but my clothes, though Heaven knows they
were getting horribly ragged and travel-stained, I clung to desperately.
My new friends shrugged their dimpled shoulders and, arguments being
tedious, at once squatted round me in the dappled shade of a big tree
and produced their stores of never failing provisions. After a pleasant
little meal taken thus in the open and with all the simplicity Martians
delight in, we got to talking about those yellow canoes which were
bobbing about on the blue waters of the bay.
"Would you like to see where they are grown?" asked an individual basking
by my side.
"Grown!" I answered with incredulity. "Built, you mean. Never in my
life did I hear of growing boats."
"But then, sir," observed the girl as she sucked the honey out of the
stalk of an azure convolvulus flower and threw the remains at a butterfly
that sailed across the sunshine, "you know so little! You have come
from afar, from some barbarous and barren district. Here we undoubtedly
grow our boats, and though we know the Thither folk and such uncultivated
races make their craft by cumbrous methods of flat planks, yet we prefer
our own way, for one thing because it saves trouble," and as she murmured
that all-sufficient reason the gentle damsel nodded reflectively.
But one of her companions, more lively for the moment, tickled her with
a straw until she roused, and then said, "Let us take the stranger to the
boat garden now. The current will drift us round the bay, and we can come
back when it turns. If we wait we shall have to row in both directions,
or even walk," and again planetary slothfulness carried the day.
So down to the beach we strolled and launched one of the golden-hued
skiffs upon the pretty dancing wavelets just where they ran, lipped
with jewelled spray, on the shore, and then only had I a chance to
scrutinise their material. I patted that one we were upon inside
and out. I noted with a seaman's admiration its lightness, elasticity,
and supreme sleekness, its marvellous buoyancy and fairy-like "lines,"
and after some minutes' consideration it suddenly flashed across me that
it was all of gourd rind. And as if to supply confirmation, the flat
land we were approaching on the opposite side of the bay was covered by
the characteristic verdure of these plants with a touch here and there
of splendid yellow blossoms, but all of gigantic proportions.
"Ay," said a Martian damsel lying on the bottom, and taking and kissing
my hand as she spoke, in the simple-hearted way of her people, "I see
you have guessed how we make our boats. Is it the same in your distant
"No, my girl, and what's more, I am a bit uneasy as to what the
fellows on the Carolina will say if they ever hear I went to sea in
a hollowed-out pumpkin, and with a young lady--well, dressed as you
are--for crew. Even now I cannot imagine how you get your ships so
trim and shapely--there is not a seam or a patch anywhere, it looks as
if you had run them into a mould."
"That's just what we have done, sir, and now you will witness the moulds
at work, for here we are," and the little skiff was pulled ashore and the
Martians and I jumped out on the shelving beach, hauled our boat up high
and dry, and there right over us, like great green umbrellas, spread the
fronds of the outmost garden of this strangest of all ship-building yards.
Briefly, and not to make this part of my story too long, those gilded boys
and girls took me ashore, and chattering like finches in the evening,
showed how they planted their gourd seed, nourished the gigantic plants
as they grew with brackish water and the burnt ashes; then, when they
flowered, mated the male and female blossoms, glorious funnels of golden
hue big enough for one to live in; and when the young fruit was of the
bigness of an ordinary bolster, how they slipped it into a double mould
of open reed-work something like the two halves of a walnut-shell; and
how, growing day by day in this, it soon took every curve and line they
chose to give it, even the hanging keel below, the strengthened bulwarks,
and tall prow-piece. It was so ingenious, yet simple; and I confess I
laughed over my first skiff "on the stalk," and fell to bantering the
Martians, asking whether it was a good season for navies, whether their
Cunarders were spreading nicely, if they could give me a pinch of barge
seed, or a yacht in bud to show to my friends at home.
But those lazy people took the matter seriously enough. They led me
down green alleys arched over with huge melon-like leaves; they led me
along innumerable byways, making me peep and peer through the chequered
sunlight at ocean-growing craft, that had budded twelve months before,
already filling their moulds to the last inch of space. They told me
that when the growing process was sufficiently advanced, they loosened
the casing, and cutting a hole into the interior of each giant fruit,
scooped out all its seed, thereby checking more advance, and throwing
into the rind strength that would otherwise have gone to reproductiveness.
They said each fruit made two vessels, but the upper half was always best
and used for long salt-water journeys, the lower piece being but for
punting or fishing on their lakes. They cut them in half while still
green, scraped out the light remaining pulp when dry, and dragged them
down with the minimum of trouble, light as feathers, tenacious as steel
plate, and already in the form and fashion of dainty craft from five to
twenty feet in length, when the process was completed.
By the time we had explored this strangest of ship-building yards, and
I had seen last year's crop on the stocks being polished and fitted with
seats and gear, the sun was going down; and the Martian twilight, owing
to the comparative steepness of the little planet's sides, being brief,
we strolled back to the village, and there they gave me harbourage for the
night, ambrosial supper, and a deep draught of the wine of Forgetfulness,
under the gauzy spell of which the real and unreal melted into the vistas
of rosy oblivion, and I slept.
With the new morning came fresh energy and a spasm of conscience as I
thought of poor Heru and the shabby sort of rescuer I was to lie about
with these pretty triflers while she remained in peril.
So I had a bath and a swim, a breakfast, and, to my shame be it
acknowledged, a sort of farewell merry-go-round dance on the yellow
sands with a dozen young persons all light-hearted as the morning,
beautiful as the flowers that bound their hair, and in the extremity of
Then at last I got them to give me a sea-going canoe, a stock of cakes and
fresh water; and with many parting injunctions how to find the Woodman
trail, since I would not listen to reason and lie all the rest of my
life with them in the sunshine, they pushed me off on my lonely voyage.
"Over the blue waters!" they shouted in chorus as I dipped my paddle into
the diamond-crested wavelets. "Six hours, adventurous stranger, with the
sun behind you! Then into the broad river behind the yellow sand-bar.
But not the black northward river! Not the strong, black river, above
all things, stranger! For that is the River of the Dead, by which many
go but none come back. Goodbye!" And waving them adieu, I sternly turned
my eyes from delights behind and faced the fascination of perils in front.
In four hours (for the Martians had forgotten in their calculations that
my muscles were something better than theirs) I "rose" the further shore,
and then the question was, Where ran that westward river of theirs?
It turned out afterwards that, knowing nothing of their tides, I had
drifted much too far to northward, and consequently the coast had closed
up the estuary mouth I should have entered. Not a sign of an opening
showed anywhere, and having nothing whatever for guidance I turned
northward, eagerly scanning an endless line of low cliffs, as the day
lessened, for the promised sand-bar or inlet.
About dusk my canoe, flying swiftly forward at its own sweet will, brought
me into a bight, a bare, desolate-looking country with no vegetation save
grass and sedge on the near marshes and stony hills rising up beyond,
with others beyond them mounting step by step to a long line of ridges
and peaks still covered in winter snow.
The outlook was anything but cheering. Not a trace of habitation had been
seen for a long time, not a single living being in whose neighbourhood I
could land and ask the way; nothing living anywhere but a monstrous kind
of sea-slug, as big as a dog, battening on the waterside garbage, and
gaunt birds like vultures who croaked on the mud-flats, and half-spread
wings of funereal blackness as they gambolled here and there. Where was
poor Heru? Where pink-shouldered An? Where those wild men who had
taken the princess from us? Lastly, but not least, where was I?
All the first stars of the Martian sky were strange to me, and my boat
whirling round and round on the current confused what little geography
I might otherwise have retained. It was a cheerless look out, and again
and again I cursed my folly for coming on such a fool's errand as I sat,
chin in hand, staring at a landscape that grew more and more depressing
every mile. To go on looked like destruction, to go back was almost
impossible without a guide; and while I was still wondering which of the
two might be the lesser evil, the stream I was on turned a corner, and in
a moment we were upon water which ran with swift, oily smoothness straight
for the snow-ranges now beginning to loom unpleasantly close ahead.
By this time the night was coming on apace, the last of the evil-looking
birds had winged its way across the red sunset glare, and though it was
clear enough in mid-river under the banks, now steep and unclimbable,
it was already evening.
And with the darkness came a wondrous cold breath from off the ice-fields,
blowing through my lowland wrappings as though they were but tissue.
I munched a bit of honey-cake, took a cautious sip of wine, and though I
will not own I was frightened, yet no one will deny that the circumstances
Standing up in the frail canoe and looking around, at the second glance
an object caught my eye coming with the stream, and rapidly overtaking me
on a strong sluice of water. It was a raft of some sort, and something
extra-ordinarily like a sitting Martian on it! Nearer and nearer it came,
bobbing to the rise and fall of each wavelet with the last icy sunlight
touching it up with reds and golds, nearer and nearer in the deadly
hush of that forsaken region, and then at last so near it showed quite
plainly on the purple water, a raft with some one sitting under a canopy.
With a thrill of delight I waved my cap aloft and shouted--
"Ship-ahoy! Hullo, messmate, where are we bound to?"
But never an answer came from that swiftly-passing stranger, so again
"Put up your helm, Mr. Skipper; I have lost my bearings, and the
chronometer has run down," but without a pause or sound that strange
craft went slipping by.
That silence was more than I could stand. It was against all sea
courtesies, and the last chance of learning where I was passing away.
So, angrily the paddle was snatched from the canoe bottom, and roaring
"Stop, I say, you d----- lubber, stop, or by all the gods I will
make you!" I plunged the paddle into the water and shot my little
craft slantingly across the stream to intercept the newcomer. A single
stroke sent me into mid-stream, a second brought me within touch of that
strange craft. It was a flat raft, undoubtedly, though so disguised
by flowers and silk trailers that its shape was difficult to make out.
In the centre was a chair of ceremony bedecked with greenery and great
pale buds, hardly yet withered--oh, where had I seen such a chair and
such a raft before?
And the riddle did not long remain unanswered. Upon that seat, as I
swept up alongside and laid a sunburnt hand upon its edge, was a girl,
and another look told me she was dead!
Such a sweet, pallid, Martian maid, her fair head lolling back against the
rear of the chair and gently moving to and fro with the rise and fall of
her craft. Her face in the pale light of the evening like carved ivory,
and not less passionless and still; her arms bare, and her poor fingers
still closed in her lap upon the beautiful buds they had put into them.
I fairly gasped with amazement at the dreadful sweetness of that
solitary lady, and could hardly believe she was really a corpse! But,
alas! there was no doubt of it, and I stared at her, half in admiration
and half in fear; noting how the last sunset flush lent a hectic beauty
to her face for a moment, and then how fair and ghostly she stood out
against the purpling sky; how her light drapery lifted to the icy wind,
and how dreadfully strange all those soft-scented flowers and trappings
seemed as we sped along side by side into the country of night and snow.
Then all of a sudden the true meaning of her being there burst upon me,
and with a start and a cry I looked around. WE WERE FLYING SWIFTLY
DOWN THAT RIVER OF THE DEAD THEY HAD TOLD ME OF THAT HAS NO OUTLET AND
With frantic haste I snatched up a paddle again and tried to paddle
against the great black current sweeping us forward. I worked until the
perspiration stood in beads on my forehead, and all the time I worked
the river, like some black snake, hissed and twined, and that pretty lady
rode cheerily along at my side. Overhead stars of unearthly brilliancy
were coming out in the frosty sky, while on either hand the banks were
high and the shadows under them black as ink. In those shadows now and
then I noticed with a horrible indifference other rafts were travelling,
and presently, as the stream narrowed, they came out and joined us,
dead Martians, budding boys and girls; older voyagers with their age
quickening upon them in the Martian manner, just as some fruit only
ripens after it falls; yellow-girt slaves staring into the night in front,
quite a merry crew all clustered about I and that gentle lady, and more
far ahead and more behind, all bobbing and jostling forward as we hurried
to the dreadful graveyard in the Martian regions of eternal winter none
had ever seen and no one came to! I cried aloud in my desolation and
fear and hid my face in my hands, while the icy cliffs mocked my cry and
the dead maid, tripping alongside, rolled her head over, and stared at
me with stony, unseeing eyes.
Well, I am no fine writer. I sat down to tell a plain, unvarnished
tale, and I will not let the weird horror of that ride get into my pen.
We careened forward, I and those lost Martians, until pretty near on
midnight, by which time the great light-giving planets were up, and never
a chance did Fate give me all that time of parting company with them.
About midnight we were right into the region of snow and ice, not the
actual polar region of the planet, as I afterwards guessed, but one
of those long outliers which follow the course of the broad waterways
almost into fertile regions, and the cold, though intense, was somewhat
modified by the complete stillness of the air.
It was just then that I began to be aware of a low, rumbling sound ahead,
increasing steadily until there could not be any doubt the journey
was nearly over and we were approaching those great falls An had told
me of, over which the dead tumble to perpetual oblivion. There was
no opportunity for action, and, luckily, little time for thought.
I remember clapping my hand to my heart as I muttered an imperfect
prayer, and laughing a little as I felt in my pocket, between it and that
organ, an envelope containing some corn-plaster and a packet of unpaid
tailors' bills. Then I pulled out that locket with poor forgotten Polly's
photograph, and while I was still kissing it fervently, and the dead girl
on my right was jealously nudging my canoe with the corner of her raft, we
plunged into a narrow gully as black as hell, shot round a sharp corner at
a tremendous pace, and the moment afterwards entered a lake in the midst
of an unbroken amphitheatre of cliffs gleaming in soft light all round.
Even to this moment I can recall the blue shine of those terrible ice
crags framing the weird picture in on every hand, and the strange effect
upon my mind as we passed out of the darkness of the gully down which
we had come into the sepulchral radiance of that place. But though it
fixed with one instantaneous flash its impression on my mind forever,
there was no time to admire it. As we swept on to the lake's surface,
and a glance of light coming over a dip in the ice walls to the left lit
up the dead faces and half-withered flowers of my fellow-travellers with
startling distinctness, I noticed with a new terror at the lower end of
the lake towards which we were hurrying the water suddenly disappeared
in a cloud of frosty spray, and it was from thence came the low, ominous
rumble which had sounded up the ravine as we approached. It was the
fall, and beyond the stream dropped down glassy step after step, in
wild pools and rapids, through which no boat could live for a moment,
to a black cavern entrance, where it was swallowed up in eternal night.
I WOULD not go that way! With a yell such as those solitudes had
probably never heard since the planet was fashioned out of the void, I
seized the paddle again and struck out furiously from the main current,
with the result of postponing the crisis for a time, and finding myself
bobbing round towards the northern amphitheatre, where the light fell
clearest from planets overhead. It was like a great ballroom with
those constellations for tapers, and a ghastly crowd of Martians were
doing cotillions and waltzes all about me on their rafts as the troubled
water, icy cold and clear as glass, eddied us here and there in solemn
confusion. On the narrow beaches at the cliff foot were hundreds of
wrecked voyagers--the wall-flowers of that ghostly assembly-room--and
I went jostling and twirling round the circle as though looking for a
likely partner, until my brain spun and my heart was sick.
For twenty minutes Fate played with me, and then the deadly suck of the
stream got me down again close to where the water began to race for
the falls. I vowed savagely I would not go over them if it could be
helped, and struggled furiously.
On the left, in shadow, a narrow beach seemed to lie between the water and
the cliff foot; towards it I fought. At the very first stroke I fouled
a raft; the occupant thereof came tumbling aboard and nearly swamped me.
But now it was a fight for life, so him I seized without ceremony by
clammy neck and leg and threw back into the water. Then another playful
Martian butted the behind part of my canoe and set it spinning, so that
all the stars seemed to be dancing giddily in the sky. With a yell I
shoved him off, but only to find his comrades were closing round me in
a solid ring as we sucked down to the abyss at ever-increasing speed.
Then I fought like a fury, hacking, pushing, and paddling shorewards,
crying out in my excitement, and spinning and bumping and twisting
ever downwards. For every foot I gained they pushed me on a yard,
as though determined their fate should be mine also.
They crowded round me in a compact circle, their poor flower-girt heads
nodding as the swift current curtsied their crafts. They hemmed me in
with desperate persistency as we spun through the ghostly starlight in a
swirling mass down to destruction! And in a minute we were so close to
the edge of the fall I could see the water break into ridges as it felt
the solid bottom give way under it. We were so close that already the
foremost rafts, ten yards ahead, were tipping and their occupants one
by one waving their arms about and tumbling from their funeral chairs as
they shot into the spray veil and went out of sight under a faint rainbow
that was arched over there, the symbol of peace and the only lovely thing
in that gruesome region. Another minute and I must have gone with them.
It was too late to think of getting out of the tangle then; the water
behind was heavy with trailing silks and flowers. We were jammed together
almost like one huge float and in that latter fact lay my one chance.
On the left was a low ledge of rocks leading back to the narrow beach
already mentioned, and the ledge came out to within a few feet of where
the outmost boat on that side would pass it. It was the only chance and
a poor one, but already the first rank of my fleet was trembling on the
brink, and without stopping to weigh matters I bounded off my own canoe
on to the raft alongside, which rocked with my weight like a tea-tray.
From that I leapt, with such hearty good-will as I had never had before,
on to a second and third. I jumped from the footstool of one Martian
to the knee of another, steadying myself by a free use of their nodding
heads as I passed. And every time I jumped a ship collapsed behind me.
As I staggered with my spring into the last and outermost boat the ledge
was still six feet away, half hidden in a smother of foam, and the rim of
the great fall just under it. Then I drew all my sailor agility together
and just as the little vessel was going bow up over the edge I leapt from
her--came down blinded with spray on the ledge, rolled over and over,
clutched frantically at the frozen soil, and was safe for the moment,
but only a few inches from the vortex below!
As soon as I picked myself up and got breath, I walked shorewards and
found, with great satisfaction, that the ledge joined the shelving beach,
and so walked on in the blue obscurity of the cliff shadow back from the
falls in the bare hope that the beach might lead by some way into the
gully through which we had come and open country beyond. But after a
couple of hundred yards this hope ended as abruptly as the spit itself
in deep water, and there I was, as far as the darkness would allow me
to ascertain, as utterly trapped as any mortal could be.
I will not dwell on the next few minutes, for no one likes to acknowledge
that he has been unmanned even for a space. When those minutes were
over calmness and consideration returned, and I was able to look about.
All the opposite cliffs, rising sheer from the water, were in light,
their cold blue and white surfaces rising far up into the black starfields
overhead. Looking at them intently from this vantage-point I saw without
at first understanding that along them horizontally, tier above tier,
were rows of objects, like--like--why, good Heavens, they were like men
and women in all sorts of strange postures and positions! Rubbing my
eyes and looking again I perceived with a start and a strange creepy
feeling down my back that they WERE men and women!--hundreds of them,
thousands, all in rows as cormorants stand upon sea-side cliffs, myriads
and myriads now I looked about, in every conceivable pose and attitude
but never a sound, never a movement amongst the vast concourse.
Then I turned back to the cliffs behind me. Yes! they ere there
too, dimmer by reason of the shadows, but there for certain, from the
snowfields far above down, down--good Heavens! to the very level where
I stood. There was one of them not ten yards away half in and half out
of the ice wall, and setting my teeth I walked over and examined him.
And there was another further in behind as I peered into the clear blue
depth, another behind that one, another behind him--just like cherries
in a jelly.
It was startling and almost incredible, yet so many wonderful things had
happened of late that wonders were losing their sharpness, and I was soon
examining the cliff almost as coolly as though it were only some trivial
geological "section," some new kind of petrified sea-urchins which had
caught my attention and not a whole nation in ice, a huge amphitheatre
of fossilised humanity which stared down on me.
The matter was simple enough when you came to look at it with philosophy.
The Martians had sent their dead down here for many thousand years and
as they came they were frozen in, the bands and zones in which they
sat indicating perhaps alternating seasons. Then after Nature had been
storing them like that for long ages some upheaval happened, and this
cleft and lake opened through the heart of the preserve. Probably the
river once ran far up there where the starlight was crowning the blue
cliffs with a silver diadem of light, only when this hollow opened did
it slowly deepen a lower course, spreading out in a lake, and eventually
tumbling down those icy steps lose itself in the dark roots of the hills.
It was very simple, no doubt, but incredibly weird and wonderful to me who
stood, the sole living thing in that immense concourse of dead humanity.
Look where I would it was the same everywhere. Those endless rows
of frozen bodies lying, sitting, or standing stared at me from every
niche and cornice. It almost seemed, as the light veered slowly round,
as though they smiled and frowned at times, but never a word was there
amongst those millions; the silence itself was audible, and save the dull
low thunder of the fall, so monotonous the ear became accustomed to and
soon disregarded it, there was not a sound anywhere, not a rustle, not
a whisper broke the eternal calm of that great caravansary of the dead.
The very rattle of the shingle under my feet and the jingle of my
navy scabbard seemed offensive in the perfect hush, and, too awed
to be frightened, I presently turned away from the dreadful shine of
those cliffs and felt my way along the base of the wall on my own side.
There was no means of escape that way, and presently the shingle beach
itself gave out as stated, where the cliff wall rose straight from the
surface of the lake, so I turned back, and finding a grotto in the ice
determined to make myself as comfortable as might be until daylight came.
Fortunately there was a good deal of broken timber thrown up at
"high-water" mark, and with a stack of this at the mouth of the little
cave a pleasant fire was soon made by help of a flint pebble and the
steel back of my sword. It was a hearty blaze and lit up all the near
cliffs with a ruddy jumping glow which gave their occupants a marvellous
appearance of life. The heat also brought off the dull rime upon the
side of my recess, leaving it clear as polished glass, and I was a little
startled to see, only an inch or so back in the ice and standing as erect
as ever he had been in life, the figure of an imposing grey clad man.
His arms were folded, his chin dropped upon his chest, his robes of
the finest stuff, the very flowers they had decked his head with frozen
with immortality, and under them, round his crisp and iron-grey hair,
a simple band of gold with strange runes and figures engraved upon it.
There was something very simple yet stately about him, though his face was
hidden and as I gazed long and intently the idea got hold of me that he
had been a king over an undegenerate Martian race, and had stood waiting
for the Dawn a very, very long time.
I wished a little that he had not been quite so near the glassy surface
of the ice down which the warmth was bringing quick moisture drops.
Had he been back there in the blue depths where others were sitting and
crouching it would have been much more comfortable. But I was a sailor,
and misfortune makes strange companions, so I piled up the fire again,
and lying down presently on the dry shingle with my back to him stared
moodily at the blaze till slowly the fatigues of the day told, my eyelids
dropped and, with many a fitful start and turn, at length I slept.
It was an hour before dawn, the fire had burnt low and I was dreaming of
an angry discussion with my tailor in New York as to the sit of my last
new trousers when a faint sound of moving shingle caught my quick seaman
ear, and before I could raise my head or lift a hand, a man's weight was
on me--a heavy, strong man who bore me down with irresistible force.
I felt the slap of his ice-cold hand upon my throat and his teeth in
the back of my neck! In an instant, though but half awake, with a yell
of surprise and anger I grappled with the enemy, and exerting all my
strength rolled him over. Over and over we went struggling towards the
fire, and when I got him within a foot or so of it I came out on top,
and, digging my knuckles into his throttle, banged his head upon the
stony floor in reckless rage, until all of a sudden it seemed to me
he was done for. I relaxed my grip, but the other man never moved.
I shook him again, like a terrier with a rat, but he never resented it.
Had I killed him? How limp and cold he was! And then all of a sudden
an uneasy feeling came upon me. I reached out, and throwing a handful
of dried stuff upon the embers the fire danced gaily up into the air,
and the blaze showed me I was savagely holding down to the gravel and
kneeling on the chest of that long-dead king from my grotto wall!
It was the man out of the ice without a doubt. There was the very niche
he had fallen from under the influence of the fire heat, the very recess,
exactly in his shape in every detail, whence he had stood gazing into
vacuity all those years. I left go my hold, and after the flutter in
my heart had gone down, apologetically set him up against the wall of
the cavern whence he had fallen; then built up the fire until twirling
flames danced to the very roof in the blue light of dawn, and hobgoblin
shadows leapt and capered about us. Then once more I sat down on the
opposite side of the blaze, resting my chin upon my hands, and stared
into the frozen eyes of that grim stranger, who, with his chin upon his
knees, stared back at me with irresistible, remorseless steadfastness.
He was as fresh as if he had died but yesterday, yet by his clothing and
something in his appearance, which was not that of the Martian of to-day,
I knew he might be many thousand years old. What things he had seen,
what wonders he knew! What a story might be put into his mouth if I
were a capable writer gifted with time and imagination instead of a poor
outcast, ill-paid lieutenant whose literary wit is often taxed hardly
to fill even a log-book entry! I stared at him so long and hard, and
he at me through the blinking flames, that again I dozed--and dozed--and
dozed again until at last when I woke in good earnest it was daylight.
By this time hunger was very aggressive. The fire was naught but a
circlet of grey ashes; the dead king, still sitting against the cave-side,
looked very blue and cold, and with an uncomfortable realisation of my
position I shook myself together, picked up and pocketed without much
thought the queer gold circlet that had dropped from his forehead,
and went outside to see what prospect of escape the new day had brought.
It was not much. Upriver there was not the remotest chance. Not even
a Niagara steamer could have forged back against the sluice coming
down from the gulch there. Looking round, the sides of the icy
amphitheatre--just lighting up now with glorious gold and crimson
glimmers of morning--were as steep as a wall face; only back towards
the falls was there a possibility of getting out of the dreadful trap,
so thither I went, after a last look at the poor old king, along my
narrow beach with all the eagerness begotten of a final chance. Up to
the very brink it looked hopeless enough, but, looking downwards when
that was reached, instead of a sheer drop the slope seemed to be a wild
"staircase" of rocks and icy ledges with here and there a little patch
of sand on a cornice, and far below, five hundred feet or so, a good
big spread of gravel an acre or two in extent close by where the river
plunged out of sight into the nethermost cavern mouth.
It was so hopeless up above it, it could not possibly be worse further
down, and there was the ugly black flood running into the hole to trust
myself to as a last resource; so slipping and sliding I began the descent.
Had I been a schoolboy with a good breakfast ahead the incident might
have been amusing enough. The travelling was mostly done on the seat of
my trousers, which consequently became caked with mud and glacial loam.
Some was accomplished on hands and knees, with now and then a bit down
a snow slope, in good, honest head-over-heels fashion. The result was
a fine appetite for the next meal when it should please providence to
send it, and an abrupt arrival on the bottom beach about five minutes
after leaving the upper circles.
I came to behind a cluster of breast-high rocks, and before moving
took a look round. Judge then of my astonishment and delight at the
second glance to perceive about a hundred yards away a brown object,
looking like an ape in the half light, meandering slowly up the margin
of the water towards me. Every now and then it stopped, stooping down
to pick up something or other from the scum along the torrent, and it
was the fact that these trifles, whatever they were, were put into a
wallet by the vision's side--not into his mouth--which first made me
understand with a joyful thrill that it was a MAN before me--a real,
living man in this huge chamber of dead horrors! Then again it flashed
across my mind in a luminous moment that where one man could come, or go,
or live, another could do likewise, and never did cat watch mouse with
more concentrated eagerness than I that quaint, bent-shouldered thing
hobbling about in the blue morning shadows where all else was silence.
Nearer and nearer he came, till so close face and garb were discernible,
and then there could no longer be any doubt, it was a woodman, an old man,
with grizzled monkey-face, stooping gait, and a shaggy fur cloak, utterly
unlike the airy garments of my Hither folk, who now stood before me.
It gave me quite a start to recognise him there, for it showed I was in
a new land, and since he was going so cheerfully about his business,
whatever it might chance to be, there must be some way out of this
accursed pit in which I had fallen. So very cautiously I edged out,
taking advantage of all the cover possible until we were only twenty
yards apart, and then suddenly standing up, and putting on the most
affable smile, I called out--
The effect was electrical. That quaint old fellow sprang a yard into
air as though a spring had shot him up. Then, coming down, he stood
transfixed at his full height as stiff as a ramrod, staring at me
with incredible wonder. He looked so funny that in spite of hunger
and loneliness I burst out laughing, whereat the woodman, suddenly
recovering his senses, turned on his heels and set off at his best pace
in the opposite direction. This would never do! I wanted him to be my
guide, philosopher, and friend. He was my sole visible link with the
outside world, so after him I went at tip-top speed, and catching him
up in fifty yards along the shingle laid hold of his nether garments.
Whereat the old fellow stopping suddenly I shot clean over his back,
coming down on my shoulder in the gravel.
But I was much younger than he, and in a minute was in chase again.
This time I laid hold of his cloak, and the moment he felt my grip
he slipped the neck-thongs and left me with only the mangy garment in
my hands. Again we set off, dodging and scampering with all our might
upon that frozen bit of beach. The activity of that old fellow was
marvellous, but I could not and would not lose him. I made a rush and
grappled him, but he tossed his head round and slipped away once more
under my arm, as though he had been brought up by a Chinese wrestler.
Then he got on one side of a flat rock, I the other, and for three or
four minutes we waltzed round that slab in the most insane manner.
But by this time we were both pretty well spent--he with age and I with
faintness from my long fast, and we came presently to a standstill.
After glaring at me for a time, the woodman gasped out as he struggled
"Oh, mighty and dreadful spirit! Oh, dweller in primordial ice, say
from which niche of the cliffs has the breath of chance thawed you?"
"Never a niche at all, Mr. Hunter-for-Haddocks'-Eyes," I answered as
soon as I could speak. "I am just a castaway wrecked last night on this
shore of yours, and very grateful indeed will I be if you can show me
the way to some breakfast first, and afterwards to the outside world."
But the old fellow would not believe. "Spirits such as you," he said
sullenly, "need no food, and go whither they will by wish alone."
"I tell you I am not a spirit, and as hungry as I don't particularly want
to be again. Here, look at the back of my trousers, caked three inches
deep in mud. If I were a spirit, do you think I would slide about on my
coat-tails like that? Do you think that if I could travel by volition
I would slip down these infernal cliffs on my pants' seat as I have just
done? And as for materialism--look at this fist; it punched you just now!
Surely there was nothing spiritual in that knock?''
"No," said the savage, rubbing his head, "it was a good, honest rap,
so I must take you at your word. If you are indeed man, and hungry,
it will be a charity to feed you; if you are a spirit, it will at least
be interesting to watch you eat; so sit down, and let's see what I have
in my wallet."
So cross-legged we squatted opposite each other on the table rock, and,
feeling like another Sindbad the Sailor, I watched my new friend fumble
in his bag and lay out at his side all sorts of odds and ends of string,
fish-hooks, chewing-gum, material for making a fire, and so on, until
at last he came to a package (done up, I noted with delight, in a broad,
green leaf which had certainly been growing that morning), and unrolling
it, displayed a lump of dried meat, a few biscuits, much thicker and
heavier than the honey-cakes of the Hither folk, and something that
looked and smelt like strong, white cheese.
He signed to me to eat, and you may depend upon it I was not slow in
accepting the invitation. That tough biltong tasted to me like the
tenderest steak that ever came from a grill; the biscuits were ambrosial;
the cheese melted in my mouth as butter melts in that of the virtuous; but
when the old man finished the quaint picnic by inviting me to accompany
him down to the waterside for a drink, I shook my head. I had a great
respect for dead queens and kings, I said, but there were too many of
them up above to make me thirsty this morning; my respect did not go to
making me desire to imbibe them in solution!
Afterwards I chanced to ask him what he had been picking up just now along
the margin, and after looking at me suspiciously for a minute he asked--
"You are not a thief?" On being reassured on that point he continued:
"And you will not attempt to rob me of the harvest for which I venture
into this ghost-haunted glen, which you and I alone of living men
"No." Whatever they were, I said, I would respect his earnings.
"Very well, then," said the old man, "look here! I come hither to pick
up those pretty trifles which yonder lords and ladies have done with,"
and plunging his hand into another bag he brought out a perfect fistful
of splendid gems and jewels, some set and some unset. "They wash from
the hands and wrists of those who have lodgings in the crevices of the
falls above," he explained. "After a time the beach here will be thick
with them. Could I get up whence you came down, they might be gathered
by the sackful. Come! there is an eddy still unsearched, and I will
show you how they lie."
It was very fascinating, and I and that old man set to work amongst the
gravels, and, to be brief, in half an hour found enough glittering stuff
to set up a Fifth Avenue jeweller's shop. But to tell the truth, now
that I had breakfasted, and felt manhood in my veins again, I was eager
to be off, and out of the close, death-tainted atmosphere of that valley.
Consequently I presently stood up and said--
"Look here, old man, this is fine sport no doubt, but just at present
I have a big job on hand--one which will not wait, and I must be going.
See, luck and young eyes have favoured me; here is twice as much gold and
stones as you have got together--it is all yours without a question if
you will show me the way out of this den and afterwards put me on the
road to your big city, for thither I am bound with an errand to your
The sight of my gems, backed, perhaps, with the mention of Ar-hap's name,
appealed to the old fellow; and after a grunt or two about "losing a tide"
just when spoil was so abundant, he accepted the bargain, shouldered
his belongings, and led me towards the far corner of the beach.
It looked as if we were walking right against the towering ice wall,
but when we were within a yard or two of it a narrow cleft, only eighteen
inches wide, and wonderfully masked by an ice column, showed to the left,
and into this we squeezed ourselves, the entrance by which we had come
appearing to close up instantly we had gone a pace or two, so perfectly
did the ice walls match each other.
It was the most uncanny thoroughfare conceivable--a sheer, sharp crack
in the blue ice cliffs extending from where the sunlight shone in a
dazzling golden band five hundred feet overhead to where bottom was
touched in blue obscurity of the ice-foot. It was so narrow we had to
travel sideways for the most part, a fact which brought my face close
against the clear blue glass walls, and enabled me from time to time to
see, far back in those translucent depths, more and more and evermore
frozen Martians waiting in stony silence for their release.
But the fact of facts was that slowly the floor of the cleft trended
upwards, whilst the sky strip appeared to come downwards to meet it.
A mile, perhaps, we growled and squeezed up that wonderful gully; then
with a feeling of incredible joy I felt the clear, outer air smiting
In my hurry and delight I put my head into the small of the back of the
puffing old man who blocked the way in front and forced him forward,
until at last--before we expected it--the cleft suddenly ended, and
he and I tumbled headlong over each other on to a glittering, frozen
snowslope; the sky azure overhead, the sunshine warm as a tepid bath,
and a wide prospect of mountain and plain extending all around.
So delightful was the sudden change of circumstances that I became quite
boyish, and seizing the old man in my exuberance by the hands, dragged
him to his feet, and danced him round and round in a circle, while
his ancient hair flapped about his head, his skin cloak waved from his
shoulders like a pair of dusky wings and half-eaten cakes, dried flesh,
glittering jewels, broken diadems, and golden finger-rings were flung in
an arc about us. We capered till fairly out of breath, and then, slapping
him on the back shoulder, I asked whose land all this was about us.
He replied that it was no one's, all waste from verge to verge.
"What!" was my exclamation. "All ownerless, and with so much treasure
hidden hereabout! Why, I shall annex it to my country, and you and I will
peg out original settlers' claims!" And, still excited by the mountain
air, I whipped out my sword, and in default of a star-spangled banner
to plant on the newly-acquired territory, traced in gigantic letters on
"And now," I added, wiping the rime off my blade with the lappet of my