Part 3 out of 4
coat, "let us stop capering about here and get to business. You have
promised to put me on the way to your big city."
"Come on then," said the little man, gathering up his property.
"This white hillside leads to nowhere; we must get into the valley first,
and then you shall see your road." And right well that quaint barbarian
kept his promise.
It was half a day's march from those glittering snow-fields into the
low country, and when that was reached I found myself amongst quite
The land was no longer fat and flowery, giving every kind of produce
for the asking, but stony for the most part, and, where we first came
on vegetation, overgrown by firs, with a pine which looked to me like
a species which went to make the coal measures in my dear but distant
planet. More than this I cannot say, for there are no places in the
world like mess-room and quarter-deck for forgetting school learning.
Instead of the glorious wealth of parti-coloured vegetation my eyes had
been accustomed to lately, here they rested on infertile stretches of
marshland intersected by moss-covered gravel shoots, looking as though
they had been pushed into the plains in front of extinct glaciers
coming down from the region behind us. On the low hills away from the
sea those sombre evergreen forests with an undergrowth of moss and red
lichens were more variegated with light foliage, and indeed the pines
proved to be but a fringe to the Arctic ice, giving way rapidly to more
typical Martian vegetation each mile we marched to the southward.
As for the inhabitants, they seemed, like my guide, rough, uncouth
fellows, but honest enough when you came to know them. An introduction,
however, was highly desirable. I chanced upon the first native as he was
gathering reindeer-moss. My companion was some little way behind at the
moment, and when the gentle aborigine saw the stranger he stared hard
for a moment, then, turning on his heels, with extraordinary swiftness
flung at me half a pound of hard flint stone. Had his aim been a little
more careful this humble narrative had never appeared on the Broadway
bookstalls. As it was, the pebble, missing my head by an inch or two,
splintered into a hundred fragments on a rock behind, and while I was
debating whether a revengeful rush at the slinger or a strategic advance
to the rear were more advisable, my guide called out to his countryman--
"Ho! you base prowler in the morasses; you eater of unclean vegetation,
do you not see this is a ghost I am conducting, a dweller in the ice
cliffs, a spirit ten thousand years old? Put by your sling lest he wither
you with a glance." And, very reasonably, surprised, the aborigine did
as he was bid and cautiously advanced to inspect me.
The news soon spread over the countryside that my jewel-hunter was
bringing a live "spook" along with him, considerable curiosity mixed with
an awe all to my advantage characterising the people we met thereafter.
Yet the wonder was not so great as might have been expected, for these
people were accustomed to meeting the tags of lost races, and though
they stared hard, their interest was chiefly in hearing how, when, and
where I had been found, whether I bit or kicked, or had any other vices,
and if I possessed any commercial value.
My guide's throat must have ached with the repetition of the narrative,
but as he made the story redound greatly to his own glory, he put
up cheerfully with the hoarseness. In this way, walking and talking
alternately, we travelled during daylight through a country which slowly
lost its rugged features and became more and more inhabited, the hardy
people living in scattered villages in contradiction to the debased
city-loving Hither folk.
About nightfall we came to a sea-fishers' hamlet, where, after the
old man had explained my exalted nature and venerable antiquity, I was
offered shelter for the night.
My host was the headman, and I must say his bearing towards the
supernatural was most unaffected. If it had been an Avenue hotel I could
not have found more handsome treatment than in that reed-thatched hut.
They made me wash and rest, and then were all agog for my history; but
that I postponed, contenting myself with telling them I had been lately in
Seth, and had come thence to see them via the ice valley--to all of which
they listened with the simplicity of children. Afterwards I turned on
them, and openly marvelled that so small a geographical distance as there
was between that land and this could make so vast a human difference.
"The truth, O dweller in blue shadows of primordial ice, is," said the
most intelligent of the Thither folk as we sat over fried deer-steak
in his hut that evening, "we who are MEN, not Peri-zad, not overstayed
fairies like those you have been amongst, are newcomers here on this
shore. We came but a few generations ago from where the gold curtains
of the sun lie behind the westward pine-trees, and as we came we drove,
year by year, those fays, those spent triflers, back before us. All this
land was theirs once, and more and more towards our old home. You may
still see traces of harbours dug and cities built thousands of years
ago, when the Hither folk were living men and women--not their shadows.
The big water outside stops us for a space, but," he added, laughing
gruffly and taking a draught of a strong beer he had been heating by the
fire, "King Ar-hap has their pretty noses between his fingers; he takes
tribute and girls while he gets ready--they say he is nearly ready this
summer, and if he is, it will not be much of an excuse he will need to
lick up the last of those triflers, those pretences of manhood."
Then we fell to talking of Ar-hap, his subjects and town, and I learned
the tides had swept me a long way to the northward of the proper route
between the capitals of the two races, that day they carried me into the
Dead-Men's Ice, as these entertainers of mine called the northern snows.
To get back to the place previously aimed at, where the woodmen road came
out on the seashore, it was necessary to go either by boat, a roundabout
way through a maze of channels, "as tangled as the grass roots in autumn";
or, secondly, by a couple of days' marching due southward across the
base of the great peninsula we were on, and so strike blue water again
at the long-sought-for harbour.
As I lay dozing and dreaming on a pile of strange furs in the corner of
the hut that evening I made up my mind for the land journey tomorrow,
having had enough for the moment of nautical Martian adventures; and this
point settled, fell again to wondering what made me follow so reckless
a quest in the way I was doing; asking myself again and again what was
gazelle-eyed Heru to me after all, and why should it matter even as
much as the value of a brass waist-coat button whether Hath had her
or Ar-hap? What a fool I was to risk myself day by day in quaint and
dangerous adventures, wearing out good Government shoe-leather in other
men's quarrels, all for a silly slip of royal girlhood who, by this time,
was probably making herself comfortable and forgetting both Hath and me
in the arms of her rough new lord.
And from Heru my mind drifted back dreamily to poor An, and Seth, the
city of fallen magnificence, where the spent masters of a strange planet
now lived on sufferance--the ghosts of their former selves. Where was
An, where the revellers on the morning--so long ago it seemed!--when
first that infernal rug of mine translated a chance wish into a horrible
reality and shot me down here, a stranger and an outcast? Where was the
magic rug itself? Where my steak and tomato supper? Who had eaten it? Who
was drawing my pay? If I could but find the rug when I got back to Seth,
gods! but I would try if it would not return whence I had come, and as
swiftly, out of all these silly coils and adventuring.
So musing, presently the firelight died down, and bulky forms of
hide-wrapped woodmen sleeping on the floor slowly disappeared in obscurity
like ranges of mountains disappearing in the darkness of night. All those
uncouth forms, and the throb of the sea outside, presently faded upon my
senses, and I slept the heavy sleep of one whose wakefulness gives way
before an imperious physical demand. All through the long hours of the
night, while the waves outside champed upon the gravels, and the woodmen
snored and grunted uneasily as they simultaneously dreamt of the day's
hunting and digested its proceeds, I slept; and then when dawn began to
break I passed from that heavy stupor into another and lighter realm,
wherein fancy again rose superior to bodily fatigue, and events of the
last few days passed in procession through my mind.
I dreamt I was lunching at a fashionable seaside resort with Polly
at my side, and An kept bringing us melons, which grew so monstrous
every time a knife was put into them that poor Polly screamed aloud.
I dreamt I was afloat on a raft, hotly pursued by my tailor, whose bare
and shiny head--may Providence be good to him!--was garlanded with roses,
while in his fist was a bunch of unpaid bills, the which he waved aloft,
shouting to me to stop. And thus we danced down an ink-black river until
he had chiveyed me into the vast hall of the Admiralty, where a fearsome
Secretary, whose golden teeth rattled and dropped from his head with
mingled cold and anger, towered above me as he asked why I was absent
from my ship without leave. And I was just mumbling out excuses while
stooping to pick up his golden dentistry, when some one stirring in the
hut aroused me. I started up on my elbow and looked around. Where was
I? For a minute all was confused and dark. The heavy mound-like forms of
sleeping men, the dim outlines of their hunting gear upon the walls, the
pale sea beyond, half seen through the open doorway, just turning livid
in the morning light; and then as my eyes grew more accustomed to the
obscurity, and my stupid senses returned, I recognised the surroundings,
and, with a sigh, remembered yesterday's adventures.
However, it would never do to mope; so, rising silently and picking
a way through human lumber on the floor, I went out and down to the
water's edge, where "shore-going" clothes, as we sailors call them,
were slipped off, and I plunged into the sea for a swim.
It was a welcome dip, for I needed the plunge physically and
intellectually, but it came to an abrupt conclusion. The Thither folk
apparently had never heard of this form of enjoyment; to them water stood
for drinking or drowning, nothing else, and since one could not drink the
sea, to be in it meant, even for a ghost, to drown. Consequently, when
the word went round the just rousing villages that "He-on-foot-from-afar"
was adrift in the waves, rescue parties were hurriedly organised, a boat
launched, and, in spite of all my kicking and shouting (which they took
to be evidence of my semi-moribund condition), I was speedily hauled out
by hairy and powerful hands, pungent herbs burnt under my nose, and my
heels held high in the air in order that the water might run out of me.
It was only with the greatest difficulty those rough but honest fellows
were eventually got to believe me saved.
The breakfast I made of grilled deer flesh and a fish not unlike salmon,
however, convinced them of my recovery, and afterward we parted very
good friends; for there was something in the nature of those rugged
barbarians just coming into the dawn of civilisation that won my liking
far more than the effete gentleness of others across the water.
When the time of parting came they showed no curiosity as to my errand,
but just gave me some food in a fish-skin bag, thrust a heavy stone-headed
axe into my hand, "in case I had to talk to a thief on the road," and
pointed out on the southern horizon a forked mountain, under which,
they said, was the harbour and high-road to King Ar-hap's capital.
Then they hugged me to their hairy chests in turn, and let me go with
a traveller's blessing.
There I was again, all alone, none but my thoughts for companions, and
nothing but youth to excuse the folly in thus venturing on a reckless
However, who can gainsay that same youth? The very spice of danger made my
steps light and the way pleasant. For a mile or two the track was plain
enough, through an undulating country gradually becoming more and more
wooded with vegetation, changing rapidly from Alpine to sub-tropical.
The air also grew warmer, and when the dividing ridge was crossed and
a thick forest entered, the snows and dreadful region of Deadmen's Ice
already seemed leagues and leagues away.
Probably a warm ocean current played on one side of the peninsula, while
a cold one swept the other, but for scientific aspects of the question I
cared little in my joy at being anew in a soft climate, amongst beautiful
flowers and vivid life again. Mile after mile slipped quickly by as
I strode along, whistling "Yankee Doodle" to myself and revelling in
the change. At one place I met a rough-looking Martian woodcutter,
who wanted to fight until he found I also wanted to, when he turned
very civil and as talkative as a solitary liver often is when his tongue
gets started. He particularly desired to know where I came from, and,
as in the case with so many other of his countrymen, took it for granted,
and with very little surprise, that I was either a spirit or an inhabitant
of another world. With this idea in his mind he gave me a curious piece
of information, which, unfortunately, I was never able to follow up.
"I don't think you can be a spirit," he said, critically eyeing my
clothes, which were now getting ragged and dirty beyond description.
"They are finer-looking things than you, and I doubt if their toes come
through their shoes like yours do. If you are a wanderer from the stars,
you are not like that other one we have down yonder," and he pointed to
"What!" I asked, pricking my ears in amazement, "another wanderer from
the outside world! Does he come from the earth?"--using the word An
had given me to signify my own planet.
"No, not from there; from the one that burns blue in evening between sun
and sea. Men say he worked as a stoker or something of the kind when
he was at home, and got trifling with a volcano tap, and was lapped in
hot mud, and blown out here. My brother saw him about a week ago."
"Now what you say is down right curious. I thought I had a monopoly of
that kind of business in this sphere of yours. I should be tremendously
interested to see him."
"No you wouldn't," briefly answered the woodman. "He is the stupidest
fool ever blown from one world to another--more stupid to look at than
you are. He is a gaseous, wavey thing, so glum you can't get two words
a week out of him, and so unstable that you never know when you are with
him and when the breeze has drifted him somewhere else."
I could but laugh and insist, with all respect to the woodcutter, such
an individual were worth the knowing however unstable his constitution;
at which the man shrugged his shoulders and changed the conversation,
as though the subject were too trivial to be worth much consideration.
This individual gave me the pleasure of his company until nearly sundown,
and finding I took an interest in things of the forest, pointed out more
curious plants and trees than I have space to mention. Two of them,
however, cling to my memory very tenaciously. One was a very Circe
amongst plants, the horrible charm of which can never be forgotten.
We were going down a glade when a most ravishing odour fell upon my
nostrils. It was heavenly sweet yet withal there lurked an incredibly,
unexpressibly tempting spice of wickedness in it. The moment he caught
that ambrosial invitation in the air my woodman spit fiercely on the
ground, and taking a plug of wool from his pouch stuffed his nostrils up.
Then he beckoned me to come away. But the odour was too ravishing, I was
bound to see whence it arose, and finding me deaf to all warnings, the
man reluctantly turned aside down the enticing trail. We pushed about
a hundred yards through bushes until we came to a little arena full in
sunshine where there were neither birds nor butterflies, but a death-like
hush upon everything. Indeed, the place seemed shunned in spite of
the sodden loveliness of that scent which monopolised and mounted to my
brain until I was beginning to be drunk with the sheer pleasure of it.
And there in the centre of the space stood a plant not unlike a tree
fern, about six feet high, and crowned by one huge and lovely blossom.
It resembled a vast passion-flower of incredible splendour. There were
four petals, with points resting on the ground, each six feet long,
ivory-white inside, exquisitely patterned with glittering silver veins.
From the base of these rose upright a gauzy veil of azure filaments of
the same length as the petals, wirelike, yet soft as silk, and inside
them again rested a chalice of silver holding a tiny pool of limpid
golden honey. Circe, indeed! It was from that cup the scent arose,
and my throat grew dry with longing as I looked at it; my eyes strained
through the blue tendrils towards that liquid nectar, and my giddy senses
felt they must drink or die! I glanced at the woodman with a smile
of drunken happiness, then turned tottering legs towards the blossom.
A stride up the smooth causeway of white petals, a push through the azure
haze, and the wine of the wood enchantress would be mine--molten amber
wine, hotter and more golden than the sunshine; the fire of it was in my
veins, the recklessness of intoxication was on me, life itself as nothing
compared to a sip from that chalice, my lips must taste or my soul would
die, and with trembling hand and strained face I began to climb.
But the woodman pulled me back.
"Back, stranger!" he cried. "Those who drink there never live again."
"Blessed oblivion! If I had a thousand lives the price were still too
cheap," and once more I essayed to scramble up.
But the man was a big fellow, and with nostrils plugged, and eyes averted
from the deadly glamour, he seized me by the collar and threw me back.
Three times I tried, three times he hurled me down, far too faint and
absorbed to heed the personal violence. Then standing between us,
"Look," he said, "look and learn."
He had killed a small ape that morning, meaning later on to take its fur
for clothing, and this he now unslung from his shoulder, and hitching
the handle of his axe into the loose skin at the back of its neck,
cautiously advanced to the witch plant, and gently hoisted the monkey
over the blue palings. The moment its limp, dead feet touched the golden
pool a shudder passed through the plant, and a bird somewhere far back
in the forest cried out in horror. Quick as thought, a spasm of life
shot up the tendrils, and like tongues of blue flame they closed round
the victim, lapping his miserable body in their embrace. At the same
time the petals began to rise, showing as they did so hard, leathery,
unlovely outer rinds, and by the time the woodman was back at my side
the flower was closed.
Closer and closer wound the blue tendrils; tighter and tighter closed
the cruel petals with their iron grip, until at last we heard the ape's
bones crackling like dry firewood; then next his head burst, his brains
came oozing through the crevices, while blood and entrails followed
them through every cranny, and the horrible mess with the overflow of
the chalice curled down the stem in a hundred steaming rills, till at
last the petals locked with an ugly snap upon their ghastly meal, and
I turned away from the sight in dread and loathing.
That was plant Number One.
Plant Number Two was of milder disposition, and won a hearty laugh for my
friendly woodman. In fact, being of a childlike nature, his success as
a professor of botany quite pleased him, and not content with answering
my questions, he set to work to find new vegetable surprises, greatly
enjoying my wonder and the sense of importance it gave him.
In this way we came, later on in the day, to a spot where herbage was
somewhat scantier, the grass coarse, and soil shallow. Here I espied a
tree of small size, apparently withered, but still bearing a few parched
leaves on its uppermost twigs.
"Now that," quoth the professor, "is a highly curious tree, and I should
like you to make a close acquaintance with it. It grows from a seed
in the course of a single springtime, perishes in the summer; but a
few specimens stand throughout the winter, provided the situation is
sheltered, as this one has done. If you will kindly go down and shake
its stem I believe you will learn something interesting."
So, very willing to humour him, away I went to the tree, which was
perfect in every detail, but apparently very dry, clasped it with both
hands, and, pulling myself together, gave it a mighty shake. The result
was instantaneous. The whole thing was nothing but a skin of dust,
whence all fibre and sap had gone, and at my touch it dissolved into
a cloud of powder, a huge puff of white dust which descended on me as
though a couple of flour-bags had been inverted over my head; and as
I staggered out sneezing and blinking, white as a miller from face to
foot, the Martian burst into a wild, joyous peal of laughter that made
the woods ring again. His merriment was so sincere I had not the heart
to be angry, and soon laughed as loud as he did; though, for the future,
I took his botanical essays with a little more caution.
That woodman friend of mine proved so engaging it was difficult to get
away, and thus when, dusk upon us, and my object still a long distance
off, he asked me to spend the night at his hut, I gladly assented.
We soon reached the cabin where the man lived by himself whilst working in
the forest. It was a picturesque little place on a tree-overhung lagoon,
thatched, wattled, and all about were piles of a pleasant-scented bark,
collected for the purpose of tanning hides, and I could not but marvel
that such a familiar process should be practised identically on two sides
of the universal ether. But as a matter of fact the similarity of many
details of existence here and there was the most striking of the things
I learned whilst in the red planet.
Within the hut stood a hearth in the centre of the floor, whereon
a comfortable blaze soon sparkled, and upon the walls hung various
implements, hides, and a store of dried fruits of various novel kinds.
My host, when he had somewhat disdainfully watched me wash in a rill of
water close by, suggested supper, and I agreed with heartiest good will.
"Nothing wonderful! Oh, Mr. Blue-coat!" he said, prancing about as
he made his hospitable arrangements. "No fine meat or scented wine to
unlock, one by one, all the doors of paradise, such as I have heard they
have in lands beyond the sea; but fare good enough for plain men who
eat but to live. So! reach me down yonder bunch of yellow aru fruit,
and don't upset that calabash, for all my funniest stories lurk at the
bottom of it."
I did as he bid, and soon we were squatting by the fire toasting arus on
pointed sticks, the doorway closed with a wattle hurdle, and the black
and gold firelight filling the hut with fantastic shadows. Then when
the banana-like fruit was ready, the man fetched from a recess a loaf
of bread savoured with the dust of dried and pounded fish, put the
foresaid calabash of strong ale to warm, and down we sat to supper with
real woodman appetites. Seldom have I enjoyed a meal so much, and when
we had finished the fruit and the wheat cake my guide snatched up the
great gourd of ale, and putting it to his lips called out:
"Here's to you, stranger; here's to your country; here's to your girl,
if you have one, and death to your enemies!" Then he drank deep and long,
and, passed the stuff to me.
"Here's to you, bully host, and the missus, and the children, if there
are any, and more power to your elbow!"--the which gratified him greatly,
though probably he had small idea of my meaning.
And right merry we were that evening. The host was a jolly good fellow,
and his ale, with a pleasant savour of mint in it, was the heartiest drink
I ever set lips to. We talked and laughed till the very jackals yapped in
sympathy outside. And when he had told a score of wonderful wood stories
as pungent of the life of these fairy forests as the aromatic scent of
his bark-heaps outside, as iridescent with the colours of another world
as the rainbow bubbles riding down his starlit rill, I took a turn,
and told him of the commonplaces of my world so far away, whereat he
laughed gloriously again. The greater the commonplace the larger his joy.
The humblest story, hardly calculated to impress a griffin between watches
on the main-deck, was a masterpiece of wit to that gentle savage; and
when I "took off" the tricks and foibles of some of my superiors--Heaven
forgive me for such treason!--he listened with the exquisite open-mouthed
delight of one who wanders in a brand-new world of mirth.
We drank and laughed over that strong beer till the little owls outside
raised their voice in combined accord, and then the woodman, shaking the
last remnant of his sleepy wits together, and giving a reproachful look
at me for finally passing him the gourd empty to the last drop, rose,
threw a fur on a pile of dead grass at one side of the hut, and bid me
sleep, "for his brain was giddy with the wonders of the incredible and
ludicrous sphere which I had lately inhabited."
Slowly the fire died away; slowly the quivering gold and black arabesques
on the walls merged in a red haze as the sticks dropped into tinder,
and the great black outline of the hairy monster who had thrown himself
down by the embers rose up the walls against that flush like the outline
of a range of hills against a sunset glow. I listened drowsily for
a space to his snoring and the laughing answer of the brook outside,
and then that ambrosial sleep which is the gentle attendant of hardship
and danger touched my tired eyelids, and I, too, slept.
My friend was glum the next morning, as they who stay over-long at
the supper flagon are apt to be. He had been at work an hour on his
bark-heaps when I came out into the open, and it was only by a good deal
of diplomacy and some material help in sorting his faggots that he was
got into a better frame of mind. I could not, however, trust his mood
completely, and as I did not want to end so jovial a friendship with a
quarrel, I hurried through our breakfast of dry bread, with hard-boiled
lizard eggs, and then settling my reckoning with one of the brass buttons
from my coat, which he immediately threaded, with every evidence of
extreme gratification, on a string of trinkets hanging round his neck,
asked him the way to Ar-hap's capital.
"Your way is easy, friend, as long as you keep to the straight path
and have yonder two-humped mountain in front. To the left is the sea,
and behind the hill runs the canal and road by which all traffic comes or
goes to Ar-hap. But above all things pass not to the hills right, for no
man goes there; there away the forests are thick as night, and in their
perpetual shadows are the ruins of a Hither city, a haunted fairy town
to which some travellers have been, but whence none ever returned alive."
"By the great Jove, that sounds promising! I would like to see that
town if my errand were not so urgent."
But the old fellow shook his shaggy head and turned a shade yellower.
"It is no place for decent folk," he growled. "I myself once passed
within a mile of its outskirts at dusk, and saw the unholy little
people's lanterned processions starting for the shrine of Queen Yang,
who, tradition says, killed herself and a thousand babies with her when
we took this land."
"My word, that was a holocaust! Couldn't I drop in there to lunch? It
would make a fine paper for an antiquarian society."
Again the woodman frowned. "Do as I bid you, son. You are too young
and green to go on ventures by yourself. Keep to the straight road:
shun the swamps and the fairy forest, else will you never see Ar-hap."
"And as I have very urgent and very important business with him,
comrade, no doubt your advice is good. I will call on Princess Yang some
other day. And now goodbye! Rougher but friendlier shelter than you
have given me no man could ask for. I am downright sorry to part with
you in this lonely land. If ever we meet again--" but we never did!
The honest old churl clasped me into his hairy bosom three times,
stuffed my wallet with dry fruit and bread, and once more repeating his
directions, sent me on my lonely way.
I confess I sighed while turning into the forest, and looked back
more than once at his retreating form. The loneliness of my position,
the hopelessness of my venture, welled up in my heart after that good
comradeship, and when the hut was out of sight I went forward down the
green grass road, chin on chest, for twenty minutes in the deepest
dejection. But, thank Heaven, I was born with a tough spirit, and
possess a mind which has learned in many fights to give brave counsel
to my spirit, and thus presently I shook myself together, setting my
face boldly to the quest and the day's work.
It was not so clear a morning as the previous one, and a steamy wind on
what at sea I should have called the starboard bow, as I pressed forward
to the distant hill, had a curiously subduing effect on my thoughts,
and filled the forest glades with a tremulous unreality like to nothing
on our earth, and distinctly embarrassing to a stranger in a strange
land. Small birds in that quaint atmospheric haze looked like condors,
butterflies like giant fowl, and the simplest objects of the forest like
the imaginations of a disordered dream. Behind that gauzy hallucination
a fine white mist came up, and the sun spread out flat and red in the sky,
while the pent-in heat became almost unendurable.
Still I plodded on, growling to myself that in Christian latitudes all
the evidences would have been held to betoken a storm before night,
whatever they might do here, but for the most part lost in my own gloomy
speculations. That was the more pity since, in thinking the walk over
now, it seems to me that I passed many marvels, saw many glorious vistas
in those nameless forests, many spreads of colour, many incidents that,
could I but remember them more distinctly, would supply material for
making my fortune as a descriptive traveller. But what would you? I
have forgotten, and am too virtuous to draw on my imagination, as it
is sometimes said other travellers have done when picturesque facts
were deficient. Yes, I have forgotten all about that day, save that
it was sultry hot, that I took off my coat and waistcoat to be cooler,
carrying them, like the tramp I was, across my arm, and thus dishevelled
passed some time in the afternoon an encampment of forest folk, wherefrom
almost all the men were gone, and the women shy and surly.
In no very social humour myself, I walked round their woodland village,
and on the outskirts, by a brook, just as I was wishing there were some
one to eat my solitary lunch with, chanced upon a fellow busily engaged
in hammering stones into weapons upon a flint anvil.
He was an ugly-looking individual at best, yet I was hard up for company,
so I put my coat down, and, seating myself on a log opposite, proceeded
to open my wallet, and take out the frugal stores the woodman had given
me that morning.
The man was seated upon the ground holding a stone anvil between his feet,
while with his hands he turned and chipped with great skill a spear-head
he was making out of flint. It was about the only pastime he had, and his
little yellow eyes gleamed with a craftsman's pleasure, his shaggy round
shoulders were bent over the task, the chips flew in quick particles,
and the wood echoed musically as the artificer watched the thing under
his hands take form and fashion. Presently I spoke, and the worker
looked up, not too pleased at being thus interrupted. But he was easy
of propitiation, and over a handful of dried raisins communicative.
How, I asked, knowing a craftsman's craft is often nearest to his heart,
how was it such things as that he chipped came to be thought of by him
and his? Whereon the woodman, having spit out the raisin-stones and
wiped his fingers on his fur, said in substance that the first weapon
was fashioned when the earliest ape hurled the first stone in wrath.
"But, chum," I said, taking up his half-finished spear and touching the
razor-fine edge with admiring caution, "from hurling the crude pebble to
fashioning such as this is a long stride. Who first edged and pointed
the primitive malice? What man with the soul of a thousand unborn fighters
in him notched and sharpened your natural rock?"
Whereon the chipper grinned, and answered that, when the woodmen had
found stones that would crack skulls, it came upon them presently that
they would crack nuts as well. And cracking nuts between two stones one
day a flint shattered, and there on the grass was the golden secret of
the edge--the thing that has made man what he is.
"Yet again, good fellow," I queried, "even this happy chance only gives
us a weapon, sharp, no doubt, and calculated to do a hundred services
for any ten the original pebble could have done, but still unhandled,
small in force, imperfect--now tell me, which of your amiable ancestors
first put a handle to the fashioned flint, and how he thought of it?"
The workman had done his flake by now, and wrapping it in a bit of skin,
put it carefully in his belt before turning to answer my question.
"Who made the first handle for the first flint, you of the many
questions? She did--she, the Mother," he suddenly cried, patting the
earth with his brown hand, and working himself up as he spoke, "made
it in her heart for us her first-born. See, here is such as the first
handled weapon that ever came out of darkness," and he snatched from the
ground, where it had lain hidden under his fox-skin cloak, a heavy club.
I saw in an instant how it was. The club had been a sapling, and the
sapling's roots had grown about and circled with a splendid grip a lump
of native flint. A woodman had pulled the sapling, found the flint,
and fashioned the two in a moment of happy inspiration, the one to an
axe-head and the other to a handle, as they lay Nature-welded!
"This, I say, is the first--the first!" screamed the old fellow as
though I were contradicting him, thumping the ground with his weapon,
and working himself up to a fury as its black magic entered his being.
"This is the first: with this I slew Hetter and Gur, and those who
plundered my hiding-places in the woods; with this I have killed a score
of others, bursting their heads, and cracking their bones like dry sticks.
With this--with this--" but here his rage rendered him inarticulate;
he stammered and stuttered for a minute, and then as the killing fury
settled on him his yellow teeth shut with a sudden snap, while through
them his breath rattled like wind through dead pine branches in December,
the sinews sat up on his hands as his fingers tightened upon the axe-heft
like the roots of the same pines from the ground when winter rain has
washed the soil from beneath them; his small eyes gleamed like baleful
planets; every hair upon his shaggy back grew stiff and erect--another
minute and my span were ended.
With a leap from where I sat I flew at that hairy beast, and sinking my
fists deep in his throttle, shook him till his eyes blazed with delirious
fires. We waltzed across the short greensward, and in and about the
tree-trunks, shaking, pulling, and hitting as we went, till at last I felt
the man's vigour dying within him; a little more shaking, a sudden twist,
and he was lying on the ground before me, senseless and civil! That is
the worst of some orators, I thought to myself, as I gloomily gathered
up the scattered fragments of my lunch; they never know when they have
said enough, and are too apt to be carried away by their own arguments.
That inhospitable village was left behind in full belief the mountain
looming in the south could be reached before nightfall, while the road
to its left would serve as a sure guide to food and shelter for the
evening. But, as it turned out, the morning's haze developed a strong
mist ere the afternoon was half gone, through which it was impossible to
see more than twenty yards. My hill loomed gigantic for a time with a
tantalising appearance of being only a mile or two ahead, then wavered,
became visionary, and finally disappeared as completely as though the
forest mist had drunk it up bodily.
There was still the road to guide me, a fairly well-beaten track twining
through the glades; but even the best of highways are difficult in fog,
and this one was complicated by various side paths, made probably by
hunters or bark-cutters, and without compass or guide marks it was
necessary to advance with extreme caution, or get helplessly mazed.
An hour's steady tramping brought me nowhere in particular, and
stopping for a minute to consider, I picked a few wild fruit, such
as my wood-cutter friend had eaten, from an overhanging bush, and
in so doing slipped, the soil having now become damp, and in falling
broke a branch off. The incident was only important from what follows.
Picking myself up, perhaps a little shaken by the jolt, I set off again
upon what seemed the plain road, and being by this time displeased by
my surroundings, determined to make a push for "civilization" before
the rapidly gathering darkness settled down.
Hands in pockets and collar up, I marched forward at a good round pace
for an hour, constantly straining eyes for a sight of the hill and ears
for some indications of living beings in the deathly hush of the shrouded
woods, and at the end of that time, feeling sure habitations must now be
near, arrived at what looked like a little open space, somehow seeming
rather familiar in its vague outlines.
Where had I seen such a place before? Sauntering round the margin,
a bush with a broken branch suddenly attracted my attention--a broken
bush with a long slide in the mud below it, and the stamp of Navy boots
in the soft turf! I glared at those signs for a moment, then with an
exclamation of chagrin recognised them only too well--it was the bush
whence I had picked the fruit, and the mark of my fall. An hour's hard
walking round some accursed woodland track had brought me exactly back
to the point I had started from--I was lost!
It really seemed to get twenty per cent darker as I made that abominable
discovery, and the position dawned in all its uncomfortable intensity.
There was nothing for it but to start off again, this time judging
my direction only by a light breath of air drifting the mist tangles
before it; and therein I made a great mistake, for the breeze had shifted
several points from the quarter whence it blew in the morning.
Knowing nothing of this, I went forward with as much lightheartedness
as could be managed, humming a song to myself, and carefully putting
aside thoughts of warmth and supper, while the dusk increased and the
great forest vegetation seemed to grow ranker and closer at every step
Another disconcerting thing was that the ground sloped gradually
downwards, not upwards as it should have done, till it seemed the path
lay across the flats of a forest-covered plain, which did not conform to
my wish of striking a road on the foot-hills of the mountain. However,
I plodded on, drawing some small comfort from the fact that as darkness
came the mist rose from the ground and appeared to condense in a ghostly
curtain twenty feet overhead, where it hung between me and a clear night
sky, presently illumined by starlight with the strangest effect.
Tired, footsore, and dejected, I struggled on a little further. Oh for
a cab, I laughed bitterly to myself. Oh for even the humble necessary
omnibus of civilisation. Oh for the humblest tuck-shop where a mug of
hot coffee and a snack could be had by a homeless wanderer; and as I
thought and plodded savagely on, collar up, hands in pockets, through
the black tangles of that endless wood, suddenly the sound of wailing
children caught my ear!
It was the softest, saddest music ever mortal listened to. It was as
though scores of babes in pain were dropping to sleep on their mothers'
breasts, and all hushing their sorrows with one accord in a common
melancholy chorus. I stood spell-bound at that elfin wailing, the first
sound to break the deathly stillness of the road for an hour or more, and
my blood tingled as I listened to it. Nevertheless, here was what I was
looking for; where there were weeping children there must be habitations,
and shelter, and--splendid thought!--supper. Poor little babes! their
crying was the deadliest, sweetest thing in sorrows I ever listened to.
If it was cholic--why, I knew a little of medicine, and in gratitude for
that prospective supper, I had a soul big enough to cure a thousand; and
if they were in disgrace, and by some quaint Martian fashion had suffered
simultaneous punishment for baby offences, I would plead for them.
In fact, I fairly set off at the run towards the sobbing, in the black,
wet, night air ahead, and, tripping as I ran, looked down and saw in
the filtering starlight that the forest grass had given place to an
ancient roadway, paved with moss-grown flag-stones, such as they still
used in Seth.
Without stopping to think what that might mean I hurried on, the wailing
now right ahead, a tremulous tumult of gentle grief rising and falling on
the night air like the sound of a sea after a storm; and so, presently,
in a minute or two, came upon a ruined archway spanning the lonely road,
held together by great masses of black-fingered creepers, gaunt and
ghostly in the shadows, an extraordinary and unexpected vision; and
as I stopped with a jerk under that forbidding gateway and glared at
its tumbled masonry and great portals hanging rotten at their hinges,
suddenly the truth flashed upon me. I had taken the forbidden road
after all. I was in the ancient, ghost-haunted city of Queen Yang!
The dark forest seemed to shut behind as I entered the gateway of the
deserted Hither town, against which my wood-cutter friend had warned me,
while inside the soft mist hung in the starlight like grey drapery over
endless vistas of ruins. What was I to do? Without all was black and
cheerless, inside there was at least shelter. Wet and cold, my courage
was not to be put down by the stories of a silly savage; I would go on
whatever happened. Besides, the soft sound of crying, now apparently all
about, seemed companionable, and I had heard so much of ghosts of late,
the sharp edge of fear at their presence was wearing off.
So in I went: up a broad, decayed street, its flagstones heaved everywhere
by the roots of gnarled trees, and finding nothing save ruin, tried to
rest under a wall. But the night air was chilly and the shelter poor,
so out I came again, with the wailing in the shadows so close about now
that I stopped, and mustering up courage called aloud:
"Hullo, you who weep there in the dark, are you living or dead?"
And after a minute from the hollows of the empty hearths around came
the sad little responsive echo:
"Are you living or dead?" It was very delusive and unsatisfactory,
and I was wondering what to do next when a slant of warmer wind came up
behind me under the mist, and immediately little tongues of blue flame
blossomed without visible cause in every darksome crevice; pale flickers
of miasmic light rising pallid from every lurking nook and corner in the
black desolation as though a thousand lamps were lit by unseen fingers,
and, knee high, floated out into the thoroughfare where they oscillated
gently in airy grace, and then, forming into procession, began drifting
before the tepid air towards the city centre. At once I thought of what
the woodcutter had seen, but was too wet and sulky by this time to care.
The fascination of the place was on me, and dropping into rear of the
march, I went forward with it. By this time the wailing had stopped,
though now and then it seemed a dark form moved in the empty doorways
on either hand, while the mist, parting into gossamers before the wind,
took marvellously human forms in every alley and lane we passed.
Thus I, a sodden giant, led by those elfin torches, paced through the
city until we came to an open square with a great lumber of ruins in the
centre all marred and spoiled by vegetation; and here the lights wavered,
and went out by scores and hundreds, just as the petals drop from spent
flowers, while it seemed, though it may have been only wind in the rank
grass, that the air was full of most plaintive sighs as each little lamp
slipped into oblivion.
The big pile was a mass of fallen masonry, which, from the broken pillars
all about, might have been a palace or temple once. I pushed in, but it
was as dark as Hades here, so, after struggling for a time in a labyrinth
of chambers, chose a sandy recess, with some dry herbage by way of
bedding in a corner, and there, thankful at least for shelter, my night's
wanderings came to an end and I coiled myself down, ate a last handful
of dry fruit, and, strange as it may seem, was soon sleeping peacefully.
I dreamed that night that a woman, with a face as white as ivory, came
and bent over me. She led a babe by either hand, while behind her were
scores of other ones, with lovely faces, but all as pale as the stars
themselves, who looked and sighed, but said nothing, and when they had
stared their fill, dropped out one by one, leaving a wonderful blank in
the monotony where they had been; but beyond that dream nothing happened.
It was a fine morning when I woke again, and obviously broad day outside,
the sunshine coming down through cracks in the old palace roof, and
lying in golden pools on the floor with dazzling effect.
Rubbing my eyes and sitting up, it took me some time to get my senses
together, and at first an uneasy feeling possessed me that I was
somehow dematerialised and in an unreal world. But a twinge of cramp
in my left arm, and a healthy sneeze, which frightened a score of bats
overhead nearly out of their senses, was reassuring on this point,
and rubbing away the cramp and staggering to my feet, I looked about
at the strange surroundings. It was cavernous chaos on every side:
magnificent architecture reduced to the confusion of a debris-heap, only
the hollow chambers being here and there preserved by massive columns
meeting overhead. Into these the yellow light filtered wherever a rent in
a cupola or side-wall admitted it, and allured by the vision of corridors
one beyond the other, I presently set off on a tour of discovery.
Twenty minutes' scrambling brought me to a place where the fallen
jambs of a fine doorway lay so close together that there was barely
room to pass between them. However, seeing light beyond, I squeezed
through, and I found myself in the best-preserved chamber of all--a
wide, roomy hall with a domed roof, a haze of mural paintings on the
walls, and a marble floor nearly hidden in a century of fallen dust.
I stumbled over something at the threshold, and picking it up, found it
was a baby's skull! And there were more of them now that my eyes became
accustomed to the light. The whole floor was mottled with them--scores
and hundreds of bones and those poor little relics of humanity jutting
out of the sand everywhere. In the hush of that great dead nursery the
little white trophies seemed inexpressibly pathetic, and I should have
turned back reverently from that chamber of forgotten sorrows but that
something caught my eye in the centre of it.
It was an oblong pile of white stone, very ill-used and chipped,
wrist-deep in dust, yet when a slant of light came in from above and fell
straight upon it, the marble against the black gloom beyond blazed like
living pearl. It was dazzling; and shading my eyes and going tenderly
over through the poor dead babes, I looked, and there, full in the shine,
lay a woman's skeleton, still wrapped in a robe of which little was
left save the hard gold embroidery. Her brown hair, wonderful to say,
still lay like lank, dead seaweed about her, and amongst it was a fillet
crown of plain iron set with gems such as eye never looked upon before.
There were not many, but enough to make the proud simplicity of that
circlet glisten like a little band of fire--a gleaming halo on her dead
forehead infinitely fascinating. At her sides were two other little
bleached human flowers, and I stood before them for a long time in
Could this be Queen Yang, of whom the woodcutter had told me? It must
be--who else? And if it were, what strange chance had brought me here--a
stranger, yet the first to come, since her sorrow, from her distant
kindred? And if it were, then that fillet belonged of right to Heru,
the last representative of her kind. Ought I not to take it to her
rather than leave it as spoil to the first idle thief with pluck enough
to deride the mysteries of the haunted city? Long time I thought over
it in the faint, heavy atmosphere of that hall, and then very gently
unwound the hair, lifted the circlet, and, scarcely knowing what I did,
put it in my shoulder-bag.
After that I went more cheerfully into the outside sunshine, and
setting my clothes to dry on a stone, took stock of the situation.
The place was, perhaps, not quite so romantic by day as by night, and
the scattered trees, matted by creepers, with which the whole were
overgrown, prevented anything like an extensive view of the ruined
city being obtained. But what gave me great satisfaction was to note
over these trees to the eastward a two-humped mountain, not more than
six or seven miles distant--the very one I had mislaid the day before.
Here was reality and a chance of getting back to civilisation. I was as
glad as if home were in sight, and not, perhaps, the less so because the
hill meant villages and food; and you who have doubtless lunched well and
lately will please bear in mind I had had nothing since breakfast the
day before; and though this may look picturesque on paper, in practice
it is a painful item in one's programme.
Well, I gave my damp clothes but a turn or two more in the sun, and then,
arguing that from the bare ground where the forest ended half-way up
the hill, a wide view would be obtained, hurried into my garments and
set off thither right gleefully. A turn or two down the blank streets,
now prosaic enough, an easy scramble through a gap in the crumbling
battlements, and there was the open forest again, with a friendly path
well marked by the passage of those wild animals who made the city their
lair trending towards my landmark.
A light breakfast of soft green nuts, plucked on the way, and then
the ground began to bend upwards and the woods to thin a little.
With infinite ardour, just before midday, I scrambled on to a bare knoll
on the very hillside, and fell exhausted before the top could be reached.
But what were hunger or fatigue to the satisfaction of that moment? There
was the sea before me, the clear, strong, gracious sea, blue leagues
of it, furrowed by the white ridges of some distant storm. I could
smell the scent of it even here, and my sailor heart rose in pride at
the companionship of that alien ocean. Lovely and blessed thing! how
often have I turned from the shallow trivialities of the land and
found consolation in the strength of your stately solitudes! How often
have I turned from the tinselled presence of the shore, the infinite
pretensions of dry land that make life a sorry, hectic sham, and found
in the black bosom of the Great Mother solace and comfort! Dear, lovely
sea, man--half of every sphere, as far removed in the sequence of your
strong emotions from the painted fripperies of the woman-land as pole
from pole--the grateful blessing of the humblest of your followers on you!
The mere sight of salt water did me good. Heaven knows our separation
had not been long, and many an unkind slap has the Mother given me in
the bygone; yet the mere sight of her was tonic, a lethe of troubles,
a sedative for tired nerves; and I gazed that morning at the illimitable
blue, the great, unfettered road to everywhere, the ever-varied, the
immutable, the thing which was before everything and shall be last of all,
in an ecstasy of affection.
There was also other satisfaction at hand. Not a mile away lay a
well-defined road--doubtless the one spoken of by the wood-cutter--and
where the track pointed to the seashore the low roofs and circling smoke
of a Thither township showed.
There I went hot-footed, and, much too hungry to be nice in formality,
swung up to the largest building on the waterside quay and demanded
breakfast of the man who was lounging by its doorway chewing a honey reed.
He looked me up and down without emotion, then, falling into the common
"This is not a hostel for ghosts, sir. We do not board and lodge phantoms
here; this is a dry fish shop."
"Thrice blessed trade!" I answered. "Give me some dried fish, good
fellow, or, for the matter of that, dried horse or dog, or anything
mortal teeth can bite through, and I will show you my tastes are
But he shook his head. "This is no place for the likes of you, who
come, mayhap, from the city of Yang or some other abode of disembodied
spirits--you, who come for mischief and pay harbourage with mischance--is
it likely you could eat wholesome food?"
"Indeed I could, and plenty of it, seeing I have dined and breakfasted
along the hedges with the blackbirds this two days. Look here, I will
pay in advance. Will that get me a meal?" and, whipping out my knife,
cut off another of my fast-receding coat buttons.
The man took it with great interest, as I hoped he would, the yellow
metal being apparently a very scarce commodity in his part of the planet.
"Gold?" he asked.
"Well--ahem! I forgot to ask the man who sewed them on for me what they
were exactly, but it looks like gold, doesn't it?"
"Yes," he answered, turning it to and fro admiringly in his hand, "you
are the first ghost I ever knew to pay in advance, and plenty of them go
to and fro through here. Such a pretty thing is well worth a meal--if,
indeed, you can stomach our rough fare. Here, you woman within," he
called to the lady whom I presume was his wife, "here is a gentleman
from the nether regions who wants some breakfast and has paid in advance.
Give him some of your best, for he has paid well."
"And what," said a female voice from inside, "what if I refused to serve
another of these plaguy wanderers you are always foisting upon me?"
"Don't mind her tongue, sir. It's the worst part of her, though she is
mighty proud of it. Go in and she will see you do not come out hungry,"
and the Thither man returned calmly to his honey stick.
"Come on, you Soul-with-a-man's-stomach," growled the woman, and too
hungry to be particular about the tone of invitation, I strode into the
parlour of that strange refreshment place. The woman was the first I
had seen of the outer race, and better than might have been expected in
appearance. Big, strong, and ruddy, she was a mental shock after the
slender slips of girlhood on the far side of the water, half a dozen
of whom she could have carried off without effort in her long arms.
Yet there was about her the credential of rough health, the dignity of
muscle, an upright carriage, an animal grace of movement, and withal a
comely though strongly featured face, which pleased me at once, and later
on I had great cause to remember her with gratitude. She eyed me sulkily
for a minute, then her frown gradually softened, and the instinctive
love of the woman for the supernatural mastered her other feelings.
"Is that how you looked in another world?" she asked.
"Yes, exactly, cap to boots. What do you think of the attire, ma'am?"
"Not much," replied the good woman frankly. "It could not have been
becoming even when new, and you appear as though you had taken a muddy
road since then. What did you die of?"
"I will tell you so much as this, madam--that what I am like to die of
now is hunger, plain, unvarnished hunger, so, in Heaven's name, get out
what you have and let me fall-to, for my last meal was yesterday morning."
Whereat, with a shrug of her shoulders at the eccentricities of
nether folk, the woman went to the rear of the house, and presently
came back with a meal which showed her husband had done scant justice
to the establishment by calling it a dry fish shop. It is true, fish
supplied the staple of the repast, as was inevitable in a seaport, but,
like all Martian fish, it was of ambrosial kind, with a savour about it
of wine and sunshine such as no fish on our side of space can boast of.
Then there were cakes, steaming and hot, vegetables which fitted into
the previous course with exquisite nicety, and, lastly, a wooden tankard
of the invariable Thither beer to finish off. Such a meal as a hungry
man might consider himself fortunate to meet with any day.
The woman watched me eat with much satisfaction, and when I had answered a
score of artless questions about my previous state, or present condition
and prospects, more or less to her satisfaction, she supplied me in turn
with some information which was really valuable to me just then.
First I learned that Ar-hap's men, with the abducted Heru, had passed
through this very port two days before, and by this time were probably in
the main town, which, it appeared, was only about twelve hours' rowing
up the salt-water estuary outside. Here was news! Heru, the prize
and object of my wild adventure, close at hand and well. It brought
a whole new train of thoughts, for the last few days had been so full
of the stress of travel, the bare, hard necessity of getting forward,
that the object of my quest, illogical as it may seem, had gone into the
background before these things. And here again, as I finished the last
cake and drank down to the bottom of the ale tankard, the extreme folly
of the venture came upon me, the madness of venturing single-handed into
the den of the Wood King. What had I to hope for? What chance, however
remote, was there of successfully wresting that blooming prize from the
arms of her captor? Force was out of the question; stealth was utterly
impractical; as for cajolery, apparently the sole remaining means of
winning back the Princess--why, one might as well try the persuasion of
a penny flute upon a hungry eagle as seek to rouse Ar-hap's sympathies
for bereaved Hath in that way. Surely to go forward would mean my own
certain destruction, with no advantage, no help to Heru; and if I was
ever to turn back or stop in the idle quest, here was the place and time.
My Hither friends were behind the sea; to them I could return before
it was too late, and here were the rough but honest Thither folk, who
would doubtless let me live amongst them if that was to be my fate.
One or other alternative were better than going to torture and death.
"You seem to take the fate of that Hither girl of yours mightily to
heart, stranger," quoth my hostess, with a touch of feminine jealousy,
as she watched my hesitation. "Do you know anything of her?"
"Yes," I answered gloomily. "I have seen her once or twice away in Seth."
"Ah, that reminds me! When they brought her up here from the boats to
dry her wet clothes, she cried and called in her grief for just such a
one as you, saying he alone who struck down our men at her feast could
"What! Heru here in this room but yesterday! How did she look? Was
she hurt? How had they treated her?"
My eagerness gave me away. The woman looked at me through her half-shut
eyes a space, and then said, "Oh! sits the wind in THAT quarter? So
you can love as well as eat. I must say you are well-conditioned for
I got up and walked about the room a space, then, feeling very friendless,
and knowing no woman was ever born who was not interested in another
woman's loves, I boldly drew my hostess aside and told her about Heru, and
that I was in pursuit of her, dwelling on the girl's gentle helplessness,
my own hare-brained adventure, and frankly asking what sort of a sovereign
Ar-hap was, what the customs of his court might be, and whether she could
suggest any means, temporal or spiritual, by which he might be moved to
give back Heru to her kindred.
Nor was my confidence misplaced. The woman, as I guessed, was touched
somewhere back in her female heart by my melting love-tale, by my anxiety
and Heru's peril. Besides, a ghost in search of a fairy lady--and such
the slender folk of Seth were still considered to be by the race which
had supplanted them--this was romance indeed. To be brief, that good
woman proved invaluable.
She told me, firstly, that Ar-hap was believed to be away at war,
"weekending" as was his custom, amongst rebellious tribes, and by starting
at once up the water, I should very probably get to the town before
he did. Secondly, she thought if I kept clear of private brawls there
was little chance of my receiving injury, from the people at all events,
as they were accustomed to strange visitors, and civil enough until they
were fired by war. "Sickle cold, sword hot," was one of their proverbs,
meaning thereby that in peaceful times they were lambs, however lionlike
they might be in contest.
This was reassuring, but as to recovering the lady, that was another
matter over which the good woman shook her head. It was ill coming
between Ar-hap and his tribute, she said; still, if I wanted to see Heru
once again, this was my opportunity, and, for the rest, that chance,
which often favours the enamoured, must be my help.
Briefly, though I should probably have gone forward in any case out of
sheer obstinacy, had it been to certain destruction, this better aspect
of the situation hastened my resolution. I thanked the woman for help,
and then the man outside was called in to advise as to the best and
speediest way of getting within earshot of his hairy sovereignty, the
monarch of Thitherland.
The Martian told me of a merchant boat with ten rowers which was going
up to the capital in a couple of hours, and as the skipper was a friend
of his they would no doubt take me as supercargo, thereby saving the
necessity of passenger fees, which was obviously a consideration with me.
It was not altogether a romantic approach to the dungeon of an imprisoned
beauty, but it was practical, which is often better if not so pleasant.
So the offer was gladly closed with, and curling myself in a rug of
foxskins, for I was tired with much walking, sailors never being good
foot-gangers, I slept soundly fill they came to tell me it was time to
go on board.
The vessel was more like a canal barge than anything else, lean and long,
with the cargo piled in a ridge down the centre as farmers store their
winter turnips, the rowers sitting on either side of this plying oars
like dessert-spoons with long handles, while they chanted a monotonous
cadence of monosyllables:
Oh, ho, oh,
Oh, ho, oh,
How high, how high.
and then again after a pause--
How high, how high
Oh, ho, oh,
Oh, ho, oh.
the which was infinitely sleep-provoking if not a refrain of a high
I shut my eyes as we pulled away from the wharfs of that nameless
emporium and picked a passage through a crowd of quaint shipping,
wondering where I was, and asking myself whether I was mentally rising
equal to my extraordinary surroundings, whether I adequately appreciated
the immensity of my remove from those other seas on which I had last
travelled, tiller-ropes in hand, piloting a captain's galley from a wharf.
Good heavens, what would my comrades on my ship say if they could see
me now steering a load of hairy savages up one of those waterways which
our biggest telescopes magnify but to the thickness of an indication?
No, I was not rising equal to the occasion, and could not. The human
mind is of but limited capacity after all, and such freaks of fortune
are beyond its conception. I knew I was where I was, but I knew I
should probably never get the chance of telling of it, and that no one
would ever believe me if I did, and I resigned myself to the inevitable
with sullen acquiescence, smothering the wonder that might have been
overwhelming in passing interests of the moment.
There is little to record of that voyage. We passed through a fleet
of Ar-hap's warships, empty and at anchor in double line, serviceable
half-decked cutters, built of solid timber, not pumpkin rind it was
pleasant to notice, and then the town dropped away as we proceeded
up a stream about as broad as the Hudson at its widest, and profusely
studded with islands. This water was bitterly salt and joined another
sea on the other side of the Martian continent. Yet it had a pronounced
flow against us eastward, this tide running for three spring months and
being followed, I learned, as ocean temperatures varied, by a flow in
the opposite direction throughout the summer.
Just at present the current was so strong eastwards, the moisture
beaded upon my rowers' tawny hides as they struggled against it, and
their melancholy song dawdled in "linked sweetness long drawn out,"
while the swing of their oars grew longer and longer. Truly it was
very hot, far hotter than was usual for the season, these men declared,
and possibly this robbed me of my wonted energy, and you, gentle reader,
of a description of all the strange things we passed upon that highway.
Suffice it to say we spent a scorching afternoon, the greater part of a
stifling night moored under a mud-bank with a grove of trees on top from
which gigantic fire-flies hung as though the place were illuminated for
a garden fete, and then, rowing on again in the comparatively cool hours
before dawn, turned into a backwater at cock-crow.
The skipper of our cargo boat roused me just as we turned, putting under
my sleepy nostrils a handful of toasted beans on a leaf, and a small
cup full of something that was not coffee, but smelt as good as that
matutinal beverage always does to the tired traveller.
Over our prow was an immense arch of foliage, and underneath a long arcade
of cool black shadows, sheltering still water, till water and shadow
suddenly ended a quarter of a mile down in a patch of brilliant colour.
It was as peaceful as could be in the first morning light, and to me
over all there was the inexpressible attraction of the unknown.
As our boat slipped silently forward up this leafy lane, a thin white
"feather" in her mouth alone breaking the steely surface of the stream,
the men rested from their work and began, as sailors will, to put on
their shore-going clothes, the while they chatted in low tones over the
profits of the voyage. Overhead flying squirrels were flitting to and
fro like bats, or shelling fruit whereof the husks fell with a pleasant
splash about us, and on one bank a couple of early mothers were washing
their babies, whose smothered protests were almost the only sound in
this morning world.
Another silent dip or two of the oars and the colour ahead crystallised
into a town. If I said it was like an African village on a large scale,
I should probably give you the best description in the fewest words.
From the very water's edge up to the crown of a low hill inland, extended
a mass of huts and wooden buildings, embowered and partly hidden in
bright green foliage, with here and there patches of millet, or some
such food plant, and the flowers that grow everywhere so abundantly in
this country. It was all Arcadian and peaceful enough at the moment,
and as we drew near the men were just coming out to the quays along the
harbour front, the streets filling and the town waking to busy life.
A turn to the left through a watergate defended by towers of wood
and mud, and we were in the city harbour itself; boats of many kinds
moored on every side; quaint craft from the gulfs and bays of Nowhere,
full of unheard-of merchandise, and manned by strange-faced crews, every
vessel a romance of nameless seas, an epitome of an undiscovered world,
and every moment the scene grew busier as the breakfast smoke arose,
and wharf and gangway set to work upon the day's labours.
Our boat--loaded, as it turned out, with spoil from Seth--was run to
a place of honour at the bottom of the town square, and was an object
of much curiosity to a small crowd which speedily collected and lent a
hand with the mooring ropes, the while chatting excitedly with the crew
about further tribute and the latest news from overseas. At the same
time a swarthy barbarian, whose trappings showed him to be some sort
of functionary, came down to our "captain," much wagging of heads and
counting of notched sticks taking place between them.
I, indeed, was apparently the least interesting item of the cargo,
and this was embarrassing. No hero likes to be neglected, it is fatal
to his part. I had said my prayers and steeled myself to all sorts of
fine endurance on the way up, and here, when it came to the crisis,
no one was anxious to play the necessary villain. They just helped
me ashore civilly enough, the captain nodded his head at me, muttering
something in an indifferent tone to the functionary about a ghost who
had wandered overseas and begged a passage up the canal; the group about
the quay stared a little, but that was all.
Once I remember seeing a squatting, life-size heathen idol hoisted
from a vessel's hold and deposited on a sugar-box on a New York quay.
Some ribald passer-by put a battered felt hat upon Vishnu's sacred curls,
and there the poor image sat, an alien in an indifferent land, a sack
across its shoulders, a "billycock" upon its head, and honoured at most
with a passing stare. I thought of that lonely image as almost as lonely
I stood on the Thither men's quay, without the support of friends or
heroics, wondering what to do next.
However, a cheerful disposition is sometimes better than a banking
account, and not having the one I cultivated the other, sunning myself
amongst the bales for a time, and then, since none seemed interested
in me, wandered off into the town, partly to satisfy my curiosity, and
partly in the vague hope of ascertaining if my princess was really here,
and, if possible, getting sight of her.
Meanwhile it turned hot with a supernatural, heavy sort of heat
altogether, I overheard passersby exclaiming, out of the common, and
after wandering for an hour through gardens and endless streets of
thatched huts, I was glad enough to throw myself down in the shadow of
some trees on the outskirts of the great central pile of buildings,
a whole village in itself of beam-built towers and dwelling-place,
suggesting by its superior size that it might actually be Ar-hap's palace.
Hotter and hotter it grew, while a curious secondary sunrise in the
west, the like of which I never saw before seemed to add to the heat,
and heavier and heavier my eyelids, till I dozed at last, and finally
slept uncomfortably for a time.
Rousing up suddenly, imagine my surprise to see sitting, chin on knees,
about a yard away, a slender girlish figure, infinitely out of place
in that world of rough barbarians. Was it possible? Was I dreaming?
No, there was no doubt about it, she was a girl of the Hither folk,
slim and pretty, but with a wonderfully sad look in her gazelle eyes,
and scarcely a sign of the indolent happiness of Seth in the pale little
face regarding me so fixedly.
"Good gracious, miss," I said, still rubbing my eyes and doubting my
senses, "have you dropped from the skies? You are the very last person
I expected to see in this barbarian place."
"And you too, sir. Oh, it is lovely to see one so newly from home,
and free-seeming--not a slave."
"How did you know I was from Seth?"
"Oh, that was easy enough," and with a little laugh she pointed to a
pebble lying between us, on which was a piece of battered sweetmeat in
a perforated bamboo box. Poor An had given me something just like that
in a playful mood, and I had kept it in my pocket for her sake, being,
as you will have doubtless observed, a sentimental young man, and now
I clapped my hand where it should have been, but it was gone.
"Yes," said my new friend, "that is yours. I smelt the sweetmeat
coming up the hill, and crossed the grass until I found you here asleep.
Oh, it was lovely! I took it from your pocket, and white Seth rose up
before my swimming eyes, even at the scent of it. I am Si, well named,
for that in our land means sadness, Si, the daughter of Prince Hath's
chief sweetmeat-maker, so I should know something of such stuff. May I,
please, nibble a little piece?"
"Eat it all, my lass, and welcome. How came you here? But I can guess.
Do not answer if you would rather not."
"Ay, but I will. It is not every day I can speak to ears so friendly
as yours. I am a slave, chosen for my luckless beauty as last year's
tribute to Ar-hap."
"And now the slave of Ar-hap's horse-keeper, set aside to make room for
a fresher face."
"And do you know whose face that is?"
"Not I, a hapless maid sent into this land of horrors, to bear ignominy
and stripes, to eat coarse food and do coarse work, the miserable
plaything of some brute in semi-human form, with but the one consolation
of dying early as we tribute-women always die. Poor comrade in exile,
I only know her as yet by sympathy."
"What if I said it was Heru, the princess?"
The Martian girl sprang to her feet, and clasping her hands exclaimed,
"Heru, the Slender! Then the end comes, for it is written in our books
that the last tribute is paid when the best is paid. Oh, how splendid
if she gave herself of free will to this slavery to end it once for all.
Was it so?"
"I think, Si, your princess could not have known of that tradition;
she did not come willingly. Besides, I am come to fetch her back,
if it may be, and that spoils the look of sacrifice."
"You to fetch her back, and from Ar-hap's arms? My word, Sir Spirit,
you must know some potent charms; or, what is less likely, my countrymen
must have amazingly improved in pluck since I left them. Have you a
great army at hand?"
But I only shook my head, and, touching my sword, said that here was
the only army coming to rescue Heru. Whereon the lady replied that
she thought my valour did me more honour than my discretion. How did
I propose to take the princess from her captors?
"To tell the truth, damsel, that is a matter which will have to be
left to your invention, or the kindness of such as you. I am here
on a hare-brained errand, playing knight-errant in a way that shocks
my common sense. But since the matter has gone so far I will see it
through, or die in the attempt. Your bully lord shall either give me
Heru, stock, lock, and block, or hang me from a yard-arm. But I would
rather have the lady. Come, you will help me; and, as a beginning,
if she is in yonder shanty get me speech with her."
Poor Si's eyes dilated at the peril of the suggestion, and I saw the
sluggish Martian nature at war against her better feelings. But presently
the latter conquered. "I will try," she said. "What matter a few stripes
more or less?" pointing to her rosy shoulders where red scars crisscross
upon one another showed how the Martian girls fared in Ar-hap's palace
when their novelty wore off. "I will try to help you; and if they kill
me for it--why, that will not matter much." And forthwith in that
blazing forenoon under the flickering shadow of the trees we put our
heads together to see what we might do for Heru.
It was not much for the moment. Try what we would that afternoon, I could
not persuade those who had charge of the princess to let me even approach
her place of imprisonment, but Si, as a woman, was more successful,
actually seeing her for a few moments, and managed to whisper in her
ear that I had come, the Spirit-with-the-gold-buttons-down-his front,
afterwards describing to me in flowing Martian imagery--but doubtless not
more highly coloured than poor Heru's emotion warranted--how delightedly
that lady had received the news.
Si also did me another service, presenting me to the porter's wife,
who kept a kind of boarding-house at the gates of Ar-hap's palace for
gentlemen and ladies with grievances. I had heard of lobbying before,
and the presentation of petitions, though I had never indulged myself
in the pastime; but the crowd of petitioners here, with petitions as
wild and picturesque as their own motley appearances, was surely the
strangest that ever gathered round a seat of supreme authority.
Si whispered in the ear of that good woman the nature of my errand, with
doubtless some blandishment of her own; and my errand being one so much
above the vulgar and so nearly touching the sovereign, I was at once
accorded a separate room in the gate-house, whence I could look down
in comparative peace on the common herd of suitors, and listen to the
buzz of their invective as they practised speeches which I calculated
it would take Ar-hap all the rest of his reign to listen to, without
allowing him any time for pronouncing verdicts on them.
Here I made myself comfortable, and awaited the return of the sovereign
as placidly as might be. Meanwhile fate was playing into my feeble hands.
I have said it was hot weather. At first this seemed but an outcome of
the Martian climate, but as the hours went by the heat developed to an
incredible extent. Also that red glare previously noted in the west grew
in intensity, till, as the hours slipped by, all the town was staring at
it in panting horror. I have seen a prairie on fire, luckily from the far
side of a comfortably broad river, and have ridden through a pine-forest
when every tree for miles was an uplifted torch, and pungent yellow smoke
rolled down each corrie side in grey rivers crested with dancing flame.
But that Martian glare was more sombre and terrible than either.
"What is it?" I asked of poor Si, who came out gasping to speak to me
by the gate-house.
"None of us know, and unless the gods these Thither folk believe in are
angry, and intend to destroy the world with yonder red sword in the sky,
I cannot guess. Perhaps," she added, with a sudden flash of inspiration,
"it comes by your machinations for Heru's help."
"If not by your wish, then, in the name of all you love, set your wish
against it. If you know any incantations suitable for the occasion, oh,
practise them now at once, for look, even the very grass is withering;
birds are dropping from trees; fishes, horribly bloated, are beginning
to float down the steaming rills; and I, with all others, have a nameless
dread upon me."
Hotter and hotter it grew, until about sunset the red blaze upon the
sky slowly opened, and showed us for about half an hour, through the
opening a lurid, flame-coloured meteor far out in space beyond; then
the cleft closed again, and through that abominable red curtain came
the very breath of Hades.
What was really happening I am not astronomer enough to say, though
on cooler consideration I have come to the conclusion that our planet,
in going out to its summer pastures in the remoter fields of space, had
somehow come across a wandering lesser world and got pretty well singed
in passing. This is purely my own opinion, and I have not yet submitted
it to the kindly authorities of the Lick Observatory for verification.
All I can say for certain is that in an incredibly short space of time
the face of the country changed from green to sear, flowers drooped;
streams (there were not many in the neighbourhood apparently) dried up;
fishes died; a mighty thirst there was nothing to quench settled down on
man and beast, and we all felt that unless Providence listened to the
prayers and imprecations which the whole town set to work with frantic
zeal to hurl at it, or that abominable comet in the sky sheered off on
another tack with the least possible delay, we should all be reduced to
cinders in a very brief space of time.
The evening of the second day had already come, when Ar-hap arrived home
after weekending amongst a tribe of rebellious subjects. But any imposing
State entry which might have been intended was rendered impossible by
the heat and the threat of that baleful world in the western sky.
It was a lurid but disordered spectacle which I witnessed from my room in
the gate-house just after nightfall. The returning army had apparently
fallen away exhausted on its march through the town; only some three
hundred of the bodyguard straggled up the hill, limp and sweating,
behind a group of pennons, in the midst of which rode a horseman whose
commanding presence and splendid war harness impressed me, though I could
not make out his features; a wild, impressionist scene of black outlines,
tossing headgear, and spears glittering and vanishing in front of the
red glare in the sky, but nothing more. Even the dry throats of the
suitors in the courtyard hardly mustered a husky cry of welcome as the
cavalcade trooped into the enclosure, and then the shadows enfolded them
up in silence, and, too hot and listless to care much what the morrow
brought forth, I threw myself on the bare floor, tossing and turning in
a vain endeavour to sleep until dawn came once more.
A thin mist which fell with daybreak drew a veil over the horrible glare
in the west for an hour or two, and taking advantage of the slight
alleviation of heat, I rose and went into the gardens to enjoy a dip
in a pool, making, with its surrounding jungle of flowers, one of the
pleasantest things about the wood-king's forest citadel. The very earth
seemed scorched and baking underfoot--and the pool was gone! It had
run as dry as a limekiln; nothing remained of the pretty fall which
had fed it but a miserable trickle of drops from the cascade above.
Down beyond the town shone a gleam of water where the bitter canal
steamed and simmered in the first grey of the morning, but up here six
months of scorching drought could not have worked more havoc. The very
leaves were dropping from the trees, and the luxuriant growths of the
day before looked as though a simoon had played upon them.
I staggered back in disgust, and found some show of official activity
about the palace. It was the king's custom, it appeared, to hear
petitions and redress wrongs as soon after his return as possible,
but today the ceremony was to be cut short as his majesty was going out
with all his court to a neighbouring mountain to "pray away the comet,"
which by this time was causing dire alarm all through the city.
"Heaven's own particular blessing on his prayers, my friend," I said to
the man who told me this. "Unless his majesty's orisons are fruitful,
we shall all be cooked like baked potatoes before nightfall, and though
I have faced many kinds of death, that is not the one I would choose
by preference. Is there a chance of myself being heard at the throne?
Your peculiar climate tempts me to hurry up with my business and begone
if I may."
"Not only may you be heard, sir, but you are summoned. The king has
heard of you somehow, and sent me to find and bring you into his presence
"So be it," I said, too hot to care what happened. "I have no levee
dress with me. I lost my luggage check some time ago, but if you will
wait outside I will be with you in a moment."
Hastily tidying myself up, and giving my hair a comb, as though just off
to see Mr. Secretary for the Navy, or on the way to get a senator to push
a new patent medicine for me, I rejoined my guide outside, and together
we crossed the wide courtyard, entered the great log-built portals of
Ar-hap's house, and immediately afterwards found ourselves in a vast
hall dimly lit by rays coming in through square spaces under the eaves,
and crowded on both sides with guards, courtiers, and supplicants.
The heat was tremendous, the odour of Thither men and the ill-dressed
hides they wore almost overpowering. Yet little I recked for either,
for there at the top of the room, seated on a dais made of rough-hewn
wood inlet with gold and covered with splendid furs, was Ar-hap himself.
A fine fellow, swarthy, huge, and hairy, at any other time or place I
could have given him due admiration as an admirable example of the savage
on the borderland of grace and culture, but now I only glanced at him, and
then to where at his side a girl was crouching, a gem of human loveliness
against that dusky setting. It was Heru, my ravished princess, and,
still clad in her diaphanous Hither robes, her face white with anxiety,
her eyes bright as stars, the embodiment of helpless, flowery beauty,
my heart turned over at sight of her.
Poor girl! When she saw me stride into the hall she rose swiftly from
Ar-hap's side, clasped her pretty hands, and giving a cry of joy would
have rushed towards me, but the king laid a mighty paw upon her, under
which she subsided with a shiver as though the touch had blanched all
the life within.
"Good morning, your majesty," I said, walking boldly up to the lower
step of the dais.
"Good morning, most singular-looking vagrant from the Unknown," answered
the monarch. "In what way can I be of service to you?''
"I have come about that girl," I said, nodding to where Heru lay
blossoming in the hot gloom like some night-flowering bud. "I do not
know whether your majesty is aware how she came here, but it is a highly
discreditable incident in what is doubtless your otherwise blameless
reign. Some rough scullions intrusted with the duty of collecting your
majesty's customs asked Prince Hath of the Hither people to point out
the most attractive young person at his wedding feast, and the prince
indicated that lady there at your side. It was a dirty trick, and
all the worse because it was inspired by malice, which is the meanest
of all weaknesses. I had the pleasure of knocking down some of your
majesty's representatives, but they stole the girl away while I slept,
and, briefly, I have come to fetch her back."
The monarch had followed my speech, the longest ever made in my life,
with fierce, blinking eyes, and when it stopped looked at poor shrinking
Heru as though for explanation, then round the circle of his awestruck
courtiers, and reading dismay at my boldness in their faces, burst into
a guttural laugh.
"I suppose you have the great and puissant Hither nation behind you in
this request, Mr. Spirit?"
"No, I came alone, hoping to find justice here, and, if not, then
prepared to do all I could to make your majesty curse the day your
servants maltreated my friends."
"Tall words, stranger! May I ask what you propose to do if Ar-hap, in his
own palace, amongst his people and soldiers, refuses to disgorge a pretty
prize at the bidding of one shabby interloper--muddy and friendless?"
"What should I do?"
"Yes," said the king, with a haughty frown. "What would you do?"
I do not know what prompted the reply. For a moment I was completely
at a loss what to say to this very obvious question, and then all on a
sudden, remembering they held me to be some kind of disembodied spirit,
by a happy inspiration, fixing my eyes grimly on the king, I answered,
"What would I do? Why, I WOULD HAUNT YOU!"
It may not seem a great stroke of genius here, but the effect on the
Martian was instantaneous. He sat straight up, his hands tightened, his
eyes dilated, and then fidgeting uneasily, after a minute he beckoned to
an over-dressed individual, whom Heru afterwards told me was the Court
necromancer, and began whispering in his ear.
After a minute's consultation he turned again, a rather frightened
civility struggling in his face with anger, and said, "We have no wish,
of course, stranger, to offend you or those who had the honour of your
patronage. Perhaps the princess here was a little roughly handled, and,
I confess, if she were altogether as reluctant as she seems, a lesser
maid would have done as well. I could have wooed this one in Seth,
where I may shortly come, and our espousals would possibly have lent, in
the eyes of your friends, quite a cheerful aspect to my arrival. But my
ambassadors have had no great schooling in diplomacy; they have brought
Princess Heru here, and how can I hand her over to one I know nothing of?
How do I know you are a ghost, after all? How do I know you have anything
but a rusty sword and much impertinence to back your astounding claim?"
"Oh, let it be just as you like," I said, calmly shelling and eating a
nut I had picked up. "Only if you do not give the maid back, why, then--"
And I stopped as though the sequel were too painful to put into words.
Again that superstitious monarch of a land thronged with malicious
spirits called up his magician, and, after they had consulted a moment,
turned more cheerfully to me.
"Look here, Mister-from-Nowhere, if you are really a spirit, and have
the power to hurt as you say, you will have the power also to go and
come between the living and the dead, between the present and the past.
Now I will set you an errand, and give you five minutes to do it in."
"Five minutes!" I exclaimed in incautious alarm.
"Five minutes," said the monarch savagely. "And if in that time the
errand is not done, I shall hold you to be an impostor, an impudent
thief from some scoundrel tribe of this world of mine, and will make of
you an example which shall keep men's ears tingling for a century or two."
Poor Heru dropped in a limp and lovely heap at that dire threat, while I
am bound to say I felt somewhat uncomfortable, not unnaturally when all
the circumstances are considered, but contented myself with remarking,
with as much bravado as could be managed,
"And now to the errand, Ar-hap. What can I do for your majesty?"
The king consulted with the rogue at his elbow, and then nodding and
chuckling in expectancy of his triumph, addressed me.
"Listen," he cried, smiting a huge hairy hand upon his knee, "listen,
and do or die. My magician tells me it is recorded in his books that
once, some five thousand years ago, when this land belonged to the Hither
people, there lived here a king. It is a pity he died, for he seems to
have been a jovial old fellow; but he did die, and, according to their
custom, they floated him down the stream that flows to the regions of
eternal ice, where doubtless he is at this present moment, caked up with
ten million of his subjects. Now just go and find that sovereign for me,
oh you bold-tongued dweller in other worlds!"
"And if I go how am I to know your ancient king, as you say, amongst
ten million others?"
"That is easy enough," quoth Ar-hap lightly. "You have only to pass to
and fro through the ice mountains, opening the mouths of the dead men and
women you meet, and when you come to a middle-sized man with a fillet on
his head and a jaw mended with gold, that will be he whom you look for.
Bring me that fillet here within five minutes and the maid is yours."
I started, and stared hard in amazement. Was this a dream? Was the
royal savage in front playing with me? By what incredible chance had
he hit upon the very errand I could answer to best, the very trophy I
had brought away from the grim valley of ice and death, and had still in
my shoulder-bag? No, he was not playing; he was staring hard in turn,
joying in my apparent confusion, and clearly thinking he had cornered
me beyond hope of redemption.
"Surely your mightiness is not daunted by so simple a task," scowled
the sovereign, playing with the hilt of his huge hunting-knife, "and all
amongst your friends' kindred too. On a hot day like this it ought to
be a pleasant saunter for a spirit such as yourself."
"Not daunted," I answered coldly, turning on my heels towards the door,
"only marvelling that your majesty's skull and your necromancer's could
not between them have devised a harder task."
Out into the courtyard I went, with my heart beating finely in spite
of my assumed indifference; got the bag from a peg in my sleeping-room,
and was back before the log throne ere four minutes were gone.
"The old Hither king's compliments to your majesty," I said, bowing,
while a deathly hush fell on all the assembly, "and he says though your
ancestors little liked to hear his voice while alive, he says he has no
objection to giving you some jaw now he is dead," and I threw down on
the floor the golden circlet of the frozen king.
Ar-hap's eyes almost started from his head as, with his courtiers,
he glared in silent amazement at that shining thing while the great
drops of fear and perspiration trickled down his forehead. As for poor
Heru, she rose like a spirit behind them, gazed at the jaw-bone of her
mythical ancestor, and then suddenly realising my errand was done and
she apparently free, held out her hands, and, with a tremulous cry,
would have come to me.
But Ar-hap was too quick for her. All the black savage blood swelled
into his veins as he swept her away with one great arm, and then with his
foot gave the luckless jaw a kick that sent it glittering and spinning
through the far doorway out into the sunshine.
"Sit down," he roared, "you brazen wench, who are so eager to leave a
king's side for a nameless vagrant's care! And you, sir," turning to
me, and fairly trembling with rage and dread, "I will not gainsay that
you have done the errand set you, but it might this once be chance that
got you that cursed token, some one happy turn of luck. I will not
yield my prize on one throw of the dice. Another task you must do.
Once might be chance, but such chance comes not twice."
"You swore to give me the maid this time."
"And why should I keep my word to a half-proved spirit such as you?"
"There are some particularly good reasons why you should," I said,
striking an attitude which I had once seen a music-hall dramatist take
when he was going to blast somebody's future--a stick with a star on
top of it in his hand and forty lines of blank verse in his mouth.
The king writhed, and begged me with a sign to desist.
"We have no wish to anger you. Do us this other task and none will doubt
that you are a potent spirit, and even I, Ar-hap, will listen to you."
"Well, then," I answered sulkily, "what is it to be this time?"
After a minute's consultation, and speaking slowly as though conscious
of how much hung on his words, the king said,
"Listen! My soothsayer tells me that somewhere there is a city lost in
a forest, and a temple lost in the city, and a tomb lost in the temple;
a city of ghosts and djins given over to bad spirits, wherefore all human
men shun it by day and night. And on the tomb is she who was once queen
there, and by her lies her crown. Quick! oh you to whom all distances are
nothing, and who see, by your finer essence, into all times and places.
Away to that city! Jostle the memories of the unclean things that hide
in its shadows; ask which amongst them knows where dead Queen Yang still
lies in dusty state. Get guides amongst your comrade ghosts. Find Queen
Yang, and bring me here in five minutes the bloody circlet from her hair."
Then, and then for the first time, I believed the planet was haunted
indeed, and I myself unknowingly under some strange and watchful
influence. Spirits, demons! Oh! what but some incomprehensible power,
some unseen influence shaping my efforts to its ends, could have moved
that hairy barbarian to play a second time into my hands like this,
to choose from the endless records of his world the second of the two
incidents I had touched in hasty travel through it? I was almost overcome
for a minute; then, pulling myself together, strode forward fiercely,
and, speaking so that all could hear me, cried, "Base king, who neither
knows the capacities of a spirit nor has learned as yet to dread its
anger, see! your commission is executed in a thought, just as your
punishment might be. Heru, come here." And when the girl, speechless
with amazement, had risen and slipped over to me, I straightened her
pretty hair from her forehead, and then, in a way which would make my
fortune if I could repeat it at a conjuror's table, whipped poor Yang's
gemmy crown from my pocket, flashed its baleful splendour in the eyes
of the courtiers, and placed it on the tresses of the first royal lady
who had worn it since its rightful owner died a hundred years before.
A heavy silence fell on the hall as I finished, and nothing was heard
for a time save Heru sobbing on my breast and a thirsty baby somewhere
outside calling to its mother for the water that was not to be had.
But presently on those sounds came the fall of anxious feet, and a
messenger, entering the doorway, approached the throne, laid himself out
flat twice, after which obeisance he proceeded to remind the king of the
morning's ceremonial on a distant hill to "pray away the comet," telling
his majesty that all was ready and the procession anxiously awaiting him.
Whereon Ar-hap, obviously very well content to change the subject,
rose, and, coming down from the dais, gave me his hand. He was a fine
fellow, as I have said, strong and bold, and had not behaved badly for
an autocrat, so that I gripped his mighty fist with great pleasure.
"I cannot deny, stranger," he said, "that you have done all that has been
asked of you, and the maid is fairly yours. Yet before you take away the
prize I must have some assurance of what you yourself will do with her.
Therefore, for the moment, until this horrible thing in the sky which
threatens my people with destruction has gone, let it be truce between
us--you to your lodgings, and the princess back, unharmed, amongst my
women till we meet again."
"No, no," said the king, waving his hand. "Be content with your
advantage. And now to business more important than ten thousand silly
wenches," and gathering up his robes over his splendid war-gear the wood
king stalked haughtily from the hall.
Hotter and hotter grew that stifling spell, more and more languid man
and beast, drier and drier the parching earth.
All the water gave out on the morning after I had bearded Ar-hap in his
den, and our strength went with it. No earthly heat was ever like it,
and it drank our vitality up from every pore. Water there was down below
in the bitter, streaming gulf, but so noisome that we dared not even bathe
there; here there was none but the faintest trickle. All discipline was
at an end; all desire save such as was born of thirst. Heru I saw as
often as I wished as she lay gasping, with poor Si at her feet, in the
women's verandah; but the heat was so tremendous that I gazed at her with
lack-lustre eyes, staggering to and fro amongst the courtyard shadows,
without nerve to plot her rescue or strength to carry out anything my
mind might have conceived.
We prayed for rain and respite. Ar-hap had prayed with a wealth of
picturesque ceremonial. We had all prayed and cursed by turns, but
still the heavens would not relent, and the rain came not.
At last the stifling heat and vapour reached an almost intolerable pitch.
The earth reeked with unwholesome humours no common summer could draw
from it, the air was sulphurous and heavy, while overhead the sky seemed
a tawny dome, from edge to edge of angry clouds, parting now and then
to let us see the red disc threatening us.
Hour after hour slipped by until, when evening was upon us, the clouds
drew together, and thunder, with a continuous low rumble, began to
rock from sky to sky. Fitful showers of rain, odorous and heavy, but
unsatisfying, fell, and birds and beasts of the woodlands came slinking
in to our streets and courtyards. Ever since the sky first darkened
our own animals had become strangely familiar, and now here were these
wild things of the woods slinking in for companionship, sagheaded and
frightened. To me especially they came, until that last evening as I
staggered dying about the streets or sat staring into the remorseless sky
from the steps of Heru's prison house, all sorts of beasts drew softly
in and crowded about, whether I sat or moved, all asking for the hope
I had not to give them.
At another time this might have been embarrassing; then it seemed pure
commonplace. It was a sight to see them slink in between the useless
showers, which fell like hot tears upon us--sleek panthers with lolling
tongues; russet-red wood dogs; bears and sloths from the dark arcades of
the remote forests, all casting themselves down gasping in the palace
shadows; strange deer, who staggered to the garden plots and lay there
heaving their lives out; mighty boars, who came from the river marshes
and silently nozzled a place amongst their enemies to die in! Even the
wolves came off the hills, and, with bloodshot eyes and tongues that
dripped foam, flung themselves down in my shadow.
All along the tall stockades apes sat sad and listless, and on the
roof-ridges storks were dying. Over the branches of the trees, whose
leaves were as thin as though we had had a six months' drought, the
toucans and Martian parrots hung limp and fashionless like gaudy rags,
and in the courtyard ground the corn-rats came up from their tunnels in
the scorching earth to die, squeaking in scores along under the walls.
Our common sorrow made us as sociable as though I were Noah, and Ar-hap's
palace mound another Ararat. Hour after hour I sat amongst all these
lesser beasts in the hot darkness, waiting for the end. Every now and
then the heavy clouds parted, changing the gloom to sudden fiery daylight
as the great red eye in the west looked upon us through the crevice, and,
taking advantage of those gleams, I would reel across to where, under a
spout leading from a dried rivulet, I had placed a cup to collect the
slow and tepid drops that were all now coming down the reed for Heru.
And as I went back each time with that sickly spoonful at the bottom
of the vessel all the dying beasts lifted their heads and watched--the
thirsty wolves shambling after me; the boars half sat up and grunted
plaintively; the panthers, too weak to rise, beat the dusty ground with
their tails; and from the portico the blue storks, with trailing wings,
croaked husky greeting.
But slower and slower came the dripping water, more and more intolerable
the heat. At last I could stand it no longer. What purpose did it serve
to lay gasping like this, dying cruelly without a hope of rescue, when
a shorter way was at my side? I had not drank for a day and a half.
I was past active reviling; my head swam; my reason was clouded. No!
I would not stand it any longer. Once more I would take Heru and poor
Si the cup that was but a mockery after all, then fix my sword into the
ground and try what next the Fates had in store for me.
So once again the leathern mug was fetched and carried through the
prostrate guards to where the Martian girl lay, like a withered flower,
upon her couch. Once again I moistened those fair lips, while my own
tongue was black and swollen in my throat, then told Si, who had had
none all the afternoon, to drink half and leave half for Heru. Poor Si
put her aching lips to the cup and tilted it a little, then passed it
to her mistress. And Heru drank it all, and Si cried a few hot tears
behind her hands, FOR SHE HAD TAKEN NONE, and she knew it was her life!
Again picking a way through the courtyard, scarce noticing how the
beasts lifted their heads as I passed, I went instinctively, cup in
hand, to the well, and then hesitated. Was I a coward to leave Heru so?
Ought I not to stay and see it out to the bitter end? Well, I would
compound with Fate. I would give the malicious gods one more chance.
I would put the cup down again, and until seven drops had fallen into
it I would wait. That there might be no mistake about it, no sooner was
the mug in place under the nozzle wherefrom the moisture beads collected
and fell with infinite slowness, than my sword, on which I meant to throw
myself, was bared and the hilt forced into a gaping crack in the ground,
and sullenly contented to leave my fate so, I sat down beside it.
I turned grimly to the spout and saw the first drop fall, then another,
and another later on, but still no help came. There was a long rift
in the clouds now, and a glare like that from an open furnace door was
upon me. I had noticed when I came to the spring how the comet which
was killing us hung poised exactly upon the point of a distant hill.
If he had passed his horrible meridian, if he was going from us, if he
sunk but a hair's breadth before that seventh drop should fall, I could
tell it would mean salvation.
But the fourth drop fell, and he was big as ever. The fifth drop fell,
and a hot, pleasing nose was thrust into my hand, and looking down I
saw a grey wolf had dragged herself across the court and was asking with
eloquent eyes for the help I could not give. The sixth drop gathered,
and fell; already the seventh was like a seedling pearl in its place.
The dying wolf yanked affectionately at my hand, but I put her by and
undid my tunic. Big and bright that drop hung to the spout lip; another
minute and it would fall. A beautiful drop, I laughed, peering closely at
it, many-coloured, prismatic, flushing red and pink, a tiny living ruby,
hanging by a touch to the green rim above; enough! enough! The quiver of
an eyelash would unhinge it now; and angry with the life I already felt
was behind me, and turning in defiant expectation to the new to come,
I rose, saw the red gleam of my sword jutting like a fiery spear from
the cracking soil where I had planted it, then looked once more at the
drop and glanced for the last time at the sullen red terror on the hill.
Were my eyes dazed, my senses reeling? I said a space ago that the
meteor stood exactly on the mountain-top and if it sunk a hair's breadth
I should note it; and now, why, there WAS a flaw in its lower margin, a
flattening of the great red foot that before had been round and perfect.
I turned my smarting eyes away a minute,--saw the seventh drop fall
with a melodious tingle into the cup, then back again,--there was no
mistake--the truant fire was a fraction less, it had shrunk a fraction
behind the hill even since I looked, and thereon all my life ran back into
its channels, the world danced before me, and "Heru!" I shouted hoarsely,
reeling back towards the palace, "Heru, 'tis well; the worst is past!"
But the little princess was unconscious, and at her feet was poor Si,
quite dead, still reclining with her head in her hands just as I had
left her. Then my own senses gave out, and dropping down by them I
remembered no more.
I must have lain there an hour or two, for when consciousness came
again it was night--black, cool, profound night, with an inky sky low
down upon the tree-tops, and out of it such a glorious deluge of rain
descending swiftly and silently as filled my veins even to listen to.
Eagerly I shuffled away to the porch steps, down them into the swimming
courtyard, and ankle-deep in the glorious flood, set to work lapping
furiously at the first puddle, drinking with gasps of pleasure, gasping
and drinking again, feeling my body filling out like the thirsty steaming
earth below me. Then, as I still drank insatiably, there came a gleam
of lightning out of the gloom overhead, a brilliant yellow blaze, and by
it I saw a few yards away a panther drinking at the same pool as myself,
his gleaming eyes low down like mine upon the water, and by his side
two apes, the black water running in at their gaping mouths, while out
beyond were more pools, more drinking animals. Everything was drinking.
I saw their outlined forms, the gleam shining on wet skins as though they
were cut out in silver against the darkness, each beast steaming like a
volcano as the Heaven-sent rain smoked from his fevered hide, all drinking
for their lives, heedless of aught else--and then came the thunder.
It ran across the cloudy vault as though the very sky were being ripped
apart, rolling in mighty echoes here and there before it died away.
As it stopped, the rain also fell less heavily for a minute, and as I lay
with my face low down I heard the low, contented lapping of numberless
tongues unceasing, insatiable. Then came the lightning again, lighting
up everything as though it were daytime. The twin black apes were still
drinking, but the panther across the puddle had had enough; I saw him
lift his grateful head up to the flare; saw the limp red tongue licking
the black nose, the green eyes shining like opals, the water dripping
in threads of diamonds from the hairy tag under his chin and every tuft
upon his chest--then darkness again.
To and fro the green blaze rocked between the thunder crashes. It struck
a house a hundred yards away, stripping every shingle from the roof better
than a master builder could in a week. It fell a minute after on a tall
tree by the courtyard gate, and as the trunk burst into white splinters
I saw every leaf upon the feathery top turn light side up against the
violet reflection in the sky beyond, and then the whole mass came down
to earth with a thud that crushed the courtyard palings into nothing
for twenty yards and shook me even across the square.
Another time I might have stopped to marvel or to watch, as I have often
watched with sympathetic pleasure, the gods thus at play; but tonight
there were other things on hand. When I had drunk, I picked up an earthen
crock, filled it, and went to Heru. It was a rough drinking-vessel for
those dainty lips, and an indifferent draught, being as much mud as aught
else, but its effect was wonderful. At the first touch of that turgid
stuff a shiver of delight passed through the drowsy lady. At the second
she gave a sigh, and her hand tightened on my arm. I fetched another
crockful, and by the flickering light rocking to and fro in the sky,
took her head upon my shoulder, like a prodigal new come into riches,
squandering the stuff, giving her to drink and bathing face and neck
till presently, to my delight, the princess's eyes opened. Then she
sat up, and taking the basin from me drank as never lady drank before,
and soon was almost herself again.
I went out into the portico, there snuffing the deep, strong breath of
the fragrant black earth receiving back into its gaping self what the last
few days had taken from it, while quick succeeding thoughts of escape and
flight passed across my brain. All through the fiery time we had just
had the chance of escaping with the fair booty yonder had been present.
Without her, flight would have been easy enough, but that was not worth
considering for a moment. With her it was more difficult, yet, as I
had watched the woodmen, accustomed to cool forest shades, faint under
the fiery glare of the world above, to make a dash for liberty seemed
each hour more easy. I had seen the men in the streets drop one by one,
and the spears fall from the hands of guards about the pallisades; I had
seen messengers who came to and fro collapse before their errands were
accomplished, and the forest women, who were Heru's gaolers, groan and
drop across the thresholds of her prison, until at length the way was
clear--a babe might have taken what he would from that half-scorched town
and asked no man's leave. Yet what did it avail me? Heru was helpless,
my own spirit burnt in a nerveless frame, and so we stayed.
But with rain strength came back to both of us. The guards, lying
about like black logs, were only slowly returning to consciousness; the
town still slept, and darkness favoured; before they missed us in the
morning light we might be far on the way back to Seth--a dangerous way
truly, but we were like to tread a rougher one if we stayed. In fact,
directly my strength returned with the cooler air, I made up my mind
to the venture and went to Heru, who by this time was much recovered.
To her I whispered my plot, and that gentle lady, as was only natural,
trembled at its dangers. But I put it to her that no time could be better
than the present: the storm was going over; morning would "line the black
mantle of the night with a pink dawn of promise"; before any one stirred
we might be far off, shaping a course by our luck and the stars for her
kindred, at whose name she sighed. If we stayed, I argued, and the king
changed his mind, then death for me, and for Heru the arms of that surly
monarch, and all the rest of her life caged in these pallisades amongst
the uncouth forms about us.
The lady gave a frightened little shiver at the picture, but after a
moment, laying her head upon my shoulder, answered, "Oh, my guardian
spirit and helper in adversity, I too have thought of tomorrow, and doubt
whether that horror, that great swine who has me, will not invent an
excuse for keeping me. Therefore, though the forest roads are dreadful,
and Seth very far away, I will come; I give myself into your hands.
Do what you will with me."
"Then the sooner the better, princess. How soon can you be prepared?"
She smiled, and stooping picked up her slippers, saying as she did so,
"I am ready!"
There were no arrangements to be made. Every instant was of value.
So, to be brief, I threw a dark cloak over the damsel's shoulders, for
indeed she was clad in little more than her loveliness and the gauziest
filaments of a Hither girl's underwear, and hand in hand led her down
the log steps, over the splashing, ankle-deep courtyard, and into the
shadows of the gateway beyond.
Down the slope we went; along towards the harbour, through a score of
deserted lanes where nothing was to be heard but the roar of rain and the
lapping of men and beasts, drinking in the shadows as though they never
would stop, and so we came at last unmolested to the wharf. There I
hid royal Seth between two piles of merchandise, and went to look for a
boat suitable to our needs. There were plenty of small craft moored to
rings along the quay, and selecting a canoe--it was no time to stand on
niceties of property--easily managed by a single paddle, I brought it
round to the steps, put in a fresh water-pot, and went for the princess.