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The Country of the Blind, And Other Stories by H. G. Wells

Part 8 out of 9

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you see anything you fancy here?"

There were many things that Gip fancied there.

He turned to this astonishing tradesman with mingled confidence and
respect. "Is that a Magic Sword?" he said.

"A Magic Toy Sword. It neither bends, breaks, nor cuts the fingers. It
renders the bearer invincible in battle against any one under eighteen.
Half a crown to seven and sixpence, according to size. These panoplies on
cards are for juvenile knights-errant and very useful--shield of safety,
sandals of swiftness, helmet of invisibility."

"Oh, dadda!" gasped Gip.

I tried to find out what they cost, but the shopman did not heed me.
He had got Gip now; he had got him away from my finger; he had embarked
upon the exposition of all his confounded stock, and nothing was going to
stop him. Presently I saw with a qualm of distrust and something very like
jealousy that Gip had hold of this person's finger as usually he has hold
of mine. No doubt the fellow was interesting, I thought, and had an
interestingly faked lot of stuff, really _good_ faked stuff,
still----

I wandered after them, saying very little, but keeping an eye on this
prestidigital fellow. After all, Gip was enjoying it. And no doubt when
the time came to go we should be able to go quite easily.

It was a long, rambling place, that showroom, a gallery broken up by
stands and stalls and pillars, with archways leading off to other
departments, in which the queerest-looking assistants loafed and stared at
one, and with perplexing mirrors and curtains. So perplexing, indeed, were
these that I was presently unable to make out the door by which we had
come.

The shopman showed Gip magic trains that ran without steam or clockwork,
just as you set the signals, and then some very, very valuable boxes of
soldiers that all came alive directly you took off the lid and said----I
myself haven't a very quick ear, and it was a tongue-twisting sound, but
Gip--he has his mother's ear--got it in no time. "Bravo!" said the
shopman, putting the men back into the box unceremoniously and handing it
to Gip. "Now," said the shopman, and in a moment Gip had made them all
alive again.

"You'll take that box?" asked the shopman.

"We'll take that box," said I, "unless you charge its full value. In which
case it would need a Trust Magnate----"

"Dear heart! _No!_" and the shopman swept the little men back again,
shut the lid, waved the box in the air, and there it was, in brown paper,
tied up and--_with Gip's full name and address on the paper!_

The shopman laughed at my amazement.

"This is the genuine magic," he said. "The real thing."

"It's a little too genuine for my taste," I said again.

After that he fell to showing Gip tricks, odd tricks, and still odder the
way they were done. He explained them, he turned them inside out, and
there was the dear little chap nodding his busy bit of a head in the
sagest manner.

I did not attend as well as I might. "Hey, presto!" said the Magic
Shopman, and then would come the clear, small "Hey, presto!" of the boy.
But I was distracted by other things. It was being borne in upon me just
how tremendously rum this place was; it was, so to speak, inundated by a
sense of rumness. There was something a little rum about the fixtures
even, about the ceiling, about the floor, about the casually distributed
chairs. I had a queer feeling that whenever I wasn't looking at them
straight they went askew, and moved about, and played a noiseless
puss-in-the-corner behind my back. And the cornice had a serpentine design
with masks--masks altogether too expressive for proper plaster.

Then abruptly my attention was caught by one of the odd-looking
assistants. He was some way off and evidently unaware of my presence--I
saw a sort of three-quarter length of him over a pile of toys and through
an arch--and, you know, he was leaning against a pillar in an idle sort of
way doing the most horrid things with his features! The particular horrid
thing he did was with his nose. He did it just as though he was idle and
wanted to amuse himself. First of all it was a short, blobby nose, and
then suddenly he shot it out like a telescope, and then out it flew and
became thinner and thinner until it was like a long, red flexible whip.
Like a thing in a nightmare it was! He flourished it about and flung it
forth as a fly-fisher flings his line.

My instant thought was that Gip mustn't see him. I turned about, and there
was Gip quite preoccupied with the shopman, and thinking no evil. They
were whispering together and looking at me. Gip was standing on a little
stool, and the shopman was holding a sort of big drum in his hand.

"Hide and seek, dadda!" cried Gip. "You're He!"

And before I could do anything to prevent it, the shopman had clapped the
big drum over him.

I saw what was up directly. "Take that off," I cried, "this instant!
You'll frighten the boy. Take it off!"

The shopman with the unequal ears did so without a word, and held the big
cylinder towards me to show its emptiness. And the little stool was
vacant! In that instant my boy had utterly disappeared!...

You know, perhaps, that sinister something that conies like a hand out of
the unseen and grips your heart about. You know it takes your common self
away and leaves you tense and deliberate, neither slow nor hasty, neither
angry nor afraid. So it was with me.

I came up to this grinning shopman and kicked his stool aside.

"Stop this folly!" I said. "Where is my boy?"

"You see," he said, still displaying the drum's interior, "there is no
deception----"

I put out my hand to grip him, and he eluded me by a dexterous movement. I
snatched again, and he turned from me and pushed open a door to escape.
"Stop!" I said, and he laughed, receding. I leapt after him--into utter
darkness.

_Thud!_

"Lor' bless my 'eart! I didn't see you coming, sir!"

I was in Regent Street, and I had collided with a decent-looking working
man; and a yard away, perhaps, and looking a little perplexed with
himself, was Gip. There was some sort of apology, and then Gip had turned
and come to me with a bright little smile, as though for a moment he had
missed me.

And he was carrying four parcels in his arm!

He secured immediate possession of my finger.

For the second I was rather at a loss. I stared round to see the door of
the Magic Shop, and, behold, it was not there! There was no door, no shop,
nothing, only the common pilaster between the shop where they sell
pictures and the window with the chicks! ...

I did the only thing possible in that mental tumult; I walked straight to
the kerbstone and held up my umbrella for a cab.

"'Ansoms," said Gip, in a note of culminating exultation.

I helped him in, recalled my address with an effort, and got in also.
Something unusual proclaimed itself in my tail-coat pocket, and I felt and
discovered a glass ball. With a petulant expression I flung it into the
street.

Gip said nothing.

For a space neither of us spoke.

"Dadda!" said Gip, at last, "that _was_ a proper shop!"

I came round with that to the problem of just how the whole thing had
seemed to him. He looked completely undamaged--so far, good; he was
neither scared nor unhinged, he was simply tremendously satisfied with the
afternoon's entertainment, and there in his arms were the four parcels.

Confound it! what could be in them?

"Um!" I said. "Little boys can't go to shops like that every day."

He received this with his usual stoicism, and for a moment I was sorry I
was his father and not his mother, and so couldn't suddenly there,
_coram publico,_ in our hansom, kiss him. After all, I thought, the
thing wasn't so very bad.

But it was only when we opened the parcels that I really began to be
reassured. Three of them contained boxes of soldiers, quite ordinary lead
soldiers, but of so good a quality as to make Gip altogether forget that
originally these parcels had been Magic Tricks of the only genuine sort,
and the fourth contained a kitten, a little living white kitten, in
excellent health and appetite and temper.

I saw this unpacking with a sort of provisional relief. I hung about in
the nursery for quite an unconscionable time...

That happened six months ago. And now I am beginning to believe it is
all right. The kitten had only the magic natural to all kittens, and
the soldiers seemed as steady a company as any colonel could desire. And
Gip----?

The intelligent parent will understand that I have to go cautiously with
Gip.

But I went so far as this one day. I said, "How would you like your
soldiers to come alive, Gip, and march about by themselves?"

"Mine do," said Gip. "I just have to say a word I know before I open the
lid."

"Then they march about alone?"

"Oh, _quite_, dadda. I shouldn't like them if they didn't do that."

I displayed no unbecoming surprise, and since then I have taken occasion
to drop in upon him once or twice, unannounced, when the soldiers were
about, but so far I have never discovered them performing in anything like
a magical manner...

It's so difficult to tell.

There's also a question of finance. I have an incurable habit of paying
bills. I have been up and down Regent Street several times looking for
that shop. I am inclined to think, indeed, that in that matter honour is
satisfied, and that, since Gip's name and address are known to them, I may
very well leave it to these people, whoever they may be, to send in their
bill in their own time.

XXX.

THE EMPIRE OF THE ANTS.

When Captain Gerilleau received instructions to take his new gunboat, the
_Benjamin Constant,_ to Badama on the Batemo arm of the Guaramadema
and there assist the inhabitants against a plague of ants, he suspected
the authorities of mockery. His promotion had been romantic and irregular,
the affections of a prominent Brazilian lady and the captain's liquid eyes
had played a part in the process, and the _Diario_ and _O
Futuro_ had been lamentably disrespectful in their comments. He felt he
was to give further occasion for disrespect.

He was a Creole, his conceptions of etiquette and discipline were
pure-blooded Portuguese, and it was only to Holroyd, the Lancashire
engineer who had come over with the boat, and as an exercise in the use of
English--his "th" sounds were very uncertain--that he opened his heart.

"It is in effect," he said, "to make me absurd! What can a man do against
ants? Dey come, dey go."

"They say," said Holroyd, "that these don't go. That chap you said was a
Sambo----"

"Zambo;--it is a sort of mixture of blood."

"Sambo. He said the people are going!"

The captain smoked fretfully for a time. "Dese tings 'ave to happen," he
said at last. "What is it? Plagues of ants and suchlike as God wills. Dere
was a plague in Trinidad--the little ants that carry leaves. Orl der
orange-trees, all der mangoes! What does it matter? Sometimes ant armies
come into your houses--fighting ants; a different sort. You go and they
clean the house. Then you come back again;--the house is clean, like new!
No cockroaches, no fleas, no jiggers in the floor."

"That Sambo chap," said Holroyd, "says these are a different sort of ant."

The captain shrugged his shoulders, fumed, and gave his attention to a
cigarette.

Afterwards he reopened the subject. "My dear 'Olroyd, what am I to do
about dese infernal ants?"

The captain reflected. "It is ridiculous," he said. But in the afternoon
he put on his full uniform and went ashore, and jars and boxes came back
to the ship and subsequently he did. And Holroyd sat on deck in the
evening coolness and smoked profoundly and marvelled at Brazil. They were
six days up the Amazon, some hundreds of miles from the ocean, and east
and west of him there was a horizon like the sea, and to the south nothing
but a sand-bank island with some tufts of scrub. The water was always
running like a sluice, thick with dirt, animated with crocodiles and
hovering birds, and fed by some inexhaustible source of tree trunks; and
the waste of it, the headlong waste of it, filled his soul. The town of
Alemquer, with its meagre church, its thatched sheds for houses, its
discoloured ruins of ampler days, seemed a little thing lost in this
wilderness of Nature, a sixpence dropped on Sahara. He was a young man,
this was his first sight of the tropics, he came straight from England,
where Nature is hedged, ditched, and drained, into the perfection of
submission, and he had suddenly discovered the insignificance of man. For
six days they had been steaming up from the sea by unfrequented channels;
and man had been as rare as a rare butterfly. One saw one day a canoe,
another day a distant station, the next no men at all. He began to
perceive that man is indeed a rare animal, having but a precarious hold
upon this land.

He perceived it more clearly as the days passed, and he made his devious
way to the Batemo, in the company of this remarkable commander, who ruled
over one big gun, and was forbidden to waste his ammunition. Holroyd was
learning Spanish industriously, but he was still in the present tense and
substantive stage of speech, and the only other person who had any words
of English was a negro stoker, who had them all wrong. The second in
command was a Portuguese, da Cunha, who spoke French, but it was a
different sort of French from the French Holroyd had learnt in Southport,
and their intercourse was confined to politenesses and simple propositions
about the weather. And the weather, like everything else in this amazing
new world, the weather had no human aspect, and was hot by night and hot
by day, and the air steam, even the wind was hot steam, smelling of
vegetation in decay: and the alligators and the strange birds, the flies
of many sorts and sizes, the beetles, the ants, the snakes and monkeys
seemed to wonder what man was doing in an atmosphere that had no gladness
in its sunshine and no coolness in its night. To wear clothing was
intolerable, but to cast it aside was to scorch by day, and expose an
ampler area to the mosquitoes by night; to go on deck by day was to be
blinded by glare and to stay below was to suffocate. And in the daytime
came certain flies, extremely clever and noxious about one's wrist and
ankle. Captain Gerilleau, who was Holroyd's sole distraction from these
physical distresses, developed into a formidable bore, telling the simple
story of his heart's affections day by day, a string of anonymous women,
as if he was telling beads. Sometimes he suggested sport, and they shot at
alligators, and at rare intervals they came to human aggregations in the
waste of trees, and stayed for a day or so, and drank and sat about, and,
one night, danced with Creole girls, who found Holroyd's poor elements of
Spanish, without either past tense or future, amply sufficient for their
purposes. But these were mere luminous chinks in the long grey passage of
the streaming river, up which the throbbing engines beat. A certain
liberal heathen deity, in the shape of a demi-john, held seductive court
aft, and, it is probable, forward.

But Gerilleau learnt things about the ants, more things and more, at this
stopping-place and that, and became interested in his mission.

"Dey are a new sort of ant," he said. "We have got to be--what do you call
it?--entomologie? Big. Five centimetres! Some bigger! It is ridiculous. We
are like the monkeys---sent to pick insects... But dey are eating up the
country."

He burst out indignantly. "Suppose--suddenly, there are complications with
Europe. Here am I--soon we shall be above the Rio Negro--and my gun,
useless!"

He nursed his knee and mused.

"Dose people who were dere at de dancing place, dey 'ave come down. Dey
'ave lost all they got. De ants come to deir house one afternoon. Everyone
run out. You know when de ants come one must--everyone runs out and they
go over the house. If you stayed they'd eat you. See? Well, presently dey
go back; dey say, 'The ants 'ave gone.' ... De ants _'aven't_ gone.
Dey try to go in--de son, 'e goes in. De ants fight."

"Swarm over him?"

"Bite 'im. Presently he comes out again--screaming and running. He runs
past them to the river. See? He gets into de water and drowns de ants--
yes." Gerilleau paused, brought his liquid eyes close to Holroyd's face,
tapped Holroyd's knee with his knuckle. "That night he dies, just as if he
was stung by a snake."

"Poisoned--by the ants?"

"Who knows?" Gerilleau shrugged his shoulders. "Perhaps they bit him
badly... When I joined dis service I joined to fight men. Dese things,
dese ants, dey come and go. It is no business for men."

After that he talked frequently of the ants to Holroyd, and whenever they
chanced to drift against any speck of humanity in that waste of water and
sunshine and distant trees, Holroyd's improving knowledge of the language
enabled him to recognise the ascendant word _Saueba_, more and more
completely dominating the whole.

He perceived the ants were becoming interesting, and the nearer he drew to
them the more interesting they became. Gerilleau abandoned his old themes
almost suddenly, and the Portuguese lieutenant became a conversational
figure; he knew something about the leaf-cutting ant, and expanded his
knowledge. Gerilleau sometimes rendered what he had to tell to Holroyd. He
told of the little workers that swarm and fight, and the big workers that
command and rule, and how these latter always crawled to the neck and how
their bites drew blood. He told how they cut leaves and made fungus beds,
and how their nests in Caracas are sometimes a hundred yards across. Two
days the three men spent disputing whether ants have eyes. The discussion
grew dangerously heated on the second afternoon, and Holroyd saved the
situation by going ashore in a boat to catch ants and see. He captured
various specimens and returned, and some had eyes and some hadn't. Also,
they argued, do ants bite or sting?

"Dese ants," said Gerilleau, after collecting information at a rancho,
"have big eyes. They don't run about blind--not as most ants do. No! Dey
get in corners and watch what you do."

"And they sting?" asked Holroyd.

"Yes. Dey sting. Dere is poison in the sting." He meditated. "I do not see
what men can do against ants. Dey come and go."

"But these don't go."

"They will," said Gerilleau.

Past Tamandu there is a long low coast of eighty miles without any
population, and then one comes to the confluence of the main river and the
Batemo arm like a great lake, and then the forest came nearer, came at
last intimately near. The character of the channel changes, snags abound,
and the _Benjamin Constant_ moored by a cable that night, under the
very shadow of dark trees. For the first time for many days came a spell
of coolness, and Holroyd and Gerilleau sat late, smoking cigars and
enjoying this delicious sensation. Gerilleau's mind was full of ants and
what they could do. He decided to sleep at last, and lay down on a
mattress on deck, a man hopelessly perplexed, his last words, when he
already seemed asleep, were to ask, with a flourish of despair, "What can
one do with ants?... De whole thing is absurd."

Holroyd was left to scratch his bitten wrists, and meditate alone.

He sat on the bulwark and listened to the little changes in Gerilleau's
breathing until he was fast asleep, and then the ripple and lap of the
stream took his mind, and brought back that sense of immensity that had
been growing upon him since first he had left Para and come up the river.
The monitor showed but one small light, and there was first a little
talking forward and then stillness. His eyes went from the dim black
outlines of the middle works of the gunboat towards the bank, to the black
overwhelming mysteries of forest, lit now and then by a fire-fly, and
never still from the murmur of alien and mysterious activities...

It was the inhuman immensity of this land that astonished and oppressed
him. He knew the skies were empty of men, the stars were specks in an
incredible vastness of space; he knew the ocean was enormous and
untamable, but in England he had come to think of the land as man's. In
England it is indeed man's, the wild things live by sufferance, grow on
lease, everywhere the roads, the fences, and absolute security runs. In an
atlas, too, the land is man's, and all coloured to show his claim to it--
in vivid contrast to the universal independent blueness of the sea. He had
taken it for granted that a day would come when everywhere about the
earth, plough and culture, light tramways and good roads, an ordered
security, would prevail. But now, he doubted.

This forest was interminable, it had an air of being invincible, and Man
seemed at best an infrequent precarious intruder. One travelled for miles,
amidst the still, silent struggle of giant trees, of strangulating
creepers, of assertive flowers, everywhere the alligator, the turtle, and
endless varieties of birds and insects seemed at home, dwelt
irreplaceably--but man, man at most held a footing upon resentful
clearings, fought weeds, fought beasts and insects for the barest
foothold, fell a prey to snake and beast, insect and fever, and was
presently carried away. In many places down the river he had been
manifestly driven back, this deserted creek or that preserved the name of
a _casa_, and here and there ruinous white walls and a shattered
tower enforced the lesson. The puma, the jaguar, were more the masters
here...

Who were the real masters?

In a few miles of this forest there must be more ants than there are men
in the whole world! This seemed to Holroyd a perfectly new idea. In a few
thousand years men had emerged from barbarism to a stage of civilisation
that made them feel lords of the future and masters of the earth! But what
was to prevent the ants evolving also? Such ants as one knew lived in
little communities of a few thousand individuals, made no concerted
efforts against the greater world. But they had a language, they had an
intelligence! Why should things stop at that any more than men had stopped
at the barbaric stage? Suppose presently the ants began to store
knowledge, just as men had done by means of books and records, use
weapons, form great empires, sustain a planned and organised war?

Things came back to him that Gerilleau had gathered about these ants they
were approaching. They used a poison like the poison of snakes. They
obeyed greater leaders even as the leaf-cutting ants do. They were
carnivorous, and where they came they stayed...

The forest was very still. The water lapped incessantly against the side.
About the lantern overhead there eddied a noiseless whirl of phantom
moths.

Gerilleau stirred in the darkness and sighed. "What can one _do?_" he
murmured, and turned over and was still again.

Holroyd was roused from meditations that were becoming sinister by the hum
of a mosquito.

II.

The next morning Holroyd learnt they were within forty kilometres of
Badama, and his interest in the banks intensified. He came up whenever an
opportunity offered to examine his surroundings. He could see no signs of
human occupation whatever, save for a weedy ruin of a house and the
green-stained facade of the long-deserted monastery at Moju, with a forest
tree growing out of a vacant window space, and great creepers netted across
its vacant portals. Several flights of strange yellow butterflies with
semi-transparent wings crossed the river that morning, and many alighted on
the monitor and were killed by the men. It was towards afternoon that they
came upon the derelict _cuberta_.

She did not at first appear to be derelict; both her sails were set and
hanging slack in the afternoon calm, and there was the figure of a man
sitting on the fore planking beside the shipped sweeps. Another man
appeared to be sleeping face downwards on the sort of longitudinal bridge
these big canoes have in the waist. But it was presently apparent, from
the sway of her rudder and the way she drifted into the course of the
gunboat, that something was out of order with her. Gerilleau surveyed her
through a field-glass, and became interested in the queer darkness of the
face of the sitting man, a red-faced man he seemed, without a nose--
crouching he was rather than sitting, and the longer the captain looked
the less he liked to look at him, and the less able he was to take his
glasses away.

But he did so at last, and went a little way to call up Holroyd. Then he
went back to hail the cuberta. He ailed her again, and so she drove past
him. _Santa Rosa_ stood out clearly as her name.

As she came by and into the wake of the monitor, she pitched a little, and
suddenly the figure of the crouching an collapsed as though all its joints
had given way. His hat fell off, his head was not nice to look at, and his
body flopped lax and rolled out of sight behind the bulwarks.

"Caramba!" cried Gerilleau, and resorted to Holroyd forthwith.

Holroyd was half-way up the companion. "Did you see dat?" said the
captain.

"Dead!" said Holroyd. "Yes. You'd better send a boat aboard. There's
something wrong."

"Did you--by any chance--see his face?"

"What was it like?"

"It was--ugh!--I have no words." And the captain suddenly turned his back
on Holroyd and became an active and strident commander.

The gunboat came about, steamed parallel to the erratic course of the
canoe, and dropped the boat with Lieutenant da Cunha and three sailors to
board her. Then the curiosity of the captain made him draw up almost
alongside as the lieutenant got aboard, so that the whole of the _Santa
Rosa_, deck and hold, was visible to Holroyd.

He saw now clearly that the sole crew of the vessel was these two dead
men, and though he could not see their faces, he saw by their outstretched
hands, which were all of ragged flesh, that they had been subjected to
some strange exceptional process of decay. For a moment his attention
concentrated on those two enigmatical bundles of dirty clothes and laxly
flung limbs, and then his eyes went forward to discover the open hold
piled high with trunks and cases, and aft, to where the little cabin gaped
inexplicably empty. Then he became aware that the planks of the middle
decking were dotted with moving black specks.

His attention was riveted by these specks. They were all walking in
directions radiating from the fallen man in a manner--the image came
unsought to his mind--like the crowd dispersing from a bull-fight.

He became aware of Gerilleau beside him. "Capo," he said, "have you your
glasses? Can you focus as closely as those planks there?"

Gerilleau made an effort, grunted, and handed him the glasses.

There followed a moment of scrutiny. "It's ants," said the Englishman, and
handed the focused field-glass back to Gerilleau.

His impression of them was of a crowd of large black ants, very like
ordinary ants except for their size, and for the fact that some of the
larger of them bore a sort of clothing of grey. But at the time his
inspection was too brief for particulars. The head of Lieutenant da Cunha
appeared over the side of the cuberta, and a brief colloquy ensued.

"You must go aboard," said Gerilleau.

The lieutenant objected that the boat was full of ants.

"You have your boots," said Gerilleau.

The lieutenant changed the subject. "How did these en die?" he asked.

Captain Gerilleau embarked upon speculations that Holroyd could not
follow, and the two men disputed with a certain increasing vehemence.
Holroyd took up the field-glass and resumed his scrutiny, first of the
ants and then of the dead man amidships.

He has described these ants to me very particularly.

He says they were as large as any ants he has ever seen, black and moving
with a steady deliberation very different from the mechanical fussiness of
the common ant. About one in twenty was much larger than its fellows, and
with an exceptionally large head. These reminded him at once of the master
workers who are said to rule over the leaf-cutter ants; like them they
seemed to be directing and co-ordinating the general movements. They
tilted their bodies back in a manner altogether singular as if they made
some use of the fore feet. And he had a curious fancy that he was too far
off to verify, that most of these ants of both kinds were wearing
accoutrements, had things strapped about their bodies by bright white
bands like white metal threads...

He put down the glasses abruptly, realising that the question of
discipline between the captain and his subordinate had become acute.

"It is your duty," said the captain, "to go aboard. It is my
instructions."

The lieutenant seemed on the verge of refusing. The head of one of the
mulatto sailors appeared beside him.

"I believe these men were killed by the ants," said Holroyd abruptly in
English.

The captain burst into a rage. He made no answer to Holroyd. "I have
commanded you to go aboard," he screamed to his subordinate in Portuguese.
"If you do not go aboard forthwith it is mutiny--rank mutiny. Mutiny and
cowardice! Where is the courage that should animate us? I will have you in
irons, I will have you shot like a dog." He began a torrent of abuse and
curses, he danced to and fro. He shook his fists, he behaved as if beside
himself with rage, and the lieutenant, white and still, stood looking at
him. The crew appeared forward, with amazed faces.

Suddenly, in a pause of this outbreak, the lieutenant came to some heroic
decision, saluted, drew himself together and clambered upon the deck of
the cuberta.

"Ah!" said Gerilleau, and his mouth shut like a trap. Holroyd saw the ants
retreating before da Cunha's boots. The Portuguese walked slowly to the
fallen man, stooped down, hesitated, clutched his coat and turned him
over. A black swarm of ants rushed out of the clothes, and da Cunha
stepped back very quickly and trod two or three times on the deck.

Holroyd put up the glasses. He saw the scattered ants about the invader's
feet, and doing what he had never seen ants doing before. They had nothing
of the blind movements of the common ant; they were looking at him--as a
rallying crowd of men might look at some gigantic monster that had
dispersed it.

"How did he die?" the captain shouted.

Holroyd understood the Portuguese to say the body was too much eaten to
tell.

"What is there forward?" asked Gerilleau.

The lieutenant walked a few paces, and began his answer in Portuguese. He
stopped abruptly and beat off something from his leg. He made some
peculiar steps as if he was trying to stamp on something invisible, and
went quickly towards the side. Then he controlled himself, turned about,
walked deliberately forward to the hold, clambered up to the fore decking,
from which the sweeps are worked, stooped for a time over the second man,
groaned audibly, and made his way back and aft to the cabin, moving very
rigidly. He turned and began a conversation with his captain, cold and
respectful in tone on either side, contrasting vividly with the wrath and
insult of a few moments before. Holroyd gathered only fragments of its
purport.

He reverted to the field-glass, and was surprised to find the ants had
vanished from all the exposed surfaces of the deck. He turned towards the
shadows beneath the decking, and it seemed to him they were full of
watching eyes.

The cuberta, it was agreed; was derelict, but too full of ants to put men
aboard to sit and sleep: it must be towed. The lieutenant went forward to
take in and adjust the cable, and the men in the boat stood up to be ready
to help him. Holroyd's glasses searched the canoe.

He became more and more impressed by the fact that a great if minute and
furtive activity was going on. He perceived that a number of gigantic
ants--they seemed nearly a couple of inches in length--carrying
oddly-shaped burthens for which he could imagine no use--were moving in
rushes from one point of obscurity to another. They did not move in columns
across the exposed places, but in open, spaced-out lines, oddly suggestive
of the rushes of modern infantry advancing under fire. A number were
taking cover under the dead man's clothes, and a perfect swarm was
gathering along the side over which da Cunha must presently go.

He did not see them actually rush for the lieutenant as he returned, but
he has no doubt they did make a concerted rush. Suddenly the lieutenant
was shouting and cursing and beating at his legs. "I'm stung!" he shouted,
with a face of hate and accusation towards Gerilleau.

Then he vanished over the side, dropped into his boat, and plunged at once
into the water. Holroyd heard the splash.

The three men in the boat pulled him out and brought him aboard, and that
night he died.

III.

Holroyd and the captain came out of the cabin in which the swollen and
contorted body of the lieutenant lay and stood together at the stern of
the monitor, staring at the sinister vessel they trailed behind them. It
was a close, dark night that had only phantom flickerings of sheet
lightning to illuminate it. The cuberta, a vague black triangle, rocked
about in the steamer's wake, her sails bobbing and flapping, and the black
smoke from the funnels, spark-lit ever and again, streamed over her
swaying masts.

Gerilleau's mind was inclined to run on the unkind things the lieutenant
had said in the heat of his last fever.

"He says I murdered 'im," he protested. "It is simply absurd. Someone
_'ad_ to go aboard. Are we to run away from these confounded ants
whenever they show up?"

Holroyd said nothing. He was thinking of a disciplined rush of little
black shapes across bare sunlit planking.

"It was his place to go," harped Gerilleau. "He died in the execution of
his duty. What has he to complain of? Murdered!... But the poor fellow
was--what is it?--demented. He was not in his right mind. The poison
swelled him... U'm."

They came to a long silence.

"We will sink that canoe--burn it."

"And then?"

The inquiry irritated Gerilleau. His shoulders went up, his hands flew out
at right angles from his body. "What is one to _do?_" he said, his
voice going up to an angry squeak.

"Anyhow," he broke out vindictively, "every ant in dat cuberta!--I will
burn dem alive!"

Holroyd was not moved to conversation. A distant ululation of howling
monkeys filled the sultry night with foreboding sounds, and as the gunboat
drew near the black mysterious banks this was reinforced by a depressing
clamour of frogs.

"What is one to _do?_" the captain repeated after a vast interval,
and suddenly becoming active and savage and blasphemous, decided to burn
the _Santa Rosa_ without further delay. Everyone aboard was pleased
by that idea, everyone helped with zest; they pulled in the cable, cut it,
and dropped the boat and fired her with tow and kerosene, and soon the
cuberta was crackling and flaring merrily amidst the immensities of the
tropical night. Holroyd watched the mounting yellow flare against the
blackness, and the livid flashes of sheet lightning that came and went
above the forest summits, throwing them into momentary silhouette, and his
stoker stood behind him watching also.

The stoker was stirred to the depths of his linguistics. "_Saueba_ go
pop, pop," he said, "Wahaw" and laughed richly.

But Holroyd was thinking that these little creatures on the decked canoe
had also eyes and brains.

The whole thing impressed him as incredibly foolish and wrong, but--what
was one to _do_? This question came back enormously reinforced on the
morrow, when at last the gunboat reached Badama.

This place, with its leaf-thatch-covered houses and sheds, its
creeper-invaded sugar-mill, its little jetty of timber and canes, was very
still in the morning heat, and showed never a sign of living men. Whatever
ants there were at that distance were too small to see.

"All the people have gone," said Gerilleau, "but we will do one thing
anyhow. We will 'oot and vissel."

So Holroyd hooted and whistled.

Then the captain fell into a doubting fit of the worst kind. "Dere is one
thing we can do," he said presently, "What's that?" said Holroyd.

"'Oot and vissel again."

So they did.

The captain walked his deck and gesticulated to himself. He seemed to have
many things on his mind. Fragments of speeches came from his lips. He
appeared to be addressing some imaginary public tribunal either in Spanish
or Portuguese. Holroyd's improving ear detected something about
ammunition. He came out of these preoccupations suddenly into English. "My
dear 'Olroyd!" he cried, and broke off with "But what _can_ one do?"

They took the boat and the field-glasses, and went close in to examine the
place. They made out a number of big ants, whose still postures had a
certain effect of watching them, dotted about the edge of the rude
embarkation jetty. Gerilleau tried ineffectual pistol shots at these.
Holroyd thinks he distinguished curious earthworks running between the
nearer houses, that may have been the work of the insect conquerors of
those human habitations. The explorers pulled past the jetty, and became
aware of a human skeleton wearing a loin cloth, and very bright and clean
and shining, lying beyond. They came to a pause regarding this...

"I 'ave all dose lives to consider," said Gerilleau suddenly.

Holroyd turned and stared at the captain, realising slowly that he
referred to the unappetising mixture of races that constituted his crew.

"To send a landing party--it is impossible--impossible. They will be
poisoned, they will swell, they will swell up and abuse me and die. It is
totally impossible... If we land, I must land alone, alone, in thick
boots and with my life in my hand. Perhaps I should live. Or again--I
might not land. I do not know. I do not know."

Holroyd thought he did, but he said nothing.

"De whole thing," said Gerilleau suddenly, "'as been got up to make me
ridiculous. De whole thing!"

They paddled about and regarded the clean white skeleton from various
points of view, and then they returned to the gunboat. Then Gerilleau's
indecisions became terrible. Steam was got up, and in the afternoon the
monitor went on up the river with an air of going to ask somebody
something, and by sunset came back again and anchored. A thunderstorm
gathered and broke furiously, and then the night became beautifully cool
and quiet and everyone slept on deck. Except Gerilleau, who tossed about
and muttered. In the dawn he awakened Holroyd.

"Lord!" said Holroyd, "what now?"

"I have decided," said the captain.

"What--to land?" said Holroyd, sitting up brightly.

"No!" said the captain, and was for a time very reserved. "I have
decided," he repeated, and Holroyd manifested symptoms of impatience.

"Well,--yes," said the captain, "_I shall fire de big gun!_"

And he did! Heaven knows what the ants thought of it, but he did. He fired
it twice with great sternness and ceremony. All the crew had wadding in
their ears, and there was an effect of going into action about the whole
affair, and first they hit and wrecked the old sugar-mill, and then they
smashed the abandoned store behind the jetty. And then Gerilleau
experienced the inevitable reaction.

"It is no good," he said to Holroyd; "no good at all. No sort of bally
good. We must go back--for instructions. Dere will be de devil of a row
about dis ammunition--oh! de _devil_ of a row! You don't know,
'Olroyd..."

He stood regarding the world in infinite perplexity for a space.

"But what else was there to _do?_" he cried.

In the afternoon the monitor started down stream again, and in the evening
a landing party took the body of the lieutenant and buried it on the bank
upon which the new ants have so far not appeared...

IV.

I heard this story in a fragmentary state from Holroyd not three weeks
ago.

These new ants have got into his brain, and he has come back to England
with the idea, as he says, of "exciting people" about them "before it is
too late." He says they threaten British Guiana, which cannot be much over
a trifle of a thousand miles from their present sphere of activity, and
that the Colonial Office ought to get to work upon them at once. He
declaims with great passion: "These are intelligent ants. Just think what
that means!"

There can be no doubt they are a serious pest, and that the Brazilian
Government is well advised in offering a prize of five hundred pounds for
some effectual method of extirpation. It is certain too that since they
first appeared in the hills beyond Badama, about three years ago, they
have achieved extraordinary conquests. The whole of the south bank of the
Batemo River, for nearly sixty miles, they have in their effectual
occupation; they have driven men out completely, occupied plantations and
settlements, and boarded and captured at least one ship. It is even said
they have in some inexplicable way bridged the very considerable Capuarana
arm and pushed many miles towards the Amazon itself. There can be little
doubt that they are far more reasonable and with a far better social
organisation than any previously known ant species; instead of being in
dispersed societies they are organised into what is in effect a single
nation; but their peculiar and immediate formidableness lies not so much
in this as in the intelligent use they make of poison against their larger
enemies. It would seem this poison of theirs is closely akin to snake
poison, and it is highly probable they actually manufacture it, and that
the larger individuals among them carry the needle-like crystals of it in
their attacks upon men.

Of course it is extremely difficult to get any detailed information about
these new competitors for the sovereignty of the globe. No eye-witnesses
of their activity, except for such glimpses as Holroyd's, have survived
the encounter. The most extraordinary legends of their prowess and
capacity are in circulation in the region of the Upper Amazon, and grow
daily as the steady advance of the invader stimulates men's imaginations
through their fears. These strange little creatures are credited not only
with the use of implements and a knowledge of fire and metals and with
organised feats of engineering that stagger our northern minds--unused as
we are to such feats as that of the Sauebas of Rio de Janeiro, who in 1841
drove a tunnel under the Parahyba where it is as wide as the Thames at
London Bridge--but with an organised and detailed method of record and
communication analogous to our books. So far their action has been a
steady progressive settlement, involving the flight or slaughter of every
human being in the new areas they invade. They are increasing rapidly in
numbers, and Holroyd at least is firmly convinced that they will finally
dispossess man over the whole of tropical South America.

And why should they stop at tropical South America?

Well, there they are, anyhow. By 1911 or thereabouts, if they go on as
they are going, they ought to strike the Capuarana Extension Railway, and
force themselves upon the attention of the European capitalist.

By 1920 they will be half-way down the Amazon. I fix 1950 or '60 at the
latest for the discovery of Europe.

XXXI.

THE DOOR IN THE WALL.

I.

One confidential evening, not three months ago, Lionel Wallace told me
this story of the Door in the Wall. And at the time I thought that so far
as he was concerned it was a true story.

He told it me with such a direct simplicity of conviction that I could not
do otherwise than believe in him. But in the morning, in my own flat, I
woke to a different atmosphere, and as I lay in bed and recalled the
things he had told me, stripped of the glamour of his earnest slow voice,
denuded of the focussed, shaded table light, the shadowy atmosphere that
wrapped about him and me, and the pleasant bright things, the dessert and
glasses and napery of the dinner we had shared, making them for the time a
bright little world quite cut off from everyday realities, I saw it all as
frankly incredible. "He was mystifying!" I said, and then: "How well he
did it!... It isn't quite the thing I should have expected him, of all
people, to do well."

Afterwards as I sat up in bed and sipped my morning tea, I found myself
trying to account for the flavour of reality that perplexed me in his
impossible reminiscences, by supposing they did in some way suggest,
present, convey--I hardly know which word to use--experiences it was
otherwise impossible to tell.

Well, I don't resort to that explanation now. I have got over my
intervening doubts. I believe now, as I believed at the moment of telling,
that Wallace did to the very best of his ability strip the truth of his
secret for me. But whether he himself saw, or only thought he saw, whether
he himself was the possessor of an inestimable privilege or the victim of
a fantastic dream, I cannot pretend to guess. Even the facts of his death,
which ended my doubts for ever, throw no light on that.

That much the reader must judge for himself.

I forget now what chance comment or criticism of mine moved so reticent a
man to confide in me. He was, I think, defending himself against an
imputation of slackness and unreliability I had made in relation to a
great public movement, in which he had disappointed me. But he plunged
suddenly. "I have," he said, "a preoccupation----

"I know," he went on, after a pause, "I have been negligent. The fact is--
it isn't a case of ghosts or apparitions--but--it's an odd thing to tell
of, Redmond--I am haunted. I am haunted by something--that rather takes
the light out of things, that fills me with longings..."

He paused, checked by that English shyness that so often overcomes us when
we would speak of moving or grave or beautiful things. "You were at Saint
Aethelstan's all through," he said, and for a moment that seemed to me
quite irrelevant. "Well"--and he paused. Then very haltingly at first, but
afterwards more easily, he began to tell of the thing that was hidden in
his life, the haunting memory of a beauty and a happiness that filled his
heart with insatiable longings, that made all the interests and spectacle
of worldly life seem dull and tedious and vain to him.

Now that I have the clue to it, the thing seems written visibly in his
face. I have a photograph in which that look of detachment has been caught
and intensified. It reminds me of what a woman once said of him--a woman
who had loved him greatly. "Suddenly," she said, "the interest goes out of
him. He forgets you. He doesn't care a rap for you--under his very
nose..."

Yet the interest was not always out of him, and when he was holding his
attention to a thing Wallace could contrive to be an extremely successful
man. His career, indeed, is set with successes. He left me behind him long
ago: he soared up over my head, and cut a figure in the world that I
couldn't cut--anyhow. He was still a year short of forty, and they say now
that he would have been in office and very probably in the new Cabinet if
he had lived. At school he always beat me without effort--as it were by
nature. We were at school together at Saint Aethelstan's College in West
Kensington for almost all our school-time. He came into the school as my
coequal, but he left far above me, in a blaze of scholarships and
brilliant performance. Yet I think I made a fair average running. And it
was at school I heard first of the "Door in the Wall"--that I was to hear
of a second time only a month before his death.

To him at least the Door in the Wall was a real door, leading through a
real wall to immortal realities. Of that I am now quite assured.

And it came into his life quite early, when he was a little fellow between
five and six. I remember how, as he sat making his confession to me with a
slow gravity, he reasoned and reckoned the date of it. "There was," he
said, "a crimson Virginia creeper in it--all one bright uniform crimson,
in a clear amber sunshine against a white wall. That came into the
impression somehow, though I don't clearly remember how, and there were
horse-chestnut leaves upon the clean pavement outside the green door. They
were blotched yellow and green, you know, not brown nor dirty, so that
they must have been new fallen. I take it that means October. I look out
for horse-chestnut leaves every year and I ought to know.

"If I'm right in that, I was about five years and four months old."

He was, he said, rather a precocious little boy--he learnt to talk at an
abnormally early age, and he was so sane and "old-fashioned," as people
say, that he was permitted an amount of initiative that most children
scarcely attain by seven or eight. His mother died when he was two, and he
was under the less vigilant and authoritative care of a nursery governess.
His father was a stern, preoccupied lawyer, who gave him little attention,
and expected great things of him. For all his brightness he found life a
little grey and dull, I think. And one day he wandered.

He could not recall the particular neglect that enabled him to get away,
nor the course he took among the West Kensington roads. All that had faded
among the incurable blurs of memory. But the white wall and the green door
stood out quite distinctly.

As his memory of that childish experience ran, he did at the very first
sight of that door experience a peculiar emotion, an attraction, a desire
to get to the door and open it and walk in. And at the same time he had
the clearest conviction that either it was unwise or it was wrong of him--
he could not tell which--to yield to this attraction. He insisted upon it
as a curious thing that he knew from the very beginning--unless memory has
played him the queerest trick--that the door was unfastened, and that he
could go in as he chose.

I seem to see the figure of that little boy, drawn and repelled. And it
was very clear in his mind, too, though why it should be so was never
explained, that his father would be very angry if he went in through that
door.

Wallace described all these moments of hesitation to me with the utmost
particularity. He went right past the door, and then, with his hands in
his pockets and making an infantile attempt to whistle, strolled right
along beyond the end of the wall. There he recalls a number of mean dirty
shops, and particularly that of a plumber and decorator with a dusty
disorder of earthenware pipes, sheet lead, ball taps, pattern books of
wall paper, and tins of enamel. He stood pretending to examine these
things, and _coveting_, passionately desiring, the green door.

Then, he said, he had a gust of emotion. He made a run for it, lest
hesitation should grip him again; he went plump with outstretched hand
through the green door and let it slam behind him. And so, in a trice, he
came into the garden that has haunted all his life.

It was very difficult for Wallace to give me his full sense of that garden
into which he came.

There was something in the very air of it that exhilarated, that gave one
a sense of lightness and good happening and well-being; there was
something in the sight of it that made all its colour clean and perfect
and subtly luminous. In the instant of coming into it one was exquisitely
glad--as only in rare moments, and when one is young and joyful one can be
glad in this world. And everything was beautiful there...

Wallace mused before he went on telling me. "You see," he said, with the
doubtful inflection of a man who pauses at incredible things, "there were
two great panthers there... Yes, spotted panthers. And I was not afraid.
There was a long wide path with marble-edged flower borders on either
side, and these two huge velvety beasts were playing there with a ball.
One looked up and came towards me, a little curious as it seemed. It came
right up to me, rubbed its soft round ear very gently against the small
hand I held out, and purred. It was, I tell you, an enchanted garden. I
know. And the size? Oh! it stretched far and wide, this way and that. I
believe there were hills far away. Heaven knows where West Kensington had
suddenly got to. And somehow it was just like coming home.

"You know, in the very moment the door swung to behind me, I forgot the
road with its fallen chestnut leaves, its cabs and tradesmen's carts, I
forgot the sort of gravitational pull back to the discipline and obedience
of home, I forgot all hesitations and fear, forgot discretion, forgot all
the intimate realities of this life. I became in a moment a very glad and
wonder-happy little boy--in another world. It was a world with a different
quality, a warmer, more penetrating and mellower light, with a faint clear
gladness in its air, and wisps of sun-touched cloud in the blueness of its
sky. And before me ran this long wide path, invitingly, with weedless beds
on either side, rich with untended flowers, and these two great panthers.
I put my little hands fearlessly on their soft fur, and caressed their
round ears and the sensitive corners under their ears, and played with
them, and it was as though they welcomed me home. There was a keen sense
of home-coming in my mind, and when presently a tall, fair girl appeared
in the pathway and came to meet me, smiling, and said 'Well?' to me, and
lifted me, and kissed me, and put me down, and led me by the hand, there
was no amazement, but only an impression of delightful rightness, of being
reminded of happy things that had in some strange way been overlooked.
There were broad red steps, I remember, that came into view between spikes
of delphinium, and up these we went to a great avenue between very old and
shady dark trees. All down this avenue, you know, between the red chapped
stems, were marble seats of honour and statuary, and very tame and
friendly white doves...

"Along this cool avenue my girl-friend led me, looking down--I recall the
pleasant lines, the finely-modelled chin of her sweet kind face--asking me
questions in a soft, agreeable voice, and telling me things, pleasant
things I know, though what they were I was never able to recall...
Presently a little Capuchin monkey, very clean, with a fur of ruddy brown
and kindly hazel eyes, came down a tree to us and ran beside me, looking
up at me and grinning, and presently leapt to my shoulder. So we two went
on our way in great happiness."

He paused.

"Go on," I said.

"I remember little things. We passed an old man musing among laurels, I
remember, and a place gay with paroquets, and came through a broad shaded
colonnade to a spacious cool palace, full of pleasant fountains, full of
beautiful things, full of the quality and promise of heart's desire. And
there were many things and many people, some that still seem to stand out
clearly and some that are a little vague; but all these people were
beautiful and kind. In some way--I don't know how--it was conveyed to me
that they all were kind to me, glad to have me there, and filling me with
gladness by their gestures, by the touch of their hands, by the welcome
and love in their eyes. Yes----"

He mused for a while. "Playmates I found there. That was very much to me,
because I was a lonely little boy. They played delightful games in a
grass-covered court where there was a sun-dial set about with flowers. And
as one played one loved...

"But--it's odd--there's a gap in my memory. I don't remember the games we
played. I never remembered. Afterwards, as a child, I spent long hours
trying, even with tears, to recall the form of that happiness. I wanted to
play it all over again--in my nursery--by myself. No! All I remember is
the happiness and two dear playfellows who were most with me... Then
presently came a sombre dark woman, with a grave, pale face and dreamy
eyes, a sombre woman, wearing a soft long robe of pale purple, who carried
a book, and beckoned and took me aside with her into a gallery above a
hall--though my playmates were loth to have me go, and ceased their game
and stood watching as I was carried away. Come back to us!' they cried.
'Come back to us soon!' I looked up at her face, but she heeded them not
at all. Her face was very gentle and grave. She took me to a seat in the
gallery, and I stood beside her, ready to look at her book as she opened
it upon her knee. The pages fell open. She pointed, and I looked,
marvelling, for in the living pages of that book I saw myself; it was a
story about myself, and in it were all the things that had happened to me
since ever I was born...

"It was wonderful to me, because the pages of that book were not pictures,
you understand, but realities."

Wallace paused gravely--looked at me doubtfully.

"Go on," I said. "I understand."

"They were realities---yes, they must have been; people moved and things
came and went in them; my dear mother, whom I had near forgotten; then my
father, stern and upright, the servants, the nursery, all the familiar
things of home. Then the front door and the busy streets, with traffic to
and fro. I looked and marvelled, and looked half doubtfully again into the
woman's face and turned the pages over, skipping this and that, to see
more of this book and more, and so at last I came to myself hovering and
hesitating outside the green door in the long white wall, and felt again
the conflict and the fear.

"'And next?' I cried, and would have turned on, but the cool hand of the
grave woman delayed me.

"'Next?' I insisted, and struggled gently with her hand, pulling up her
fingers with all my childish strength, and as she yielded and the page
came over she bent down upon me like a shadow and kissed my brow.

"But the page did not show the enchanted garden, nor the panthers, nor the
girl who had led me by the hand, nor the playfellows who had been so loth
to let me go. It showed a long grey street in West Kensington, in that
chill hour of afternoon before the lamps are lit, and I was there, a
wretched little figure, weeping aloud, for all that I could do to restrain
myself, and I was weeping because I could not return to my dear
playfellows who had called after me, 'Come back to us! Come back to us
soon!' I was there. This was no page in a book, but harsh reality; that
enchanted place and the restraining hand of the grave mother at whose knee
I stood had gone--whither had they gone?"

He halted again, and remained for a time staring into the fire.

"Oh! the woefulness of that return!" he murmured.

"Well?" I said, after a minute or so.

"Poor little wretch I was!--brought back to this grey world again! As I
realised the fulness of what had happened to me, I gave way to quite
ungovernable grief. And the shame and humiliation of that public weeping
and my disgraceful home-coming remain with me still. I see again the
benevolent-looking old gentleman in gold spectacles who stopped and spoke
to me--prodding me first with his umbrella. 'Poor little chap,' said he;
'and are you lost then?'--and me a London boy of five and more! And he
must needs bring in a kindly young policeman and make a crowd of me, and
so march me home. Sobbing, conspicuous, and frightened, I came back from
the enchanted garden to the steps of my father's house.

"That is as well as I can remember my vision of that garden--the garden
that haunts me still. Of course, I can convey nothing of that
indescribable quality of translucent unreality, that _difference_
from the common things of experience that hung about it all; but that--
that is what happened. If it was a dream, I am sure it was a day-time and
altogether extraordinary dream... H'm!--naturally there followed a
terrible questioning, by my aunt, my father, the nurse, the governess--
everyone...

"I tried to tell them, and my father gave me my first thrashing for
telling lies. When afterwards I tried to tell my aunt, she punished me
again for my wicked persistence. Then, as I said, everyone was forbidden
to listen to me, to hear a word about it. Even my fairytale books were
taken away from me for a time--because I was too 'imaginative.' Eh? Yes,
they did that! My father belonged to the old school... And my story was
driven back upon myself. I whispered it to my pillow--my pillow that was
often damp and salt to my whispering lips with childish tears. And I added
always to my official and less fervent prayers this one heartfelt request:
'Please God I may dream of the garden. Oh! take me back to my garden!'
Take me back to my garden! I dreamt often of the garden. I may have added
to it, I may have changed it; I do not know... All this, you understand,
is an attempt to reconstruct from fragmentary memories a very early
experience. Between that and the other consecutive memories of my boyhood
there is a gulf. A time came when it seemed impossible I should ever speak
of that wonder glimpse again."

I asked an obvious question.

"No," he said. "I don't remember that I ever attempted to find my way back
to the garden in those early years. This seems odd to me now, but I think
that very probably a closer watch was kept on my movements after this
misadventure to prevent my going astray. No, it wasn't till you knew me
that I tried for the garden again. And I believe there was a period--
incredible as it seems now--when I forgot the garden altogether--when I
was about eight or nine it may have been. Do you remember me as a kid at
Saint Aethelstan's?"

"Rather!"

"I didn't show any signs, did I, in those days of having a secret dream?"

II.

He looked up with a sudden smile.

"Did you ever play North-West Passage with me?... No, of course you didn't
come my way!"

"It was the sort of game," he went on, "that every imaginative child plays
all day. The idea was the discovery of a North-West Passage to school. The
way to school was plain enough; the game consisted in finding some way
that wasn't plain, starting off ten minutes early in some almost hopeless
direction, and working my way round through unaccustomed streets to my
goal. And one day I got entangled among some rather low-class streets on
the other side of Campden Hill, and I began to think that for once the
game would be against me and that I should get to school late. I tried
rather desperately a street that seemed a _cul-de-sac_, and found a
passage at the end. I hurried through that with renewed hope. 'I shall do
it yet,' I said, and passed a row of frowsy little shops that were
inexplicably familiar to me, and behold! there was my long white wall and
the green door that led to the enchanted garden!

"The thing whacked upon me suddenly. Then, after all, that garden, that
wonderful garden, wasn't a dream!"

He paused.

"I suppose my second experience with the green door marks the world of
difference there is between the busy life of a schoolboy and the infinite
leisure of a child. Anyhow, this second time I didn't for a moment think
of going in straight away. You see----. For one thing, my mind was full of
the idea of getting to school in time--set on not breaking my record for
punctuality. I must surely have felt _some_ little desire at least to
try the door--yes. I must have felt that... But I seem to remember the
attraction of the door mainly as another obstacle to my overmastering
determination to get to school. I was immensely interested by this
discovery I had made, of course--I went on with my mind full of it--but I
went on. It didn't check me. I ran past, tugging out my watch, found I had
ten minutes still to spare, and then I was going downhill into familiar
surroundings. I got to school, breathless, it is true, and wet with
perspiration, but in time. I can remember hanging up my coat and hat...
Went right by it and left it behind me. Odd, eh?"

He looked at me thoughtfully, "Of course I didn't know then that it
wouldn't always be there. Schoolboys have limited imaginations. I suppose
I thought it was an awfully jolly thing to have it there, to know my way
back to it, but there was the school tugging at me. I expect I was a good
deal distraught and inattentive that morning, recalling what I could of
the beautiful strange people I should presently see again. Oddly enough I
had no doubt in my mind that they would be glad to see me... Yes, I must
have thought of the garden that morning just as a jolly sort of place to
which one might resort in the interludes of a strenuous scholastic career.

"I didn't go that day at all. The next day was a half holiday, and that
may have weighed with me. Perhaps, too, my state of inattention brought
down impositions upon me, and docked the margin of time necessary for the
_detour_. I don't know. What I do know is that in the meantime the
enchanted garden was so much upon my mind that I could not keep it to
myself.

"I told. What was his name?--a ferrety-looking youngster we used to call
Squiff."

"Young Hopkins," said I.

"Hopkins it was. I did not like telling him. I had a feeling that in some
way it was against the rules to tell him, but I did. He was walking part
of the way home with me; he was talkative, and if we had not talked about
the enchanted garden we should have talked of something else, and it was
intolerable to me to think about any other subject. So I blabbed.

"Well, he told my secret. The next day in the play interval I found myself
surrounded by half a dozen bigger boys, half teasing, and wholly curious
to hear more of the enchanted garden. There was that big Fawcett--you
remember him?--and Carnaby and Morley Reynolds. You weren't there by any
chance? No, I think I should have remembered if you were...

"A boy is a creature of odd feelings. I was, I really believe, in spite of
my secret self-disgust, a little flattered to have the attention of these
big fellows. I remember particularly a moment of pleasure caused by the
praise of Crawshaw--you remember Crawshaw major, the son of Crawshaw the
composer?--who said it was the best lie he had ever heard. But at the same
time there was a really painful undertow of shame at telling what I felt
was indeed a sacred secret. That beast Fawcett made a joke about the girl
in green----"

Wallace's voice sank with the keen memory of that shame. "I pretended not
to hear," he said. "Well, then Carnaby suddenly called me a young liar,
and disputed with me when I said the thing was true. I said I knew where
to find the green door, could lead them all there in ten minutes. Carnaby
became outrageously virtuous, and said I'd have to--and bear out my words
or suffer. Did you ever have Carnaby twist your arm? Then perhaps you'll
understand how it went with me. I swore my story was true. There was
nobody in the school then to save a chap from Carnaby, though Crawshaw put
in a word or so. Carnaby had got his game. I grew excited and red-eared,
and a little frightened. I behaved altogether like a silly little chap,
and the outcome of it all was that instead of starting alone for my
enchanted garden, I led the way presently--cheeks flushed, ears hot, eyes
smarting, and my soul one burning misery and shame--for a party of six
mocking, curious, and threatening schoolfellows.

"We never found the white wall and the green door..."

"You mean----?"

"I mean I couldn't find it. I would have found it if I could.

"And afterwards when I could go alone I couldn't find it. I never found
it. I seem now to have been always looking for it through my school-boy
days, but I never came upon it--never."

"Did the fellows--make it disagreeable?"

"Beastly... Carnaby held a council over me for wanton lying. I remember
how I sneaked home and upstairs to hide the marks of my blubbering. But
when I cried myself to sleep at last it wasn't for Carnaby, but for the
garden, for the beautiful afternoon I had hoped for, for the sweet
friendly women and the waiting playfellows, and the game I had hoped to
learn again, that beautiful forgotten game...

"I believed firmly that if I had not told--... I had bad times after
that--crying at night and wool-gathering by day. For two terms I slackened
and had bad reports. Do you remember? Of course you would! It was
_you_--your beating me in mathematics that brought me back to the
grind again."

III.

For a time my friend stared silently into the red heart of the fire. Then
he said: "I never saw it again until I was seventeen.

"It leapt upon me for the third time--as I was driving to Paddington on my
way to Oxford and a scholarship. I had just one momentary glimpse. I was
leaning over the apron of my hansom smoking a cigarette, and no doubt
thinking myself no end of a man of the world, and suddenly there was the
door, the wall, the dear sense of unforgettable and still attainable
things.

"We clattered by--I too taken by surprise to stop my cab until we were
well past and round a corner. Then I had a queer moment, a double and
divergent movement of my will: I tapped the little door in the roof of the
cab, and brought my arm down to pull out my watch. 'Yes, sir!' said the
cabman, smartly. 'Er--well--it's nothing,' I cried. '_My_ mistake! We
haven't much time! Go on!' And he went on...

"I got my scholarship. And the night after I was told of that I sat over
my fire in my little upper room, my study, in my father's house, with his
praise--his rare praise--and his sound counsels ringing in my ears, and I
smoked my favourite pipe--the formidable bulldog of adolescence--and
thought of that door in the long white wall. 'If I had stopped,' I
thought, 'I should have missed my scholarship, I should have missed
Oxford--muddled all the fine career before me! I begin to see things
better!' I fell musing deeply, but I did not doubt then this career of
mine was a thing that merited sacrifice.

"Those dear friends and that clear atmosphere seemed very sweet to me,
very fine but remote. My grip was fixing now upon the world. I saw another
door opening--the door of my career."

He stared again into the fire. Its red light picked out a stubborn
strength in his face for just one flickering moment, and then it vanished
again.

"Well," he said and sighed, "I have served that career. I have done--much
work, much hard work. But I have dreamt of the enchanted garden a thousand
dreams, and seen its door, or at least glimpsed its door, four times since
then. Yes--four times. For a while this world was so bright and
interesting, seemed so full of meaning and opportunity, that the
half-effaced charm of the garden was by comparison gentle and remote. Who
wants to pat panthers on the way to dinner with pretty women and
distinguished men? I came down to London from Oxford, a man of bold
promise that I have done something to redeem. Something--and yet there
have been disappointments...

"Twice I have been in love--I will not dwell on that--but once, as I went
to someone who, I knew, doubted whether I dared to come, I took a short
cut at a venture through an unfrequented road near Earl's Court, and so
happened on a white wall and a familiar green door. 'Odd!' said I to
myself, 'but I thought this place was on Campden Hill. It's the place I
never could find somehow--like counting Stonehenge--the place of that
queer daydream of mine.' And I went by it intent upon my purpose. It had
no appeal to me that afternoon.

"I had just a moment's impulse to try the door, three steps aside were
needed at the most--though I was sure enough in my heart that it would
open to me--and then I thought that doing so might delay me on the way to
that appointment in which I thought my honour was involved. Afterwards I
was sorry for my punctuality--might at least have peeped in, I thought,
and waved a hand to those panthers, but I knew enough by this time not to
seek again belatedly that which is not found by seeking. Yes, that time
made me very sorry...

"Years of hard work after that, and never a sight of the door. It's only
recently it has come back to me. With it there has come a sense as though
some thin tarnish had spread itself over my world. I began to think of it
as a sorrowful and bitter thing that I should never see that door again.
Perhaps I was suffering a little from overwork--perhaps it was what I've
heard spoken of as the feeling of forty. I don't know. But certainly the
keen brightness that makes effort easy has gone out of things recently,
and that just at a time--with all these new political developments--when I
ought to be working. Odd, isn't it? But I do begin to find life toilsome,
its rewards, as I come near them, cheap. I began a little while ago to
want the garden quite badly. Yes--and I've seen it three times."

"The garden?"

"No---the door! And I haven't gone in!"

He leant over the table to me, with an enormous sorrow in his voice as he
spoke. "Thrice I have had my chance--_thrice_! If ever that door
offers itself to me again, I swore, I will go in, out of this dust and
heat, out of this dry glitter of vanity, out of these toilsome futilities.
I will go and never return. This time I will stay... I swore it, and when
the time came--_I didn't go_.

"Three times in one year have I passed that door and failed to enter.
Three times in the last year.

"The first time was on the night of the snatch division on the Tenants'
Redemption Bill, on which the Government was saved by a majority of three.
You remember? No one on our side--perhaps very few on the opposite side--
expected the end that night. Then the debate collapsed like eggshells. I
and Hotchkiss were dining with his cousin at Brentford; we were both
unpaired, and we were called up by telephone, and set off at once in his
cousin's motor. We got in barely in time, and on the way we passed my wall
and door--livid in the moonlight, blotched with hot yellow as the glare of
our lamps lit it, but unmistakable. 'My God!' cried I. 'What?' said
Hotchkiss. 'Nothing!' I answered, and the moment passed.

"'I've made a great sacrifice,' I told the whip as I got in. 'They all
have,' he said, and hurried by.

"I do not see how I could have done otherwise then. And the next occasion
was as I rushed to my father's bedside to bid that stern old man farewell.
Then, too, the claims of life were imperative. But the third time was
different; it happened a week ago. It fills me with hot remorse to recall
it. I was with Gurker and Ralphs--it's no secret now, you know, that I've
had my talk with Gurker. We had been dining at Frobisher's, and the talk
had become intimate between us. The question of my place in the
reconstructed Ministry lay always just over the boundary of the
discussion. Yes--yes. That's all settled. It needn't be talked about yet,
but there's no reason to keep a secret from you... Yes--thanks! thanks!
But let me tell you my story.

"Then, on that night things were very much in the air. My position was a
very delicate one. I was keenly anxious to get some definite word from
Gurker, but was hampered by Ralphs' presence. I was using the best power
of my brain to keep that light and careless talk not too obviously
directed to the point that concerned me. I had to. Ralphs' behaviour since
has more than justified my caution... Ralphs, I knew, would leave us
beyond the Kensington High Street, and then I could surprise Gurker by a
sudden frankness. One has sometimes to resort to these little devices...
And then it was that in the margin of my field of vision I became aware
once more of the white wall, the green door before us down the road.

"We passed it talking. I passed it. I can still see the shadow of Gurker's
marked profile, his opera hat tilted forward over his prominent nose, the
many folds of his neck wrap going before my shadow and Ralphs' as we
sauntered past.

"I passed within twenty inches of the door. 'If I say good-night to them,
and go in,' I asked myself, 'what will happen?' And I was all a-tingle for
that word with Gurker.

"I could not answer that question in the tangle of my other problems.
'They will think me mad,' I thought. 'And suppose I vanish now!---Amazing
disappearance of a prominent politician!' That weighed with me. A thousand
inconceivably petty worldlinesses weighed with me in that crisis."

Then he turned on me with a sorrowful smile, and, speaking slowly, "Here I
am!" he said.

"Here I am!" he repeated, "and my chance has gone from me. Three times in
one year the door has been offered me--the door that goes into peace, into
delight, into a beauty beyond dreaming, a kindness no man on earth can
know. And I have rejected it, Redmond, and it has gone----"

"How do you know?"

"I know. I know. I am left now to work it out, to stick to the tasks that
held me so strongly when my moments came. You say I have success--this
vulgar, tawdry, irksome, envied thing. I have it." He had a walnut in his
big hand. "If that was my success," he said, and crushed it, and held it
out for me to see.

"Let me tell you something, Redmond. This loss is destroying me. For two
months, for ten weeks nearly now, I have done no work at all, except the
most necessary and urgent duties. My soul is full of inappeasable regrets.
At nights--when it is less likely I shall be recognised--I go out. I
wander. Yes. I wonder what people would think of that if they knew. A
Cabinet Minister, the responsible head of that most vital of all
departments, wandering alone--grieving--sometimes near audibly lamenting--
for a door, for a garden!"

IV.

I can see now his rather pallid face, and the unfamiliar sombre fire that
had come into his eyes. I see him very vividly to-night. I sit recalling
his words, his tones, and last evening's _Westminster Gazette_ still
lies on my sofa, containing the notice of his death. At lunch to-day the
club was busy with his death. We talked of nothing else.

They found his body very early yesterday morning in a deep excavation near
East Kensington Station. It is one of two shafts that have been made in
connection with an extension of the railway southward. It is protected
from the intrusion of the public by a hoarding upon the high road, in
which a small doorway has been cut for the convenience of some of the
workmen who live in that direction. The doorway was left unfastened
through a misunderstanding between two gangers, and through it he made his
way...

My mind is darkened with questions and riddles.

It would seem he walked all the way from the House that night--he has
frequently walked home during the past Session--and so it is I figure his
dark form coming along the late and empty streets, wrapped up, intent. And
then did the pale electric lights near the station cheat the rough
planking into a semblance of white? Did that fatal unfastened door awaken
some memory?

Was there, after all, ever any green door in the wall at all?

I do not know. I have told his story as he told it to me. There are times
when I believe that Wallace was no more than the victim of the coincidence
between a rare but not unprecedented type of hallucination and a careless
trap, but that indeed is not my profoundest belief. You may think me
superstitious, if you will, and foolish; but, indeed, I am more than
half convinced that he had, in truth, an abnormal gift, and a sense,
something--I know not what---that in the guise of wall and door offered
him an outlet, a secret and peculiar passage of escape into another and
altogether more beautiful world. At any rate, you will say, it betrayed
him in the end. But did it betray him? There you touch the inmost mystery
of these dreamers, these men of vision and the imagination. We see our
world fair and common, the hoarding and the pit. By our daylight standard
he walked out of security into darkness, danger, and death.

But did he see like that?

XXXII.

THE COUNTRY OF THE BLIND.

Three hundred miles and more from Chimborazo, one hundred from the snows
of Cotopaxi, in the wildest wastes of Ecuador's Andes, there lies that
mysterious mountain valley, cut off from the world of men, the Country of
the Blind. Long years ago that valley lay so far open to the world that
men might come at last through frightful gorges and over an icy pass into
its equable meadows; and thither indeed men came, a family or so of
Peruvian half-breeds fleeing from the lust and tyranny of an evil Spanish
ruler. Then came the stupendous outbreak of Mindobamba, when it was night
in Quito for seventeen days, and the water was boiling at Yaguachi and all
the fish floating dying even as far as Guayaquil; everywhere along the
Pacific slopes there were land-slips and swift thawings and sudden floods,
and one whole side of the old Arauca crest slipped and came down in
thunder, and cut off the Country of the Blind for ever from the exploring
feet of men. But one of these early settlers had chanced to be on the
hither side of the gorges when the world had so terribly shaken itself,
and he perforce had to forget his wife and his child and all the friends
and possessions he had left up there, and start life over again in the
lower world. He started it again but ill, blindness overtook him, and he
died of punishment in the mines; but the story he told begot a legend that
lingers along the length of the Cordilleras of the Andes to this day.

He told of his reason for venturing back from that fastness, into which he
had first been carried lashed to a llama, beside a vast bale of gear, when
he was a child. The valley, he said, had in it all that the heart of man
could desire--sweet water, pasture, and even climate, slopes of rich brown
soil with tangles of a shrub that bore an excellent fruit, and on one side
great hanging forests of pine that held the avalanches high. Far overhead,
on three sides, vast cliffs of grey-green rock were capped by cliffs of
ice; but the glacier stream came not to them but flowed away by the
farther slopes, and only now and then huge ice masses fell on the valley
side. In this valley it neither rained nor snowed, but the abundant
springs gave a rich green pasture, that irrigation would spread over all
the valley space. The settlers did well indeed there. Their beasts did
well and multiplied, and but one thing marred their happiness. Yet it was
enough to mar it greatly. A strange disease had come upon them, and had
made all the children born to them there--and indeed, several older
children also--blind. It was to seek some charm or antidote against this
plague of blindness that he had with fatigue and danger and difficulty
returned down the gorge. In those days, in such cases, men did not think
of germs and infections but of sins; and it seemed to him that the reason
of this affliction must lie in the negligence of these priestless
immigrants to set up a shrine so soon as they entered the valley. He
wanted a shrine--a handsome, cheap, effectual shrine--to be erected in the
valley; he wanted relics and such-like potent things of faith, blessed
objects and mysterious medals and prayers. In his wallet he had a bar of
native silver for which he would not account; he insisted there was none
in the valley with something of the insistence of an inexpert liar. They
had all clubbed their money and ornaments together, having little need for
such treasure up there, he said, to buy them holy help against their ill.
I figure this dim-eyed young mountaineer, sunburnt, gaunt, and anxious,
hat-brim clutched feverishly, a man all unused to the ways of the lower
world, telling this story to some keen-eyed, attentive priest before the
great convulsion; I can picture him presently seeking to return with pious
and infallible remedies against that trouble, and the infinite dismay with
which he must have faced the tumbled vastness where the gorge had once
come out. But the rest of his story of mischances is lost to me, save that
I know of his evil death after several years. Poor stray from that
remoteness! The stream that had once made the gorge now bursts from the
mouth of a rocky cave, and the legend his poor, ill-told story set going
developed into the legend of a race of blind men somewhere "over there"
one may still hear to-day.

And amidst the little population of that now isolated and forgotten valley
the disease ran its course. The old became groping and purblind, the young
saw but dimly, and the children that were born to them saw never at all.
But life was very easy in that snow-rimmed basin, lost to all the world,
with neither thorns nor briars, with no evil insects nor any beasts save
the gentle breed of llamas they had lugged and thrust and followed up the
beds of the shrunken rivers in the gorges up which they had come. The
seeing had become purblind so gradually that they scarcely noted their
loss. They guided the sightless youngsters hither and thither until they
knew the whole Valley marvellously, and when at last sight died out among
them the race lived on. They had even time to adapt themselves to the
blind control of fire, which they made carefully in stoves of stone. They
were a simple strain of people at the first, unlettered, only slightly
touched with the Spanish civilisation, but with something of a tradition
of the arts of old Peru and of its lost philosophy. Generation followed
generation. They forgot many things; they devised many things. Their
tradition of the greater world they came from became mythical in colour
and uncertain. In all things save sight they were strong and able, and
presently the chance of birth and heredity sent one who had an original
mind and who could talk and persuade among them, and then afterwards
another. These two passed, leaving their effects, and the little community
grew in numbers and in understanding, and met and settled social and
economic problems that arose. Generation followed generation. Generation
followed generation. There came a time when a child was born who was
fifteen generations from that ancestor who went out of the valley with a
bar of silver to seek God's aid, and who never returned. Thereabouts it
chanced that a man came into this community from the outer world. And this
is the story of that man.

He was a mountaineer from the country near Quito, a man who had been down
to the sea and had seen the world, a reader of books in an original way,
an acute and enterprising man, and he was taken on by a party of
Englishmen who had come out to Ecuador to climb mountains, to replace one
of their three Swiss guides who had fallen ill. He climbed here and he
climbed there, and then came the attempt on Parascotopetl, the Matterhorn
of the Andes, in which he was lost to the outer world. The story of the
accident has been written a dozen times. Pointer's narrative is the best.
He tells how the little party worked their difficult and almost vertical
way up to the very foot of the last and greatest precipice, and how they
built a night shelter amidst the snow upon a little shelf of rock, and,
with a touch of real dramatic power, how presently they found Nunez had
gone from them. They shouted, and there was no reply; shouted and
whistled, and for the rest of that night they slept no more.

As the morning broke they saw the traces of his fall. It seems impossible
he could have uttered a sound. He had slipped eastward towards the unknown
side of the mountain; far below he had struck a steep slope of snow, and
ploughed his way down it in the midst of a snow avalanche. His track went
straight to the edge of a frightful precipice, and beyond that everything
was hidden. Far, far below, and hazy with distance, they could see trees
rising out of a narrow, shut-in valley--the lost Country of the Blind. But
they did not know it was the lost Country of the Blind, nor distinguish it
in any way from any other narrow streak of upland valley. Unnerved by this
disaster, they abandoned their attempt in the afternoon, and Pointer was
called away to the war before he could make another attack. To this day
Parascotopetl lifts an unconquered crest, and Pointer's shelter crumbles
unvisited amidst the snows.

And the man who fell survived.

At the end of the slope he fell a thousand feet, and came down in the
midst of a cloud of snow upon a snow slope even steeper than the one
above. Down this he was whirled, stunned and insensible, but without a
bone broken in his body; and then at last came to gentler slopes, and at
last rolled out and lay still, buried amidst a softening heap of the white
masses that had accompanied and saved him. He came to himself with a dim
fancy that he was ill in bed; then realised his position with a
mountaineer's intelligence, and worked himself loose and, after a rest or
so, out until he saw the stars. He rested flat upon his chest for a space,
wondering where he was and what had happened to him. He explored his
limbs, and discovered that several of his buttons were gone and his coat
turned over his head. His knife had gone from his pocket and his hat was
lost, though he had tied it under his chin. He recalled that he had been
looking for loose stones to raise his piece of the shelter wall. His
ice-axe had disappeared.

He decided he must have fallen, and looked up to see, exaggerated by the
ghastly light of the rising moon, the tremendous flight he had taken. For
a while he lay, gazing blankly at that vast pale cliff towering above,
rising moment by moment out of a subsiding tide of darkness. Its
phantasmal, mysterious beauty held him for a space, and then he was seized
with a paroxysm of sobbing laughter...

After a great interval of time he became aware that he was near the lower
edge of the snow. Below, down what was now a moonlit and practicable
slope, he saw the dark and broken appearance of rock-strewn turf. He
struggled to his feet, aching in every joint and limb, got down painfully
from the heaped loose snow about him, went downward until he was on the
turf, and there dropped rather than lay beside a boulder, drank deep from
the flask in his inner pocket, and instantly fell asleep...

He was awakened by the singing of birds in the trees far below.

He sat up and perceived he was on a little alp at the foot of a vast
precipice, that was grooved by the gully down which he and his snow had
come. Over against him another wall of rock reared itself against the sky.
The gorge between these precipices ran east and west and was full of the
morning sunlight, which lit to the westward the mass of fallen mountain
that closed the descending gorge. Below him it seemed there was a
precipice equally steep, but behind the snow in the gully he found a sort
of chimney-cleft dripping with snow-water down which a desperate man might
venture. He found it easier than it seemed, and came at last to another
desolate alp, and then after a rock climb of no particular difficulty to a
steep slope of trees. He took his bearings and turned his face up the
gorge, for he saw it opened out above upon green meadows, among which he
now glimpsed quite distinctly a cluster of stone huts of unfamiliar
fashion. At times his progress was like clambering along the face of a
wall, and after a time the rising sun ceased to strike along the gorge,
the voices of the singing birds died away, and the air grew cold and dark
about him. But the distant valley with its houses was all the brighter for
that. He came presently to talus, and among the rocks he noted--for he was
an observant man--an unfamiliar fern that seemed to clutch out of the
crevices with intense green hands. He picked a frond or so and gnawed its
stalk and found it helpful.

About midday he came at last out of the throat of the gorge into the plain
and the sunlight. He was stiff and weary; he sat down in the shadow of a
rock, filled up his flask with water from a spring and drank it down, and
remained for a time resting before he went on to the houses.

They were very strange to his eyes, and indeed the whole aspect of that
valley became, as he regarded it, queerer and more unfamiliar. The greater
part of its surface was lush green meadow, starred with many beautiful
flowers, irrigated with extraordinary care, and bearing evidence of
systematic cropping piece by piece. High up and ringing the valley about
was a wall, and what appeared to be a circumferential water-channel, from
which the little trickles of water that fed the meadow plants came, and on
the higher slopes above this flocks of llamas cropped the scanty herbage.
Sheds, apparently shelters or feeding-places for the llamas, stood against
the boundary wall here and there. The irrigation streams ran together into
a main channel down the centre of the valley, and this was enclosed on
either side by a wall breast high. This gave a singularly urban quality to
this secluded place, a quality that was greatly enhanced by the fact that
a number of paths paved with black and white stones, and each with a
curious little kerb at the side, ran hither and thither in an orderly
manner. The houses of the central village were quite unlike the casual and
higgledy-piggledy agglomeration of the mountain villages he knew; they
stood in a continuous row on either side of a central street of
astonishing cleanness; here and there their particoloured facade was
pierced by a door, and not a solitary window broke their even frontage.
They were particoloured with extraordinary irregularity, smeared with a
sort of plaster that was sometimes grey, sometimes drab, sometimes
slate-coloured or dark brown; and it was the sight of this wild plastering
first brought the word "blind" into the thoughts of the explorer. "The
good man who did that," he thought, "must have been as blind as a bat."

He descended a steep place, and so came to the wall and channel that ran
about the valley, near where the latter spouted out its surplus contents
into the deeps of the gorge in a thin and wavering thread of cascade. He
could now see a number of men and women resting on piled heaps of grass,
as if taking a siesta, in the remoter part of the meadow, and nearer the
village a number of recumbent children, and then nearer at hand three men
carrying pails on yokes along a little path that ran from the encircling
wall towards the houses. These latter were clad in garments of llama cloth
and boots and belts of leather, and they wore caps of cloth with back and
ear flaps. They followed one another in single file, walking slowly and
yawning as they walked, like men who have been up all night. There was
something so reassuringly prosperous and respectable in their bearing that
after a moment's hesitation Nunez stood forward as conspicuously as
possible upon his rock, and gave vent to a mighty shout that echoed round
the valley.

The three men stopped, and moved their heads as though they were looking
about them. They turned their faces this way and that, and Nunez
gesticulated with freedom. But they did not appear to see him for all his
gestures, and after a time, directing themselves towards the mountains far
away to the right, they shouted as if in answer. Nunez bawled again, and
then once more, and as he gestured ineffectually the word "blind" came up
to the top of his thoughts. "The fools must be blind," he said.

When at last, after much shouting and wrath, Nunez crossed the stream by a
little bridge, came through a gate in the wall, and approached them, he
was sure that they were blind. He was sure that this was the Country of
the Blind of which the legends told. Conviction had sprung upon him, and a
sense of great and rather enviable adventure. The three stood side by
side, not looking at him, but with their ears directed towards him,
judging him by his unfamiliar steps. They stood close together like men a
little afraid, and he could see their eyelids closed and sunken, as though
the very balls beneath had shrunk away. There was an expression near awe
on their faces.

"A man," one said, in hardly recognisable Spanish--"a man it is--a man or
a spirit--coming down from the rocks."

But Nunez advanced with the confident steps of a youth who enters upon
life. All the old stories of the lost valley and the Country of the Blind
had come back to his mind, and through his thoughts ran this old proverb,
as if it were a refrain--

"In the Country of the Blind the One-eyed Man is King."

"In the Country of the Blind the One-eyed Man is King."

And very civilly he gave them greeting. He talked to them and used his
eyes.

"Where does he come from, brother Pedro?" asked one.

"Down out of the rocks."

"Over the mountains I come," said Nunez, "out of the country beyond
there--where men can see. From near Bogota, where there are a hundred
thousands of people, and where the city passes out of sight."

"Sight?" muttered Pedro. "Sight?"

"He comes," said the second blind man, "out of the rocks."

The cloth of their coats Nunez saw was curiously fashioned, each with a
different sort of stitching.

They startled him by a simultaneous movement towards him, each with a hand
outstretched. He stepped back from the advance of these spread fingers.

"Come hither," said the third blind man, following his motion and
clutching him neatly.

And they held Nunez and felt him over, saying no word further until they
had done so.

"Carefully," he cried, with a finger in his eye, and found they thought
that organ, with its fluttering lids, a queer thing in him. They went over
it again.

"A strange creature, Correa," said the one called Pedro. "Feel the
coarseness of his hair. Like a llama's hair."

"Rough he is as the rocks that begot him," said Correa, investigating
Nunez's unshaven chin with a soft and slightly moist hand. "Perhaps he
will grow finer." Nunez struggled a little under their examination, but
they gripped him firm.

"Carefully," he said again.

"He speaks," said the third man. "Certainly he is a man."

"Ugh!" said Pedro, at the roughness of his coat.

"And you have come into the world?" asked Pedro.

"_Out_ of the world. Over mountains and glaciers; right over above
there, half-way to the sun. Out of the great big world that goes down,
twelve days' journey to the sea."

They scarcely seemed to heed him. "Our fathers have told us men may be
made by the forces of Nature," said Correa. "It is the warmth of things
and moisture, and rottenness--rottenness."

"Let us lead him to the elders," said Pedro.

"Shout first," said Correa, "lest the children be afraid... This is a
marvellous occasion."

So they shouted, and Pedro went first and took Nunez by the hand to lead
him to the houses.

He drew his hand away. "I can see," he said.

"See?" said Correa.

"Yes, see," said Nunez, turning towards him, and stumbled against Pedro's
pail.

"His senses are still imperfect," said the third blind man. "He stumbles,
and talks unmeaning words. Lead him by the hand."

"As you will," said Nunez, and was led along, laughing.

It seemed they knew nothing of sight.

Well, all in good time he would teach them.

He heard people shouting, and saw a number of figures gathering together
in the middle roadway of the village.

He found it tax his nerve and patience more than he had anticipated, that
first encounter with the population of the Country of the Blind. The place
seemed larger as he drew near to it, and the smeared plasterings queerer,
and a crowd of children and men and women (the women and girls, he was
pleased to note, had some of them quite sweet faces, for all that their
eyes were shut and sunken) came about him, holding on to him, touching him
with soft, sensitive hands, smelling at him, and listening at every word
he spoke. Some of the maidens and children, however, kept aloof as if
afraid, and indeed his voice seemed coarse and rude beside their softer
notes. They mobbed him. His three guides kept close to him with an effect
of proprietorship, and said again and again, "A wild man out of the rock."

"Bogota," he said. "Bogota. Over the mountain crests."

"A wild man--using wild words," said Pedro. "Did you hear that--
_Bogota_? His mind is hardly formed yet. He has only the beginnings
of speech."

A little boy nipped his hand. "Bogota!" he said mockingly.

"Ay! A city to your village. I come from the great world--where men have
eyes and see."

"His name's Bogota," they said.

"He stumbled," said Correa, "stumbled twice as we came hither."

"Bring him to the elders."

And they thrust him suddenly through a doorway into a room as black as
pitch, save at the end there faintly glowed a fire. The crowd closed in
behind him and shut out all but the faintest glimmer of day, and before he
could arrest himself he had fallen headlong over the feet of a seated man.
His arm, outflung, struck the face of someone else as he went down; he
felt the soft impact of features and heard a cry of anger, and for a
moment he struggled against a number of hands that clutched him. It was a
one-sided fight. An inkling of the situation came to him, and he lay
quiet.

"I fell down," he said; "I couldn't see in this pitchy darkness."

There was a pause as if the unseen persons about him tried to understand
his words. Then the voice of Correa said: "He is but newly formed. He
stumbles as he walks and mingles words that mean nothing with his speech."

Others also said things about him that he heard or understood imperfectly.

"May I sit up?" he asked, in a pause. "I will not struggle against you
again."

They consulted and let him rise.

The voice of an older man began to question him, and Nunez found himself
trying to explain the great world out of which he had fallen, and the sky
and mountains and sight and such-like marvels, to these elders who sat in
darkness in the Country of the Blind. And they would believe and
understand nothing whatever he told them, a thing quite outside his
expectation. They would not even understand many of his words. For
fourteen generations these people had been blind and cut off from all the
seeing world; the names for all the things of sight had faded and changed;
the story of the outer world was faded and changed to a child's story; and
they had ceased to concern themselves with anything beyond the rocky
slopes above their circling wall. Blind men of genius had arisen among
them and questioned the shreds of belief and tradition they had brought
with them from their seeing days, and had dismissed all these things as
idle fancies, and replaced them with new and saner explanations. Much of
their imagination had shrivelled with their eyes, and they had made for
themselves new imaginations with their ever more sensitive ears and
finger-tips. Slowly Nunez realised this; that his expectation of wonder
and reverence at his origin and his gifts was not to be borne out; and
after his poor attempt to explain sight to them had been set aside as the
confused version of a new-made being describing the marvels of his
incoherent sensations, he subsided, a little dashed, into listening to
their instruction. And the eldest of the blind men explained to him life
and philosophy and religion, how that the world (meaning their valley) had
been first an empty hollow in the rocks, and then had come, first,
inanimate things without the gift of touch, and llamas and a few other
creatures that had little sense, and then men, and at last angels, whom
one could hear singing and making fluttering sounds, but whom no one could
touch at all, which puzzled Nunez greatly until he thought of the birds.

He went on to tell Nunez how this time had been divided into the warm and
the cold, which are the blind equivalents of day and night, and how it was
good to sleep in the warm and work during the cold, so that now, but for
his advent, the whole town of the blind would have been asleep. He said
Nunez must have been specially created to learn and serve the wisdom, they
had acquired, and that for all his mental incoherency and stumbling
behaviour he must have courage, and do his best to learn, and at that all
the people in the doorway murmured encouragingly. He said the night--for
the blind call their day night--was now far gone, and it behoved every one
to go back to sleep. He asked Nunez if he knew how to sleep, and Nunez
said he did, but that before sleep he wanted food.

They brought him food--llama's milk in a bowl, and rough salted bread--and
led him into a lonely place, to eat out of their hearing, and afterwards
to slumber until the chill of the mountain evening roused them to begin
their day again. But Nunez slumbered not at all.

Instead, he sat up in the place where they had left him, resting his limbs
and turning the unanticipated circumstances of his arrival over and over
in his mind.

Every now and then he laughed, sometimes with amusement, and sometimes
with indignation.

"Unformed mind!" he said. "Got no senses yet! They little know they've
been insulting their heaven-sent king and master. I see I must bring them
to reason. Let me think--let me think."

He was still thinking when the sun set.

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