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