Chapter 17 PRESENTED AT COURT

Leading Eveena by the hand—for to hold my arm after the European fashion was always an inconvenience and fatigue to her—and preceded by Ergimo, I walked unnoticed to the closed gate of pink crystal, contrasting the emerald green of the outer walls. Along the front of this central portion of the residence was a species of verandah, supported by pillars overlaid with a bright red metal, and wrought in the form of smooth tree trunks closely clasped by creepers, the silver flowers of the latter contrasting the dense golden foliage and ruby-like stems. Under this, and in front of the gate itself, were two sentries armed with a spear, the shaft of which was about six feet in length, hollow, and almost as light as the cane or reed handle of an African assegai. The blade more resembled the triangular bayonet. Beside each, however, was the terrible asphyxiator, fixed on its stand, with a bore about as great as that of a nine-pounder, but incomparably lighter. These two weapons might at one discharge have annihilated a huge mob of insurgents threatening to storm the palace, were insurrections known in Mars, These men saluted us by dropping the points of their weapons and inclining the handle towards us; gazing upon me with surprise, and with something of soldierly admiration for physical superiority. The doors, wide enough to admit a dozen Martialists abreast, parted, and we entered a vaulted hall whose arched roof was supported not by pillars but by gigantic statues, each presenting the lustre of a different jewel, and all wrought with singular perfection of proportion and of beauty. Here we were met by two officers wearing the same dress as the sentries outside—a diaper of crimson and silver. The rank of those who now received us, however, was indicated by a silver ribbon passing over the left shoulder, and supporting what I should have called a staff, save that it was of metal and had a sharp point, rendering it almost as formidable a weapon as the rapier. Exchanging a word or two with Ergimo, these gentlemen ushered us into a small room on the right, where refreshments were placed before us. Eveena whispered me that she must not share our meal in presence of these strangers; an intimation which somewhat blunted the keen appetite I always derived from a journey through the Martial atmosphere. Checked as it was, however, that appetite seemed a new astonishment to our attendants; the need of food among their race being proportionate to their inferior size and strength. When we rose, I asked Ergimo what was to become of Eveena, as the officers were evidently waiting to conduct me into the presence of their Sovereign, where it would not be appropriate for her to appear. He repeated my question to the principal official, and the latter, walking to a door in the farther corner of the room, sounded an electric signal; a few seconds after which the door opened, showing two veiled figures, the pink ground of whose robes indicated their matronhood, if I may apply such a term to the relation of his hundred temporary wives to the Camptâ. But this ground colour was almost hidden in the embroidery of crimson, gold, and white, which, as I soon found, were the favourite colours of the reigning Prince. To these ladies I resigned Eveena, the officer saying, as I somewhat reluctantly parted from her, “What you entrust to the Camptâ’s household you will find again in your own when your audience is over.” Whether this avoidance of all direct mention of women were matter of delicacy or contempt I hardly knew, though I had observed it on former occasions.

When the door closed, I noticed that Ergimo had left us, and the officers indicated by gesture rather than by words that they were to lead me immediately into the presence. I had considered with some care how I was, on so critical an occasion, to conduct myself, and had resolved that the most politic course would probably be an assumption of courteous but absolute independence; to treat the Autocrat of this planet much as an English envoy would treat an Indian Prince. It was in accordance with this intention that I had assumed a dress somewhat more elaborate than is usually worn here, a white suit of a substance resembling velvet in texture, and moire in lustre, with collar and belt of silver. On my breast I wore my order of [illegible], and in my belt my one cherished Terrestrial possession—the sword, reputed the best in Asia, that had twice driven its point home within a finger’s breadth of my life; and that clove the turban on my brow but a minute before it was surrendered—just in time to save its gallant owner and his score of surviving comrades. In its hilt I had set the emerald with which alone the Commander of the Faithful rewarded my services. The turban is not so unlike the masculine head-dress of Mars as to attract any special attention. Re-entering the hall, I was conducted along a gallery and through another crystal door into the immediate presence of the Autocrat. The audience chamber was of no extraordinary size, perhaps one-quarter as large as the peristyle of Esmo’s dwelling. Along the emerald walls ran a series of friezes wrought in gold, representing various scenes of peace and war, agricultural, judicial, and political; as well as incidents which, I afterwards learnt, preserved the memory of the long struggles wherein the Communists were finally overthrown. The lower half of the room was empty, the upper was occupied by a semicircle of seats forming part of the building itself and directly facing the entrance. These took up about one-third of the space, the central floor being divided from the upper portion of the room by a low wall of metal surmounted by arches supporting the roof and hung with drapery, which might be so lowered as to conceal the whole occupied part of the chamber. The seats rose in five tiers, one above the other. The semicircle, however, was broken exactly in the middle, that is, at the point farthest from the entrance, by a broad flight of steps, at the summit of which, and raised a very little above the seats of the highest tier, was the throne, supported by two of the royal brutes whose attack had been so nearly fatal to myself, wrought in silver, their erect heads forming the arms and front. About fifty persons were present, occupying only the seats nearest to the throne. On the upper tier were nine or ten who wore a scarlet sash, among whom I recognised a face I had not seen since the day of my memorable visit to the Astronaut; not precisely the face of a friend—Endo Zamptâ. Behind the throne were ranged a dozen guards, armed with the spear and with the lightning gun used in hunting. That a single Martial battalion with its appropriate artillery could annihilate the best army of the Earth I could not but be aware; yet the first thought that occurred to me, as I looked on these formidably armed but diminutive soldiers, was that a score of my Arab horsemen would have cut a regiment of them to pieces. But by the time I had reached the foot of the steps my attention was concentrated on a single figure and face—the form and countenance of the Prince, who rose from his throne as I approached. Those who remember that Louis XIV., a prince reputed to have possessed the most majestic and awe-inspiring presence of his age, was actually beneath the ordinary height of Frenchmen, may be able to believe me when I say that the Autocrat of Mars, though scarcely five feet tall, was in outward appearance and bearing the most truly royal and imposing prince I have ever seen. His stature, rising nearly two inches over the tallest of those around him, perhaps added to the effect of a mien remarkable for dignity, composure, and self-confidence. The predominant and most immediately observable expression of his face was one of serene calm and command. A closer inspection and a longer experience explained why, notwithstanding, my first conception of his character (and it was a true one) ascribed to him quite as much of fire and spirit as of impassive grandeur. His voice, though its tone was gentle and almost strikingly quiet, had in it something of the ring peculiar to those which have sent the word of command along a line of battle. I felt as I heard it more impressed with the personal greatness, and even with the rank and power, of the Prince before me, than when I knelt to kiss the hand of the Most Christian King, or stood barefooted before the greatest modern successor of the conqueror of Stamboul.

I am glad to receive you,” he said. “It will be among the most memorable incidents of my reign that I welcome to my Court the first visitor from another world, or,” he added, after a sudden pause, and with an inflection of unmistakable irony in his tone, “the first who has descended to our world from a height to which no balloon could reach and at which no balloonist could live.”

I am honoured, Prince,” I replied, “in the notice of a greater potentate than the greatest of my own world.”

These compliments exchanged, the Prince at once proceeded to more practical matters, aptly, however, connecting his next sentence with the formal phrases preceding it.

Nevertheless, you have not shown excessive respect for my power in the person of one of my greatest officers. If you treated the princes of Earth as unceremoniously as the Regent of Elcavoo, I can understand that you found it convenient to place yourself beyond their reach.”

I thought that this speech afforded me an opportunity of repairing my offence with the least possible loss of dignity.

The proudest of Earthly princes,” I replied, “would, I think, have pardoned the roughness which forgot the duty of a subject in the first obligations of humanity. No Sovereign whom I have served, but would have forgiven me more readily for rough words spoken at such a moment, than for any delay or slackness in saving the life of a woman in danger under his own eyes. Permit me to take this opportunity of apologizing to the Regent in your presence, and assuring him that I was influenced by no disrespect to him, but only by overpowering terror for another.”

The lives of a dozen women,” said the Camptâ, still with that covert irony or sarcasm in his tone, “would seem of less moment than threats and actual violence offered to the ruler of our largest and wealthiest dominion. The excuse which Endo Zamptâ must accept” (with a slight but perceptible emphasis on the imperative) “is the utter difference between our laws and ideas and your own.”

The Regent, at this speech from his Sovereign, rose and made the usual gesture of assent, inclining his head and lifting his left hand to his mouth. But the look on his face as he turned it on me, thus partly concealing it from the camptâ, boded no good should I ever fall into his power. The Prince then desired me to give an account of the motives which had induced my voyage and the adventures I had encountered. In reply, I gave him, as briefly and clearly as I could, a summary of all that is recorded in the earlier part of this narrative, carefully forbearing to afford any explanation of the manner in which the apergic force was generated. This omission the Prince noticed at once with remarkable quickness.

You do not choose,” he said, “to tell us your secret, and of course it is your property. Hereafter, however, I shall hope to purchase it from you.”

Prince,” I answered, “if one of your subjects-found himself in the power of a race capable of conquering this world and destroying its inhabitants, would you forgive him if he furnished them with the means of reaching you?”

I think,” he replied, “my forgiveness would be of little consequence in that case. But go on with your story.”

I finished my narration among looks of surprise and incredulity from no inconsiderable part of the audience, which, however, I noticed the less because the Prince himself listened with profound interest; putting in now and then a question which indicated his perfect comprehension of my account, of the conditions of such a journey and of the means I had employed to meet them.

Before you were admitted,” he said, “Endo Zamptâ had read to us his report upon your vessel and her machinery, an account which in every respect consists with and supports the truth of your relation. Indeed, were your story untrue, you have run a greater risk in telling it here than in the most daring adventure I have ever known or imagined. The Court is dismissed. Reclamomortâ will please me by remaining with me for the present.”

When the assembly dispersed, I followed their Autocrat at his desire into his private apartments, where, resting among a pile of cushions and motioning me to take a place in immediate proximity to himself, he continued the conversation in a tone and manner so exactly the same as that he had employed in public as to show that the latter was not assumed for purposes of monarchical stage-play, but was the natural expression of his own character as developed under the influence of unlimited and uncontradicted power. He only exchanged, for unaffected interest and implied confidence, the tone of ironical doubt by which he had rendered it out of the question for his courtiers to charge him with a belief in that which public opinion might pronounce impossible, while making it apparent to me that he regarded the bigotry of scepticism with scarcely veiled contempt.

I wish,” he said, “I had half-a-dozen subjects capable of imagining such an enterprise and hardy enough to undertake it. But though we all profess to consider knowledge, and especially scientific knowledge, the one object for which it is worth while to live, none of us would risk his life in such an adventure for all the rewards that science and fame could give.”

I think, Prince,” I replied, “that I am in presence of one inhabitant of this planet who would have dared at least as much as I have done.”

Possibly,” he said. “Because, weary as most of us profess to be of existence, the weariest life in this world is that of him who rules it; living for ever under the silent criticism which he cannot answer, and bound to devote his time and thoughts to the welfare of a race whose utter extermination would be, on their own showing, the greatest boon he could confer upon them. Certainly I would rather be the discoverer of a world than its Sovereign.”

He asked me numerous questions about the Earth, the races that inhabit it, their several systems of government, and their relations to one another; manifesting a keener interest, I thought, in the great wars which ended while I was yet a youth, than in any other subject. At last he permitted me to take leave. “You are,” he said, “the most welcome guest I ever have or could have received; a guest distinguished above all others by a power independent of my own. But what honour I can pay to courage and enterprise, what welcome I can give such a guest, shall not be unworthy of him or of myself. Retire now to the home you will find prepared for you. I will only ask you to remember that I have chosen one near my own in order that I may see you often, and learn in private all that you can tell me.”

At the entrance of the apartment I was met by the officer who had introduced me into the presence, and conducted at once to a door opening on the interior court or peristyle of the central portion of the Palace. This was itself a garden, but, unlike those of private houses, a garden open to the sky and traversed by roads in lieu of mere paths; not serving, as in private dwellings, the purposes of a common living room. Here a carriage awaited us, and my escort requested me to mount. I had some misgivings on Eveena’s account, but felt it necessary to imitate the reserve and affected indifference on such subjects of those among whom I had been thrown, at least until I somewhat better understood their ways, and had established my own position. Traversing a vaulted passage underneath the rearward portion of the Palace, we emerged into the outer garden, and through this into a road lighted with a brilliancy almost equal to that of day. Our journey occupied nearly half an hour, when we entered an enclosure apparently of great size, the avenue of which was so wide that, without dismounting, our carriage passed directly up to the door of a larger house than I had yet seen.