Chapter 7 ESCORT DUTY

Immediately after breakfast the next morning my host invited me to the gate of his garden, where stood one of the carriages I had seen before in the distance, but never had an opportunity of examining. It rested on three wheels, the two hind ones by far larger than that in front, which merely served to sustain the equilibrium of the body and to steer. The material was the silver-like metal of which most Martial vessels and furniture are formed, every spar, pole, and cross-piece being a hollow cylinder; a construction which, with the extreme lightness of the metal itself, made the carriage far lighter than any I had seen on Earth. The body consisted of a seat with sides, back, and footboard, wide enough to accommodate two persons with ease. It was attached by strong elastic fastenings to a frame consisting of four light poles rising from the framework in which the axles turned; completely dispensing with the trouble of springs, while affording a more complete protection from anything like jolting. The steering gear consisted of a helm attached to the front wheel and coming up within easy reach of the driver’s hand. The electric motive power and machinery were concealed in a box beneath the seat, which was indeed but the top of this most important and largest portion of the carriage. The poles sustained a light framework supporting a canopy, which could be drawn over the top and around three sides of the carriage, leaving only the front open. This canopy, in the present instance, consisted of a sort of very fine silken material, thickly embroidered within and without with feathers of various colours and sizes, combined in patterns of exquisite beauty. My host requested me to mount the carriage with him, and drove for some distance, teaching me how to steer, and how, by pressing a spring, to stop or slacken the motion of the vehicle, also how to direct it over rough ground and up or down the steepest slope on which it was available. When we returned, the Regent’s carriage was standing by the gate, and two others were waiting at a little distance in the rear. The Regent, with a companion, was already seated, and as soon as we reached the gate, Eveena appeared. She was enveloped from head to foot in a cloak of something like swans-down covering her whole figure, loose, like the ordinary outer garments of both sexes, and gathered in at the waist by a narrow zone of silver, with a sort of clasp of some bright green jewel; and a veil of white satin-looking material covered the whole head and face, and fell half-way to the waist. Her gloved right hand was hidden by the sleeve of her cloak; that of the left arm was turned back, and the hand which she gave me as I handed her to the seat on my left was bare—a usage both of convenience and courtesy. At Esmo’s request, the Regent, who led the way, started at a moderate pace, not exceeding some ten miles an hour. I observed that on the roofs of all the houses along the road the inhabitants had gathered to watch us; and as my companion was so completely veiled, I did not baulk their curiosity by drawing the canopy. I presently noticed that the girl held something concealed in her right sleeve, and ventured to ask her what she had there.

Pardon me,” she said; “if we had been less hurried, I meant to have asked your permission to bring my pet esvè with me.” Drawing back her sleeve, she showed a bird about the size of a carrier-pigeon, but with an even larger and stronger beak, white body, and wings and tail, like some of the plumage of the head and neck, tinted with gold and green. Around its neck was a little string of silver, and suspended from this a small tablet with a pencil or style. Since by her look and manner she seemed to expect an answer, I said—

I am very glad you have given me the opportunity of making acquaintance with another of those curiously tame and manageable animals which your people seem to train to such wonderful intelligence and obedience. We have birds on Earth which will carry a letter from a strange place to their home, but only homewards.”

These,” she answered, “will go wherever they are directed, if they have been there before and know the name of the place; and if this bird had been let loose after we had left, he would have found me, if not hidden by trees or other shelter, anywhere within a score of miles.”

And have your people,” I asked, “many more such wonderfully intelligent and useful creatures tamed to your service, besides the ambau, the tyree, and these letter-carriers?”

Oh yes!” she answered. “Nearly all our domestic animals will do anything they are told which lies within their power. You have seen the tyree marching in a line across a field to pick up every single worm or insect, or egg of such, within the whole space over which they move, and I think you saw the ambau gathering fruit. It is not very usual to employ the latter for this purpose, except in the trees. Have you not seen a big creature—I should call it a bird, but a bird that cannot fly, and is covered with coarse hair instead of feathers? It is about as tall as myself, but with a neck half as long as its body, and a very sharp powerful beak; and four of these carvee would clear a field the size of our garden (some 160 acres) of weeds in a couple of days. We can send them, moreover, with orders to fetch a certain number of any particular fruit or plant, and they scarcely ever forget or blunder. Some of them, of course, are cleverer than others. The cleverest will remember the name of every plant in the garden, and will, perhaps, bring four or even six different kinds at a time; but generally we show them a leaf of the plant we want, or point out to them the bed where it is to be found, and do not trouble their memory with more than two different orders at a time. The Unicorns, as you call them, come regularly to be milked at sunset, and, if told beforehand, will come an hour earlier or later to any place pointed out to them. There were many beasts of burden before the electric carriages were invented, so intelligent that I have heard the rider never troubled himself to guide them except when he changed his purpose, or came to a road they had not traversed before. He would simply tell them where to go, and they would carry him safely. The only creature now kept for this purpose is the largest of our birds (the caldecta), about six feet long from head to tail, and with wings measuring thrice as much from tip to tip. They will sail through the air and carry their rider up to places otherwise inaccessible. But they are little used except by the hunters, partly because the danger is thought too great, partly because they cannot rise more than about 4000 feet from the sea-level with a rider, and within that height there are few places worth reaching that cannot be reached more safely. People used to harness them to balloons till we found means to drive these by electricity—the last great invention in the way of locomotion, which I think was completed within my grandfather’s memory.”

And,” I asked, “have you no animals employed in actually cultivating the soil?”

No,” she replied, “except the weeding birds of whom I have told you. When we have a piece of ground too small for our electric ploughs, we sometimes set them to break it up, and they certainly reduce the soil to a powder much finer than that produced by the machine.”

I should like to see those machines at work.”

Well,” answered Eveena, “I have no doubt we shall pass more than one of them on our way.”

As she said this we reached the great road I had crossed on my arrival, and turning up this for a short distance, sufficient, however, to let me perceive that it led to the seaport town of which I have spoken, we came to a break in the central footpath, just wide enough to allow us to pass. Looking back on this occasion, I observed that we were followed by the two other carriages I have mentioned, but at some distance. We then proceeded up the mountain by a narrow road I had not seen in descending it. On either side of this lay fields of the kind already described, one of which was in course of cultivation, and here I saw the ploughs of which my companion had spoken. Evidently constructed on the same principle as the carriages, but of much greater size, and with heavier and broader wheels, they tore up and broke to pieces a breadth of soil of some two yards, working to a depth of some eighteen inches, with a dozen sharp powerful triangular shares, and proceeding at a rate of about fifty yards per minute. Eveena explained that these fields were generally from 200 to 600 yards square. The machine having traversed the whole field in one direction, then recommenced its work, ploughing at right angles to the former, and carrying behind it a sort of harrow, consisting of hooks supported by light, hollow, metallic poles fixed at a certain angle to the bar forming the rearward extremity of the plough, by which the surface was levelled and the soil beaten into small fragments; broken up, in fact, as I had seen, not less completely than ordinary garden soil in England or Flanders. When it reached the end of its course, the plough had to be turned; and this duty required the employment of two men, one at each end of the field, who, however, had no other or more difficult labour than that of turning the machine at the completion of each set of furrows. In another field, already doubly ploughed, a sowing machine was at work. The large seeds were placed singly by means of an instrument resembling a magnified ovipositor, such as that possessed by many insects, which at regulated intervals made a hole in the ground and deposited a seed therein. Eveena explained that where the seed and plant were small, a continuous stream was poured into a small furrow made by a different instrument attached to the same machine, while another arm, placed a little to the rear, covered in the furrow and smoothed the surface. In reply to another question of mine—”There are,” she said, “some score of different wool or hair bearing animals, which are shorn twice in the year, immediately after the rains, and furnish the fibre which is woven into most of the materials we use for dress and other household purposes. These creatures adapt themselves to the shearing machines with wonderful equanimity and willingness, so that they are seldom or never injured.”

Not even,” I asked, “by inexperienced or clumsy hands?”

Hands,” she said, “have nothing to do with the matter. They have only to send the animal into the machine, and, indeed, each goes in of his own accord as he sees his fellow come out.”

And have you no vegetable fibres,” I said, “that are used for weaving?”

Oh yes,” she answered, “several. The outer dress I wear indoors is made of a fibre found inside the rind of the fruit of the algyro tree, and the stalks of three or four different kinds of plants afford materials almost equally soft and fine.”

And your cloak,” I asked, “is not that made of the skin of some animal?”

Yes,” she replied, “and the most curious creature I have heard of. It is found only in the northern and southern Arctic land-belts, to which indeed nearly all wild animals, except the few small ones that are encouraged because they prey upon large and noxious insects, are now confined. It is about as large as the Unicorns, and has, like them, four limbs; but otherwise it more resembles a bird. It has a bird’s long slight neck, but a very small and not very bird-like head, with a long horny snout, furnished with teeth, something between a beak and a mouth. Its hind limbs are those of a bird, except that they have more flesh upon the lowest joints and are covered with this soft down. Its front limbs, my father says, seem as if nature had hesitated between wings and arms. They have attached to them several long, sharp, featherless quills starting from a shrivelled membrane, which make them very powerful and formidable weapons, so that no animal likes to attack it; while the foot has four fingers or claws with, which it clasps fish or small dragons, especially those electric dragons of which you have seen a tame and very much enlarged specimen, and so holds them that they cannot find a chance of delivering their electric shock. But for the Thernee these dragons, winged as they are, would make those lands hardly habitable either for man, or other beasts. All our furs are obtained from those countries, and the creatures from which they are derived are carefully preserved for that purpose, it being forbidden to kill more than a certain number of each every year, which makes these skins by far the costliest articles we use.”

By this time we had reached the utmost point to which the carriages could take us, about a furlong from the platform on which I had rested during my descent. Seeing that the Regent and his companion had dismounted, I stopped and sprang down from my carriage, holding out my hand to assist Eveena’s descent, an attention which I thought seemed to surprise her. Up to the platform the path was easy enough; after that it became steep even for me, and certainly a troublesome and difficult ascent for a lady dressed as I have described, and hardly stronger than a child of the same height and size on earth. Still my companion did not seem to expect, and certainly did not invite assistance. That she found no little difficulty in the walk was evident from her turning back both sleeves and releasing her bird, which hovered closely round her. Very soon her embarrassments and stumbles threatened such actual danger as overcame my fear of committing what, for aught I knew, might be an intrusion. Catching her as she fell, and raising her by the left hand, I held it fast in my own right, begging to be permitted to assist her for the rest of the journey. Her manner and the tone of her voice made it evident that such an attention, if unusual, was not offensive; but I observed that those who were following us looked at us with some little surprise, and spoke together in words which I could not catch, but the tone of which was not exactly pleasant or complimentary. The Regent, a few steps in advance of us, turned back from time to time to ask me some trivial question. At last we reached the summit, and here I released my companion’s hand and stepped forward a pace or two to point out to the Regent the external structure of the Astronaut. I was near enough, of course, to be heard by Eveena, and endeavoured to address my explanations as much to her as to the authority to whom I was required to render an account. But from the moment that we had actually joined him she withdrew from all part and all apparent interest in the conversation. When our companions moved forward to reach the entrance, which I had indicated, I again offered my hand, saying, “I am afraid you will find some little difficulty in getting into the vessel by the window by which I got out.”

The Regent, however, had brought with him several light metal poles, which I had not observed while carried by his companion, but which being put together formed a convenient ladder of adequate length. He desired me to ascend first and cut the riband by means of which the window had been sealed; the law being so strict that even he would not violate the symbol of private ownership which protected my vessel. Having done this and opened the window, I sprang down, and he, followed by his companion, ascended the ladder, and resting himself upon the broad inner ledge of the window—which afforded a convenient seat, since the crystal was but half the thickness of the wall—first took a long look all round the interior, and then leaped down, followed by his attendant. Eveena drew back, but was at last persuaded to mount the ladder with my assistance, and rest on the sill till I followed her and lifted her down inside. The Regent had by this time reached the machinery, and was examining it very curiously, with greater apparent appreciation of its purpose than I should have expected. When we joined them, I found little difficulty in explaining the purpose and working of most parts of the apparatus. The nature and generation of the apergic power I took care not to explain. The existence of such a repulsive force was the point on which the Regent professed incredulity; as it was, of course, the critical fact on which my whole narrative turned—on which its truth or falsehood depended. I resolved ere the close of the inspection to give him clear practical evidence on this score. In the meantime, listening without answer to his expressions of doubt, I followed him round the interior, explaining to him and to Eveena the use and structure of the thermometer, barycrite, and other instruments. My fair companion seemed to follow my explanation almost as easily as the officials. Our followers, who had now entered the vessel, kept within hearing of my remarks; but, evidently aware that they were there on sufferance, asked no questions, and made their comments in a tone too low to allow me to understand their purport. The impression made on the Regent by the instruments, so far as I could gather from his brief remarks and the expression of his face, was one of contemptuous surprise rather than the interest excited by the motive machinery. Most of them were evidently, in his opinion, clumsy contrivances for obtaining results which the scientific knowledge and inventive genius of his countrymen had long ago secured more completely and more easily. But he was puzzled by the combination of such imperfect knowledge or semi-barbaric ignorance with the possession of a secret of such immense importance as the repulsive current, not yet known nor, as I gathered, even conceived by the inhabitants of this planet. When he had completed his inspection, he requested permission to remove some of the objects I had left there; notably many of the dead plants, and several books of drawings, mathematical, mechanical, and ornamental, which I had left, and which had not been brought away by my host’s son when he visited the vessel. These I begged him to present to the Camptâ, adding to them a few smaller curiosities, after which I drew him back towards the machinery. He summoned his attendant, and bade him take away to the carriages the articles I had given him, calling upon the intruders to assist.

I was thus left with him and with Eveena alone in the building; and with a partly serious, partly mischievous desire to prove to him the substantial reality of objects so closely related to my own disputed existence, and to demonstrate the truth of my story, I loosened one of the conductors, connected it with the machinery, and, directing it against him, sent through it a very slight apergic current. I was not quite prepared for the result. His Highness was instantly knocked head over heels to a considerable distance. Turning to interrupt the current before going to his assistance, I was startled to perceive that an accident of graver moment, in my estimation at least, than the discomfiture of this exalted official, had resulted from my experiment. I had not noticed that a conductive wire was accidentally in contact with the apergion, while its end hung down towards the floor Of this I suppose Eveena had carelessly taken hold, and a part of the current passing through it had lessened the shock to the Regent at the expense of one which, though it could not possibly have injured her, had from its suddenness so shaken her nerves as to throw her into a momentary swoon. She was recovering almost at soon as I reached her; and by the time her fellow-sufferer had picked himself up in great disgust and astonishment, was partly aware what had happened. She was, however; much more anxious to excuse herself, in the manner of a frightened child, for meddling with the machinery than to hear my apologies for the accident. Noting her agitation, and seeing that she was still trembling all over, I was more anxious to get her into the open air, and out of reach of the apparatus she seemed to regard with considerable alarm, than to offer any due apology to the exalted personage to whom I had afforded much stronger evidence, if not of my own substantiality, yet of the real existence of a repulsive energy, than I had seriously intended. With a few hurried words to him, I raised Eveena to the window, and lifted her to the ground outside. I felt, however, that I could not leave the Regent to find his own way out, the more so that I hardly saw how he could reach the window from the inside without my assistance. I excused myself, therefore, and seating her on a rock close to the ladder, promised to return at once. This, however, I found impossible. By the time the injured officer had recovered the physical shock to his nerves and the moral effect of the disrespect to his person, his anxiety to verify what he had heard entirely occupied his mind; and he requested further experiments, not upon himself, which occupied some half-hour. He listened and spoke, I must admit, with temper; but his air of displeasure was evident enough, and I was aware that I had not entitled myself to his good word, whether or not he would permit his resentment to colour his account of facts. He was compelled, however, to request my help in reaching the window, which I gave with all possible deference.

But, to my alarm, when we reached the foot of the ladder, Eveena was nowhere to be seen. Calling her and receiving no reply, calling again and hearing what sounded like her voice, but in a faint tone and coming I knew not whither, I ran round the platform to seek her. I could see nothing of her; but at one point, just where the projecting edge of the platform overhung the precipice below, I recognised her bird fluttering its wings and screaming as if in pain or terror. The Regent was calling me in a somewhat imperious tone, but of course received neither answer nor attention. Reaching the spot, I looked over the edge and with some trouble discovered what had happened. Not merely below but underneath the overhanging edge was a shelf about four feet long and some ten inches in breadth, covered with a flower equally remarkable in form and colour, the former being that of a hollow cylindrical bell, about two inches in diameter; the latter a bluish lilac, the nearest approach to azure I have seen in Mars—the whole ground one sheet of flowers. On this, holding in a half-insensible state to the outward-sloping rock above her, Eveena clung, her veil and head-dress fallen, her face expressing utter bewilderment as well as terror. I saw, though at the moment I hardly understood, how she had reached this point. A very narrow path, some hundred feet in length, sloped down from the table-rock of the summit to the shelf on which she stood, with an outer hedge of shrubs and the summits of small trees, which concealed, and in some sort guarded, the precipice below, so that even a timid girl might pursue the path without fear. But this path ended several feet from the commencement of the shelf. Across the gap had lain a fallen tree, with boughs affording such a screen and railing on the outward side as might at once conceal the gulf below, and afford assistance in crossing the chasm. But in crossing this tree Eveena’s footsteps had displaced it, and it had so given way as not only to be unavailable, but a serious obstacle to my passage. Had I had time to go round, I might have been able to leap the chasm; I certainly could not return that way with a burden even so light as that of my precious charge. The only chance was to lift her by main force directly to where I stood; and the outward projection of the rock at this point rendered this peculiarly difficult, as I had nothing to cling or hold by. The Regent had by this time reached me, and discerned what had occurred.

Hold me fast,” I said, “or sit upon me if you like, to hold me with your weight whilst I lean over.” The man stood astounded, not by the danger of another but by the demand on himself; and evidently without the slightest intention of complying.

You are mad!” he said. “Your chance is ten times greater to lose your own life than to save hers.”

Lose my life!” I cried. “Could I dare return alive without her? Throw your whole weight on me, I say, as I lean over, and waste no more time!”

What!” he rejoined. “You are twice as heavy as I, and if you are pulled over I shall probably go over too. Why am I to endanger myself to save a girl from the consequences of her folly?”

If you do not,” I swore, “I will fling you where the carcass of which you are so careful shall be crushed out of the very form of the manhood you disgrace.”

Even this threat failed to move him. Meantime the bird, fluttering on my shoulder, suggested a last chance; and snatching the tablet round its neck, I wrote two words thereon, and calling to it, “Home!” the intelligent creature flew off at fullest speed.

Now,” I said, “if you do not help me I will kill you here and now. If you pretend to help and fail me, that bird carries to Esmo my request to hold you answerable for our lives.”

I invoked, in utter desperation, the awe with which, as his hints and my experience implied, Esmo was regarded by his neighbours; and slender as seemed this support, it did not fail me. The Regent’s countenance fell, and I saw that I might depend at least on his passive compliance. Clasping his arm with my left hand, I said, “Pull back with all your might. If I go over, you shall go over too.” Then pulling him down with me, and stretching myself over the precipice so far that but for this additional support I must have fallen, I reached Eveena, whose closed eyes and relaxing limbs indicated that another moment’s delay might be fatal.

Give me your hand,” I cried in despair, seeing how tightly she still grasped the tough fibrous shoots growing in the crevices of the rock, whereof she had taken hold. “Give me your hand, and let go!”

To give me her hand was beyond the power of her will; to let go without giving me hold would have been fatal. Beaching over to the uttermost, I contrived to lay a firm grasp upon her wrist. But this would not do. I could hardly drag her up by one arm, especially if she would not relax her grasp. I must release the Regent and depend upon his obedience, or forfeit the chance of saving her, as in a few more moments she would certainly swoon and fall.

Throw yourself upon me, and sit firm, if you value your life,” I cried, and I relaxed my hold on his arm, stretching both hands to grasp Eveena. I felt the man’s weight on my body, and with both arms extended to the uttermost hanging over the edge, I caught firm bold of the girl’s shoulders. Even now, with any girl of her age on earth, and for aught I know with many Martial damsels, the case would have been hopeless. My whole strength was required to raise her; I had none to spare to force her loose from her hold. Fortunately my rough and tight clasp seemed to rouse her. Her eyes half opened, and semi-consciousness appeared to have returned.

Let go!” I cried in that sharp tone of imperious anger which—with some tempers at least—is the natural expression of the outward impulse produced by supreme and agonizing terror. Obedience is the hereditary lesson taught to her sex by the effects of equality in Mars. Eveena had been personally trained in a principle long discarded by Terrestrial women; and not half aware what she did, but yielding instinctively to the habit of compliance with imperative command spoken in a masculine voice, she opened her hands just as I had lost all hope. With one desperate effort I swung her fairly on to the platform, and, seeing her safe there, fell back myself scarcely more sensible than she was.

The whole of this terrible scene, which it has taken so long to relate, did not occupy more than a minute in action. I know not whether my readers can understand the full difficulty and danger of the situation. I know that no words of mine can convey the impression graven into my own memory, never to be effaced or weakened while consciousness remains. The strongest man on Earth could not have done what I did; could not, lying half over the precipice, have swung a girl of eighteen right out from underneath him, and to his own level. But Eveena was of slighter, smaller frame than a healthy French girl of twelve, while I retained the full strength of a man adapted to the work of a world where every weight is twice as heavy as on Mars. What I had practically to do was to lift not seven or eight stone of European girlhood, not even the six Eveena might possibly have weighed on Earth, but half that weight. And yet the position was such that all the strength I had acquired through ten years of constant practice in the field and in the chase, all the power of a frame in healthful maturity, and of muscles whose force seemed doubled by the tension of the nerves, hardly availed. When I recovered my own senses, and had contrived to restore Eveena’s, my unwilling assistant had disappeared.

It was an hour before Eveena seemed in a condition to be removed, and perhaps I was not very urgent to hurry her away. I had done no more than any man, the lowest and meanest on Earth, must have done under the circumstances. I can scarcely enter into the feelings of the fellow-man who, in my position, could have recognised a choice but between saving and perishing with the helpless creature entrusted to his charge. But hereditary disbelief in any power above the physical forces of Nature, in any law higher than that of man’s own making, has rendered human nature in Mars something utterly different from, perhaps, hardly intelligible to, the human nature of a planet forty million miles nearer the Sun. Though brought up in an affectionate home, Eveena shared the ideas of the world in which she was born; and so far accepted its standards of opinion and action as natural if not right, that the risk I had run, the effort I had made to save her, seemed to her scarcely less extraordinary than it had appeared to the Zamptâ. She rated its devotion and generosity as highly as he appreciated its extravagance and folly; and if he counted me a madman, she was disposed to elevate me into a hero or a demi-god. The tones and looks of a maiden in such a temper, however perfect her maidenly reserve, would, I fancy, be very agreeable to men older than I was, either in constitution or even in experience. I doubt whether any man under fifty would have been more anxious than myself to cut short our period of repose, broken as it was, when I refused to listen to her tearful penitence and self-reproach, by occasional words and looks of gratitude and admiration. I did, however, remember that it was expedient to refasten the window, and re-attach the seals, before departing. At the end of the hour’s rest I allowed my charge and myself, I had recovered more or less completely the nervous force which had been for a while utterly exhausted, less by the effort than by the terror that preceded it. I was neither surprised, nor perhaps as much grieved as I should have been, to find that Eveena could hardly walk; and felt to the full the value of those novel conditions which enabled me to carry her the more easily in my arms, though much oppressed even by so slight an effort in that thin air, to the place where we had left our carriage—no inconsiderable distance by the path we had to pursue. Before starting on our return I had, in despite of her most earnest entreaties, managed to recover her head-dress and veil, at a risk which, under other circumstances, I might not have cared to encounter. But had she been seen without it on our return, the comments of the whole neighbourhood would have been such as might have disturbed even her father’s cool indifference. We reached her home in safety, and with little notice, having, of course, drawn the canopy around us as completely as possible. I was pleased to find that only her younger sister, to whose care I at once committed her, was there at present, the elders not having yet returned. I took care to detach from the bird’s neck the tablet which had served its purpose so well. The creature had found his way home within half-an-hour after I dismissed him, and had frightened Zevle [Stella] not a little; though the message, which a fatal result would have made sufficiently intelligible to Esmo, utterly escaped her comprehension.