Chapter 12

 

Fortunately there was a good deal of broken timber thrown up at “high-water” mark, and with a stack of this at the mouth of the little cave a pleasant fire was soon made by help of a flint pebble and the steel back of my sword. It was a hearty blaze and lit up all the near cliffs with a ruddy jumping glow which gave their occupants a marvellous appearance of life. The heat also brought off the dull rime upon the side of my recess, leaving it clear as polished glass, and I was a little startled to see, only an inch or so back in the ice and standing as erect as ever he had been in life, the figure of an imposing grey clad man. His arms were folded, his chin dropped upon his chest, his robes of the finest stuff, the very flowers they had decked his head with frozen with immortality, and under them, round his crisp and iron-grey hair, a simple band of gold with strange runes and figures engraved upon it.

There was something very simple yet stately about him, though his face was hidden and as I gazed long and intently the idea got hold of me that he had been a king over an undegenerate Martian race, and had stood waiting for the Dawn a very, very long time.

I wished a little that he had not been quite so near the glassy surface of the ice down which the warmth was bringing quick moisture drops. Had he been back there in the blue depths where others were sitting and crouching it would have been much more comfortable. But I was a sailor, and misfortune makes strange companions, so I piled up the fire again, and lying down presently on the dry shingle with my back to him stared moodily at the blaze till slowly the fatigues of the day told, my eyelids dropped and, with many a fitful start and turn, at length I slept.

It was an hour before dawn, the fire had burnt low and I was dreaming of an angry discussion with my tailor in New York as to the sit of my last new trousers when a faint sound of moving shingle caught my quick seaman ear, and before I could raise my head or lift a hand, a man’s weight was on me—a heavy, strong man who bore me down with irresistible force. I felt the slap of his ice-cold hand upon my throat and his teeth in the back of my neck! In an instant, though but half awake, with a yell of surprise and anger I grappled with the enemy, and exerting all my strength rolled him over. Over and over we went struggling towards the fire, and when I got him within a foot or so of it I came out on top, and, digging my knuckles into his throttle, banged his head upon the stony floor in reckless rage, until all of a sudden it seemed to me he was done for. I relaxed my grip, but the other man never moved. I shook him again, like a terrier with a rat, but he never resented it. Had I killed him? How limp and cold he was! And then all of a sudden an uneasy feeling came upon me. I reached out, and throwing a handful of dried stuff upon the embers the fire danced gaily up into the air, and the blaze showed me I was savagely holding down to the gravel and kneeling on the chest of that long-dead king from my grotto wall!

It was the man out of the ice without a doubt. There was the very niche he had fallen from under the influence of the fire heat, the very recess, exactly in his shape in every detail, whence he had stood gazing into vacuity all those years. I left go my hold, and after the flutter in my heart had gone down, apologetically set him up against the wall of the cavern whence he had fallen; then built up the fire until twirling flames danced to the very roof in the blue light of dawn, and hobgoblin shadows leapt and capered about us. Then once more I sat down on the opposite side of the blaze, resting my chin upon my hands, and stared into the frozen eyes of that grim stranger, who, with his chin upon his knees, stared back at me with irresistible, remorseless steadfastness.

He was as fresh as if he had died but yesterday, yet by his clothing and something in his appearance, which was not that of the Martian of to-day, I knew he might be many thousand years old. What things he had seen, what wonders he knew! What a story might be put into his mouth if I were a capable writer gifted with time and imagination instead of a poor outcast, ill-paid lieutenant whose literary wit is often taxed hardly to fill even a log-book entry! I stared at him so long and hard, and he at me through the blinking flames, that again I dozed—and dozed—and dozed again until at last when I woke in good earnest it was daylight.

By this time hunger was very aggressive. The fire was naught but a circlet of grey ashes; the dead king, still sitting against the cave-side, looked very blue and cold, and with an uncomfortable realisation of my position I shook myself together, picked up and pocketed without much thought the queer gold circlet that had dropped from his forehead, and went outside to see what prospect of escape the new day had brought.

It was not much. Upriver there was not the remotest chance. Not even a Niagara steamer could have forged back against the sluice coming down from the gulch there. Looking round, the sides of the icy amphitheatre—just lighting up now with glorious gold and crimson glimmers of morning—were as steep as a wall face; only back towards the falls was there a possibility of getting out of the dreadful trap, so thither I went, after a last look at the poor old king, along my narrow beach with all the eagerness begotten of a final chance. Up to the very brink it looked hopeless enough, but, looking downwards when that was reached, instead of a sheer drop the slope seemed to be a wild “staircase” of rocks and icy ledges with here and there a little patch of sand on a cornice, and far below, five hundred feet or so, a good big spread of gravel an acre or two in extent close by where the river plunged out of sight into the nethermost cavern mouth.

It was so hopeless up above it, it could not possibly be worse further down, and there was the ugly black flood running into the hole to trust myself to as a last resource; so slipping and sliding I began the descent.

Had I been a schoolboy with a good breakfast ahead the incident might have been amusing enough. The travelling was mostly done on the seat of my trousers, which consequently became caked with mud and glacial loam. Some was accomplished on hands and knees, with now and then a bit down a snow slope, in good, honest head-over-heels fashion. The result was a fine appetite for the next meal when it should please providence to send it, and an abrupt arrival on the bottom beach about five minutes after leaving the upper circles.

I came to behind a cluster of breast-high rocks, and before moving took a look round. Judge then of my astonishment and delight at the second glance to perceive about a hundred yards away a brown object, looking like an ape in the half light, meandering slowly up the margin of the water towards me. Every now and then it stopped, stooping down to pick up something or other from the scum along the torrent, and it was the fact that these trifles, whatever they were, were put into a wallet by the vision’s side—not into his mouth—which first made me understand with a joyful thrill that it was a MAN before me—a real, living man in this huge chamber of dead horrors! Then again it flashed across my mind in a luminous moment that where one man could come, or go, or live, another could do likewise, and never did cat watch mouse with more concentrated eagerness than I that quaint, bent-shouldered thing hobbling about in the blue morning shadows where all else was silence.

Nearer and nearer he came, till so close face and garb were discernible, and then there could no longer be any doubt, it was a woodman, an old man, with grizzled monkey-face, stooping gait, and a shaggy fur cloak, utterly unlike the airy garments of my Hither folk, who now stood before me. It gave me quite a start to recognise him there, for it showed I was in a new land, and since he was going so cheerfully about his business, whatever it might chance to be, there must be some way out of this accursed pit in which I had fallen. So very cautiously I edged out, taking advantage of all the cover possible until we were only twenty yards apart, and then suddenly standing up, and putting on the most affable smile, I called out—

Hullo, mess-mate!”

The effect was electrical. That quaint old fellow sprang a yard into air as though a spring had shot him up. Then, coming down, he stood transfixed at his full height as stiff as a ramrod, staring at me with incredible wonder. He looked so funny that in spite of hunger and loneliness I burst out laughing, whereat the woodman, suddenly recovering his senses, turned on his heels and set off at his best pace in the opposite direction. This would never do! I wanted him to be my guide, philosopher, and friend. He was my sole visible link with the outside world, so after him I went at tip-top speed, and catching him up in fifty yards along the shingle laid hold of his nether garments. Whereat the old fellow stopping suddenly I shot clean over his back, coming down on my shoulder in the gravel.

But I was much younger than he, and in a minute was in chase again. This time I laid hold of his cloak, and the moment he felt my grip he slipped the neck-thongs and left me with only the mangy garment in my hands. Again we set off, dodging and scampering with all our might upon that frozen bit of beach. The activity of that old fellow was marvellous, but I could not and would not lose him. I made a rush and grappled him, but he tossed his head round and slipped away once more under my arm, as though he had been brought up by a Chinese wrestler. Then he got on one side of a flat rock, I the other, and for three or four minutes we waltzed round that slab in the most insane manner.

But by this time we were both pretty well spent—he with age and I with faintness from my long fast, and we came presently to a standstill.

After glaring at me for a time, the woodman gasped out as he struggled for breath—

Oh, mighty and dreadful spirit! Oh, dweller in primordial ice, say from which niche of the cliffs has the breath of chance thawed you?”

Never a niche at all, Mr. Hunter-for-Haddocks’-Eyes,” I answered as soon as I could speak. “I am just a castaway wrecked last night on this shore of yours, and very grateful indeed will I be if you can show me the way to some breakfast first, and afterwards to the outside world.”

But the old fellow would not believe. “Spirits such as you,” he said sullenly, “need no food, and go whither they will by wish alone.”

I tell you I am not a spirit, and as hungry as I don’t particularly want to be again. Here, look at the back of my trousers, caked three inches deep in mud. If I were a spirit, do you think I would slide about on my coat-tails like that? Do you think that if I could travel by volition I would slip down these infernal cliffs on my pants’ seat as I have just done? And as for materialism—look at this fist; it punched you just now! Surely there was nothing spiritual in that knock?”

No,” said the savage, rubbing his head, “it was a good, honest rap, so I must take you at your word. If you are indeed man, and hungry, it will be a charity to feed you; if you are a spirit, it will at least be interesting to watch you eat; so sit down, and let’s see what I have in my wallet.”

So cross-legged we squatted opposite each other on the table rock, and, feeling like another Sindbad the Sailor, I watched my new friend fumble in his bag and lay out at his side all sorts of odds and ends of string, fish-hooks, chewing-gum, material for making a fire, and so on, until at last he came to a package (done up, I noted with delight, in a broad, green leaf which had certainly been growing that morning), and unrolling it, displayed a lump of dried meat, a few biscuits, much thicker and heavier than the honey-cakes of the Hither folk, and something that looked and smelt like strong, white cheese.

He signed to me to eat, and you may depend upon it I was not slow in accepting the invitation. That tough biltong tasted to me like the tenderest steak that ever came from a grill; the biscuits were ambrosial; the cheese melted in my mouth as butter melts in that of the virtuous; but when the old man finished the quaint picnic by inviting me to accompany him down to the waterside for a drink, I shook my head. I had a great respect for dead queens and kings, I said, but there were too many of them up above to make me thirsty this morning; my respect did not go to making me desire to imbibe them in solution!

Afterwards I chanced to ask him what he had been picking up just now along the margin, and after looking at me suspiciously for a minute he asked—

You are not a thief?” On being reassured on that point he continued: “And you will not attempt to rob me of the harvest for which I venture into this ghost-haunted glen, which you and I alone of living men have seen?”

No.” Whatever they were, I said, I would respect his earnings.

Very well, then,” said the old man, “look here! I come hither to pick up those pretty trifles which yonder lords and ladies have done with,” and plunging his hand into another bag he brought out a perfect fistful of splendid gems and jewels, some set and some unset. “They wash from the hands and wrists of those who have lodgings in the crevices of the falls above,” he explained. “After a time the beach here will be thick with them. Could I get up whence you came down, they might be gathered by the sackful. Come! there is an eddy still unsearched, and I will show you how they lie.”

It was very fascinating, and I and that old man set to work amongst the gravels, and, to be brief, in half an hour found enough glittering stuff to set up a Fifth Avenue jeweller’s shop. But to tell the truth, now that I had breakfasted, and felt manhood in my veins again, I was eager to be off, and out of the close, death-tainted atmosphere of that valley. Consequently I presently stood up and said—

Look here, old man, this is fine sport no doubt, but just at present I have a big job on hand—one which will not wait, and I must be going. See, luck and young eyes have favoured me; here is twice as much gold and stones as you have got together—it is all yours without a question if you will show me the way out of this den and afterwards put me on the road to your big city, for thither I am bound with an errand to your king, Ar-hap.”

The sight of my gems, backed, perhaps, with the mention of Ar-hap’s name, appealed to the old fellow; and after a grunt or two about “losing a tide” just when spoil was so abundant, he accepted the bargain, shouldered his belongings, and led me towards the far corner of the beach.

It looked as if we were walking right against the towering ice wall, but when we were within a yard or two of it a narrow cleft, only eighteen inches wide, and wonderfully masked by an ice column, showed to the left, and into this we squeezed ourselves, the entrance by which we had come appearing to close up instantly we had gone a pace or two, so perfectly did the ice walls match each other.

It was the most uncanny thoroughfare conceivable—a sheer, sharp crack in the blue ice cliffs extending from where the sunlight shone in a dazzling golden band five hundred feet overhead to where bottom was touched in blue obscurity of the ice-foot. It was so narrow we had to travel sideways for the most part, a fact which brought my face close against the clear blue glass walls, and enabled me from time to time to see, far back in those translucent depths, more and more and evermore frozen Martians waiting in stony silence for their release.

But the fact of facts was that slowly the floor of the cleft trended upwards, whilst the sky strip appeared to come downwards to meet it. A mile, perhaps, we growled and squeezed up that wonderful gully; then with a feeling of incredible joy I felt the clear, outer air smiting upon me.

In my hurry and delight I put my head into the small of the back of the puffing old man who blocked the way in front and forced him forward, until at last—before we expected it—the cleft suddenly ended, and he and I tumbled headlong over each other on to a glittering, frozen snowslope; the sky azure overhead, the sunshine warm as a tepid bath, and a wide prospect of mountain and plain extending all around.

So delightful was the sudden change of circumstances that I became quite boyish, and seizing the old man in my exuberance by the hands, dragged him to his feet, and danced him round and round in a circle, while his ancient hair flapped about his head, his skin cloak waved from his shoulders like a pair of dusky wings and half-eaten cakes, dried flesh, glittering jewels, broken diadems, and golden finger-rings were flung in an arc about us. We capered till fairly out of breath, and then, slapping him on the back shoulder, I asked whose land all this was about us.

He replied that it was no one’s, all waste from verge to verge.

What!” was my exclamation. “All ownerless, and with so much treasure hidden hereabout! Why, I shall annex it to my country, and you and I will peg out original settlers’ claims!” And, still excited by the mountain air, I whipped out my sword, and in default of a star-spangled banner to plant on the newly-acquired territory, traced in gigantic letters on the snow-crust—U.S.A.

And now,” I added, wiping the rime off my blade with the lappet of my coat, “let us stop capering about here and get to business. You have promised to put me on the way to your big city.”

Come on then,” said the little man, gathering up his property. “This white hillside leads to nowhere; we must get into the valley first, and then you shall see your road.” And right well that quaint barbarian kept his promise.