Chapter 13

 

It was half a day’s march from those glittering snow-fields into the low country, and when that was reached I found myself amongst quite another people.

The land was no longer fat and flowery, giving every kind of produce for the asking, but stony for the most part, and, where we first came on vegetation, overgrown by firs, with a pine which looked to me like a species which went to make the coal measures in my dear but distant planet. More than this I cannot say, for there are no places in the world like mess-room and quarter-deck for forgetting school learning. Instead of the glorious wealth of parti-coloured vegetation my eyes had been accustomed to lately, here they rested on infertile stretches of marshland intersected by moss-covered gravel shoots, looking as though they had been pushed into the plains in front of extinct glaciers coming down from the region behind us. On the low hills away from the sea those sombre evergreen forests with an undergrowth of moss and red lichens were more variegated with light foliage, and indeed the pines proved to be but a fringe to the Arctic ice, giving way rapidly to more typical Martian vegetation each mile we marched to the southward.

As for the inhabitants, they seemed, like my guide, rough, uncouth fellows, but honest enough when you came to know them. An introduction, however, was highly desirable. I chanced upon the first native as he was gathering reindeer-moss. My companion was some little way behind at the moment, and when the gentle aborigine saw the stranger he stared hard for a moment, then, turning on his heels, with extraordinary swiftness flung at me half a pound of hard flint stone. Had his aim been a little more careful this humble narrative had never appeared on the Broadway bookstalls. As it was, the pebble, missing my head by an inch or two, splintered into a hundred fragments on a rock behind, and while I was debating whether a revengeful rush at the slinger or a strategic advance to the rear were more advisable, my guide called out to his countryman—

Ho! you base prowler in the morasses; you eater of unclean vegetation, do you not see this is a ghost I am conducting, a dweller in the ice cliffs, a spirit ten thousand years old? Put by your sling lest he wither you with a glance.” And, very reasonably, surprised, the aborigine did as he was bid and cautiously advanced to inspect me.

The news soon spread over the countryside that my jewel-hunter was bringing a live “spook” along with him, considerable curiosity mixed with an awe all to my advantage characterising the people we met thereafter. Yet the wonder was not so great as might have been expected, for these people were accustomed to meeting the tags of lost races, and though they stared hard, their interest was chiefly in hearing how, when, and where I had been found, whether I bit or kicked, or had any other vices, and if I possessed any commercial value.

My guide’s throat must have ached with the repetition of the narrative, but as he made the story redound greatly to his own glory, he put up cheerfully with the hoarseness. In this way, walking and talking alternately, we travelled during daylight through a country which slowly lost its rugged features and became more and more inhabited, the hardy people living in scattered villages in contradiction to the debased city-loving Hither folk.

About nightfall we came to a sea-fishers’ hamlet, where, after the old man had explained my exalted nature and venerable antiquity, I was offered shelter for the night.

My host was the headman, and I must say his bearing towards the supernatural was most unaffected. If it had been an Avenue hotel I could not have found more handsome treatment than in that reed-thatched hut. They made me wash and rest, and then were all agog for my history; but that I postponed, contenting myself with telling them I had been lately in Seth, and had come thence to see them via the ice valley—to all of which they listened with the simplicity of children. Afterwards I turned on them, and openly marvelled that so small a geographical distance as there was between that land and this could make so vast a human difference. “The truth, O dweller in blue shadows of primordial ice, is,” said the most intelligent of the Thither folk as we sat over fried deer-steak in his hut that evening, “we who are MEN, not Peri-zad, not overstayed fairies like those you have been amongst, are newcomers here on this shore. We came but a few generations ago from where the gold curtains of the sun lie behind the westward pine-trees, and as we came we drove, year by year, those fays, those spent triflers, back before us. All this land was theirs once, and more and more towards our old home. You may still see traces of harbours dug and cities built thousands of years ago, when the Hither folk were living men and women—not their shadows. The big water outside stops us for a space, but,” he added, laughing gruffly and taking a draught of a strong beer he had been heating by the fire, “King Ar-hap has their pretty noses between his fingers; he takes tribute and girls while he gets ready—they say he is nearly ready this summer, and if he is, it will not be much of an excuse he will need to lick up the last of those triflers, those pretences of manhood.”

Then we fell to talking of Ar-hap, his subjects and town, and I learned the tides had swept me a long way to the northward of the proper route between the capitals of the two races, that day they carried me into the Dead-Men’s Ice, as these entertainers of mine called the northern snows. To get back to the place previously aimed at, where the woodmen road came out on the seashore, it was necessary to go either by boat, a roundabout way through a maze of channels, “as tangled as the grass roots in autumn”; or, secondly, by a couple of days’ marching due southward across the base of the great peninsula we were on, and so strike blue water again at the long-sought-for harbour.

As I lay dozing and dreaming on a pile of strange furs in the corner of the hut that evening I made up my mind for the land journey tomorrow, having had enough for the moment of nautical Martian adventures; and this point settled, fell again to wondering what made me follow so reckless a quest in the way I was doing; asking myself again and again what was gazelle-eyed Heru to me after all, and why should it matter even as much as the value of a brass waist-coat button whether Hath had her or Ar-hap? What a fool I was to risk myself day by day in quaint and dangerous adventures, wearing out good Government shoe-leather in other men’s quarrels, all for a silly slip of royal girlhood who, by this time, was probably making herself comfortable and forgetting both Hath and me in the arms of her rough new lord.

And from Heru my mind drifted back dreamily to poor An, and Seth, the city of fallen magnificence, where the spent masters of a strange planet now lived on sufferance—the ghosts of their former selves. Where was An, where the revellers on the morning—so long ago it seemed!—when first that infernal rug of mine translated a chance wish into a horrible reality and shot me down here, a stranger and an outcast? Where was the magic rug itself? Where my steak and tomato supper? Who had eaten it? Who was drawing my pay? If I could but find the rug when I got back to Seth, gods! but I would try if it would not return whence I had come, and as swiftly, out of all these silly coils and adventuring.

So musing, presently the firelight died down, and bulky forms of hide-wrapped woodmen sleeping on the floor slowly disappeared in obscurity like ranges of mountains disappearing in the darkness of night. All those uncouth forms, and the throb of the sea outside, presently faded upon my senses, and I slept the heavy sleep of one whose wakefulness gives way before an imperious physical demand. All through the long hours of the night, while the waves outside champed upon the gravels, and the woodmen snored and grunted uneasily as they simultaneously dreamt of the day’s hunting and digested its proceeds, I slept; and then when dawn began to break I passed from that heavy stupor into another and lighter realm, wherein fancy again rose superior to bodily fatigue, and events of the last few days passed in procession through my mind.

I dreamt I was lunching at a fashionable seaside resort with Polly at my side, and An kept bringing us melons, which grew so monstrous every time a knife was put into them that poor Polly screamed aloud. I dreamt I was afloat on a raft, hotly pursued by my tailor, whose bare and shiny head—may Providence be good to him!—was garlanded with roses, while in his fist was a bunch of unpaid bills, the which he waved aloft, shouting to me to stop. And thus we danced down an ink-black river until he had chiveyed me into the vast hall of the Admiralty, where a fearsome Secretary, whose golden teeth rattled and dropped from his head with mingled cold and anger, towered above me as he asked why I was absent from my ship without leave. And I was just mumbling out excuses while stooping to pick up his golden dentistry, when some one stirring in the hut aroused me. I started up on my elbow and looked around. Where was I? For a minute all was confused and dark. The heavy mound-like forms of sleeping men, the dim outlines of their hunting gear upon the walls, the pale sea beyond, half seen through the open doorway, just turning livid in the morning light; and then as my eyes grew more accustomed to the obscurity, and my stupid senses returned, I recognised the surroundings, and, with a sigh, remembered yesterday’s adventures.

However, it would never do to mope; so, rising silently and picking a way through human lumber on the floor, I went out and down to the water’s edge, where “shore-going” clothes, as we sailors call them, were slipped off, and I plunged into the sea for a swim.

It was a welcome dip, for I needed the plunge physically and intellectually, but it came to an abrupt conclusion. The Thither folk apparently had never heard of this form of enjoyment; to them water stood for drinking or drowning, nothing else, and since one could not drink the sea, to be in it meant, even for a ghost, to drown. Consequently, when the word went round the just rousing villages that “He-on-foot-from-afar” was adrift in the waves, rescue parties were hurriedly organised, a boat launched, and, in spite of all my kicking and shouting (which they took to be evidence of my semi-moribund condition), I was speedily hauled out by hairy and powerful hands, pungent herbs burnt under my nose, and my heels held high in the air in order that the water might run out of me. It was only with the greatest difficulty those rough but honest fellows were eventually got to believe me saved.

The breakfast I made of grilled deer flesh and a fish not unlike salmon, however, convinced them of my recovery, and afterward we parted very good friends; for there was something in the nature of those rugged barbarians just coming into the dawn of civilisation that won my liking far more than the effete gentleness of others across the water.

When the time of parting came they showed no curiosity as to my errand, but just gave me some food in a fish-skin bag, thrust a heavy stone-headed axe into my hand, “in case I had to talk to a thief on the road,” and pointed out on the southern horizon a forked mountain, under which, they said, was the harbour and high-road to King Ar-hap’s capital. Then they hugged me to their hairy chests in turn, and let me go with a traveller’s blessing.

There I was again, all alone, none but my thoughts for companions, and nothing but youth to excuse the folly in thus venturing on a reckless quest!

However, who can gainsay that same youth? The very spice of danger made my steps light and the way pleasant. For a mile or two the track was plain enough, through an undulating country gradually becoming more and more wooded with vegetation, changing rapidly from Alpine to sub-tropical. The air also grew warmer, and when the dividing ridge was crossed and a thick forest entered, the snows and dreadful region of Deadmen’s Ice already seemed leagues and leagues away.

Probably a warm ocean current played on one side of the peninsula, while a cold one swept the other, but for scientific aspects of the question I cared little in my joy at being anew in a soft climate, amongst beautiful flowers and vivid life again. Mile after mile slipped quickly by as I strode along, whistling “Yankee Doodle” to myself and revelling in the change. At one place I met a rough-looking Martian woodcutter, who wanted to fight until he found I also wanted to, when he turned very civil and as talkative as a solitary liver often is when his tongue gets started. He particularly desired to know where I came from, and, as in the case with so many other of his countrymen, took it for granted, and with very little surprise, that I was either a spirit or an inhabitant of another world. With this idea in his mind he gave me a curious piece of information, which, unfortunately, I was never able to follow up.

I don’t think you can be a spirit,” he said, critically eyeing my clothes, which were now getting ragged and dirty beyond description. “They are finer-looking things than you, and I doubt if their toes come through their shoes like yours do. If you are a wanderer from the stars, you are not like that other one we have down yonder,” and he pointed to the southward.

What!” I asked, pricking my ears in amazement, “another wanderer from the outside world! Does he come from the earth?”—using the word An had given me to signify my own planet.

No, not from there; from the one that burns blue in evening between sun and sea. Men say he worked as a stoker or something of the kind when he was at home, and got trifling with a volcano tap, and was lapped in hot mud, and blown out here. My brother saw him about a week ago.”

Now what you say is down right curious. I thought I had a monopoly of that kind of business in this sphere of yours. I should be tremendously interested to see him.”

No you wouldn’t,” briefly answered the woodman. “He is the stupidest fool ever blown from one world to another—more stupid to look at than you are. He is a gaseous, wavey thing, so glum you can’t get two words a week out of him, and so unstable that you never know when you are with him and when the breeze has drifted him somewhere else.”

I could but laugh and insist, with all respect to the woodcutter, such an individual were worth the knowing however unstable his constitution; at which the man shrugged his shoulders and changed the conversation, as though the subject were too trivial to be worth much consideration.

This individual gave me the pleasure of his company until nearly sundown, and finding I took an interest in things of the forest, pointed out more curious plants and trees than I have space to mention. Two of them, however, cling to my memory very tenaciously. One was a very Circe amongst plants, the horrible charm of which can never be forgotten. We were going down a glade when a most ravishing odour fell upon my nostrils. It was heavenly sweet yet withal there lurked an incredibly, unexpressibly tempting spice of wickedness in it. The moment he caught that ambrosial invitation in the air my woodman spit fiercely on the ground, and taking a plug of wool from his pouch stuffed his nostrils up. Then he beckoned me to come away. But the odour was too ravishing, I was bound to see whence it arose, and finding me deaf to all warnings, the man reluctantly turned aside down the enticing trail. We pushed about a hundred yards through bushes until we came to a little arena full in sunshine where there were neither birds nor butterflies, but a death-like hush upon everything. Indeed, the place seemed shunned in spite of the sodden loveliness of that scent which monopolised and mounted to my brain until I was beginning to be drunk with the sheer pleasure of it. And there in the centre of the space stood a plant not unlike a tree fern, about six feet high, and crowned by one huge and lovely blossom. It resembled a vast passion-flower of incredible splendour. There were four petals, with points resting on the ground, each six feet long, ivory-white inside, exquisitely patterned with glittering silver veins. From the base of these rose upright a gauzy veil of azure filaments of the same length as the petals, wirelike, yet soft as silk, and inside them again rested a chalice of silver holding a tiny pool of limpid golden honey. Circe, indeed! It was from that cup the scent arose, and my throat grew dry with longing as I looked at it; my eyes strained through the blue tendrils towards that liquid nectar, and my giddy senses felt they must drink or die! I glanced at the woodman with a smile of drunken happiness, then turned tottering legs towards the blossom. A stride up the smooth causeway of white petals, a push through the azure haze, and the wine of the wood enchantress would be mine—molten amber wine, hotter and more golden than the sunshine; the fire of it was in my veins, the recklessness of intoxication was on me, life itself as nothing compared to a sip from that chalice, my lips must taste or my soul would die, and with trembling hand and strained face I began to climb.

But the woodman pulled me back.

Back, stranger!” he cried. “Those who drink there never live again.”

Blessed oblivion! If I had a thousand lives the price were still too cheap,” and once more I essayed to scramble up.

But the man was a big fellow, and with nostrils plugged, and eyes averted from the deadly glamour, he seized me by the collar and threw me back. Three times I tried, three times he hurled me down, far too faint and absorbed to heed the personal violence. Then standing between us, “Look,” he said, “look and learn.”

He had killed a small ape that morning, meaning later on to take its fur for clothing, and this he now unslung from his shoulder, and hitching the handle of his axe into the loose skin at the back of its neck, cautiously advanced to the witch plant, and gently hoisted the monkey over the blue palings. The moment its limp, dead feet touched the golden pool a shudder passed through the plant, and a bird somewhere far back in the forest cried out in horror. Quick as thought, a spasm of life shot up the tendrils, and like tongues of blue flame they closed round the victim, lapping his miserable body in their embrace. At the same time the petals began to rise, showing as they did so hard, leathery, unlovely outer rinds, and by the time the woodman was back at my side the flower was closed.

Closer and closer wound the blue tendrils; tighter and tighter closed the cruel petals with their iron grip, until at last we heard the ape’s bones crackling like dry firewood; then next his head burst, his brains came oozing through the crevices, while blood and entrails followed them through every cranny, and the horrible mess with the overflow of the chalice curled down the stem in a hundred steaming rills, till at last the petals locked with an ugly snap upon their ghastly meal, and I turned away from the sight in dread and loathing.

That was plant Number One.

Plant Number Two was of milder disposition, and won a hearty laugh for my friendly woodman. In fact, being of a childlike nature, his success as a professor of botany quite pleased him, and not content with answering my questions, he set to work to find new vegetable surprises, greatly enjoying my wonder and the sense of importance it gave him.

In this way we came, later on in the day, to a spot where herbage was somewhat scantier, the grass coarse, and soil shallow. Here I espied a tree of small size, apparently withered, but still bearing a few parched leaves on its uppermost twigs.

Now that,” quoth the professor, “is a highly curious tree, and I should like you to make a close acquaintance with it. It grows from a seed in the course of a single springtime, perishes in the summer; but a few specimens stand throughout the winter, provided the situation is sheltered, as this one has done. If you will kindly go down and shake its stem I believe you will learn something interesting.”

So, very willing to humour him, away I went to the tree, which was perfect in every detail, but apparently very dry, clasped it with both hands, and, pulling myself together, gave it a mighty shake. The result was instantaneous. The whole thing was nothing but a skin of dust, whence all fibre and sap had gone, and at my touch it dissolved into a cloud of powder, a huge puff of white dust which descended on me as though a couple of flour-bags had been inverted over my head; and as I staggered out sneezing and blinking, white as a miller from face to foot, the Martian burst into a wild, joyous peal of laughter that made the woods ring again. His merriment was so sincere I had not the heart to be angry, and soon laughed as loud as he did; though, for the future, I took his botanical essays with a little more caution.