Chapter 14

 

That woodman friend of mine proved so engaging it was difficult to get away, and thus when, dusk upon us, and my object still a long distance off, he asked me to spend the night at his hut, I gladly assented.

We soon reached the cabin where the man lived by himself whilst working in the forest. It was a picturesque little place on a tree-overhung lagoon, thatched, wattled, and all about were piles of a pleasant-scented bark, collected for the purpose of tanning hides, and I could not but marvel that such a familiar process should be practised identically on two sides of the universal ether. But as a matter of fact the similarity of many details of existence here and there was the most striking of the things I learned whilst in the red planet.

Within the hut stood a hearth in the centre of the floor, whereon a comfortable blaze soon sparkled, and upon the walls hung various implements, hides, and a store of dried fruits of various novel kinds. My host, when he had somewhat disdainfully watched me wash in a rill of water close by, suggested supper, and I agreed with heartiest good will.

Nothing wonderful! Oh, Mr. Blue-coat!” he said, prancing about as he made his hospitable arrangements. “No fine meat or scented wine to unlock, one by one, all the doors of paradise, such as I have heard they have in lands beyond the sea; but fare good enough for plain men who eat but to live. So! reach me down yonder bunch of yellow aru fruit, and don’t upset that calabash, for all my funniest stories lurk at the bottom of it.”

I did as he bid, and soon we were squatting by the fire toasting arus on pointed sticks, the doorway closed with a wattle hurdle, and the black and gold firelight filling the hut with fantastic shadows. Then when the banana-like fruit was ready, the man fetched from a recess a loaf of bread savoured with the dust of dried and pounded fish, put the foresaid calabash of strong ale to warm, and down we sat to supper with real woodman appetites. Seldom have I enjoyed a meal so much, and when we had finished the fruit and the wheat cake my guide snatched up the great gourd of ale, and putting it to his lips called out:

Here’s to you, stranger; here’s to your country; here’s to your girl, if you have one, and death to your enemies!” Then he drank deep and long, and, passed the stuff to me.

Here’s to you, bully host, and the missus, and the children, if there are any, and more power to your elbow!”—the which gratified him greatly, though probably he had small idea of my meaning.

And right merry we were that evening. The host was a jolly good fellow, and his ale, with a pleasant savour of mint in it, was the heartiest drink I ever set lips to. We talked and laughed till the very jackals yapped in sympathy outside. And when he had told a score of wonderful wood stories as pungent of the life of these fairy forests as the aromatic scent of his bark-heaps outside, as iridescent with the colours of another world as the rainbow bubbles riding down his starlit rill, I took a turn, and told him of the commonplaces of my world so far away, whereat he laughed gloriously again. The greater the commonplace the larger his joy. The humblest story, hardly calculated to impress a griffin between watches on the main-deck, was a masterpiece of wit to that gentle savage; and when I “took off” the tricks and foibles of some of my superiors—Heaven forgive me for such treason!—he listened with the exquisite open-mouthed delight of one who wanders in a brand-new world of mirth.

We drank and laughed over that strong beer till the little owls outside raised their voice in combined accord, and then the woodman, shaking the last remnant of his sleepy wits together, and giving a reproachful look at me for finally passing him the gourd empty to the last drop, rose, threw a fur on a pile of dead grass at one side of the hut, and bid me sleep, “for his brain was giddy with the wonders of the incredible and ludicrous sphere which I had lately inhabited.”

Slowly the fire died away; slowly the quivering gold and black arabesques on the walls merged in a red haze as the sticks dropped into tinder, and the great black outline of the hairy monster who had thrown himself down by the embers rose up the walls against that flush like the outline of a range of hills against a sunset glow. I listened drowsily for a space to his snoring and the laughing answer of the brook outside, and then that ambrosial sleep which is the gentle attendant of hardship and danger touched my tired eyelids, and I, too, slept.

My friend was glum the next morning, as they who stay over-long at the supper flagon are apt to be. He had been at work an hour on his bark-heaps when I came out into the open, and it was only by a good deal of diplomacy and some material help in sorting his faggots that he was got into a better frame of mind. I could not, however, trust his mood completely, and as I did not want to end so jovial a friendship with a quarrel, I hurried through our breakfast of dry bread, with hard-boiled lizard eggs, and then settling my reckoning with one of the brass buttons from my coat, which he immediately threaded, with every evidence of extreme gratification, on a string of trinkets hanging round his neck, asked him the way to Ar-hap’s capital.

Your way is easy, friend, as long as you keep to the straight path and have yonder two-humped mountain in front. To the left is the sea, and behind the hill runs the canal and road by which all traffic comes or goes to Ar-hap. But above all things pass not to the hills right, for no man goes there; there away the forests are thick as night, and in their perpetual shadows are the ruins of a Hither city, a haunted fairy town to which some travellers have been, but whence none ever returned alive.”

By the great Jove, that sounds promising! I would like to see that town if my errand were not so urgent.”

But the old fellow shook his shaggy head and turned a shade yellower. “It is no place for decent folk,” he growled. “I myself once passed within a mile of its outskirts at dusk, and saw the unholy little people’s lanterned processions starting for the shrine of Queen Yang, who, tradition says, killed herself and a thousand babies with her when we took this land.”

My word, that was a holocaust! Couldn’t I drop in there to lunch? It would make a fine paper for an antiquarian society.”

Again the woodman frowned. “Do as I bid you, son. You are too young and green to go on ventures by yourself. Keep to the straight road: shun the swamps and the fairy forest, else will you never see Ar-hap.”

And as I have very urgent and very important business with him, comrade, no doubt your advice is good. I will call on Princess Yang some other day. And now goodbye! Rougher but friendlier shelter than you have given me no man could ask for. I am downright sorry to part with you in this lonely land. If ever we meet again—” but we never did! The honest old churl clasped me into his hairy bosom three times, stuffed my wallet with dry fruit and bread, and once more repeating his directions, sent me on my lonely way.

I confess I sighed while turning into the forest, and looked back more than once at his retreating form. The loneliness of my position, the hopelessness of my venture, welled up in my heart after that good comradeship, and when the hut was out of sight I went forward down the green grass road, chin on chest, for twenty minutes in the deepest dejection. But, thank Heaven, I was born with a tough spirit, and possess a mind which has learned in many fights to give brave counsel to my spirit, and thus presently I shook myself together, setting my face boldly to the quest and the day’s work.

It was not so clear a morning as the previous one, and a steamy wind on what at sea I should have called the starboard bow, as I pressed forward to the distant hill, had a curiously subduing effect on my thoughts, and filled the forest glades with a tremulous unreality like to nothing on our earth, and distinctly embarrassing to a stranger in a strange land. Small birds in that quaint atmospheric haze looked like condors, butterflies like giant fowl, and the simplest objects of the forest like the imaginations of a disordered dream. Behind that gauzy hallucination a fine white mist came up, and the sun spread out flat and red in the sky, while the pent-in heat became almost unendurable.

Still I plodded on, growling to myself that in Christian latitudes all the evidences would have been held to betoken a storm before night, whatever they might do here, but for the most part lost in my own gloomy speculations. That was the more pity since, in thinking the walk over now, it seems to me that I passed many marvels, saw many glorious vistas in those nameless forests, many spreads of colour, many incidents that, could I but remember them more distinctly, would supply material for making my fortune as a descriptive traveller. But what would you? I have forgotten, and am too virtuous to draw on my imagination, as it is sometimes said other travellers have done when picturesque facts were deficient. Yes, I have forgotten all about that day, save that it was sultry hot, that I took off my coat and waistcoat to be cooler, carrying them, like the tramp I was, across my arm, and thus dishevelled passed some time in the afternoon an encampment of forest folk, wherefrom almost all the men were gone, and the women shy and surly.

In no very social humour myself, I walked round their woodland village, and on the outskirts, by a brook, just as I was wishing there were some one to eat my solitary lunch with, chanced upon a fellow busily engaged in hammering stones into weapons upon a flint anvil.

He was an ugly-looking individual at best, yet I was hard up for company, so I put my coat down, and, seating myself on a log opposite, proceeded to open my wallet, and take out the frugal stores the woodman had given me that morning.

The man was seated upon the ground holding a stone anvil between his feet, while with his hands he turned and chipped with great skill a spear-head he was making out of flint. It was about the only pastime he had, and his little yellow eyes gleamed with a craftsman’s pleasure, his shaggy round shoulders were bent over the task, the chips flew in quick particles, and the wood echoed musically as the artificer watched the thing under his hands take form and fashion. Presently I spoke, and the worker looked up, not too pleased at being thus interrupted. But he was easy of propitiation, and over a handful of dried raisins communicative.

How, I asked, knowing a craftsman’s craft is often nearest to his heart, how was it such things as that he chipped came to be thought of by him and his? Whereon the woodman, having spit out the raisin-stones and wiped his fingers on his fur, said in substance that the first weapon was fashioned when the earliest ape hurled the first stone in wrath.

But, chum,” I said, taking up his half-finished spear and touching the razor-fine edge with admiring caution, “from hurling the crude pebble to fashioning such as this is a long stride. Who first edged and pointed the primitive malice? What man with the soul of a thousand unborn fighters in him notched and sharpened your natural rock?”

Whereon the chipper grinned, and answered that, when the woodmen had found stones that would crack skulls, it came upon them presently that they would crack nuts as well. And cracking nuts between two stones one day a flint shattered, and there on the grass was the golden secret of the edge—the thing that has made man what he is.

Yet again, good fellow,” I queried, “even this happy chance only gives us a weapon, sharp, no doubt, and calculated to do a hundred services for any ten the original pebble could have done, but still unhandled, small in force, imperfect—now tell me, which of your amiable ancestors first put a handle to the fashioned flint, and how he thought of it?”

The workman had done his flake by now, and wrapping it in a bit of skin, put it carefully in his belt before turning to answer my question.

Who made the first handle for the first flint, you of the many questions? She did—she, the Mother,” he suddenly cried, patting the earth with his brown hand, and working himself up as he spoke, “made it in her heart for us her first-born. See, here is such as the first handled weapon that ever came out of darkness,” and he snatched from the ground, where it had lain hidden under his fox-skin cloak, a heavy club. I saw in an instant how it was. The club had been a sapling, and the sapling’s roots had grown about and circled with a splendid grip a lump of native flint. A woodman had pulled the sapling, found the flint, and fashioned the two in a moment of happy inspiration, the one to an axe-head and the other to a handle, as they lay Nature-welded!

This, I say, is the first—the first!” screamed the old fellow as though I were contradicting him, thumping the ground with his weapon, and working himself up to a fury as its black magic entered his being. “This is the first: with this I slew Hetter and Gur, and those who plundered my hiding-places in the woods; with this I have killed a score of others, bursting their heads, and cracking their bones like dry sticks. With this—with this—” but here his rage rendered him inarticulate; he stammered and stuttered for a minute, and then as the killing fury settled on him his yellow teeth shut with a sudden snap, while through them his breath rattled like wind through dead pine branches in December, the sinews sat up on his hands as his fingers tightened upon the axe-heft like the roots of the same pines from the ground when winter rain has washed the soil from beneath them; his small eyes gleamed like baleful planets; every hair upon his shaggy back grew stiff and erect—another minute and my span were ended.

With a leap from where I sat I flew at that hairy beast, and sinking my fists deep in his throttle, shook him till his eyes blazed with delirious fires. We waltzed across the short greensward, and in and about the tree-trunks, shaking, pulling, and hitting as we went, till at last I felt the man’s vigour dying within him; a little more shaking, a sudden twist, and he was lying on the ground before me, senseless and civil! That is the worst of some orators, I thought to myself, as I gloomily gathered up the scattered fragments of my lunch; they never know when they have said enough, and are too apt to be carried away by their own arguments.

That inhospitable village was left behind in full belief the mountain looming in the south could be reached before nightfall, while the road to its left would serve as a sure guide to food and shelter for the evening. But, as it turned out, the morning’s haze developed a strong mist ere the afternoon was half gone, through which it was impossible to see more than twenty yards. My hill loomed gigantic for a time with a tantalising appearance of being only a mile or two ahead, then wavered, became visionary, and finally disappeared as completely as though the forest mist had drunk it up bodily.

There was still the road to guide me, a fairly well-beaten track twining through the glades; but even the best of highways are difficult in fog, and this one was complicated by various side paths, made probably by hunters or bark-cutters, and without compass or guide marks it was necessary to advance with extreme caution, or get helplessly mazed.

An hour’s steady tramping brought me nowhere in particular, and stopping for a minute to consider, I picked a few wild fruit, such as my wood-cutter friend had eaten, from an overhanging bush, and in so doing slipped, the soil having now become damp, and in falling broke a branch off. The incident was only important from what follows. Picking myself up, perhaps a little shaken by the jolt, I set off again upon what seemed the plain road, and being by this time displeased by my surroundings, determined to make a push for “civilization” before the rapidly gathering darkness settled down.

Hands in pockets and collar up, I marched forward at a good round pace for an hour, constantly straining eyes for a sight of the hill and ears for some indications of living beings in the deathly hush of the shrouded woods, and at the end of that time, feeling sure habitations must now be near, arrived at what looked like a little open space, somehow seeming rather familiar in its vague outlines.

Where had I seen such a place before? Sauntering round the margin, a bush with a broken branch suddenly attracted my attention—a broken bush with a long slide in the mud below it, and the stamp of Navy boots in the soft turf! I glared at those signs for a moment, then with an exclamation of chagrin recognised them only too well—it was the bush whence I had picked the fruit, and the mark of my fall. An hour’s hard walking round some accursed woodland track had brought me exactly back to the point I had started from—I was lost!

It really seemed to get twenty per cent darker as I made that abominable discovery, and the position dawned in all its uncomfortable intensity. There was nothing for it but to start off again, this time judging my direction only by a light breath of air drifting the mist tangles before it; and therein I made a great mistake, for the breeze had shifted several points from the quarter whence it blew in the morning.

Knowing nothing of this, I went forward with as much lightheartedness as could be managed, humming a song to myself, and carefully putting aside thoughts of warmth and supper, while the dusk increased and the great forest vegetation seemed to grow ranker and closer at every step

Another disconcerting thing was that the ground sloped gradually downwards, not upwards as it should have done, till it seemed the path lay across the flats of a forest-covered plain, which did not conform to my wish of striking a road on the foot-hills of the mountain. However, I plodded on, drawing some small comfort from the fact that as darkness came the mist rose from the ground and appeared to condense in a ghostly curtain twenty feet overhead, where it hung between me and a clear night sky, presently illumined by starlight with the strangest effect.

Tired, footsore, and dejected, I struggled on a little further. Oh for a cab, I laughed bitterly to myself. Oh for even the humble necessary omnibus of civilisation. Oh for the humblest tuck-shop where a mug of hot coffee and a snack could be had by a homeless wanderer; and as I thought and plodded savagely on, collar up, hands in pockets, through the black tangles of that endless wood, suddenly the sound of wailing children caught my ear!

It was the softest, saddest music ever mortal listened to. It was as though scores of babes in pain were dropping to sleep on their mothers’ breasts, and all hushing their sorrows with one accord in a common melancholy chorus. I stood spell-bound at that elfin wailing, the first sound to break the deathly stillness of the road for an hour or more, and my blood tingled as I listened to it. Nevertheless, here was what I was looking for; where there were weeping children there must be habitations, and shelter, and—splendid thought!—supper. Poor little babes! their crying was the deadliest, sweetest thing in sorrows I ever listened to. If it was cholic—why, I knew a little of medicine, and in gratitude for that prospective supper, I had a soul big enough to cure a thousand; and if they were in disgrace, and by some quaint Martian fashion had suffered simultaneous punishment for baby offences, I would plead for them.

In fact, I fairly set off at the run towards the sobbing, in the black, wet, night air ahead, and, tripping as I ran, looked down and saw in the filtering starlight that the forest grass had given place to an ancient roadway, paved with moss-grown flag-stones, such as they still used in Seth.

Without stopping to think what that might mean I hurried on, the wailing now right ahead, a tremulous tumult of gentle grief rising and falling on the night air like the sound of a sea after a storm; and so, presently, in a minute or two, came upon a ruined archway spanning the lonely road, held together by great masses of black-fingered creepers, gaunt and ghostly in the shadows, an extraordinary and unexpected vision; and as I stopped with a jerk under that forbidding gateway and glared at its tumbled masonry and great portals hanging rotten at their hinges, suddenly the truth flashed upon me. I had taken the forbidden road after all. I was in the ancient, ghost-haunted city of Queen Yang!