Chapter 15

 

The dark forest seemed to shut behind as I entered the gateway of the deserted Hither town, against which my wood-cutter friend had warned me, while inside the soft mist hung in the starlight like grey drapery over endless vistas of ruins. What was I to do? Without all was black and cheerless, inside there was at least shelter. Wet and cold, my courage was not to be put down by the stories of a silly savage; I would go on whatever happened. Besides, the soft sound of crying, now apparently all about, seemed companionable, and I had heard so much of ghosts of late, the sharp edge of fear at their presence was wearing off.

So in I went: up a broad, decayed street, its flagstones heaved everywhere by the roots of gnarled trees, and finding nothing save ruin, tried to rest under a wall. But the night air was chilly and the shelter poor, so out I came again, with the wailing in the shadows so close about now that I stopped, and mustering up courage called aloud:

Hullo, you who weep there in the dark, are you living or dead?” And after a minute from the hollows of the empty hearths around came the sad little responsive echo:

Are you living or dead?” It was very delusive and unsatisfactory, and I was wondering what to do next when a slant of warmer wind came up behind me under the mist, and immediately little tongues of blue flame blossomed without visible cause in every darksome crevice; pale flickers of miasmic light rising pallid from every lurking nook and corner in the black desolation as though a thousand lamps were lit by unseen fingers, and, knee high, floated out into the thoroughfare where they oscillated gently in airy grace, and then, forming into procession, began drifting before the tepid air towards the city centre. At once I thought of what the woodcutter had seen, but was too wet and sulky by this time to care. The fascination of the place was on me, and dropping into rear of the march, I went forward with it. By this time the wailing had stopped, though now and then it seemed a dark form moved in the empty doorways on either hand, while the mist, parting into gossamers before the wind, took marvellously human forms in every alley and lane we passed.

Thus I, a sodden giant, led by those elfin torches, paced through the city until we came to an open square with a great lumber of ruins in the centre all marred and spoiled by vegetation; and here the lights wavered, and went out by scores and hundreds, just as the petals drop from spent flowers, while it seemed, though it may have been only wind in the rank grass, that the air was full of most plaintive sighs as each little lamp slipped into oblivion.

The big pile was a mass of fallen masonry, which, from the broken pillars all about, might have been a palace or temple once. I pushed in, but it was as dark as Hades here, so, after struggling for a time in a labyrinth of chambers, chose a sandy recess, with some dry herbage by way of bedding in a corner, and there, thankful at least for shelter, my night’s wanderings came to an end and I coiled myself down, ate a last handful of dry fruit, and, strange as it may seem, was soon sleeping peacefully.

I dreamed that night that a woman, with a face as white as ivory, came and bent over me. She led a babe by either hand, while behind her were scores of other ones, with lovely faces, but all as pale as the stars themselves, who looked and sighed, but said nothing, and when they had stared their fill, dropped out one by one, leaving a wonderful blank in the monotony where they had been; but beyond that dream nothing happened.

It was a fine morning when I woke again, and obviously broad day outside, the sunshine coming down through cracks in the old palace roof, and lying in golden pools on the floor with dazzling effect.

Rubbing my eyes and sitting up, it took me some time to get my senses together, and at first an uneasy feeling possessed me that I was somehow dematerialised and in an unreal world. But a twinge of cramp in my left arm, and a healthy sneeze, which frightened a score of bats overhead nearly out of their senses, was reassuring on this point, and rubbing away the cramp and staggering to my feet, I looked about at the strange surroundings. It was cavernous chaos on every side: magnificent architecture reduced to the confusion of a debris-heap, only the hollow chambers being here and there preserved by massive columns meeting overhead. Into these the yellow light filtered wherever a rent in a cupola or side-wall admitted it, and allured by the vision of corridors one beyond the other, I presently set off on a tour of discovery.

Twenty minutes’ scrambling brought me to a place where the fallen jambs of a fine doorway lay so close together that there was barely room to pass between them. However, seeing light beyond, I squeezed through, and I found myself in the best-preserved chamber of all—a wide, roomy hall with a domed roof, a haze of mural paintings on the walls, and a marble floor nearly hidden in a century of fallen dust. I stumbled over something at the threshold, and picking it up, found it was a baby’s skull! And there were more of them now that my eyes became accustomed to the light. The whole floor was mottled with them—scores and hundreds of bones and those poor little relics of humanity jutting out of the sand everywhere. In the hush of that great dead nursery the little white trophies seemed inexpressibly pathetic, and I should have turned back reverently from that chamber of forgotten sorrows but that something caught my eye in the centre of it.

It was an oblong pile of white stone, very ill-used and chipped, wrist-deep in dust, yet when a slant of light came in from above and fell straight upon it, the marble against the black gloom beyond blazed like living pearl. It was dazzling; and shading my eyes and going tenderly over through the poor dead babes, I looked, and there, full in the shine, lay a woman’s skeleton, still wrapped in a robe of which little was left save the hard gold embroidery. Her brown hair, wonderful to say, still lay like lank, dead seaweed about her, and amongst it was a fillet crown of plain iron set with gems such as eye never looked upon before. There were not many, but enough to make the proud simplicity of that circlet glisten like a little band of fire—a gleaming halo on her dead forehead infinitely fascinating. At her sides were two other little bleached human flowers, and I stood before them for a long time in silent sympathy.

Could this be Queen Yang, of whom the woodcutter had told me? It must be—who else? And if it were, what strange chance had brought me here—a stranger, yet the first to come, since her sorrow, from her distant kindred? And if it were, then that fillet belonged of right to Heru, the last representative of her kind. Ought I not to take it to her rather than leave it as spoil to the first idle thief with pluck enough to deride the mysteries of the haunted city? Long time I thought over it in the faint, heavy atmosphere of that hall, and then very gently unwound the hair, lifted the circlet, and, scarcely knowing what I did, put it in my shoulder-bag.

After that I went more cheerfully into the outside sunshine, and setting my clothes to dry on a stone, took stock of the situation. The place was, perhaps, not quite so romantic by day as by night, and the scattered trees, matted by creepers, with which the whole were overgrown, prevented anything like an extensive view of the ruined city being obtained. But what gave me great satisfaction was to note over these trees to the eastward a two-humped mountain, not more than six or seven miles distant—the very one I had mislaid the day before. Here was reality and a chance of getting back to civilisation. I was as glad as if home were in sight, and not, perhaps, the less so because the hill meant villages and food; and you who have doubtless lunched well and lately will please bear in mind I had had nothing since breakfast the day before; and though this may look picturesque on paper, in practice it is a painful item in one’s programme.

Well, I gave my damp clothes but a turn or two more in the sun, and then, arguing that from the bare ground where the forest ended half-way up the hill, a wide view would be obtained, hurried into my garments and set off thither right gleefully. A turn or two down the blank streets, now prosaic enough, an easy scramble through a gap in the crumbling battlements, and there was the open forest again, with a friendly path well marked by the passage of those wild animals who made the city their lair trending towards my landmark.

A light breakfast of soft green nuts, plucked on the way, and then the ground began to bend upwards and the woods to thin a little. With infinite ardour, just before midday, I scrambled on to a bare knoll on the very hillside, and fell exhausted before the top could be reached.

But what were hunger or fatigue to the satisfaction of that moment? There was the sea before me, the clear, strong, gracious sea, blue leagues of it, furrowed by the white ridges of some distant storm. I could smell the scent of it even here, and my sailor heart rose in pride at the companionship of that alien ocean. Lovely and blessed thing! how often have I turned from the shallow trivialities of the land and found consolation in the strength of your stately solitudes! How often have I turned from the tinselled presence of the shore, the infinite pretensions of dry land that make life a sorry, hectic sham, and found in the black bosom of the Great Mother solace and comfort! Dear, lovely sea, man—half of every sphere, as far removed in the sequence of your strong emotions from the painted fripperies of the woman-land as pole from pole—the grateful blessing of the humblest of your followers on you!

The mere sight of salt water did me good. Heaven knows our separation had not been long, and many an unkind slap has the Mother given me in the bygone; yet the mere sight of her was tonic, a lethe of troubles, a sedative for tired nerves; and I gazed that morning at the illimitable blue, the great, unfettered road to everywhere, the ever-varied, the immutable, the thing which was before everything and shall be last of all, in an ecstasy of affection.

There was also other satisfaction at hand. Not a mile away lay a well-defined road—doubtless the one spoken of by the wood-cutter—and where the track pointed to the seashore the low roofs and circling smoke of a Thither township showed.

There I went hot-footed, and, much too hungry to be nice in formality, swung up to the largest building on the waterside quay and demanded breakfast of the man who was lounging by its doorway chewing a honey reed. He looked me up and down without emotion, then, falling into the common mistake, said,

This is not a hostel for ghosts, sir. We do not board and lodge phantoms here; this is a dry fish shop.”

Thrice blessed trade!” I answered. “Give me some dried fish, good fellow, or, for the matter of that, dried horse or dog, or anything mortal teeth can bite through, and I will show you my tastes are altogether mundane.”

But he shook his head. “This is no place for the likes of you, who come, mayhap, from the city of Yang or some other abode of disembodied spirits—you, who come for mischief and pay harbourage with mischance—is it likely you could eat wholesome food?”

Indeed I could, and plenty of it, seeing I have dined and breakfasted along the hedges with the blackbirds this two days. Look here, I will pay in advance. Will that get me a meal?” and, whipping out my knife, cut off another of my fast-receding coat buttons.

The man took it with great interest, as I hoped he would, the yellow metal being apparently a very scarce commodity in his part of the planet.

Gold?” he asked.

Well—ahem! I forgot to ask the man who sewed them on for me what they were exactly, but it looks like gold, doesn’t it?”

Yes,” he answered, turning it to and fro admiringly in his hand, “you are the first ghost I ever knew to pay in advance, and plenty of them go to and fro through here. Such a pretty thing is well worth a meal—if, indeed, you can stomach our rough fare. Here, you woman within,” he called to the lady whom I presume was his wife, “here is a gentleman from the nether regions who wants some breakfast and has paid in advance. Give him some of your best, for he has paid well.”

And what,” said a female voice from inside, “what if I refused to serve another of these plaguy wanderers you are always foisting upon me?”

Don’t mind her tongue, sir. It’s the worst part of her, though she is mighty proud of it. Go in and she will see you do not come out hungry,” and the Thither man returned calmly to his honey stick.

Come on, you Soul-with-a-man’s-stomach,” growled the woman, and too hungry to be particular about the tone of invitation, I strode into the parlour of that strange refreshment place. The woman was the first I had seen of the outer race, and better than might have been expected in appearance. Big, strong, and ruddy, she was a mental shock after the slender slips of girlhood on the far side of the water, half a dozen of whom she could have carried off without effort in her long arms. Yet there was about her the credential of rough health, the dignity of muscle, an upright carriage, an animal grace of movement, and withal a comely though strongly featured face, which pleased me at once, and later on I had great cause to remember her with gratitude. She eyed me sulkily for a minute, then her frown gradually softened, and the instinctive love of the woman for the supernatural mastered her other feelings.

Is that how you looked in another world?” she asked.

Yes, exactly, cap to boots. What do you think of the attire, ma’am?”

Not much,” replied the good woman frankly. “It could not have been becoming even when new, and you appear as though you had taken a muddy road since then. What did you die of?”

I will tell you so much as this, madam—that what I am like to die of now is hunger, plain, unvarnished hunger, so, in Heaven’s name, get out what you have and let me fall-to, for my last meal was yesterday morning.”

Whereat, with a shrug of her shoulders at the eccentricities of nether folk, the woman went to the rear of the house, and presently came back with a meal which showed her husband had done scant justice to the establishment by calling it a dry fish shop. It is true, fish supplied the staple of the repast, as was inevitable in a seaport, but, like all Martian fish, it was of ambrosial kind, with a savour about it of wine and sunshine such as no fish on our side of space can boast of. Then there were cakes, steaming and hot, vegetables which fitted into the previous course with exquisite nicety, and, lastly, a wooden tankard of the invariable Thither beer to finish off. Such a meal as a hungry man might consider himself fortunate to meet with any day.

The woman watched me eat with much satisfaction, and when I had answered a score of artless questions about my previous state, or present condition and prospects, more or less to her satisfaction, she supplied me in turn with some information which was really valuable to me just then.

First I learned that Ar-hap’s men, with the abducted Heru, had passed through this very port two days before, and by this time were probably in the main town, which, it appeared, was only about twelve hours’ rowing up the salt-water estuary outside. Here was news! Heru, the prize and object of my wild adventure, close at hand and well. It brought a whole new train of thoughts, for the last few days had been so full of the stress of travel, the bare, hard necessity of getting forward, that the object of my quest, illogical as it may seem, had gone into the background before these things. And here again, as I finished the last cake and drank down to the bottom of the ale tankard, the extreme folly of the venture came upon me, the madness of venturing single-handed into the den of the Wood King. What had I to hope for? What chance, however remote, was there of successfully wresting that blooming prize from the arms of her captor? Force was out of the question; stealth was utterly impractical; as for cajolery, apparently the sole remaining means of winning back the Princess—why, one might as well try the persuasion of a penny flute upon a hungry eagle as seek to rouse Ar-hap’s sympathies for bereaved Hath in that way. Surely to go forward would mean my own certain destruction, with no advantage, no help to Heru; and if I was ever to turn back or stop in the idle quest, here was the place and time. My Hither friends were behind the sea; to them I could return before it was too late, and here were the rough but honest Thither folk, who would doubtless let me live amongst them if that was to be my fate. One or other alternative were better than going to torture and death.

You seem to take the fate of that Hither girl of yours mightily to heart, stranger,” quoth my hostess, with a touch of feminine jealousy, as she watched my hesitation. “Do you know anything of her?”

Yes,” I answered gloomily. “I have seen her once or twice away in Seth.”

Ah, that reminds me! When they brought her up here from the boats to dry her wet clothes, she cried and called in her grief for just such a one as you, saying he alone who struck down our men at her feast could rescue her—”

What! Heru here in this room but yesterday! How did she look? Was she hurt? How had they treated her?”

My eagerness gave me away. The woman looked at me through her half-shut eyes a space, and then said, “Oh! sits the wind in THAT quarter? So you can love as well as eat. I must say you are well-conditioned for a spirit.”

I got up and walked about the room a space, then, feeling very friendless, and knowing no woman was ever born who was not interested in another woman’s loves, I boldly drew my hostess aside and told her about Heru, and that I was in pursuit of her, dwelling on the girl’s gentle helplessness, my own hare-brained adventure, and frankly asking what sort of a sovereign Ar-hap was, what the customs of his court might be, and whether she could suggest any means, temporal or spiritual, by which he might be moved to give back Heru to her kindred.

Nor was my confidence misplaced. The woman, as I guessed, was touched somewhere back in her female heart by my melting love-tale, by my anxiety and Heru’s peril. Besides, a ghost in search of a fairy lady—and such the slender folk of Seth were still considered to be by the race which had supplanted them—this was romance indeed. To be brief, that good woman proved invaluable.

She told me, firstly, that Ar-hap was believed to be away at war, “weekending” as was his custom, amongst rebellious tribes, and by starting at once up the water, I should very probably get to the town before he did. Secondly, she thought if I kept clear of private brawls there was little chance of my receiving injury, from the people at all events, as they were accustomed to strange visitors, and civil enough until they were fired by war. “Sickle cold, sword hot,” was one of their proverbs, meaning thereby that in peaceful times they were lambs, however lionlike they might be in contest.

This was reassuring, but as to recovering the lady, that was another matter over which the good woman shook her head. It was ill coming between Ar-hap and his tribute, she said; still, if I wanted to see Heru once again, this was my opportunity, and, for the rest, that chance, which often favours the enamoured, must be my help.

Briefly, though I should probably have gone forward in any case out of sheer obstinacy, had it been to certain destruction, this better aspect of the situation hastened my resolution. I thanked the woman for help, and then the man outside was called in to advise as to the best and speediest way of getting within earshot of his hairy sovereignty, the monarch of Thitherland.