Chapter 18

 

Hotter and hotter grew that stifling spell, more and more languid man and beast, drier and drier the parching earth.

All the water gave out on the morning after I had bearded Ar-hap in his den, and our strength went with it. No earthly heat was ever like it, and it drank our vitality up from every pore. Water there was down below in the bitter, streaming gulf, but so noisome that we dared not even bathe there; here there was none but the faintest trickle. All discipline was at an end; all desire save such as was born of thirst. Heru I saw as often as I wished as she lay gasping, with poor Si at her feet, in the women’s verandah; but the heat was so tremendous that I gazed at her with lack-lustre eyes, staggering to and fro amongst the courtyard shadows, without nerve to plot her rescue or strength to carry out anything my mind might have conceived.

We prayed for rain and respite. Ar-hap had prayed with a wealth of picturesque ceremonial. We had all prayed and cursed by turns, but still the heavens would not relent, and the rain came not.

At last the stifling heat and vapour reached an almost intolerable pitch. The earth reeked with unwholesome humours no common summer could draw from it, the air was sulphurous and heavy, while overhead the sky seemed a tawny dome, from edge to edge of angry clouds, parting now and then to let us see the red disc threatening us.

Hour after hour slipped by until, when evening was upon us, the clouds drew together, and thunder, with a continuous low rumble, began to rock from sky to sky. Fitful showers of rain, odorous and heavy, but unsatisfying, fell, and birds and beasts of the woodlands came slinking in to our streets and courtyards. Ever since the sky first darkened our own animals had become strangely familiar, and now here were these wild things of the woods slinking in for companionship, sagheaded and frightened. To me especially they came, until that last evening as I staggered dying about the streets or sat staring into the remorseless sky from the steps of Heru’s prison house, all sorts of beasts drew softly in and crowded about, whether I sat or moved, all asking for the hope I had not to give them.

At another time this might have been embarrassing; then it seemed pure commonplace. It was a sight to see them slink in between the useless showers, which fell like hot tears upon us—sleek panthers with lolling tongues; russet-red wood dogs; bears and sloths from the dark arcades of the remote forests, all casting themselves down gasping in the palace shadows; strange deer, who staggered to the garden plots and lay there heaving their lives out; mighty boars, who came from the river marshes and silently nozzled a place amongst their enemies to die in! Even the wolves came off the hills, and, with bloodshot eyes and tongues that dripped foam, flung themselves down in my shadow.

All along the tall stockades apes sat sad and listless, and on the roof-ridges storks were dying. Over the branches of the trees, whose leaves were as thin as though we had had a six months’ drought, the toucans and Martian parrots hung limp and fashionless like gaudy rags, and in the courtyard ground the corn-rats came up from their tunnels in the scorching earth to die, squeaking in scores along under the walls.

Our common sorrow made us as sociable as though I were Noah, and Ar-hap’s palace mound another Ararat. Hour after hour I sat amongst all these lesser beasts in the hot darkness, waiting for the end. Every now and then the heavy clouds parted, changing the gloom to sudden fiery daylight as the great red eye in the west looked upon us through the crevice, and, taking advantage of those gleams, I would reel across to where, under a spout leading from a dried rivulet, I had placed a cup to collect the slow and tepid drops that were all now coming down the reed for Heru. And as I went back each time with that sickly spoonful at the bottom of the vessel all the dying beasts lifted their heads and watched—the thirsty wolves shambling after me; the boars half sat up and grunted plaintively; the panthers, too weak to rise, beat the dusty ground with their tails; and from the portico the blue storks, with trailing wings, croaked husky greeting.

But slower and slower came the dripping water, more and more intolerable the heat. At last I could stand it no longer. What purpose did it serve to lay gasping like this, dying cruelly without a hope of rescue, when a shorter way was at my side? I had not drank for a day and a half. I was past active reviling; my head swam; my reason was clouded. No! I would not stand it any longer. Once more I would take Heru and poor Si the cup that was but a mockery after all, then fix my sword into the ground and try what next the Fates had in store for me.

So once again the leathern mug was fetched and carried through the prostrate guards to where the Martian girl lay, like a withered flower, upon her couch. Once again I moistened those fair lips, while my own tongue was black and swollen in my throat, then told Si, who had had none all the afternoon, to drink half and leave half for Heru. Poor Si put her aching lips to the cup and tilted it a little, then passed it to her mistress. And Heru drank it all, and Si cried a few hot tears behind her hands, FOR SHE HAD TAKEN NONE, and she knew it was her life!

Again picking a way through the courtyard, scarce noticing how the beasts lifted their heads as I passed, I went instinctively, cup in hand, to the well, and then hesitated. Was I a coward to leave Heru so? Ought I not to stay and see it out to the bitter end? Well, I would compound with Fate. I would give the malicious gods one more chance. I would put the cup down again, and until seven drops had fallen into it I would wait. That there might be no mistake about it, no sooner was the mug in place under the nozzle wherefrom the moisture beads collected and fell with infinite slowness, than my sword, on which I meant to throw myself, was bared and the hilt forced into a gaping crack in the ground, and sullenly contented to leave my fate so, I sat down beside it.

I turned grimly to the spout and saw the first drop fall, then another, and another later on, but still no help came. There was a long rift in the clouds now, and a glare like that from an open furnace door was upon me. I had noticed when I came to the spring how the comet which was killing us hung poised exactly upon the point of a distant hill. If he had passed his horrible meridian, if he was going from us, if he sunk but a hair’s breadth before that seventh drop should fall, I could tell it would mean salvation.

But the fourth drop fell, and he was big as ever. The fifth drop fell, and a hot, pleasing nose was thrust into my hand, and looking down I saw a grey wolf had dragged herself across the court and was asking with eloquent eyes for the help I could not give. The sixth drop gathered, and fell; already the seventh was like a seedling pearl in its place. The dying wolf yanked affectionately at my hand, but I put her by and undid my tunic. Big and bright that drop hung to the spout lip; another minute and it would fall. A beautiful drop, I laughed, peering closely at it, many-coloured, prismatic, flushing red and pink, a tiny living ruby, hanging by a touch to the green rim above; enough! enough! The quiver of an eyelash would unhinge it now; and angry with the life I already felt was behind me, and turning in defiant expectation to the new to come, I rose, saw the red gleam of my sword jutting like a fiery spear from the cracking soil where I had planted it, then looked once more at the drop and glanced for the last time at the sullen red terror on the hill.

Were my eyes dazed, my senses reeling? I said a space ago that the meteor stood exactly on the mountain-top and if it sunk a hair’s breadth I should note it; and now, why, there WAS a flaw in its lower margin, a flattening of the great red foot that before had been round and perfect. I turned my smarting eyes away a minute,—saw the seventh drop fall with a melodious tingle into the cup, then back again,—there was no mistake—the truant fire was a fraction less, it had shrunk a fraction behind the hill even since I looked, and thereon all my life ran back into its channels, the world danced before me, and “Heru!” I shouted hoarsely, reeling back towards the palace, “Heru, ‘tis well; the worst is past!”

But the little princess was unconscious, and at her feet was poor Si, quite dead, still reclining with her head in her hands just as I had left her. Then my own senses gave out, and dropping down by them I remembered no more.

I must have lain there an hour or two, for when consciousness came again it was night—black, cool, profound night, with an inky sky low down upon the tree-tops, and out of it such a glorious deluge of rain descending swiftly and silently as filled my veins even to listen to. Eagerly I shuffled away to the porch steps, down them into the swimming courtyard, and ankle-deep in the glorious flood, set to work lapping furiously at the first puddle, drinking with gasps of pleasure, gasping and drinking again, feeling my body filling out like the thirsty steaming earth below me. Then, as I still drank insatiably, there came a gleam of lightning out of the gloom overhead, a brilliant yellow blaze, and by it I saw a few yards away a panther drinking at the same pool as myself, his gleaming eyes low down like mine upon the water, and by his side two apes, the black water running in at their gaping mouths, while out beyond were more pools, more drinking animals. Everything was drinking. I saw their outlined forms, the gleam shining on wet skins as though they were cut out in silver against the darkness, each beast steaming like a volcano as the Heaven-sent rain smoked from his fevered hide, all drinking for their lives, heedless of aught else—and then came the thunder.

It ran across the cloudy vault as though the very sky were being ripped apart, rolling in mighty echoes here and there before it died away. As it stopped, the rain also fell less heavily for a minute, and as I lay with my face low down I heard the low, contented lapping of numberless tongues unceasing, insatiable. Then came the lightning again, lighting up everything as though it were daytime. The twin black apes were still drinking, but the panther across the puddle had had enough; I saw him lift his grateful head up to the flare; saw the limp red tongue licking the black nose, the green eyes shining like opals, the water dripping in threads of diamonds from the hairy tag under his chin and every tuft upon his chest—then darkness again.

To and fro the green blaze rocked between the thunder crashes. It struck a house a hundred yards away, stripping every shingle from the roof better than a master builder could in a week. It fell a minute after on a tall tree by the courtyard gate, and as the trunk burst into white splinters I saw every leaf upon the feathery top turn light side up against the violet reflection in the sky beyond, and then the whole mass came down to earth with a thud that crushed the courtyard palings into nothing for twenty yards and shook me even across the square.

Another time I might have stopped to marvel or to watch, as I have often watched with sympathetic pleasure, the gods thus at play; but tonight there were other things on hand. When I had drunk, I picked up an earthen crock, filled it, and went to Heru. It was a rough drinking-vessel for those dainty lips, and an indifferent draught, being as much mud as aught else, but its effect was wonderful. At the first touch of that turgid stuff a shiver of delight passed through the drowsy lady. At the second she gave a sigh, and her hand tightened on my arm. I fetched another crockful, and by the flickering light rocking to and fro in the sky, took her head upon my shoulder, like a prodigal new come into riches, squandering the stuff, giving her to drink and bathing face and neck till presently, to my delight, the princess’s eyes opened. Then she sat up, and taking the basin from me drank as never lady drank before, and soon was almost herself again.

I went out into the portico, there snuffing the deep, strong breath of the fragrant black earth receiving back into its gaping self what the last few days had taken from it, while quick succeeding thoughts of escape and flight passed across my brain. All through the fiery time we had just had the chance of escaping with the fair booty yonder had been present. Without her, flight would have been easy enough, but that was not worth considering for a moment. With her it was more difficult, yet, as I had watched the woodmen, accustomed to cool forest shades, faint under the fiery glare of the world above, to make a dash for liberty seemed each hour more easy. I had seen the men in the streets drop one by one, and the spears fall from the hands of guards about the pallisades; I had seen messengers who came to and fro collapse before their errands were accomplished, and the forest women, who were Heru’s gaolers, groan and drop across the thresholds of her prison, until at length the way was clear—a babe might have taken what he would from that half-scorched town and asked no man’s leave. Yet what did it avail me? Heru was helpless, my own spirit burnt in a nerveless frame, and so we stayed.

But with rain strength came back to both of us. The guards, lying about like black logs, were only slowly returning to consciousness; the town still slept, and darkness favoured; before they missed us in the morning light we might be far on the way back to Seth—a dangerous way truly, but we were like to tread a rougher one if we stayed. In fact, directly my strength returned with the cooler air, I made up my mind to the venture and went to Heru, who by this time was much recovered. To her I whispered my plot, and that gentle lady, as was only natural, trembled at its dangers. But I put it to her that no time could be better than the present: the storm was going over; morning would “line the black mantle of the night with a pink dawn of promise”; before any one stirred we might be far off, shaping a course by our luck and the stars for her kindred, at whose name she sighed. If we stayed, I argued, and the king changed his mind, then death for me, and for Heru the arms of that surly monarch, and all the rest of her life caged in these pallisades amongst the uncouth forms about us.

The lady gave a frightened little shiver at the picture, but after a moment, laying her head upon my shoulder, answered, “Oh, my guardian spirit and helper in adversity, I too have thought of tomorrow, and doubt whether that horror, that great swine who has me, will not invent an excuse for keeping me. Therefore, though the forest roads are dreadful, and Seth very far away, I will come; I give myself into your hands. Do what you will with me.”

Then the sooner the better, princess. How soon can you be prepared?”

She smiled, and stooping picked up her slippers, saying as she did so, “I am ready!”

There were no arrangements to be made. Every instant was of value. So, to be brief, I threw a dark cloak over the damsel’s shoulders, for indeed she was clad in little more than her loveliness and the gauziest filaments of a Hither girl’s underwear, and hand in hand led her down the log steps, over the splashing, ankle-deep courtyard, and into the shadows of the gateway beyond.

Down the slope we went; along towards the harbour, through a score of deserted lanes where nothing was to be heard but the roar of rain and the lapping of men and beasts, drinking in the shadows as though they never would stop, and so we came at last unmolested to the wharf. There I hid royal Seth between two piles of merchandise, and went to look for a boat suitable to our needs. There were plenty of small craft moored to rings along the quay, and selecting a canoe—it was no time to stand on niceties of property—easily managed by a single paddle, I brought it round to the steps, put in a fresh water-pot, and went for the princess.

With her safely stowed in the prow, a helpless, sodden little morsel of feminine loveliness, things began to appear more hopeful and an escape down to blue water, my only idea, for the first time possible. Yet I must needs go and well nigh spoil everything by over-solicitude for my charge.

Had we pushed off at once there can be no doubt my credit as a spirit would have been established for all time in the Thither capital, and the belief universally held that Heru had been wafted away by my enchantment to the regions of the unknown. The idea would have gradually grown into a tradition, receiving embellishments in succeeding generations, until little wood children at their mother’s knees came to listen in awe to the story of how, once upon a time, the Sun-god loved a beautiful maiden, and drove his fiery chariot across the black night-fields to her prison door, scorching to death all who strove to gainsay him. How she flew into his arms and drove away before all men’s eyes, in his red car, into the west, and was never seen again—the foresaid Sun-god being I, Gulliver Jones, a much under-paid lieutenant in the glorious United States navy, with a packet of overdue tailors’ bills in my pocket, and nothing lovable about me save a partiality for meddling with other people’s affairs.

This is how it might have been, but I spoiled a pretty fairy story and changed the whole course of Martian history by going back at that moment in search of a wrap for my prize. Right on top of the steps was a man with a lantern, and half a glance showed me it was the harbour master met with on my first landing.

Good evening,” he said suspiciously. “May I ask what you are doing on the quay at such an hour as this?”

Doing? Oh, nothing in particular, just going out for a little fishing.”

And your companion the lady—is she too fond of fishing?”

I swore between my teeth, but could not prevent the fellow walking to the quay edge and casting his light full upon the figure of the girl below. I hate people who interfere with other people’s business!

Unless I am very much mistaken your fishing friend is the Hither woman brought here a few days ago as tribute to Ar-hap.”

Well,” I answered, getting into a nice temper, for I had been very much harrassed of late, “put it at that. What would you do if it were so?”

Call up my rain-drunk guards, and give you in charge as a thief caught meddling with the king’s property.”

Thanks, but as my interviews with Ar-hap have already begun to grow tedious, we will settle this little matter here between ourselves at once.” And without more to-do I closed with him. There was a brief scuffle and then I got in a blow upon his jaw which sent the harbour master flying back head over heels amongst the sugar bales and potatoes.

Without waiting to see how he fared I ran down the steps, jumped on board, loosened the rope, and pushed out into the river. But my heart was angry and sore, for I knew, as turned out to be the case, that our secret was one no more; in a short time we should have the savage king in pursuit, and now there was nothing for it but headlong flight with only a small chance of getting away to distant Seth.

Luckily the harbour master lay insensible until he was found at dawn, so that we had a good start, and the moment the canoe passed from the arcade-like approach to the town the current swung her head automatically seaward, and away we went down stream at a pace once more filling me with hope.