Chapter 20

 

It was like turning into a hothouse from a keen winter walk, our arrival at the beautiful but nerveless city after my life amongst the woodmen.

As for the people, they were delighted to have their princess back, but with the delight of children, fawning about her, singing, clapping hands, yet asking no questions as to where she had been, showing no appreciation of our adventures—a serious offence in my eyes—and, perhaps most important of all, no understanding of what I may call the political bearings of Heru’s restoration, and how far their arch enemies beyond the sea might be inclined to attempt her recovery.

They were just delighted to have the princess back, and that was the end of it. Theirs was the joy of a vast nursery let loose. Flower processions were organised, garlands woven by the mile, a general order issued that the nation might stay up for an hour after bedtime, and in the vortex of that gentle rejoicing Heru was taken from me, and I saw her no more, till there happened the wildest scene of all you have shared with me so patiently.

Overlooked, unthanked, I turned sulky, and when this mood, one I can never maintain for long, wore off, I threw myself into the dissipation about me with angry zeal. I am frankly ashamed of the confession, but I was “a sailor ashore,” and can only claim the indulgences proper to the situation. I laughed, danced, drank, through the night; I drank deep of a dozen rosy ways to forgetfulness, till my mind was a great confusion, full of flitting pictures of loveliness, till life itself was an illusive pantomime, and my will but thistle-down on the folly of the moment. I drank with those gentle roisterers all through their starlit night, and if we stopped when morning came it was more from weariness than virtue. Then the yellow-robed slaves gave us the wine of recovery—alas! my faithful An was not amongst them—and all through the day we lay about in sodden happiness.

Towards nightfall I was myself again, not unfortunately with the headache well earned, but sufficiently remorseful to be in a vein to make good resolutions for the future.

In this mood I mingled with a happy crowd, all purposeless and cheerful as usual, but before long began to feel the influence of one of those drifts, a universal turning in one direction, as seaweed turns when the tide changes, so characteristic of Martian society. It was dusk, a lovely soft velvet dusk, but not dark yet, and I said to a yellow-robed fairy at my side:

Whither away, comrade? It is not eight bells yet. Surely we are not going to be put to bed so early as this?”

No,” said that smiling individual, “it is the princess. We are going to listen to Princess Heru in the palace square. She reads the globe on the terrace again tonight, to see if omens are propitious for her marriage. She MUST marry, and you know the ceremony has been unavoidably postponed so far.”

Unavoidably postponed?” Yes, Heaven wotted I was aware of the fact. And was Heru going to marry black Hath in such a hurry? And after all I had done for her? It was scarcely decent, and I tried to rouse myself to rage over it, but somehow the seductive Martian contentment with any fate was getting into my veins. I was not yet altogether sunk in their slothful acceptance of the inevitable, but there was not the slightest doubt the hot red blood in me was turning to vapid stuff such as did duty for the article in their veins. I mustered up a half-hearted frown at this unwelcome intelligence, turning with it on my face towards the slave girl; but she had slipped away into the throng, so the frown evaporated, and shrugging my shoulders I said to myself, “What does it matter? There are twenty others will do as well for me. If not one, why then obviously another, ‘tis the only rational way to think, and at all events there is the magic globe. That may tell us something.” And slipping my arm round the waist of the first disengaged girl—we were not then, mind you, in Atlantic City—I kissed her dimpling cheek unreproached, and gaily followed in the drift of humanity, trending with a low hum of pleasure towards the great white terraces under the palace porch.

How well I knew them! It was just such an evening Heru had consulted Fate in the same place once before; how much had happened since then! But there was little time or inclination to think of those things now. The whole phantom city’s population had drifted to one common centre. The crumbling seaward ramparts were all deserted; no soldier watch was kept to note if angry woodmen came from over seas; a soft wind blew in from off the brine, but told no tales; the streets were empty, and, when as we waited far away in the southern sky the earth planet presently got up, by its light Heru, herself again, came tripping down the steps to read her fate.

They had placed another magic globe under a shroud on a tripod for her. It stood within the charmed circle upon the terrace, and I was close by, although the princess did not see me.

Again that weird, fantastic dance commenced, the princess working herself up from the drowsiest undulations to a hurricane of emotion. Then she stopped close by the orb, and seized the corner of the web covering it. We saw the globe begin to beam with veiled magnificence at her touch.

Not an eye wavered, not a thought wandered from her in all that silent multitude. It was a moment of the keenest suspense, and just when it was at its height there came a strange sound of hurrying feet behind the outermost crowd, a murmur such as a great pack of wolves might make rushing through snow, while a soft long wail went up from the darkness.

Whether Heru understood it or not I cannot say, but she hesitated a moment, then swept the cloth from the orb of her fate.

And as its ghostly, self-emitting light beamed up in the darkness with weird brilliancy, there by it, in gold and furs and war panoply, huge, fierce, and lowering, stood—AR-HAP HIMSELF!

Ay, and behind him, towering over the crouching Martians, blocking every outlet and street, were scores and hundreds of his men. Never was surprise so utter, ambush more complete. Even I was transfixed with astonishment, staring with open-mouthed horror at the splendid figure of the barbarian king as he stood aglitter in the ruddy light, scowling defiance at the throng around him. So silently had he come on his errand of vengeance it was difficult to believe he was a reality, and not some clever piece of stageplay, some vision conjured up by Martian necromancy.

But he was good reality. In a minute comedy turned to tragedy. Ar-hap gave a sign with his hand, whereon all his men set up a terrible warcry, the like of which Seth had not heard for very long, and as far as I could make out in the half light began hacking and hewing my luckless friends with all their might. Meanwhile the king made at Heru, feeling sure of her this time, and doubtless intending to make her taste his vengeance to the dregs; and seeing her handled like that, and hearing her plaintive cries, wrath took the place of stupid surprise in me. I was on my feet in a second, across the intervening space, and with all my force gave the king a blow upon the jaw which sent even him staggering backwards. Before I could close again, so swift was the sequence of events in those flying minutes, a wild mob of people, victims and executioners in one disordered throng, was between us. How the king fared I know not, nor stopped to ask, but half dragging, half carrying Heru through the shrieking mob, got her up the palace steps and in at the great doors, which a couple of yellow-clad slaves, more frightened of the barbarians than thoughtful of the crowd without, promptly clapped to, and shot the bolts. Thus we were safe for a moment, and putting the princess on a couch, I ran up a short flight of stairs and looked out of a front window to see if there were a chance of succouring those in the palace square. But it was all hopeless chaos with the town already beginning to burn and not a show of fight anywhere which I could join.

I glared out on that infernal tumult for a moment or two in an agony of impotent rage, then turned towards the harbour and saw in the shine of the burning town below the ancient battlements and towers of Seth begin to gleam out, like a splendid frost work of living metal clear-cut against the smooth, black night behind, and never a show of resistance there either. Ay, and by this time Ar-hap’s men were battering in our gates with a big beam, and somehow, I do not know how it happened, the palace itself away on the right, where the dry-as-dust library lay, was also beginning to burn.

It was hopeless outside, and nothing to be done but to save Heru, so down I went, and, with the slaves, carried her away from the hall through a vestibule or two, and into an anteroom, where some yellow-girt individuals were already engaged in the suggestive work of tying up palace plate in bundles, amongst other things, alas! the great gold love-bowl from which—oh! so long ago—I had drawn Heru’s marriage billet. These individuals told me in tremulous accents they had got a boat on a secret waterway behind the palace whence flight to the main river and so, far away inland, to another smaller but more peaceful city of their race would be quite practical; and joyfully hearing this news, I handed over to them the princess while I went to look for Hath.

And the search was not long. Dashing into the banquet-hall, still littered with the remains of a feast, and looking down its deserted vistas, there at the farther end, on his throne, clad in the sombre garments he affected, chin on hand, sedate in royal melancholy, listening unmoved to the sack of his town outside, sat the prince himself. Strange, gloomy man, the great dead intelligence of his race shining in his face as weird and out of place as a lonely sea beacon fading to nothing before the glow of sunrise, never had he appeared so mysterious as at that moment. Even in the heat of excitement I stared at him in amazement, wishing in a hasty thought the confusion of the past few weeks had given me opportunity to penetrate the recesses of his mind, and therefrom retell you things better worth listening to than all the incident of my adventures. But now there was no time to think, scarce time to act.

Hath!” I cried, rushing over to him, “wake up, your majesty. The Thither men are outside, killing and burning!”

I know it.”

And the palace is on fire. You can smell the reek even here.”

Yes.”

Then what are you going to do?”

Nothing.”

My word, that is a fine proposition for a prince! If you care nothing for town or palace perhaps you will bestir yourself for Princess Heru.”

A faint glimmer of interest rose upon the alabaster calm of his face at that name, but it faded instantly, and he said quietly,

The slaves will save her. She will live. I looked into the book of her fate yesterday. She will escape, and forget, and sit at another marriage feast, and be a mother, and give the people yet one more prince to keep the faint glimmer of our ancestry alive. I am content.”

But, d— it, man, I am not! I take a deal more interest in the young lady than you seem to, and have scoured half this precious planet of yours on her account, and will be hanged if I sit idly twiddling my thumbs while her pretty skin is in danger.” But Hath was lost in contemplation of his shoe-strings.

Come, sir,” I said, shaking his majesty by the shoulder, “don’t be down on your luck. There has been some rivalry between us, but never mind about that just now. The princess wants you. I am going to save both her and you, you must come with her.”

No.”

But you SHALL come.”

No!”

By this time the palace was blazing like a bonfire and the uproar outside was terrible. What was I to do? As I hesitated the arras at the further end of the hall was swept aside, a disordered mob of slaves bearing bundles and dragging Heru with them rushing down to the door near us. As Heru was carried swiftly by she stretched her milk-white arms towards the prince and turned her face, lovely as a convolvulus flower even in its pallor, upon him.

It was a heart-moving appeal from a woman with the heart of a child, and Hath rose to his feet while for a moment there shone a look of responsible manhood in his eyes. But it faded quickly; he bowed slowly as though he had received an address of condolence on the condition of his empire, and the next moment the frightened slaves, stumbling under their burdens, had swept poor Heru through the doorway.

I glanced savagely round at the curling smoke overhead, the red tendrils of fire climbing up a distant wall, and there on a table by us was a half-finished flask of the lovely tinted wine of forgetfulness. If Hath would not come sober perhaps he might come drunk.

Here,” I cried, “drink to tomorrow, your majesty, a sovereign toast in all ages, and better luck next time with these hairy gentlemen battering at your majesty’s doors,” and splashing out a goblet full of the stuff I handed it to him.

He took it and looked rather lovingly into the limpid pool, then deliberately poured it on the step in front of him, and throwing the cup away said pleasantly,

Not tonight, good comrade; tonight I drink a deeper draught of oblivion than that,—and here come my cup-bearers.”

Even while he spoke the palace gates had given way; there was a horrible medley of shrieks and cries, a quick sound of running feet; then again the arras lifted and in poured a horde of Ar-hap’s men-at-arms. The moment they caught sight of us about a dozen of them, armed with bows, drew the thick hide strings to their ears and down the hall came a ravening flight of shafts. One went through my cap, two stuck quivering in the throne, and one, winged with owl feather, caught black Hath full in the bosom.

He had stood out boldly at the first coming of that onset, arms crossed on breast, chin up, and looking more of a gentleman than I had ever seen him look before; and now, stricken, he smiled gravely, then without flinching, and still eyeing his enemies with gentle calm, his knees unlocked, his frame trembled, then down he went headlong, his red blood running forth in rivulets amongst the wine of oblivion he had just poured out.

There was no time for sentiment. I shrugged my shoulders, and turning on my heels, with the woodmen close after me, sprang through the near doorway. Where was Heru? I flew down the corridor by which it seemed she had retreated, and then, hesitating a moment where it divided in two, took the left one. This to my chagrin presently began to trend upwards, whereas I knew Heru was making for the river down below.

But it was impossible to go back, and whenever I stopped in those deserted passages I could hear the wolflike patter of men’s feet upon my trail. On again into the stony labyrinths of the old palace, ever upwards, in spite of my desire to go down, until at last, the pursuers off the track for a moment, I came to a north window in the palace wall, and, hot and breathless, stayed to look out.

All was peace here; the sky a lovely lavender, a promise of coming morning in it, and a gold-spangled curtain of stars out yonder on the horizon. Not a soul moved. Below appeared a sheer drop of a hundred feet into a moat winding through thickets of heavy-scented convolvulus flowers to the waterways beyond. And as I looked a skiff with half a dozen rowers came swiftly out of the darkness of the wall and passed like a shadow amongst the thickets. In the prow was all Hath’s wedding plate, and in the stern, a faint vision of unconscious loveliness, lay Heru!

Before I could lift a finger or call out, even if I had had a mind to do so, the shadow had gone round a bend, and a shout within the palace told me I was sighted again.

On once more, hotly pursued, until the last corridor ended in two doors leading into a half-lit gallery with open windows at the further end. There was a wilderness of lumber down the sides of the great garret, and now I come to think of it more calmly I imagine it was Hath’s Lost Property Office, the vast receptacle where his slaves deposited everything lazy Martians forgot or left about in their daily life. At that moment it only represented a last refuge, and into it I dashed, swung the doors to and fastened them just as the foremost of Ar-hap’s men hurled themselves upon the barrier from outside.

There I was like a rat in a trap, and like a rat I made up my mind to fight savagely to the end, without for a moment deceiving myself as to what that end must be. Even up there the horrible roar of destruction was plainly audible as the barbarians sacked and burned the ancient town, and I was glad from the bottom of my heart my poor little princess was safely out of it. Nor did I bear her or hers the least resentment for making off while there was yet time and leaving me to my fate—anything else would have been contrary to Martian nature. Doubtless she would get away, as Hath had said, and elsewhere drop a few pearly tears and then over her sugar-candy and lotus-eating forget with happy completeness—most blessed gift! And meanwhile the foresaid barbarians were battering on my doors, while over their heads choking smoke was pouring in in ever-increas-ing volumes.

In burst the first panel, then another, and I could see through the gaps a medley of tossing weapons and wild faces without. Short shrift for me if they came through, so in the obstinacy of desperation I set to work to pile old furniture and dry goods against the barricade. And as they yelled and hammered outside I screamed back defiance from within, sweating, tugging, and hauling with the strength of ten men, piling up the old Martian lumber against the opening till, so fierce was the attack outside, little was left of the original doorway and nothing between me and the beseigers but a rampart of broken woodwork half seen in a smother of smoke and flames.

Still they came on, thrusting spears and javelins through every crevice and my strength began to go. I threw two tables into a gap, and brained a besieger with a sweetmeat-seller’s block and smothered another, and overturned a great chest against my barricade; but what was the purpose of it all? They were fifty to one and my rampart quaked before them. The smoke was stifling, and the pains of dissolution in my heart. They burst in and clambered up the rampart like black ants. I looked round for still one more thing to hurl into the breach. My eyes lit on a roll of carpet: I seized it by one corner meaning to drag it to the doorway, and it came undone at a touch.

That strange, that incredible pattern! Where in all the vicissitudes of a chequered career had I seen such a one before? I stared at it in amazement under the very spears of the woodmen in the red glare of Hath’s burning palace. Then all on a sudden it burst upon me that IT WAS THE ACCURSED RUG, the very one which in response to a careless wish had swept me out of my own dear world, and forced me to take as wild a journey into space as ever fell to a man’s lot since the universe was made!

And in another second it occurred to me that if it had brought me hither it might take me hence. It was but a chance, yet worth trying when all other chances were against me. As Ar-hap’s men came shouting over the barricade I threw myself down upon that incredible carpet and cried from the bottom of my heart,

I wish—I wish I were in New York!”

Yes!

A moment of thrilling suspense and then the corners lifted as though a strong breeze were playing upon them. Another moment and they had curled over like an incoming surge. One swift glance I got at the smoke and flames, the glittering spears and angry faces, and then fold upon fold, a stifling, all-enveloping embrace, a lift, a sense of super-human speed—and then forgetfulness.

When I came to, as reporters say, I was aware the rug had ejected me on solid ground and disappeared, forever. Where was I! It was cool, damp, and muddy. There were some iron railings close at hand and a street lamp overhead. These things showed clearly to me, sitting on a doorstep under that light, head in hand, amazed and giddy—so amazed that when slowly the recognition came of the incredible fact my wish was gratified and I was home again, the stupendous incident scarcely appealed to my tingling senses more than one of the many others I had lately undergone.

Very slowly I rose to my feet, and as like a discreditable reveller as could be, climbed the steps. The front door was open, and entering the oh, so familiar hall a sound of voices in my sitting-room on the right caught my ear.

Oh no, Mrs. Brown,” said one, which I recognised at once as my Polly’s, “he is dead for certain, and my heart is breaking. He would never, never have left me so long without writing if he had been alive,” and then came a great sound of sobbing.

Bless your kind heart, miss,” said the voice of my landlady in reply, “but you don’t know as much about young gentlemen as I do. It is not likely, if he has gone off on the razzle-dazzle, as I am sure he has, he is going to write every post and tell you about it. Now you go off to your ma at the hotel like a dear, and forget all about him till he comes back—that’s MY advice.”

I cannot, I cannot, Mrs. Brown. I cannot rest by day or sleep by night for thinking of him; for wondering why he went away so suddenly, and for hungering for news of him. Oh, I am miserable. Gully! Gully! Come to me,” and then there were sounds of troubled footsteps pacing to and fro and of a woman’s grief.

That was more than I could stand. I flung the door open, and, dirty, dishevelled, with unsteady steps, advanced into the room.

Ahem!” coughed Mrs. Brown, “just as I expected!”

But I had no eyes for her. “Polly! Polly!” I cried, and that dear girl, after a startled scream and a glance to make sure it was indeed the recovered prodigal, rushed over and threw all her weight of dear, warm, comfortable womanhood into my arms, and the moment after burst into a passion of happy tears down my collar.

Humph!” quoth the landlady, “that is not what BROWN gets when he forgets his self. No, not by any means.”

But she was a good old soul at heart, and, seeing how matters stood, with a parting glance of scorn in my direction and a toss of her head, went out of the room, and closed the door behind her.

Need I tell in detail what followed? Polly behaved like an angel, and when in answer to her gentle reproaches I told her the outlines of my marvellous story she almost believed me! Over there on the writing-desk lay a whole row of the unopened letters she had showered upon me during my absence, and amongst them an official one. We went and opened it together, and it was an intimation of my promotion, a much better “step” than I had ever dared to hope for.

Holding that missive in my hand a thought suddenly occurred to me.

Polly dear, this letter makes me able to maintain you as you ought to be maintained, and there is still a fortnight of vacation for me. Polly, will you marry me tomorrow?”

No, certainly not, sir.”

Then will you marry me on Monday?”

Do you truly, truly want me to?”

Truly, truly.”

Then, yes,” and the dear girl again came blushing into my arms.

While we were thus the door opened, and in came her parents who were staying at a neighbouring hotel while inquiries were made as to my mysterious absence. Not unnaturally my appearance went a long way to confirm suspicions such as Mrs. Brown had confessed to, and, after they had given me cold salutations, Polly’s mother, fixing gold glasses on the bridge of her nose and eyeing me haughtily therefrom, observed,

And now that you ARE safely at home again, Lieutenant Gulliver Jones, I think I will take my daughter away with me. Tomorrow her father will ascertain the true state of her feelings after this unpleasant experience, and subsequently he will no doubt communicate with you on the subject.” This very icily.

But I was too happy to be lightly put down.

My dear madam,” I replied, “I am happy to be able to save her father that trouble. I have already communicated with this young lady as to the state of her feelings, and as an outcome I am delighted to be able to tell you we are to be married on Monday.”

Oh yes, Mother, it is true, and if you do not want to make me the most miserable of girls again you will not be unkind to us.”

In brief, that sweet champion spoke so prettily and smoothed things so cleverly that I was “forgiven,” and later on in the evening allowed to escort Polly back to her hotel.

And oh!” she said, in her charmingly enthusiastic way when we were saying goodnight, “you shall write a book about that extraordinary story you told me just now. Only you must promise me one thing.”

What is it?”

To leave out all about Heru—I don’t like that part at all.” This with the prettiest little pout.

But, Polly dear, see how important she was to the narrative. I cannot quite do that.”

Then you will say as little as you can about her?”

No more than the story compels me to.”

And you are quite sure you like me much the best, and will not go after her again?”

Quite sure.”

The compact was sealed in the most approved fashion; and here, indulgent reader, is the artless narrative that resulted—an incident so incredible in this prosaic latter-day world that I dare not ask you to believe, and must humbly content myself with hoping that if I fail to convince yet I may at least claim the consolation of having amused you.