Chapter 3

 

It was the light touch of the boy An upon my shoulder which roused me. He was bending down, his pretty face full of concernful sympathy, and in a minute said—knowing nothing of my thoughts, of course,

It is the wine, stranger, the pink oblivion, it sometimes makes one feel like that until enough is taken; you stopped just short of what you should have had, and the next cup would have been delight—I should have told you.”

Ay,” I answered, glad he should think so, “it was the wine, no doubt; your quaint drink, sir, tangled up my senses for the moment, but they are clearer now, and I am eager past expression to learn a little more of this strange country I have wandered into.”

I would rather,” said the boy, relapsing again into his state of kindly lethargy, “that you learnt things as you went, for talking is work, and work we hate, but today we are all new and fresh, and if ever you are to ask questions now is certainly the time. Come with me to the city yonder, and as we go I will answer the things you wish to know;” and I went with him, for I was humble and amazed, and, in truth, at that moment, had not a word to say for myself.

All the way from the plain where I had awoke to the walls of the city stood booths, drinking-places, and gardens divided by labyrinths of canals, and embowered in shrubberies that seemed coming into leaf and flower as we looked, so swift was the process of their growth. These waterways were covered with skiffs being pushed and rowed in every direction; the cheerful rowers calling to each other through the leafy screens separating one lane from another till the place was full of their happy chirruping. Every booth and way-side halting-place was thronged with these delicate and sprightly people, so friendly, so gracious, and withal so purposeless.

I began to think we should never reach the town itself, for first my guide would sit down on a green stream-bank, his feet a-dangle in the clear water, and bandy wit with a passing boat as though there were nothing else in the world to think of. And when I dragged him out of that, whispering in his ear, “The town, my dear boy! the town! I am all agape to see it,” he would saunter reluctantly to a booth a hundred yards further on and fall to eating strange confections or sipping coloured wines with chance acquaintances, till again I plucked him by the sleeve and said: “Seth, good comrade—was it not so you called your city just now?—take me to the gates, and I will be grateful to you,” then on again down a flowery lane, aimless and happy, wasting my time and his, with placid civility I was led by that simple guide.

Wherever we went the people stared at me, as well they might, as I walked through them overtopping the tallest by a head or more. The drinking-cups paused half-way to their mouths; the jests died away upon their lips; and the blinking eyes of the drinkers shone with a momentary sparkle of wonder as their minds reeled down those many-tinted floods to the realms of oblivion they loved.

I heard men whisper one to another, “Who is he?”; “Whence does he come?”; “Is he a tribute-taker?” as I strolled amongst them, my mind still so thrilled with doubt and wonder that to me they seemed hardly more than painted puppets, the vistas of their lovely glades and the ivory town beyond only the fancy of a dream, and their talk as incontinent as the babble of a stream.

Then happily, as I walked along with bent head brooding over the incredible thing that had happened, my companion’s shapely legs gave out, and with a sigh of fatigue he suggested we should take a skiff amongst the many lying about upon the margins and sail towards the town, “For,” said he, “the breeze blows thitherward, and ‘tis a shame to use one’s limbs when Nature will carry us for nothing!”

But have you a boat of your own hereabouts?” I queried; “for to tell the truth I came from home myself somewhat poorly provided with means to buy or barter, and if your purse be not heavier than mine we must still do as poor men do.”

Oh!” said An, “there is no need to think of that, no one here to hire or hire of; we will just take the first skiff we see that suits us.”

And what if the owner should come along and find his boat gone?”

Why, what should he do but take the next along the bank, and the master of that the next again—how else could it be?” said the Martian, and shrugging my shoulders, for I was in no great mood to argue, we went down to the waterway, through a thicket of budding trees underlaid with a carpet of small red flowers filling the air with a scent of honey, and soon found a diminutive craft pulled up on the bank. There were some dainty cloaks and wraps in it which An took out and laid under a tree. But first he felt in the pouch of one for a sweetmeat which his fine nostrils, acute as a squirrel’s, told him was there, and taking the lump out bit a piece from it, afterwards replacing it in the owner’s pocket with the frankest simplicity.

Then we pushed off, hoisted the slender mast, set the smallest lug-sail that ever a sailor smiled at, and, myself at the helm, and that golden youth amidships, away we drifted under thickets of drooping canes tasselled with yellow catkin-flowers, up the blue alley of the water into the broader open river beyond with its rapid flow and crowding boats, the white city front now towering clear before us.

The air was full of sunshine and merry voices; birds were singing, trees were budding; only my heart was heavy, my mind confused. Yet why should I be sad, I said to myself presently? Life beat in my pulses; what had I to fear? This world I had tumbled into was new and strange, no doubt, but tomorrow it would be old and familiar; it discredited my manhood to sit brow-bent like that, so with an effort I roused myself.

Old chap!” I said to my companion, as he sat astride of a thwart slowly chewing something sticky and eyeing me out of the corner of his eyes with vapid wonder, “tell me something of this land of yours, or something about yourself—which reminds me I have a question to ask. It is a bit delicate, but you look a sensible sort of fellow, and will take no offence. The fact is, I have noticed as we came along half your population dresses in all the colours of the rainbow—’fancy suitings’ our tailors could call it at home—and this half of the census are undoubtedly men and women. The rub is that the other half, to which you belong, all dress alike in YELLOW, and I will be fired from the biggest gun on the Carolina’s main deck if I can tell what sex you belong to! I took you for a boy in the beginning, and the way you closed with the idea of having a drink with me seemed to show I was dead on the right course. Then a little later on I heard you and a friend abusing our sex from an outside point of view in a way which was very disconcerting. This, and some other things, have set me all abroad again, and as fate seems determined to make us chums for this voyage—why—well, frankly, I should be glad to know if you be boy or girl? If you are as I am, no more nor less then—for I like you—there’s my hand in comradeship. If you are otherwise, as those sleek outlines seem to promise—why, here’s my hand again! But man or woman you must be—come, which is it?”

If I had been perplexed before, to watch that boy now was more curious than ever. He drew back from me with a show of wounded dignity, then bit his lips, and sighed, and stared, and frowned. “Come,” I said laughingly, “speak! it engenders ambiguity to be so ambiguous of gender! ‘Tis no great matter, yes or no, a plain answer will set us fairly in our friendship; if it is comrade, then comrade let it be; if maid, why, I shall not quarrel with that, though it cost me a likely messmate.”

You mock me.”

Not I, I never mocked any one.”

And does my robe tell you nothing?”

Nothing so much; a yellow tunic and becoming enough, but nothing about it to hang a deduction on. Come! Are you a girl, after all?”

I do not count myself a girl.”

Why, then, you are the most blooming boy that ever eyes were set upon; and though ‘tis with some tinge of regret, yet cheerfully I welcome you into the ranks of manhood.”

I hate your manhood, send it after the maidhood; it fits me just as badly.”

But An, be reasonable; man or maid you must be.”

Must be; why?”

Why?” Was ever such a question put to a sane mortal before? I stared at that ambiguous thing before me, and then, a little wroth to be played with, growled out something about Martians being all drunk or mad.

‘Tis you yourself are one or other,” said that individual, by this time pink with anger, “and if you think because I am what I am you can safely taunt me, you are wrong. See! I have a sting,” and like a thwarted child my companion half drew from the folds of the yellow tunic-dress the daintiest, most harmless-looking little dagger that was ever seen.

Oh, if it comes to that,” I answered, touching the Navy scabbard still at my hip, and regaining my temper at the sight of hers, “why, I have a sting also—and twice as long as yours! But in truth, An, let us not talk of these things; if something in what I have said has offended nice Martian scruples I am sorry, and will question no more, leaving my wonder for time to settle.”

No,” said the other, “it was my fault to be hasty of offence; I am not so angered once a year. But in truth your question moves us yellow robes deeply. Did you not really know that we who wear this saffron tunic are slaves,—a race apart, despised by all.”

‘Slaves,’ no; how should I know it?”

I thought you must understand a thing so fundamental, and it was that thought which made your questions seem unkind. But if indeed you have come so far as not to understand even this, then let me tell you once we of this garb were women—priestesses of the immaculate conceptions of humanity; guardians of those great hopes and longings which die so easily. And because we forgot our high station and took to aping another sex the gods deserted and men despised us, giving us, in the fierceness of their contempt, what we asked for. We are the slave ants of the nest, the work-bees of the hive, come, in truth, of those here who still be men and women of a sort, but toilers only; unknown in love, unregretted in death—those who dangle all children but their own—slaves cursed with the accomplishment of their own ambition.”

There was no doubt poor An believed what she said, for her attitude was one of extreme dejection while she spoke, and to cheer her I laughed.

Oh! come, it can’t be as bad as that. Surely sometimes some of you win back to womanhood? You yourself do not look so far gone but what some deed of abnegation, some strong love if you could but conceive it would set you right again. Surely you of the primrose robes can sometimes love?”

Whereat unwittingly I troubled the waters in the placid soul of that outcast Martian! I cannot exactly describe how it was, but she bent her head silently for a moment or two, and then, with a sigh, lifting her eyes suddenly to mine, said quietly, “Yes, sometimes; sometimes—but very seldom,” while for an instant across her face there flashed the summer lightning of a new hope, a single transient glance of wistful, timid entreaty; of wonder and delight that dared not even yet acknowledge itself.

Then it was my turn to sit silent, and the pause was so awkward that in a minute, to break it, I exclaimed—

Let’s drop personalities, old chap—I mean my dear Miss An. Tell me something about your people, and let us begin properly at the top: have you got a king, for instance?”

To this the girl, pulling herself out of the pleasant slough of her listlessness, and falling into my vein, answered—

Both yes and no, sir traveller from afar—no chiefly, and yet perhaps yes. If it were no then it were so, and if yes then Hath were our king.”

A mild king I should judge by your uncertainty. In the place where I came from kings press their individualities somewhat more clearly on their subjects’ minds. Is Hath here in the city? Does he come to your feasts today?”

An nodded. Hath was on the river, he had been to see the sunrise; even now she thought the laughter and singing down behind the bend might be the king’s barge coming up citywards. “He will not be late,” said my companion, “because the marriage-feast is set for tomorrow in the palace.”

I became interested. Kings, palaces, marriage-feasts—why, here was something substantial to go upon; after all these gauzy folk might turn out good fellows, jolly comrades to sojourn amongst—and marriage-feasts reminded me again I was hungry.

Who is it,” I asked, with more interest in my tone, “who gets married?—is it your ambiguous king himself?”

Whereat An’s purple eyes broadened with wonder: then as though she would not be uncivil she checked herself, and answered with smothered pity for my ignorance, “Not only Hath himself, but every one, stranger, they are all married tomorrow; you would not have them married one at a time, would you?”—this with inexpressible derision.

I said, with humility, something like that happened in the place I came from, asking her how it chanced the convenience of so many came to one climax at the same moment. “Surely, An, this is a marvel of arrangement. Where I dwelt wooings would sometimes be long or sometimes short, and all maids were not complacent by such universal agreement.”

The girl was clearly perplexed. She stared at me a space, then said, “What have wooings long or short to do with weddings? You talk as if you did your wooing first and then came to marriage—we get married first and woo afterwards!”

‘Tis not a bad idea, and I can see it might lend an ease and certainty to the pastime which our method lacks. But if the woman is got first and sued subsequently, who brings you together? Who sees to the essential preliminaries of assortment?”

An, looking at my shoes as though she speculated on the remoteness of the journey I had come if it were measured by my ignorance, replied, “The urn, stranger, the urn does that—what else? How it may be in that out-fashioned region you have come from I cannot tell, but here—’tis so commonplace I should have thought you must have known it—we put each new year the names of all womenkind into an urn and the men draw for them, each town, each village by itself, and those they draw are theirs; is it conceivable your race has other methods?”

I told her it was so—we picked and chose for ourselves, beseeching the damsels, fighting for them, and holding the sun of romance was at its setting just where the Martians held it to rise. Whereat An burst out laughing—a clear, ringing laugh that set all the light-hearted folk in the nearest boats laughing in sympathy. But when the grotesqueness of the idea had somewhat worn off, she turned grave and asked me if such a fancy did not lead to spite, envy, and bickerings. “Why, it seems to me,” she said, shaking her curly head, “such a plan might fire cities, desolate plains, and empty palaces—”

Such things have been.”

Ah! our way is much the better. See!” quoth that gentle philosopher. “‘Here,’ one of our women would say, ‘am I to-day, unwed, as free of thought as yonder bird chasing the catkin down; tomorrow I shall be married, with a whole summer to make love in, relieved at one bound of all those uncertainties you acknowledge to, with nothing to do but lie about on sunny banks with him whom chance sends me, come to the goal of love without any travelling to get there.’ Why, you must acknowledge this is the perfection of ease.”

But supposing,” I said, “chance dealt unkindly to you from your nuptial urn, supposing the man was not to your liking, or another coveted him?” To which An answered, with some shrewdness—

In the first case we should do what we might, being no worse off than those in your land who had played ill providence to themselves. In the second, no maid would covet him whom fate had given to another, it were too fatiguing, or if such a thing DID happen, then one of them would waive his claims, for no man or woman ever born was worth a wrangle, and it is allowed us to barter and change a little.”

All this was strange enough. I could not but laugh, while An laughed at the lightest invitation, and thus chatting and deriding each other’s social arrangements we floated idly townwards and presently came out into the main waterway perhaps a mile wide and flowing rapidly, as streams will on the threshold of the spring, with brash or waste of distant beaches riding down it, and every now and then a broken branch or tree-stem glancing through waves whose crests a fresh wind lifted and sowed in golden showers in the intervening furrows. The Martians seemed expert upon the water, steering nimbly between these floating dangers when they met them, but for the most part hugging the shore where a more placid stream better suited their fancies, and for a time all went well.

An, as we went along, was telling me more of her strange country, pointing out birds or flowers and naming them to me. “Now that,” she said, pointing to a small grey owl who sat reflective on a floating log we were approaching—”that is a bird of omen; cover your face and look away, for it is not well to watch it.”

Whereat I laughed. “Oh!” I answered, “so those ancient follies have come as far as this, have they? But it is no bird grey or black or white that can frighten folk where I come from; see, I will ruffle his philosophy for him,” and suiting the action to the words I lifted a pebble that happened to lie at the bottom of the boat and flung it at that creature with the melancholy eyes. Away went the owl, dipping his wings into the water at every stroke, and as he went wailing out a ghostly cry, which even amongst sunshine and glitter made one’s flesh creep.

An shook her head. “You should not have done that,” she said; “our dead whom we send down over the falls come back in the body of yonder little bird. But he has gone now,” she added, with relief; “see, he settles far up stream upon the point of yonder rotten bough; I would not disturb him again if I were you—”

Whatever more An would have said was lost, for amidst a sound of flutes and singing round the bend of the river below came a crowd of boats decked with flowers and garlands, all clustering round a barge barely able to move, so thick those lesser skiffs pressed upon it. So close those wherries hung about that the garlanded rowers who sat at the oars could scarcely pull, but, here as everywhere, it was the same good temper, the same carelessness of order, as like a flowery island in the dancing blue water the motley fleet came up.

I steered our skiff a space out from the bank to get a better view, while An clapped her hands together and laughed. “It is Hath—he himself and those of the palace with him. Steer a little nearer still, friend—so! between yon floating rubbish flats, for those with Hath are good to look at.”

Nothing loth I made out into mid-stream to see that strange prince go by, little thinking in a few minutes I should be shaking hands with him, a wet and dripping hero. The crowd came up, and having the advantage of the wind, it did not take me long to get a front place in the ruck, whence I set to work, with republican interest in royalty, to stare at the man who An said was the head of Martian society. He did not make me desire to renounce my democratic principles. The royal fellow was sitting in the centre of the barge under a canopy and on a throne which was a mass of flowers, not bunched together as they would have been with us, but so cunningly arranged that they rose from the footstool to the pinnacle in a rhythm of colour, a poem in bud and petals the like of which for harmonious beauty I could not have imagined possible. And in this fairy den was a thin, gaunt young man, dressed in some sort of black stuff so nondescript that it amounted to little more than a shadow. I took it for granted that a substance of bone and muscle was covered by that gloomy suit, but it was the face above that alone riveted my gaze and made me return the stare he gave me as we came up with redoubled interest. It was not an unhandsome face, but ashy grey in colour and amongst the insipid countenances of the Martians about him marvellously thoughtful. I do not know whether those who had killed themselves by learning ever leave ghosts behind, but if so this was the very ideal for such a one. At his feet I noticed, when I unhooked my eyes from his at last, sat a girl in a loose coral pink gown who was his very antipode. Princess Heru, for so she was called, was resting one arm upon his knee at our approach and pulling a blue convolvulus bud to pieces—a charming picture of dainty idleness. Anything so soft, so silken as that little lady was never seen before. Who am I, a poor quarter-deck loafer, that I should attempt to describe what poet and painter alike would have failed to realise? I know, of course, your stock descriptives: the melting eye, the coral lip, the peachy cheek, the raven tress; but these were coined for mortal woman—and this was not one of them. I will not attempt to describe the glorious tenderness of those eyes she turned upon me presently; the glowing radiance of her skin; the infinite grace of every action; the incredible soul-searching harmony of her voice, when later on I heard it—you must gather something of these things as I go—suffice it to say that when I saw her there for the first time in the plenitude of her beauty I fell desperately, wildly in love with her.

Meanwhile, even the most infatuated of mortals cannot stare for ever without saying something. The grating of our prow against the garlanded side of the royal barge roused me from my reverie, and nodding to An, to imply I would be back presently, I lightly jumped on to Hath’s vessel, and, with the assurance of a free and independent American voter, approached that individual, holding out my palm, and saying as I did so,

Shake hands, Mr. President!”

The prince came forward at my bidding and extending his hand for mine. He bowed slow and sedately, in that peculiar way the Martians have, a ripple of gratified civility passing up his flesh; lower and lower he bowed, until his face was over our clasped hands, and then, with simple courtesy, he kissed my finger-tips! This was somewhat embarrassing. It was not like the procedure followed in Courts nearer to Washington than this one, as far as my reading went, and, withdrawing my fingers hastily, I turned to the princess, who had risen, and was eyeing her somewhat awkwardly, the while wondering what kind of salutation would be suitable in her case when a startling incident happened. The river, as said, was full of floating rubbish brought down from some far-away uplands by a spring freshet while the royal convoy was making slow progress upstream and thus met it all bow on. Some of this stuff was heavy timber, and when a sudden warning cry went up from the leading boats it did not take my sailor instinct long to guess what was amiss. Those in front shot side to side, those behind tried to drop back as, bearing straight down on the royal barge, there came a log of black wood twenty feet long and as thick as the mainmast of an old three-decker.

Hath’s boat could no more escape than if it had been planted on a rocky pedestal, garlands and curtains trailing in the water hung so heavy on it. The gilded paddles of the slender rowers were so feeble—they had but made a half-turn from that great javelin’s road when down it came upon them, knocking the first few pretty oarsmen head over heels and crackling through their oars like a bull through dry maize stalks. I sprang forward, and snatching a pole from a half-hearted slave, jammed the end into the head of the log and bore with all my weight upon it, diverting it a little, and thereby perhaps saving the ship herself, but not enough. As it flashed by a branch caught upon the trailing tapestry, hurling me to the deck, and tearing away with it all that finery. Then the great spar, tossing half its dripping length into the air, went plunging downstream with shreds of silk and flowers trailing from it, and white water bubbling in its rear.

When I scrambled to my feet all was ludicrous confusion on board. Hath still stood by his throne—an island in a sea of disorder—staring at me; all else was chaos. The rowers and courtiers were kicking and wallowing in the “waist” of the ship like fish newly shot out of a trawl net, but the princess was gone. Where was she? I brushed the spray from my eyes, and stared overboard. She was not in the bubbling blue water alongside. Then I glanced aft to where the log, now fifteen yards away, was splashing through the sunshine, and, as I looked, a fair arm came up from underneath and white fingers clutched convulsively at the sky. What man could need more? Down the barge I rushed, and dropping only my swordbelt, leapt in to her rescue. The gentle Martians were too numb to raise a hand in help; but it was not necessary. I had the tide with me, and gained at every stroke. Meanwhile that accursed tree, with poor Heru’s skirts caught on a branch, was drowning her at its leisure; lifting her up as it rose upon the crests, a fair, helpless bundle, and then sousing her in its fall into the nether water, where I could see her gleam now and again like pink coral.

I redoubled my efforts and got alongside, clutching the rind of that old stump, and swimming and scrambling, at last was within reach of the princess. Thereon the log lifted her playfully to my arms, and when I had laid hold came down, a crushing weight, and forced us far into the clammy bosom of Martian sea. Again we came up, coughing and choking—I tugging furiously at that tangled raiment, and the lady, a mere lump of sweetness in my other arm—then down again with that log upon me and all the noises of Eblis in my ears. Up and down we went, over and over, till strength was spent and my ribs seemed breaking; then, with a last desperate effort, I got a knee against the stem, and by sheer strength freed my princess—the spiteful timber made a last ugly thrust at us as it rolled away—and we were free!

I turned upon my back, and, sure of rescue now, took the lady’s head upon my chest, holding her sweet, white fists in mine the while, and, floating, waited for help.

It came only too quickly. The gallant Martians, when they saw the princess saved, came swiftly down upon us. Over the lapping of the water in my ears I heard their sigh—like cries of admiration and surprise, the rattle of spray on the canoe sides mingled with the splash of oars, the flitting shadows of their prows were all about us, and in less time than it takes to write we were hauled aboard, revived, and taken to Hath’s barge. Again the prince’s lips were on my fingertips; again the flutes and music struck up; and as I squeezed the water out of my hair, and tried to keep my eyes off the outline of Heru, whose loveliness shone through her damp, clinging, pink robe, as if that robe were but a gauzy fancy, I vaguely heard Hath saying wondrous things of my gallantry, and, what was more to the purpose, asking me to come with him and stay that night at the palace.