Chapter 4

 

They lodged me like a prince in a tributary country that first night. I was tired. ‘Twas a stiff stage I had come the day before, and they gave me a couch whose ethereal softness seemed to close like the wings of a bird as I plunged at its touch into fathomless slumbers. But the next day had hardly broken when I was awake, and, stretching my limbs upon the piled silk of a legless bed upon the floor, found myself in a great chamber with a purple tapestry across the entrance, and a square arch leading to a flat terrace outside.

It was a glorious daybreak, making my heart light within me, the air like new milk, and the colours of the sunrise lay purple and yellow in bars across my room. I yawned and stretched, then rising, wrapped a silken quilt about me and went out into the flat terrace top, wherefrom all the city could be seen stretched in an ivory and emerald patchwork, with open, blue water on one side, and the Martian plain trending away in illimitable distance upon the other.

Directly underneath in the great square at the bottom of Hath’s palace steps were gathered a concourse of people, brilliant in many-coloured dresses. They were sitting or lying about just as they might for all I knew have done through the warm night, without much order, save that where the black streaks of inlaid stone marked a carriageway across the square none were stationed. While I wondered what would bring so many together thus early, there came a sound of flutes—for these people can do nothing without piping like finches in a thicket in May—and from the storehouses half-way over to the harbour there streamed a line of carts piled high with provender. Down came the teams attended by their slaves, circling and wheeling into the open place, and as they passed each group those lazy, lolling beggars crowded round and took the dole they were too thriftless to earn themselves. It was strange to see how listless they were about the meal, even though Providence itself put it into their hands; to note how the yellow-girted slaves scudded amongst them, serving out the loaves, themselves had grown, harvested, and baked; slipping from group to group, rousing, exhorting, administering to a helpless throng that took their efforts without thought or thanks.

I stood there a long time, one foot upon the coping and my chin upon my hand, noting the beauty of the ruined town and wondering how such a feeble race as that which lay about, breakfasting in the limpid sunshine, could have come by a city like this, or kept even the ruins of its walls and buildings from the covetousness of others, until presently there was a rustle of primrose garments and my friend of the day before stood by me.

Are you rested, traveller?” she questioned in that pretty voice of hers.

Rested ambrosially, An.”

It is well; I will tell the Government and it will come up to wash and dress you, afterwards giving you breakfast.”

For the breakfast, damsel, I shall be grateful, but as for the washing and dressing I will defend myself to the last gasp sooner than submit to such administration.”

How strange! Do you never wash in your country?”

Yes, but it is a matter left largely to our own discretion; so, my dear girl, if you will leave me for a minute or two in quest of that meal you have mentioned, I will guarantee to be ready when it comes.”

Away she slipped, with a shrug of her rosy shoulders, to return presently, carrying a tray covered with a white cloth, whereon were half a dozen glittering covers whence came most fragrant odours of cooked things.

Why, comrade,” I said, sitting down and lifting lid by lid, for the cold, sweet air outside had made me hungry, “this is better than was hoped for; I thought from what I saw down yonder I should have to trot behind a tumbril for my breakfast, and eat it on my heels amongst your sleepy friends below.”

An replied, “The stranger is a prince, we take it, in his own country, and princes fare not quite like common people, even here.”

So,” I said, my mouth full of a strange, unknown fish, and a cake soft as milk and white as cotton in the pod. “Now that makes me feel at home!”

Would you have had it otherwise with us?”

No! now I come to think of it, it is most natural things should be much alike in all the corners of the universe; the splendid simplicity that rules the spheres, works much the same, no doubt, upon one side of the sun as upon the other. Yet, somehow—you can hardly wonder at it—yesterday I looked to find your world, when I realised where I had tumbled to, a world of djin and giants; of mad possibilities over realised, and here I see you dwellers by the utterly remote little more marvellous than if I had come amongst you on the introduction of a cheap tourist ticket, and round some neglected corner of my own distant world!”

I hardly follow your meaning, sir.”

No, no, of course you cannot. I was forgetting you did not know! There, pass me the stuff on yonder platter that looks like caked mud from an anchor fluke, and swells like breath of paradise, and let me question you;” and while I sat and drank with that yellow servitor sitting in front of me, I plied her with questions, just as a baby might who had come into the world with a full-blown gift of speech. But though she was ready and willing enough to answer, and laughed gaily at my quaint ignorance of simple things, yet there was little water in the well.

Had they any kind of crafts or science; any cult of stars or figures?” But again she shook her head, and said, “Hath might know, Hath understood most things, but herself knew little of either.” “Armies or navies?” and again the Martian shrugged her shoulders, questioning in turn—

What for?”

What for!” I cried, a little angry with her engaging dulness, “Why, to keep that which the strong hand got, and to get more for those who come next; navies to sweep yonder blue seas, and armies to ward what they should bring home, or guard the city walls against all enemies,—for I suppose, An,” I said, putting down my knife as the cheering thought came on me,—”I suppose, An, you have some enemies? It is not like Providence to give such riches as you possess, such lands, such cities, and not to supply the antidote in some one poor enough to covet them.”

At once the girl’s face clouded over, and it was obvious a tender subject had been chanced upon. She waved her hand impatiently as though to change the subject, but I would not be put off.

Come,” I said, “this is better than breakfast. It was the one thing—this unknown enemy of yours—wanting to lever the dull mass of your too peacefulness. What is he like? How strong? How stands the quarrel between you? I was a soldier myself before the sea allured me, and love horse and sword best of all things.”

You would not jest if you knew our enemy!”

That is as it may be. I have laughed in the face of many a stronger foe than yours is like to prove; but anyhow, give me a chance to judge. Come, who is it that frightens all the blood out of your cheeks by a bare mention and may not be laughed at even behind these substantial walls?”

First, then, you know, of course, that long ago this land of ours was harried from the West.”

Not I.”

No!” said An, with a little warmth. “If it comes to that, you know nothing.”

Whereat I laughed, and, saying the reply was just, vowed I would not interrupt again; so she wont on saying how Hath—that interminable Hath!—would know it all better than she did, but long ago the land was overrun by a people from beyond the broad, blue waters outside; a people huge of person, hairy and savage, uncouth, unlettered, and poor An’s voice trembled even to describe them; a people without mercy or compunction, dwellers in woods, eaters of flesh, who burnt, plundered, and destroyed all before them, and had toppled over this city along with many others in an ancient foray, the horrors of which, still burnt lurid in her people’s minds.

Ever since then,” went on the girl, “these odious terrors of the outer land have been a nightmare to us, making hectic our pleasures, and filling our peace with horrid thoughts of what might be, should they chance to come again.”

‘Tis unfortunate, no doubt, lady,” I answered. “Yet it was long ago, and the plunderers are far away. Why not rise and raid them in turn? To live under such a nightmare is miserable, and a poet on my side of the ether has said—

‘He either fears his fate too much, Or his deserts are small, Who will not put it to the touch, To win or lose it all.’

It seems to me you must either bustle and fight again, or sit tamely down, and by paying the coward’s fee for peace, buy at heavy price, indulgence from the victor.”

We,” said An simply, and with no show of shame, “would rather die than fight, and so we take the easier way, though a heavy one it is. Look!” she said, drawing me to the broad window whence we could get a glimpse of the westward town and the harbour out beyond the walls. “Look! see yonder long row of boats with brown sails hanging loose reefed from every yard ranged all along the quay. Even from here you can make out the thin stream of porter slaves passing to and fro between them and the granaries like ants on a sunny path. Those are our tax-men’s ships, they came yesterday from far out across the sea, as punctual as fate with the first day of spring, and two or three nights hence we trust will go again: and glad shall we be to see them start, although they leave scupper deep with our cloth, our corn, and gold.”

Is that what they take for tribute?”

That and one girl—the fairest they can find.”

One—only one! ‘Tis very moderate, all things considered.”

She is for the thither king, Ar-hap, and though only one as you say, stranger, yet he who loses her is apt sometimes to think her one too many lost.”

By Jupiter himself it is well said! If I were that man I would stir up heaven and hell until I got her back; neither man, nor beast, nor devil should stay me in my quest!” As I spoke I thought for a minute An’s fingers trembled a little as she fixed a flower upon my coat, while there was something like a sigh in her voice as she said—

The maids of this country are not accustomed, sir, to be so strongly loved.”

By this time, breakfasted and rehabilitated, I was ready to go forth. The girl swung back the heavy curtain that served in place of door across the entrance of my chamber, and leading the way by a corridor and marble steps while I followed, and whether it was the Martian air or the meal I know not, but thinking mighty well of myself until we came presently onto the main palace stairs, which led by stately flights from the upper galleries to the wide square below.

As we passed into the full sunshine—and no sunshine is so crisply golden as the Martian—amongst twined flowers and shrubs and gay, quaint birds building in the cornices, a sleek youth rose slowly from where he had spread his cloak as couch upon a step and approaching asked—

You are the stranger of yesterday?”

Yes,” I answered.

Then I bring a message from Prince Hath, saying it would pleasure him greatly if you would eat the morning meal with him.”

Why,” I answered, “it is very civil indeed, but I have breakfasted already.”

And so has Hath,” said the boy, gently yawning. “You see I came here early this morning, but knowing you would pass sooner or later I thought it would save me the trouble if I lay down till you came—those quaint people who built these places were so prodigal of steps,” and smiling apologetically he sank back on his couch and began toying with a leaf.

Sweet fellow,” I said, and you will note how I was getting into their style of conversation, “get back to Hath when you have rested, give him my most gracious thanks for the intended courtesy, but tell him the invitation should have started a week earlier; tell him from me, you nimble-footed messenger, that I will post-date his kindness and come tomorrow; say that meanwhile I pray him to send any ill news he has for me by you. Is the message too bulky for your slender shoulders?” ` “No,” said the boy, rousing himself slowly, “I will take it,” and then he prepared to go. He turned again and said, without a trace of incivility, “But indeed, stranger, I wish you would take the message yourself. This is the third flight of stairs I have been up today.”

Everywhere it was the same friendly indolence. Half the breakfasters were lying on coloured shawls in groups about the square; the other half were strolling off—all in one direction, I noticed—as slowly as could be towards the open fields beyond; no one was active or had anything to do save the yellow folk who flitted to and fro fostering the others, and doing the city work as though it were their only thought in life. There were no shops in that strange city, for there were no needs; some booths I saw indeed, and temple-like places, but hollow, and used for birds and beasts—things these lazy Martians love. There was no tramp of busy feet, for no one was busy; no clank of swords or armour in those peaceful streets, for no one was warlike; no hustle, for no one hurried; no wide-packed asses nodding down the lanes, for there was nothing to fill their packs with, and though a cart sometimes came by with a load of lolling men and maids, or a small horse, for horses they had, paced along, itself nearly as lazy as the master he bore, with trappings sewed over bits of coloured shell and coral, yet somehow it was all extraordinarily unreal. It was a city full of the ghosts of the life which once pulsed through its ways. The streets were peopled, the chatter of voices everywhere, the singing boys and laughing girls wandering, arms linked together, down the ways filled every echo with their merriment, yet somehow it was all so shallow that again and again I rubbed my eyes, wondering if I were indeed awake, or whether it were not a prolonged sleep of which the tomorrow were still to come.

What strikes me as strangest of all, good comrade,” I observed pleasantly to the tripping presence at my elbow, “is that these countrymen of yours who shirk to climb a flight of steps, and have palms as soft as rose petals, these wide ways paved with stones as hard as a usurer’s heart.”

An laughed. “The stones were still in their native quarries had it been left to us to seek them; we are like the conies in the ruins, sir, the inheritors of what other hands have done.”

Ay, and undone, I think, as well, for coming along I have noted axe chippings upon the walls, smudges of ancient fire and smoke upon the cornices.”

An winced a little and stared uneasily at the walls, muttering below her breath something about trying to hide with flower garlands the marks they could not banish, but it was plain the conversation was not pleasing to her. So unpleasant was talk or sight of woodmen (Thither-folk, as she called them, in contradiction to the Hither people about us here), that the girl was clearly relieved when we were free of the town and out into the open playground of the people. The whole place down there was a gay, shifting crowd. The booths of yesterday, the arcades, the archways, were still standing, and during the night unknown hands had redecked them with flowers, while another day’s sunshine had opened the coppice buds so that the whole place was brilliant past expression. And here the Hither folk were varying their idleness by a general holiday. They were standing about in groups, or lying ranked like new-plucked flowers on the banks, piping to each other through reeds as soft and melodious as running water. They were playing inconsequent games and breaking off in the middle of them like children looking for new pleasures. They were idling about the drinking booths, delicately stupid with quaint, thin wines, dealt out to all who asked; the maids were ready to chevy or be chevied through the blossoming thickets by anyone who chanced upon them, the men slipped their arms round slender waists and wandered down the paths, scarce seeming to care even whose waist it was they circled or into whose ear they whispered the remainder of the love-tale they had begun to some one else. And everywhere it was “Hi,” and “Ha,” and “So,” and “See,” as these quaint people called to one another, knowing each other as familiarly as ants of a nest, and by the same magic it seemed to me.

An,” I said presently, when we had wandered an hour or so through the drifting throng, “have these good countrymen of yours no other names but monosyllabic, nothing to designate them but these chirruping syllables?”

Is it not enough?” answered my companion. “Once indeed I think we had longer names, but,” she added, smiling, “how much trouble it saves to limit each one to a single sound. It is uncivil to one’s neighbours to burden their tongues with double duty when half would do.”

But have you no patronymics—nothing to show the child comes of the same source as his father came?”

We have no fathers.”

What! no fathers?” I said, starting and staring at her.

No, nor mothers either, or at least none that we remember, for again, why should we? Mayhap in that strange district you come from you keep count of these things, but what have we to do with either when their initial duty is done. Look at that painted butterfly swinging on the honey-laden catkin there. What knows she of the mother who shed her life into a flowercup and forgot which flower it was the minute afterwards. We, too, are insects, stranger.”

And do you mean to say of this great concourse here, that every atom is solitary, individual, and can claim no kindred with another save the loose bonds of a general fraternity—a specious idea, horrible, impracticable!”

Whereat An laughed. “Ask the grasshoppers if it is impracticable; ask the little buzzing things of grass and leaves who drift hither and thither upon each breath of wind, finding kinsmen never but comrades everywhere—ask them if it is horrible.”

This made me melancholy, and somehow set me thinking of the friends immeasurably distant I had left but yesterday.

What were they doing? Did they miss me? I was to have called for my pay this afternoon, and tomorrow was to have run down South to see that freckled lady of mine. What would she think of my absence? What would she think if she knew where I was? Gods, it was too mad, too absurd! I thrust my hands into my pockets in fierce desperation, and there they clutched an old dance programme and an out-of-date check for a New York ferry-boat. I scowled about on that sunny, helpless people, and laying my hand bitterly upon my heart felt in the breast-pocket beneath a packet of unpaid Boston tailors’ bills and a note from my landlady asking if I would let her aunt do my washing while I was on shore. Oh! what would they all think of me? Would they brand me as a deserter, a poltroon, and a thief, letting my name presently sink down in shame and mystery in the shadowy realm of the forgotten? Dreadful thoughts! I would think no more.

Maybe An had marked my melancholy, for presently she led me to a stall where in fantastic vases wines of sorts I have described before were put out for all who came to try them. There was medicine here for every kind of dulness—not the gross cure which earthly wine effects, but so nicely proportioned to each specific need that one could regulate one’s debauch to a hairbreadth, rising through all the gamut of satisfaction, from the staid contentment coming of that flask there to the wild extravagances of the furthermost vase. So my stripling told me, running her finger down the line of beakers carved with strange figures and cased in silver, each in its cluster of little attendant drinking-cups, like-coloured, and waiting round on the white napkins as the shore boats wait to unload a cargo round the sides of a merchant vessel.

And what,” I said, after curiously examining each liquor in turn, “what is that which stands alone there in the humble earthen jar, as though unworthy of the company of the others.”

Oh, that,” said my friend, “is the most essential of them all—that is the wine of recovery, without which all the others were deadly poisons.”

The which, lady, looks as if it had a moral attaching to it.”

It may have; indeed I think it has, but I have forgotten. Prince Hath would know! Meanwhile let me give you to drink, great stranger, let me get you something.”

Well, then,” I laughed, “reach me down an antidote to fate, a specific for an absent mistress, and forgetful friends.”

What was she like?” said An, hesitating a little and frowning.

Nay, good friend,” was my answer, “what can that matter to you?”

Oh, nothing, of course,” answered that Martian, and while she took from the table a cup and filled it with fluid I felt in the pouch of my sword-belt to see if by chance a bit of money was Iying there, but there was none, only the pips of an orange poor Polly had sucked and laughingly thrown at me.

However, it did not matter. The girl handed me the cup, and I put my lips to it. The first taste was bitter and acrid, like the liquor of long-steeped wood. At the second taste a shiver of pleasure ran through me, and I opened my eyes and stared hard. The third taste grossness and heaviness and chagrin dropped from my heart; all the complexion of Providence altered in a flash, and a stupid irresistible joy, unreasoning, uncontrollable took possession of my fibre. I sank upon a mossy bank and, lolling my head, beamed idiotically on the lolling Martians all about me. How long I was like that I cannot say. The heavy minutes of sodden contentment slipped by unnoticed, unnumbered, till presently I felt the touch of a wine-cup at my lips again, and drinking of another liquor dulness vanished from my mind, my eyes cleared, my heart throbbed; a fantastic gaiety seized upon my limbs; I bounded to my feet, and seizing An’s two hands in mine, swung that damsel round in a giddy dance, capering as never dancer danced before, till spent and weary I sank down again from sheer lack of breath, and only knew thereafter that An was sitting by me saying, “Drink! drink stranger, drink and forget!” and as a third time a cup was pressed to my lips, aches and pleasures, stupidness and joy, life itself, seemed slipping away into a splendid golden vacuity, a hazy episode of unconscious Elysium, indefinite, and unfathomable.