Chapter 7

 

It was only at moments like these I had any time to reflect on my circumstances or that giddy chance which had shot me into space in this fashion, and, frankly, the opportunities, when they did come, brought such an extraordinary depressing train of thought, I by no means invited them. Even with the time available the occasion was always awry for such reflection. These dainty triflers made sulking as impossible amongst them as philosophy in a ballroom. When I stalked out like that from the library in fine mood to moralise and apostrophise heaven in a way that would no doubt have looked fine upon these pages, one sprightly damsel, just as the gloomy rhetoric was bursting from my lips, thrust a flower under my nose whose scent brought on a violent attack of sneezing, her companions joining hands and dancing round me while they imitated my agony. Then, when I burst away from them and rushed down a narrow arcade of crumbling mansions, another stopped me in mid-career, and taking the honey-stick she was sucking from her lips, put it to mine, like a pretty, playful child. Another asked me to dance, another to drink pink oblivion with her, and so on. How could one lament amongst all this irritating cheerfulness?

An might have helped me, for poor An was intelligent for a Martian, but she had disappeared, and the terrible vacuity of life in the planet was forced upon me when I realised that possessing no cognomen, no fixed address, or rating, it would be the merest chance if I ever came across her again.

Looking for my friendly guide and getting more and more at sea amongst a maze of comely but similar faces, I made chance acquaintance with another of her kind who cheerfully drank my health at the Government’s expense, and chatted on things Martian. She took me to see a funeral by way of amusement, and I found these people floated their dead off on flower-decked rafts instead of burying them, the send-offs all taking place upon a certain swift-flowing stream, which carried the dead away into the vast region of northern ice, but more exactly whither my informant seemed to have no idea. The voyager on this occasion was old, and this brought to my mind the curious fact that I had observed few children in the city, and no elders, all, except perhaps Hath, being in a state of sleek youthfulness. My new friend explained the peculiarity by declaring Martians ripened with extraordinary rapidity from infancy to the equivalent of about twenty-five years of age, with us, and then remained at that period however long they might live; Only when they died did their accumulated seasons come upon them; the girl turning pale, and wringing her pretty hands in sympathetic concern when I told her there was a land where decrepitude was not so happily postponed. The Martians, she said, arranged their calendar by the varying colours of the seasons, and loved blue as an antidote to the generally red and rusty character of their soil.

Discussing such things as these we lightly squandered the day away, and I know of nothing more to note until the evening was come again: that wonderful purple evening which creeps over the outer worlds at sunset, a seductive darkness gemmed with ten thousand stars riding so low in the heaven they seem scarcely more than mast high. When that hour was come my friend tiptoed again to my cheek, and then, pointing to the palace and laughingly hoping fate would send me a bride “as soft as catkin and as sweet as honey,” slipped away into the darkness.

Then I remembered all on a sudden this was the connubial evening of my sprightly friends—the occasion when, as An had told me, the Government constituted itself into a gigantic matrimonial agency, and, with the cheerful carelessness of the place, shuffled the matrimonial pack anew, and dealt a fresh hand to all the players. Now I had no wish to avail myself of a sailor’s privilege of a bride in every port, but surely this game would be interesting enough to see, even if I were but a disinterested spectator. As a matter of fact I was something more than that, and had been thinking a good deal of Heru during the day. I do not know whether I actually aspired to her hand—that were a large order, even if there had been no suspicion in my mind she was already bespoke in some vague way by the invisible Hath, most abortive of princes. But she was undeniably a lovely girl; the more one thought of her the more she grew upon the fancy, and then the preference she had shown myself was very gratifying. Yes, I would certainly see this quaint ceremonial, even if I took no leading part in it.

The great centre hall of the palace was full of a radiant light bringing up its ruined columns and intruding creepers to the best effect when I entered. Dinner also was just being served, as they would say in another, and alas! very distant place, and the whole building thronged with folk. Down the centre low tables with room for four hundred people were ranged, but they looked quaint enough since but two hundred were sitting there, all brand-new bachelors about to be turned into brand new Benedicts, and taking it mightily calmly it seemed. Across the hall-top was a raised table similarly arranged and ornamented; and entering into the spirit of the thing, and little guessing how stern a reality was to come from the evening, I sat down in a vacant place near to the dais, and only a few paces from where the pale, ghost-eyed Hath was already seated.

Almost immediately afterwards music began to buzz all about the hall—music of the kind the people loved which always seemed to me as though it were exuding from the tables and benches, so disembodied and difficult it was to locate; all the sleepy gallants raised their flower-encircled heads at the same time, seizing their wine-cups, already filled to the brim, and the door at the bottom of the hall opening, the ladies, preceded by one carrying a mysterious vase covered with a glittering cloth, came in.

Now, being somewhat thirsty, I had already drunk half the wine in my beaker, and whether it was that draught, drugged as all Martian wines are, or the sheer loveliness of the maids themselves, I cannot say, but as the procession entered, and, dividing, circled round under the colonnades of the hall, a sensation of extraordinary felicity came over me—an emotion of divine contentment purged of all grossness—and I stared and stared at the circling loveliness, gossamer-clad, flower-girdled, tripping by me with vapid delight. Either the wine was budding in my head, or there was little to choose from amongst them, for had any of those ladies sat down in the vacant place beside me, I should certainly have accepted her as a gift from heaven, without question or cavil. But one after another they slipped by, modestly taking their places in the shadows until at last came Princess Heru, and at the sight of her my soul was stirred.

She came undulating over the white marble, the loveliness of her fairy person dimmed but scarcely hidden by a robe of softest lawn in colour like rose-petals, her eyes aglitter with excitement and a charming blush upon her face.

She came straight up to me, and, resting a dainty hand upon my shoulder, whispered, “Are you come as a spectator only, dear Mr. Jones, or do you join in our custom tonight?”

I came only as a bystander, lady, but the fascination of the opportunity is deadly—”

And have you any preference?”—this in the softest little voice from somewhere in the nape of my neck. “Strangers sometimes say there are fair women in Seth.”

None—till you came; and now, as was said a long time ago, ‘All is dross that is not Helen.’ Dearest lady,” I ran on, detaining her by the fingertips and gazing up into those shy and star-like eyes, “must I indeed put all the hopes your kindness has roused in me these last few days to a shuffle in yonder urn, taking my chance with all these lazy fellows? In that land whereof I was, we would not have had it so, we loaded our dice in these matters, a strong man there might have a willing maid though all heaven were set against him! But give me leave, sweet lady, and I will ruffle with these fellows; give me a glance and I will barter my life for your billet when it is drawn, but to stand idly by and see you won by a cold chance, I cannot do it.”

That lady laughed a little and said, “Men make laws, dear Jones, for women to keep. It is the rule, and we must not break it.” Then, gently tugging at her imprisoned fingers and gathering up her skirts to go, she added, “But it might happen that wit here were better than sword.” Then she hesitated, and freeing herself at last slipped from my side, yet before she was quite gone half turned again and whispered so low that no one but I could hear it, “A golden pool, and a silver fish, and a line no thicker than a hair!” and before I could beg a meaning of her, had passed down the hall and taken a place with the other expectant damsels.

A golden pool,” I said to myself, “a silver fish, and a line of hair.” What could she mean? Yet that she meant something, and something clearly of importance, I could not doubt. “A golden pool, and a silver fish—” I buried my chin in my chest and thought deeply but without effect while the preparations were made and the fateful urn, each maid having slipped her name tablet within, was brought down to us, covered in a beautiful web of rose-coloured tissue, and commenced its round, passing slowly from hand to hand as each of those handsome, impassive, fawn-eyed gallants lifted a corner of the web in turn and helped themselves to fate.

A golden pool,” I muttered, “and a silver fish”—so absorbed in my own thoughts I hardly noticed the great cup begin its journey, but when it had gone three or four places the glitter of the lights upon it caught my eye. It was of pure gold, round-brimmed, and circled about with a string of the blue convolvulus, which implies delight to these people. Ay! and each man was plunging his hand into the dark and taking in his turn a small notch-edged mother-of-pearl billet from it that flashed soft and silvery as he turned it in his hand to read the name engraved in unknown characters thereon. “Why,” I said, with a start, “surely THIS might be the golden pool and these the silver fish—but the hair-fine line? And again I meditated deeply, with all my senses on the watch.

Slowly the urn crept round, and as each man took a ticket from it, and passed it, smiling, to the seneschal behind him, that official read out the name upon it, and a blushing damsel slipped from the crowd above, crossing over to the side of the man with whom chance had thus lightly linked her for the brief Martian year, and putting her hands in his they kissed before all the company, and sat down to their places at the table as calmly as country folk might choose partners at a village fair in hay-time.

But not so with me. Each time a name was called I started and stared at the drawer in a way which should have filled him with alarm had alarm been possible to the peace-soaked triflers, then turned to glance to where, amongst the women, my tender little princess was leaning against a pillar, with drooping head, slowly pulling a convolvulus bud to pieces. None drew, though all were thinking of her, as I could tell in my fingertips. Keener and keener grew the suspense as name after name was told and each slim white damsel skipped to the place allotted her. And all the time I kept muttering to myself about that “golden pool,” wondering and wondering until the urn had passed half round the tables and was only some three men up from me—and then an idea flashed across my mind. I dipped my fingers in the scented water-basin on the table, drying them carefully on a napkin, and waiting, outwardly as calm as any, yet inwardly wrung by those tremors which beset all male creation in such circumstances.

And now at last it was my turn. The great urn, blazing golden, through its rosy covering, was in front, and all eyes on me. I clapped a sunburnt hand upon its top as though I would take all remaining in it to myself and stared round at that company—only her herself I durst not look at! Then, with a beating heart, I lifted a corner of the web and slipped my hand into the dark inside, muttering to myself as I did so, “A golden pool, and a silver fish, and a line no thicker than a hair.” I touched in turn twenty perplexing tablets and was no whit the wiser, and felt about the sides yet came to nothing, groping here and there with a rising despair, until as my fingers, still damp and fine of touch, went round the sides a second time, yes! there was something, something in the hollow of the fluting, a thought, a thread, and yet enough. I took it unseen, lifting it with infinite forbearance, and the end was weighted, the other tablets slipped and rattled as from their midst, hanging to that one fine virgin hair, up came a pearly billet. I doubted no longer, but snapped the thread, and showed the tablet, heard Heru’s name, read from it amongst the soft applause of that luxurious company with all the unconcern I could muster.

There she was in a moment, lip to lip with me, before them all, her eyes more than ever like planets from her native skies, and only the quick heave of her bosom, slowly subsiding like a ground swell after a storm, remaining to tell that even Martian blood could sometimes beat quicker than usual! She sat down in her place by me in the simplest way, and soon everything was as merry as could be. The main meal came on now, and as far as I could see those Martian gallants had extremely good appetites, though they drank at first but little, wisely remembering the strength of their wines. As for me, I ate of fishes that never swam in earthly seas, and of strange fowl that never flapped a way through thick terrestrial air, ate and drank as happy as a king, and falling each moment more and more in love with the wonderfully beautiful girl at my side who was a real woman of flesh and blood I knew, yet somehow so dainty, so pink and white, so unlike other girls in the smoothness of her outlines, in the subtle grace of each unthinking attitude, that again and again I looked at her over the rim of my tankard half fearing she might dissolve into nothing, being the half-fairy which she was.

Presently she asked, “Did that deed of mine, the hair in the urn, offend you, stranger?”

Offend me, lady!” I laughed. “Why, had it been the blackest crime that ever came out of a perverse imagination it would have brought its own pardon with it; I, least of all in this room, have least cause to be offended.”

I risked much for you and broke our rules.”

Why, no doubt that was so, but ‘tis the privilege of your kind to have some say in this little matter of giving and taking in marriage. I only marvel that your countrywomen submit so tamely to the quaintest game of chance I ever played at.

Ay, and it is women’s nature no doubt to keep the laws which others make, as you have said yourself. Yet this rule, lady, is one broken with more credit than kept, and if you have offended no one more than me, your penance is easily done.”

But I have offended some one,” she said, laying her hand on mine with gentle nervousness in its touch, “one who has the power to hurt, and enough energy to resent. Hath, up there at the cross-table, have I offended deeply tonight, for he hoped to have me, and would have compelled any other man to barter me for the maid chance assigned to him; but of you, somehow, he is afraid—I have seen him staring at you, and changing colour as though he knew something no one else knows—”

Briefly, charming girl,” I said, for the wine was beginning to sing in my head, and my eyes were blinking stupidly—”briefly, Hath hath thee not, and there’s an end of it. I would spit a score of Haths, as these figs are spit on this golden skewer, before I would relinquish a hair of your head to him, or to any man,” and as everything about the great hall began to look gauzy and unreal through the gathering fumes of my confusion, I smiled on that gracious lady, and began to whisper I know not what to her, and whisper and doze, and doze—

I know not how long afterwards it was, whether a minute or an hour, but when I lifted my head suddenly from the lady’s shoulder all the place was in confusion, every one upon their feet, the talk and the drinking ceased, and all eyes turned to the far doorway where the curtains were just dropping again as I looked, while in front of them were standing three men.

These newcomers were utterly unlike any others—a frightful vision of ugly strength amidst the lolling loveliness all about. Low of stature, broad of shoulder, hairy, deep-chested, with sharp, twinkling eyes, set far back under bushy eyebrows, retreating foreheads, and flat noses in faces tanned to a dusky copper hue by exposure to every kind of weather that racks the extreme Martian climate they were so opposite to all about me, so quaint and grim amongst those mild, fair-skinned folk, that at first I thought they were but a disordered creation of my fancy.

I rubbed my eyes and stared and blinked, but no! they were real men, of flesh and blood, and now they had come down with as much stateliness as their bandy legs would admit of, into the full glare of the lights to the centre table where Hath sat. I saw their splendid apparel, the great strings of rudely polished gems hung round their hairy necks and wrists, the cunningly dyed skins of soft-furred animals, green and red and black, wherewith their limbs were swathed, and then I heard some one by me whisper in a frightened tone, “The envoys from over seas.”

Oh,” I thought sleepily to myself, “so these are the ape-men of the western woods, are they? Those who long ago vanquished my white-skinned friends and yearly come to claim their tribute. Jove, what hay they must have made of them! How those peach-skinned girls must have screamed and the downy striplings by them felt their dimpled knees knock together, as the mad flood of barbarians came pouring over from the forest, and long ago stormed their citadels like a stream of red lava, as deadly, as irresistible, as remorseless!” And I lay asprawl upon my arms on the table watching them with the stupid indifference I thought I could so well afford.

Meanwhile Hath was on foot, pale and obsequious like others in the presence of those dread ambassadors, but more collected, I thought. With the deepest bows he welcomed them, handing them drink in a golden State cup, and when they had drunk (I heard the liquor running down their great throats, in the frightened hush, like water in a runnel on a wet day), they wiped their fierce lips upon their furry sleeves, and the leader began reciting the tribute for the year. So much corn, so much wine—and very much it was—so many thousands ells of cloth and webbing, and so much hammered gold, and sinah and lar, precious metal of which I knew nothing as yet; and ever as he went growling through the list in his harsh animal voice, he refreshed his memory with a coloured stick whereon a notch was made for every item, the woodmen not having come as yet, apparently, to the gentler art of written signs and symbols. Longer and longer that caravan of unearned wealth stretched out before my fancy, but at last it was done, or all but done, and the head envoy, passing the painted stick to a man behind, folded his bare, sinewy arms, upon which the red fell bristles as it does upon a gorilla’s, across his ample chest, and, including us all in one general scowl, turned to Hath as he said—

All this for Ar-hap, the wood-king, my master and yours; all this, and the most beautiful woman here tonight at your tables!”

An item,” I smiled stupidly to myself, for indeed I was very sleepy and had no nice perception of things, “which shows his majesty with the two-pronged name is a jolly fellow after all, and knows wealth is incomplete without the crown and priming of all riches. I wonder how the Martian boys will like this postscript,” and chin on hand, and eyes that would hardly stay open, I watched to see what would happen next. There was a little conversation between the prince and the ape-man; then I saw Hath the traitor point in my direction and say—

Since you ask and will be advised, then, mighty sir, there can be no doubt of it, the most beautiful woman here tonight is undoubtedly she who sits yonder by him in blue.”

A very pretty compliment!” I thought, too dull to see what was coming quickly, “and handsome of Hath, all things considered.”

And so I dozed and dozed, and then started, and stared! Was I in my senses? Was I mad, or dreaming? The drunkenness dropped from me like a mantle; with a single, smothered cry I came to myself and saw that it was all too true. The savage envoy had come down the hall at Hath’s vindictive prompting, had lifted my fair girl to her feet, and there, even as I looked, had drawn her, white as death, into the red circle of his arm, and with one hand under her chin had raised her sweet face to within an inch of his, and was staring at her with small, ugly eyes.

Yes,” said the enjoy, more interestedly than he had spoken yet, “it will do; the tribute is accepted—for Ar-hap, my master!” And taking shrinking Heru by the wrist, and laying a heavy hand upon her shoulder, he was about to lead her up the hall.

I was sober enough then. I was on foot in an instant, and before all the glittering company, before those simpering girls and pale Martian youths, who sat mumbling their fingers, too frightened to lift their eyes from off their half-finished dinners, I sprang at the envoy. I struck him with my clenched fist on the side of his bullet head, and he let go of Heru, who slipped insensible from his hairy chest like a white cloud slipping down the slopes of a hill at sunrise, and turned on me with a snort of rage. We stared at each other for a minute, and then I felt the wine fumes roaring in my head; I rushed at him and closed. It was like embracing a mountain bull, and he responded with a hug that made my ribs crackle. For a minute we were locked together like that, swinging here and there, and then getting a hand loose, I belaboured him so unmercifully that he put his head down, and that was what I wanted. I got a new hold of him as we staggered and plunged, roaring the while like the wild beasts we were, the teeth chattering in the Martian heads as they watched us, and then, exerting all my strength, lifted him fairly from his feet and with supreme effort swung him up, shoulder high, and with a mighty heave hurled him across the tables, flung that ambassador, whom no Martian dared look upon, crashing and sprawling through the gold and silver of the feast, whirled him round with such a splendid send that bench and trestle, tankards and flagons, chairs and cloths and candelabras all went down into thundering chaos with him, and the envoy only stayed when his sacred person came to harbour amongst the westral odds and ends, the soiled linen, and dirty platters of our wedding feast.

I remember seeing him there on hands and knees, and then the liquor I had had would not be denied. In vain I drew my hands across my drooping eyelids, in vain I tried to master my knees that knocked together. The spell of the love-drink that Heru, blushing, had held to my lips was on me. Its soft, overwhelming influence rose like a prismatic fog between me and my enemy, everything again became hazy and dreamlike, and feebly calling on Heru, my chin dropped upon my chest, my limbs relaxed, and I slipped down in drowsy oblivion before my rival.