Chapter 8

 

They must have carried me, still under the influence of wine fumes, to the chamber where I slept that night, for when I woke the following morning my surroundings were familiar enough, though a glorious maze of uncertainties rocked to and fro in my mind.

Was it a real feast we had shared in overnight, or only a quaint dream? Was Heru real or only a lovely fancy? And those hairy ruffians of whom a horrible vision danced before my waking eyes, were they fancy too? No, my wrists still ached with the strain of the tussle, the quaint, sad wine taste was still on my lips—it was all real enough, I decided, starting up in bed; and if it was real where was the little princess? What had they done with her? Surely they had not given her to the ape-men—cowards though they were they could not have been cowards enough for that. And as I wondered a keen, bright picture of the hapless maid as I saw her last blossomed before my mind’s eye, the ambassadors on either side holding her wrists, and she shrinking from them in horror while her poor, white face turned to me for rescue in desperate pleading—oh! I must find her at all costs; and leaping from bed I snatched up those trousers without which the best of heroes is nothing, and had hardly got into them when there came the patter of light feet without and a Martian, in a hurry for once, with half a dozen others behind him, swept aside the curtains of my doorway.

They peeped and peered all about the room, then one said, “Is Princess Heru with you, sir?”

No,” I answered roughly. “Saints alive, man, do you think I would have you tumbling in here over each other’s heels if she were?”

Then it must indeed have been Heru,” he said, speaking in an awed voice to his fellows, “whom we saw carried down to the harbour at daybreak by yonder woodmen,” and the pink upon their pretty cheeks faded to nothing at the suggestion.

What!” I roared, “Heru taken from the palace by a handful of men and none of you infernal rascals—none of you white-livered abortions lifted a hand to save her—curse on you a thousand times. Out of my way, you churls!” And snatching up coat and hat and sword I rushed furiously down the long, marble stairs just as the short Martian night was giving place to lavender-coloured light of morning. I found my way somehow down the deserted corridors where the air was heavy with aromatic vapours; I flew by curtained niches and chambers where amongst mounds of half-withered flowers the Martian lovers were slowly waking. Down into the banquethall I sped, and there in the twilight was the litter of the feast still about—gold cups and silver, broken bread and meat, the convolvulus flowers all turning their pallid faces to the rosy daylight, making pools of brightness between the shadows. Amongst the litter little sapphire-coloured finches were feeding, twittering merrily to themselves as they hopped about, and here and there down the long tables lay asprawl a belated reveller, his empty oblivion-phial before him, his curly head upon his arms, dreaming perhaps of last night’s feast and a neglected bride dozing dispassionate in some distant chamber. But Heru was not there and little I cared for twittering finches or sighing damsels. With hasty feet I rushed down the hall out into the cool, sweet air of the planet morning.

There I met one whom I knew, and he told me he had been among the crowd and had heard the woodmen had gone no farther than the river gate, that Heru was with them beyond a doubt. I would not listen to more. “Good!” I shouted. “Get me a horse and just a handful of your sleek kindred and we will pull the prize from the bear’s paw even yet! Surely,” I said, turning to a knot of Martian youths who stood listening a few steps away, “surely some of you will come with me at this pinch? The big bullies are very few; the sea runs behind them; the maid in their clutch is worth fighting for; it needs but one good onset, five minutes’ gallantry, and she is ours again. Think how fine it will look to bring her back before yon sleepy fellows have found their weapons. You, there, with the blue tunic! you look a proper fellow, and something of a heart should beat under such gay wrappings, will you come with me?”

But blue-mantle, biting his thumbs, murmured he had not breakfasted yet and edged away behind his companions. Wherever I looked eyes dropped and timid hands fidgeted as their owners backed off from my dangerous enthusiasm. There was obviously no help to be had from them, and meantime the precious moments were flying, so with a disdainful glance I turned on my heels and set off alone as hard as I could go for the harbour.

But it was too late. I rushed through the marketplace where all was silent and deserted; I ran on to the wharves beyond and they were empty save for the litter and embers of the fires Ar-hap’s men had made during their stay; I dashed out to the landing-place, and there at the hythe the last boat-loads of the villains were just embarking, two boatloads of them twenty yards from shore, and another still upon the beach. This latter was careening over as a dusky group of men lifted aboard to a heap of tumbled silks and stuffs in the stern such a sweet piece of insensible merchandise as no man, I at least of all, could mistake. It was Heru herself, and the rogues were ladling her on board like so much sandal-wood or cotton sheeting. I did not wait for more, but out came my sword, and yielding to a reckless impulse, for which perhaps last night’s wine was as much to blame as anything, I sprang down the steps and leapt aboard of the boat just as it was pushed off upon the swift tide. Full of Bersark rage, I cut one brawny copper-coloured thief down, and struck another with my fist between the eyes so that he went headlong into the water, sinking like lead, and deep into the great target of his neighbour’s chest I drove my blade. Had there been a man beside me, had there been but two or three of all those silken triflers, too late come on the terraces above to watch, we might have won. But all alone what could I do? That last red beast turned on my blade, and as he fell dragged me half down with him. I staggered up, and tugging the metal from him turned on the next.

At that moment the cause of all the turmoil, roused by the fighting, came to herself, and sitting up on the piled plunder in the boat stared round for a moment with a childish horror at the barbarians whose prize she was, then at me, then at the dead man at my feet whose blood was welling in a red tide from the wound in his breast. As the full meaning of the scene dawned upon her she started to her feet, looking wonderfully beautiful amongst those dusky forms, and extending her hands to me began to cry in the most piteous way. I sprang forward, and as I did so saw an ape-man clap his hairy paw over her mouth and face—it was like an eclipse of the moon by a red earth-shadow, I thought at the moment—and drag her roughly back, but that was about the last I remembered. As I turned to hit him standing on the slippery thwart, another rogue crept up behind and let drive with a club he had in hand. The cudgel caught me sideways on the head, a glancing shot. I can recall a blaze of light, a strange medley of sounds in my ears, and then, clutching at a pile of stuffs as I fell, a tall bower of spray rising on either hand, and the cool shock of the blue sea as I plunged headlong in—but nothing after that!

How long after I know not, but presently a tissue of daylight crept into my eyes, and I awoke again. It was better than nothing perhaps, yet it was a poor awakening. The big sun lay low down, and the day was all but done; so much I guessed as I rocked in that light with an undulating movement, and then as my senses returned more fully, recognised with a start of wonder that I was still in the water, floating on a swift current into the unknown on an air-filled pile of silken stuffs which had been pulled down with me from the boat when I got my ganging from yonder rascal’s mace. It was a wet couch, sodden and chilly, but as the freshening evening wind blew on my face and the darkening water lapped against my forehead I revived more fully.

Where had we come to? I turned an aching neck, and all along on both sides seemed to stretch steep, straight coasts about a mile or so apart, in the shadow of the setting sun black as ebony. Between the two the hampered water ran quickly, with, away on the right, some shallow sandy spits and islands covered with dwarf bushes—chilly, inhospitable-looking places they seemed as I turned my eyes upon them; but he who rides helpless down an evening tide stands out for no great niceties of landing-place; could I but reach them they would make at least a drier bed than this of mine, and at that thought, turning over, I found all my muscles as stiff as iron, the sinews of my neck and forearms a mass of agonies and no more fit to swim me to those reedy swamps, which now, as pain and hunger began to tell, seemed to wear the aspects of paradise.

With a groan I dropped back upon my raft and watched the islands slipping by, while over my feet the southern sky darkened to purple. There was no help there, but glancing round away on the left and a few furlongs from me, I noticed on the surface of the water two converging strands of brightness, an angle the point of which seemed to be coming towards me. Nearer it came and nearer, right across my road, until I could see a black dot at the point, a head presently developed, then as we approached the ears and antlers of a swimming stag. It was a huge beast as it loomed up against the glow, bigger than any mortal stag ever was—the kind of fellow-traveller no one would willingly accost, but even if I had wished to get out of its path I had no power to do so.

Closer and closer we came, one of us drifting helplessly, and the other swimming strongly for the islands. When we were about a furlong apart the great beast seemed to change its course, mayhap it took the wreckage on which I floated for an outlying shoal, something on which it could rest a space in that long swim. Be this as it may, the beast came hurtling down on me lip deep in the waves, a mighty brown head with pricked ears that flicked the water from them now and then, small bright eyes set far back, and wide palmated antlers on a mighty forehead, like the dead branches of a tree. What that Martian mountain elk had hoped for can only be guessed, what he met with was a tangle of floating finery carrying a numbed traveller on it, and with a snort of disappointment he turned again.

It was a poor chance, but better than nothing, and as he turned I tried to throw a strand of silk I had unwound from the sodden mass over his branching tines. Quick as thought the beast twisted his head aside and tossed his antlers so that the try was fruitless. But was I to lose my only chance of shore? With all my strength I hurled myself upon him, missing my clutch again by a hair’s-breadth and going headlong into the salt furrow his chest was turning up. Happily I kept hold of the web, for the great elk then turned back, passing between me and the ruck of stuff and getting thereby the silk under his chin, and as I came gasping to the top once more round came that dainty wreckage over his back, and I clutched it, and sooner than it takes to tell I was towing to the shore as perhaps no one was ever towed before.

The big beast dragged the ruck like withered weed behind him, bellowing all the time with a voice which made the hills echo all round; and then, when he got his feet upon the shallows, rose dripping and mountainous, a very cliff of black hide and limb against the night shine, and with a single sweep of his antlers tore the webbing from me, who lay prone and breathless in the mud, and, thinking it was his enemy, hurled the limp bundle on the beach, and then, having pounded it with his cloven feet into formless shreds, bellowed again victoriously and went off into the darkness of the forests.