Chapter 9

 

I landed, stiff enough as you will guess, but pleased to be on shore again. It was a melancholy neighbourhood of low islands, overgrown with rank grass and bushes, salt water encircling them, and inside sandy dunes and hummocks with shallow pools, gleaming ghostly in the retreating daylight, while beyond these rose the black bosses of what looked like a forest. Thither I made my way, plunging uncomfortably through shallows, and tripping over blackened branches which, lying just below the surface, quivered like snakes as the evening breeze ruffled each surface, until the ground hardened under foot, and presently I was standing, hungry and faint but safe, on dry land again.

The forest was so close to the sea, one could not advance without entering it, and once within its dark arcades every way looked equally gloomy and hopeless. I struggled through tangles night made more and more impenetrable each minute, until presently I could go no further, and where a dense canopy of trees overhead gave out for a minute on the edge of a swampy hollow, I determined to wait for daylight.

Never was there a more wet or weary traveller, or one more desperately lonely than he who wrapped himself up in the miserable insufficiency of his wet rags, and without fire or supper crept amongst the exposed roots of a tree growing out of a bank, and prepared to hope grimly for morning.

Round and round meanwhile was drawn the close screen of night, till the clearing in front was blotted out, and only the tree-tops, black as rugged hills one behind the other, stood out against the heavy purple of the circlet of sky above. As the evening deepened the quaintest noises began on every hand—noises so strange and bewildering that as I cowered down with my teeth chattering, and stared hard into the impenetrable, they could be likened to nothing but the crying of all the souls of dead things since the beginning. Never was there such an infernal chorus as that which played up the Martian stars. Down there in front, where hummock grass was growing, some beast squeaked continuously, till I shouted at him, then he stopped a minute, and began again in entirely another note. Away on the hills two rival monsters were calling to each other in tones so hollow they seemed as I listened to penetrate through me, and echo out of my heart again. Far overhead, gigantic bats were flitting, the shadow of their wings dimming a dozen universes at once, and crying to each other in shrill tones that rent the air like tearing silk.

As I listened to those vampires discussing their infernal loves under the stars, from a branch right overhead broke such a deathly howl from the throat of a wandering forest cat that everything else was hushed for a moment. All about a myriad insects were making night giddy with their ghostly fires, while underground and from the labyrinths of matted roots came quaint sounds of rustling snakes and forest pigs, and all the lesser things that dig and scratch and growl.

Yet I was desperately sleepy, my sword hung heavy as lead at my side, my eyelids drooped, and so at last I dozed uneasily for an hour or two. Then, all on a sudden, I came wide awake with a shock. The night was quieter now; away in the forest depth strange noises still arose, but close at hand was a strange hush, like the hush of expectation, and, listening wonderingly, I was aware of slow, heavy footsteps coming up from the river, now two or three steps together, then a pause, then another step or two, and as I bent towards the approaching thing, staring into the darkness, my strained senses were conscious of another approach, as like as could be, coming from behind me. On they came, making the very ground quake with their weight, till I judged that both were about on the edge of the clearing, two vast rat-like shadows, but as big as elephants, and bringing a most intolerable smell of sour slime with them. There, on the edge of the amphitheatre, each for the first time appeared to become aware of the other’s presence—the footsteps stopped dead. I could hear the water dripping from the fur of those giant brutes amongst the shadows and the deep breathing of the one nearest me, a scanty ten paces off, but not another sound in the stillness.

Minute after minute passed, yet neither moved. A half-hour grew to a full hour, and that hour lengthened amid the keenest tension till my ears ached with listening, and my eyes were sore with straining into the blackness. At last I began to wonder whether those earth-shaking beasts had not been an evil dream, and was just venturing to stretch out a cramped leg, and rally myself upon my cowardice, when, without warning, at my elbow rose the most ear-piercing scream of rage that ever came from a living throat. There was a sweeping rush in the darkness which I could feel but not see, and with a shock the two gladiators met in the midst of the arena. Over and over they went screaming and struggling, and slipping and plunging. I could hear them tearing at each other, and the sharp cries of pain, first one and then another gave as claw or tooth got home, and all the time, though the ground was quaking under their struggles and the air full of horrible uproar, not a thing was to be seen. I did not even know what manner of beasts they were who rocked and rolled and tore at each other’s throats, but I heard their teeth snapping, and their fierce breath in the pauses of the struggle, and could but wait in a huddle amongst the roots until it was over. To and fro they went, now at the far side of the dark clearing, now so close that hot drops of blood from their jaws fell on my face like rain in the darkness. It seemed as though the fight would never end, but presently there was more of worrying in it and less of snapping; it was clear one or the other had had enough and as I marked this those black shadows came gasping and struggling towards me. There was a sudden sharp cry, a desperate final tussle—before which strong trees snapped and bushes were flattened out like grass, not twenty yards away—and then for a minute all was silent.

One of them had killed, and as I sat rooted to the spot I was forced to listen while his enemy tore him up and ate him. Many a banquet have I been at, but never an uglier one than that. I sat in the darkness while the unknown thing at my feet ripped the flesh from his half-dead rival in strips, and across the damp night wind came the reek of that abominable feast—the reek of blood and spilt entrails—until I turned away my face in loathing, and was nearly starting to my feet to venture a rush into the forest shadows. But I was spellbound, and remained listening to the heavy munch of blood-stained jaws until presently I was aware other and lesser feasters were coming. There was a twinkle of hungry eyes all about the limits of the area, the shine of green points of envious fire that circled round in decreasing orbits, as the little foxes and jackals came crowding in. One fellow took me for a rock, so still I sat, putting his hot, soft paws upon my knee for a space, and others passed me so near I could all but touch them.

The big beast had taken himself off by this time, and there must have been several hundreds of these newcomers. A merry time they had of it; the whole place was full of the green, hurrying eyes, and amidst the snap of teeth and yapping and quarrelling I could hear the flesh being torn from the red bones in every direction. One wolf-like individual brought a mass of hot liver to eat between my feet, but I gave him a kick, and sent him away much to his surprise. Gradually, however, the sound of this unholy feast died away, and, though you may hardly believe it, I fell off into a doze. It was not sleep, but it served the purpose, and when in an hour or two a draught of cool air roused me, I awoke, feeling more myself again.

Slowly morning came, and the black wall of forest around became full of purple interstices as the east brightened. Those glimmers of light between bough and trunk turned to yellow and red, the day-shine presently stretched like a canopy from point to point of the treetops on either side of my sleeping-place, and I arose.

All my limbs were stiff with cold, my veins emptied by hunger and wounds, and for a space I had not even strength to move. But a little rubbing softened my cramped muscles presently and limping painfully down to the place of combat, I surveyed the traces of that midnight fight. I will not dwell upon it. It was ugly and grim; the trampled grass, the giant footmarks, each enringing its pool of curdled blood; the broken bushes, the grooved mud-slides where the unknown brutes had slid in deadly embrace; the hollows, the splintered boughs, their ragged points tufted with skin and hair—all was sickening to me. Yet so hungry was I that when I turned towards the odious remnants of the vanquished—a shapeless mass of abomination—my thoughts flew at once to breakfasting! I went down and inspected the victim cautiously—a huge rat-like beast as far as might be judged from the bare uprising ribs—all that was left of him looking like the framework of a schooner yacht. His heart lay amongst the offal, and my knife came out to cut a meal from it, but I could not do it. Three times I essayed the task, hunger and disgust contending for mastery; three times turned back in loathing. At last I could stand the sight no more, and, slamming the knife up again, turned on my heels, and fairly ran for fresh air and the shore, where the sea was beginning to glimmer in the light a few score yards through the forest stems. There, once more out on the open, on a pebbly beach, I stripped, spreading my things out to dry on the stones, and laying myself down with the lapping of the waves in my ears, and the first yellow sunshine thawing my limbs, tried to piece together the hurrying events of the last few days.

What were my gay Martians doing? Lazy dogs to let me, a stranger, be the only one to draw sword in defence of their own princess! Where was poor Heru, that sweet maiden wife? The thought of her in the hands of the ape-men was odious. And yet was I not mad to try to rescue, or even to follow her alone? If by any chance I could get off this beast-haunted place and catch up with the ravishers, what had I to look for from them except speedy extinction, and that likely enough by the most painful process they were acquainted with?

The other alternative of going back empty handed was terribly ignominious. I had lectured the amiable young manhood of Seth so soundly on the subject of gallantry, and set them such a good example on two occasions, that it would be bathos to saunter back, hands in pockets, and confess I knew nothing of the lady’s fate and had been daunted by the first night alone in the forest. Besides, how dull it would be in that beautiful, tumble-down old city without Heru, with no expectation day by day of seeing her sylph-like form and hearing the merry tinkle of her fairy laughter as she scoffed at the unknown learning collected by her ancestors in a thousand laborious years. No! I would go on for certain. I was young, in love, and angry, and before those qualifications difficulties became light.

Meanwhile, the first essential was breakfast of some kind. I arose, stretched, put on my half-dried clothes, and mounting a low hummock on the forest edge looked around. The sun was riding up finely into the sky, and the sea to the eastward shone for leagues and leagues in the loveliest azure. Where it rippled on my own beach and those of the low islands noted over night, a wonderful fire of blue and red played on the sands as though the broken water were full of living gems. The sky was full of strange gulls with long, forked tails, and a lovely little flying lizard with transparent wings of the palest green—like those of a grasshopper—was flitting about picking up insect stragglers.

All this was very charming, but what I kept saying to myself was “Streaky rashers and hot coffee: rashers and coffee and rolls,” and, indeed, had the gates of Paradise themselves opened at that moment I fear my first look down the celestial streets within would have been for a restaurant. They did not, and I was just turning away disconsolate when my eye caught, ascending from behind the next bluff down the beach, a thin strand of smoke rising into the morning air.

It was nothing so much in itself—a thin spiral creeping upwards mast-high, then flattening out into a mushroom head—but it meant everything to me. Where there was fire there must be humanity, and where there was humanity—ay, to the very outlayers of the universe—there must be breakfast. It was a splendid thought; I rushed down the hillock and went gaily for that blue thread amongst the reeds. It was not two hundred yards away, and soon below me was a tiny bay with bluest water frilling a silver beach, and in the midst of it a fire on a hearth dancing round a pot that simmered gloriously. But of an owner there was nothing to be seen. I peered here and there on the shore, but nothing moved, while out to sea the water was shining like molten metal with not a dot upon it!—what did it matter? I laughed as, pleased and hungry, I slipped down the bank and strode across the sands; it pleased Fate to play bandy with me, and if it sent me supperless to bed, why, here was restitution in the way of breakfast. I took up a morsel of the stuff in the kettle on a handy stick and found it good—indeed, I knew it at once as a very dainty mess made from the roots of a herb the Martians greatly liked; An had piled my platter with it when we supped that night in the market-place of Seth, and the sweet white stuff had melted into my corporal essence, it seemed, without any gross intermediate process of digestion. And here I was again, hungry, sniffing the fragrant breath of a full meal and not a soul in sight—I should have been a fool not to have eaten. So thinking, down I sat, taking the pot from its place, and when it was a little cool plunging my hands into it and feasting with as good an appetite as ever a man had before.

It was gloriously ambrosial, and deeper and deeper I went, with the tall stalk of the smoke in front growing from the hearth-stones like some strange new plant, the pleasant sunshine on my back, and never a thought for anything but the task in hand. Deeper and deeper, oblivious of all else, until to get the very last drops I lifted the pipkin up and putting back my head drank in that fashion.

It was only when with a sigh of pleasure I lowered it slowly again that over the rim as it sank there dawned upon me the vision of a Martian standing by an empty canoe on the edge of the water and regarding me with calm amazement. I was, in fact, so astonished that for a minute the empty pot stood still before my face, and over its edge we stared at each other in mute surprise, then with all the dignity that might be I laid the vessel down between my feet and waited for the newcomer to speak. She was a girl by her yellow garb, a fisherwoman, it seemed, for in the prow of her craft was piled a net upon which the scales of fishes were twinkling—a Martian, obviously, but something more robust than most of them, a savour of honest work about her sunburnt face which my pallid friends away yonder were lacking in, and when we had stared at each other for a few moments in silence she came forward a step or two and said without a trace of fear or shyness, “Are you a spirit, sir?

Why,” I answered, “about as much, no more and no less, than most of us.”

Aye,” she said. “I thought you were, for none but spirits live here upon this island; are you for good or evil?”

Far better for the breakfast of which I fear I have robbed you, but wandering along the shore and finding this pot boiling with no owner, I ventured to sample it, and it was so good my appetite got the better of manners.”

The girl bowed, and standing at a respectful distance asked if I would like some fish as well; she had some, but not many, and if I would eat she would cook them for me in a minute—it was not often, she added lightly, she had met one of my kind before. In fact, it was obvious that simple person did actually take me for a being of another world, and was it for me to say she was wrong? So adopting a dignity worthy of my reputation I nodded gravely to her offer. She fetched from the boat four little fishes of the daintiest kind imaginable. They were each about as big as a hand and pale blue when you looked down upon them, but so clear against the light that every bone and vein in their bodies could be traced. These were wrapped just as they were in a broad, green leaf and then the Martian, taking a pointed stick, made a hollow in the white ashes, laid them in side by side, and drew the hot dust over again.

While they cooked we chatted as though the acquaintance were the most casual thing in the world, and I found it was indeed an island we were on and not the mainland, as I had hoped at first. Seth, she told me, was far away to the eastward, and if the woodmen had gone by in their ships they would have passed round to the north-west of where we were.

I spent an hour or two with that amiable individual, and, it is to be hoped, sustained the character of a spiritual visitant with considerable dignity. In one particular at least, that, namely, of appetite, I did honour to my supposed source, and as my entertainer would not hear of payment in material kind, all I could do was to show her some conjuring tricks, which greatly increased her belief in my supernatural origin, and to teach her some new hitches and knots, using her fishing-line as a means of illustration, a demonstration which called from her the natural observation that we must be good sailors “up aloft” since we knew so much about cordage, then we parted.

She had seen nothing of the woodmen, though she had heard they had been to Seth and thought, from some niceties of geographical calculation which I could not follow, they would have crossed to the north, as just stated, of her island. There she told me, with much surprise at my desire for the information, how I might, by following the forest track to the westward coast, make my way to a fishing village, where they would give me a canoe and direct me, since such was my extraordinary wish, to the place where, if anywhere, the wild men had touched on their way home.

She filled my wallet with dried honey-cakes and my mouth with sugar plums from her little store, then down on her knees went that poor waif of a worn-out civilisation and kissed my hands in humble farewell, and I, blushing to be so saluted, and after all but a sailor, got her by the rosy fingers and lifted her up shoulder high, and getting one hand under her chin and the other behind her head kissed her twice upon her pretty cheeks; and so, I say, we parted.