Chapter 10

 

Off into the forest I went, feeling a boyish elation to be so free nor taking heed or count of the reckless adventure before me. The Martian weather for the moment was lovely and the many-coloured grass lush and soft under foot. Mile after mile I went, heeding the distance lightly, the air was so elastic. Now pressing forward as the main interest of my errand took the upper hand, and remembrance of poor Heru like a crushed white flower in the red grip of those cruel ravishers came upon me, and then pausing to sigh with pleasure or stand agape—forgetful even of her—in wonder of the unknown loveliness about me.

And well might I stare! Everything in that forest was wonderful! There were plants which turned from colour to colour with the varying hours of the day. While others had a growth so swift it was dangerous to sit in their neighbourhood since the long, succulent tendrils clambering from the parent stem would weave you into a helpless tangle while you gazed, fascinated, upon them. There were plants that climbed and walked; sighing plants who called the winged things of the air to them with a noise so like to a girl sobbing that again and again I stopped in the tangled path to listen. There were green bladder-mosses which swam about the surface of the still pools like gigantic frog-broods. There were on the ridges warrior trees burning in the vindictiveness of a long forgotten cause—a blaze of crimson scimitar thorns from root to topmost twig; and down again in the cool hollows were lady-bushes making twilight of the green gloom with their cloudy ivory blossoms and filling the shadows with such a heavy scent that head and heart reeled with fatal pleasure as one pushed aside their branches. Every river-bed was full of mighty reeds, whose stems clattered together when the wind blew like swords on shields, and every now and then a bit of forest was woven together with the ropey stems of giant creepers till no man or beast could have passed save for the paths which constant use had kept open through the mazes.

All day long I wandered on through those wonderful woodlands, and in fact loitered so much over their infinite marvels that when sundown came all too soon there was still undulating forest everywhere, vistas of fairy glades on every hand, peopled with incredible things and echoing with sounds that excited the ears as much as other things fascinated the eyes, but no sign of the sea or my fishing village anywhere.

It did not matter; a little of the Martian leisureliness was getting into my blood: “If not today, why then tomorrow,” as An would have said; and with this for comfort I selected a warm, sandy hollow under the roots of a big tree, made my brief arrangements for the night, ate some honey cakes, and was soon sleeping blissfully.

I woke early next morning, after many hours of interrupted dreams, and having nothing to do till the white haze had lifted and made it possible to start again, rested idly a time on my elbow and watched the sunshine filter into the recesses.

Very pretty it was to see the thick canopy overhead, by star-light so impenetrable, open its chinks and fissures as the searching sun came upon it; to see the pin-hole gaps shine like spangles presently, the spaces broaden into lesser suns, and even the thick leafage brighten and shine down on me with a soft sea-green radiance. The sunward sides of the tree-stems took a glow, and the dew that ran dripping down their mossy sides trickled blood-red to earth. Elsewhere the shadows were still black, and strange things began to move in them—things we in our middle-aged world have never seen the likeness of: beasts half birds, birds half creeping things, and creeping things which it seemed to me passed through lesser creations down to the basest life that crawls without interruption or division.

It was not for me, a sailor, to know much of such things, yet some I could not fail to notice. On one grey branch overhead, jutting from a tree-stem where a patch of velvet moss made in the morning glint a fairy bed, a wonderful flower unfolded. It was a splendid bud, ivory white, cushioned in leaves, and secured to its place by naked white roots that clipped the branch like fingers of a lady’s hand. Even as I looked it opened, a pale white star, and hung pensive and inviting on its mossy cushion. From it came such a ravishing odour that even I, at the further end of the great scale of life, felt my pulses quicken and my eyes brighten with cupidity. I was in the very act of climbing the tree, but before I could move hand or foot two things happened, whether you take my word for them or no.

Firstly, up through a glade in the underwood, attracted by the odour, came an ugly brown bird with a capacious beak and shining claws. He perched near by, and peeped and peered until he made out the flower pining on her virgin stem, whereat off he hopped to her branch and there, with a cynical chuckle, strutted to and fro between her and the main stem like an ill genius guarding a fairy princess.

Surely Heaven would not allow him to tamper with so chaste a bud! My hand reached for a stone to throw at him when happened the second thing. There came a gentle pat upon the woodland floor, and from a tree overhead dropped down another living plant like to the one above yet not exactly similar, a male, my instincts told me, in full solitary blossom like her above, cinctured with leaves, and supported by half a score of thick white roots that worked, as I looked, like the limbs of a crab. In a twinkling that parti-coloured gentleman vegetable near me was off to the stem upon which grew his lady love; running and scrambling, dragging the finery of his tasselled petals behind, it was laughable to watch his eagerness. He got a grip of the tree and up he went, “hand over hand,” root over root. I had just time to note others of his species had dropped here and there upon the ground, and were hurrying with frantic haste to the same destination when he reached the fatal branch, and was straddling victoriously down it, blind to all but love and longing. That ill-omened bird who stood above the maiden-flower let him come within a stalk’s length, so near that the white splendour of his sleeping lady gleamed within arms’ reach, then the great beak was opened, the great claws made a clutch, the gallant’s head was yanked from his neck, and as it went tumbling down the maw of the feathered thing his white legs fell spinning through space, and lay knotting themselves in agony upon the ground for a minute or two before they relaxed and became flaccid in the repose of death. Another and another vegetable suitor made for that fatal tryst, and as each came up the snap of the brown bird’s beak was all their obsequies. At last no more came, and then that Nemesis of claws and quills walked over to the girl-flower, his stomach feathers ruffled with repletion, the green blood of her lovers dripping from his claws, and pulled her golden heart out, tore her white limbs one from the other, and swallowed her piecemeal before my very eyes! Then up in wrath I jumped and yelled at him till the woods echoed, but too late to stay his sacrilege.

By this time the sun was bathing everything in splendour, and turning away from the wonders about me, I set off at best pace along the well-trodden path which led without turning to the west coast village where the canoes were.

It proved far closer than expected. As a matter of fact the forest in this direction grew right down to the water’s edge; the salt-loving trees actually overhanging the waves—one of the pleasantest sights in nature—and thus I came right out on top of the hamlet before there had been an indication of its presence. It occupied two sides of a pretty little bay, the third side being flat land given over to the cultivation of an enormous species of gourd whose characteristic yellow flowers and green, succulent leaves were discernible even at this distance.

I branched off along the edge of the surf and down a dainty little flowery path, noticing meanwhile how the whole bay was filled by hundreds of empty canoes, while scores of others were drawn up on the strand, and then the first thing I chanced upon was a group of people—youthful, of course, with the eternal Martian bloom—and in the splendid simplicity of almost complete nakedness. My first idea was that they were bathing, and fixing my eyes on the tree-tops with great propriety, I gave a warning cough. At that sound instead of getting to cover, or clothes, all started up and stood staring for a time like a herd of startled cattle. It was highly embarrassing; they were right in the path, a round dozen of them, naked and so little ashamed that when I edged away modestly they began to run after me. And the farther they came forward the more I retired, till we were playing a kind of game of hide-and-seek round the tree-stems. In the middle of it my heel caught in a root and down I went very hard and very ignominiously, whereon those laughing, light-hearted folk rushed in, and with smiles and jests helped me to my feet.

Was I the traveller who had come from Seth?”

Yes.”

Oh, then that was well. They had heard such a traveller was on the road, and had come a little way down the path, as far as might be without fatigue, to meet him.”

Would I eat with them?” these amiable strangers asked, pushing their soft warm fingers into mine and ringing me round with a circle. “But firstly might they help me out of my clothes? It was hot, and these things were cumbersome.” As to the eating, I was agreeable enough seeing how casual meals had been with me lately, but my clothes, though Heaven knows they were getting horribly ragged and travel-stained, I clung to desperately.

My new friends shrugged their dimpled shoulders and, arguments being tedious, at once squatted round me in the dappled shade of a big tree and produced their stores of never failing provisions. After a pleasant little meal taken thus in the open and with all the simplicity Martians delight in, we got to talking about those yellow canoes which were bobbing about on the blue waters of the bay.

Would you like to see where they are grown?” asked an individual basking by my side.

Grown!” I answered with incredulity. “Built, you mean. Never in my life did I hear of growing boats.”

But then, sir,” observed the girl as she sucked the honey out of the stalk of an azure convolvulus flower and threw the remains at a butterfly that sailed across the sunshine, “you know so little! You have come from afar, from some barbarous and barren district. Here we undoubtedly grow our boats, and though we know the Thither folk and such uncultivated races make their craft by cumbrous methods of flat planks, yet we prefer our own way, for one thing because it saves trouble,” and as she murmured that all-sufficient reason the gentle damsel nodded reflectively.

But one of her companions, more lively for the moment, tickled her with a straw until she roused, and then said, “Let us take the stranger to the boat garden now. The current will drift us round the bay, and we can come back when it turns. If we wait we shall have to row in both directions, or even walk,” and again planetary slothfulness carried the day.

So down to the beach we strolled and launched one of the golden-hued skiffs upon the pretty dancing wavelets just where they ran, lipped with jewelled spray, on the shore, and then only had I a chance to scrutinise their material. I patted that one we were upon inside and out. I noted with a seaman’s admiration its lightness, elasticity, and supreme sleekness, its marvellous buoyancy and fairy-like “lines,” and after some minutes’ consideration it suddenly flashed across me that it was all of gourd rind. And as if to supply confirmation, the flat land we were approaching on the opposite side of the bay was covered by the characteristic verdure of these plants with a touch here and there of splendid yellow blossoms, but all of gigantic proportions.

Ay,” said a Martian damsel lying on the bottom, and taking and kissing my hand as she spoke, in the simple-hearted way of her people, “I see you have guessed how we make our boats. Is it the same in your distant country?”

No, my girl, and what’s more, I am a bit uneasy as to what the fellows on the Carolina will say if they ever hear I went to sea in a hollowed-out pumpkin, and with a young lady—well, dressed as you are—for crew. Even now I cannot imagine how you get your ships so trim and shapely—there is not a seam or a patch anywhere, it looks as if you had run them into a mould.”

That’s just what we have done, sir, and now you will witness the moulds at work, for here we are,” and the little skiff was pulled ashore and the Martians and I jumped out on the shelving beach, hauled our boat up high and dry, and there right over us, like great green umbrellas, spread the fronds of the outmost garden of this strangest of all ship-building yards. Briefly, and not to make this part of my story too long, those gilded boys and girls took me ashore, and chattering like finches in the evening, showed how they planted their gourd seed, nourished the gigantic plants as they grew with brackish water and the burnt ashes; then, when they flowered, mated the male and female blossoms, glorious funnels of golden hue big enough for one to live in; and when the young fruit was of the bigness of an ordinary bolster, how they slipped it into a double mould of open reed-work something like the two halves of a walnut-shell; and how, growing day by day in this, it soon took every curve and line they chose to give it, even the hanging keel below, the strengthened bulwarks, and tall prow-piece. It was so ingenious, yet simple; and I confess I laughed over my first skiff “on the stalk,” and fell to bantering the Martians, asking whether it was a good season for navies, whether their Cunarders were spreading nicely, if they could give me a pinch of barge seed, or a yacht in bud to show to my friends at home.

But those lazy people took the matter seriously enough. They led me down green alleys arched over with huge melon-like leaves; they led me along innumerable byways, making me peep and peer through the chequered sunlight at ocean-growing craft, that had budded twelve months before, already filling their moulds to the last inch of space. They told me that when the growing process was sufficiently advanced, they loosened the casing, and cutting a hole into the interior of each giant fruit, scooped out all its seed, thereby checking more advance, and throwing into the rind strength that would otherwise have gone to reproductiveness. They said each fruit made two vessels, but the upper half was always best and used for long salt-water journeys, the lower piece being but for punting or fishing on their lakes. They cut them in half while still green, scraped out the light remaining pulp when dry, and dragged them down with the minimum of trouble, light as feathers, tenacious as steel plate, and already in the form and fashion of dainty craft from five to twenty feet in length, when the process was completed.

By the time we had explored this strangest of ship-building yards, and I had seen last year’s crop on the stocks being polished and fitted with seats and gear, the sun was going down; and the Martian twilight, owing to the comparative steepness of the little planet’s sides, being brief, we strolled back to the village, and there they gave me harbourage for the night, ambrosial supper, and a deep draught of the wine of Forgetfulness, under the gauzy spell of which the real and unreal melted into the vistas of rosy oblivion, and I slept.