A Voyage to Arcturus/Chapter 8
Maskull awoke before the others. He got up, stretched himself, and walked out into the sunlight. Branchspell was already declining. He climbed to the top of the crater edge and looked away toward Ifdawn. The afterglow of Alppain had by now completely disappeared. The mountains stood up wild and grand.
They impressed him like a simple musical theme, the notes of which are widely separated in the scale; a spirit of rashness, daring, and adventure seemed to call to him from them. It was at that moment that the determination flashed into his heart to walk to the Marest and explore its dangers.
He returned to the cavern to say good-by to his hosts.
Joiwind looked at him with her brave and honest eyes. "Is this selfishness, Maskull?" she asked, "or are you drawn by something stronger than yourself?"
"We must be reasonable," he answered, smiling. "I can't settle down in Poolingdred before I have found out something about this surprising new planet of yours. Remember what a long way I have come.... But very likely I shall come back here."
"Will you make me a promise?"
Maskull hesitated. "Ask nothing difficult, for I hardly know my powers yet."
"It is not hard, and I wish it. Promise this—never to raise your hand against a living creature, either to strike, pluck, or eat, without first recollecting its mother, who suffered for it."
"Perhaps I won't promise that," said Maskull slowly, "but I'll undertake something more tangible. I will never lift my hand against a living creature without first recollecting you, Joiwind."
She turned a little pale. "Now if Panawe knew that Panawe existed, he might be jealous."
Panawe put his hand on her gently. "You would not talk like that in Shaping's presence," he said.
"No. Forgive me! I'm not quite myself. Perhaps it is Maskull's blood in my veins.... Now let us bid him adieu. Let us pray that he will do only honourable deeds, wherever he may be."
"I'll set Maskull on his way," said Panawe.
"There's no need," replied Maskull. "The way is plain."
"But talking shortens the road."
Maskull turned to go.
Joiwind pulled him around toward her softly. "You won't think badly of other women on my account?"
"You are a blessed spirit," answered he.
She trod quietly to the inner extremity of the cave and stood there thinking. Panawe and Maskull emerged into the open air. Halfway down the cliff face a little spring was encountered. Its water was colourless, transparent, but gaseous. As soon as Maskull had satisfied his thirst he felt himself different. His surroundings were so real to him in their vividness and colour, so unreal in their phantom-like mystery, that he scrambled downhill like one in a winter's dream.
When they reached the plain he saw in front of them an interminable forest of tall trees, the shapes of which were extraordinarily foreign looking. The leaves were crystalline and, looking upward, it was as if he were gazing through a roof of glass. The moment they got underneath the trees the light rays of the sun continued to come through—white, savage, and blazing—but they were gelded of heat. Then it was not hard to imagine that they were wandering through cool, bright elfin glades.
Through the forest, beginning at their very feet an avenue, perfectly straight and not very wide, went forward as far as the eye could see.
Maskull wanted to talk to his travelling companion, but was somehow unable to find words. Panawe glanced at him with an inscrutable smile—stern, yet enchanting and half feminine. He then broke the silence, but, strangely enough, Maskull could not make out whether he was singing or speaking. From his lips issued a slow musical recitative, exactly like a bewitching adagio from a low toned stringed instrument—but there was a difference. Instead of the repetition and variation of one or two short themes, as in music, Panawe's theme was prolonged—it never came to an end, but rather resembled a conversation in rhythm and melody. And, at the same time, it was no recitative, for it was not declamatory. It was a long, quiet stream of lovely emotion.
Maskull listened entranced, yet agitated. The song, if it might be termed song, seemed to be always just on the point of becoming clear and intelligible—not with the intelligibility of words, but in the way one sympathises with another's moods and feelings; and Maskull felt that something important was about to be uttered, which would explain all that had gone before. But it was invariably postponed, he never understood—and yet somehow he did understand.
Late in the afternoon they came to a clearing, and there Panawe ceased his recitative. He slowed his pace and stopped, in the fashion of a man who wishes to convey that he intends to go no farther.
"What is the name of this country?" asked Maskull.
"It is the Lusion Plain."
"Was that music in the nature of a temptation—do you wish me not to go on?"
"Your work lies before you, and not behind you."
"What was it, then? What work do you allude to?"
"It must have seemed like something to you, Maskull."
"It seemed like Shaping music to me."
The instant he had absently uttered these words, Maskull wondered why he had done so, as they now appeared meaningless to him.
Panawe, however, showed no surprise. "Shaping you will find everywhere."
"Am I dreaming, or awake?"
"You are awake."
Maskull fell into deep thought. "So be it," he said, rousing himself. "Now I will go on. But where must I sleep tonight?"
"You will reach a broad river. On that you can travel to the foot of the Marest tomorrow; but tonight you had better sleep where the forest and river meet."
"Adieu, then, Panawe! But do you wish to say anything more to me?"
"Only this, Maskull—wherever you go, help to make the world beautiful, and not ugly."
"That's more than any of us can undertake. I am a simple man, and have no ambitions in the way of beautifying life—But tell Joiwind I will try to keep myself pure."
They parted rather coldly. Maskull stood erect where they had stopped, and watched Panawe out of sight. He sighed more than once.
He became aware that something was about to happen. The air was breathless. The late-afternoon sunshine, unobstructed, wrapped his frame in voluptuous heat. A solitary cloud, immensely high, raced through the sky overhead.
A single trumpet note sounded in the far distance from somewhere behind him. It gave him an impression of being several miles away at first; but then it slowly swelled, and came nearer and nearer at the same time that it increased in volume. Still the same note sounded, but now it was as if blown by a giant trumpeter immediately over his head. Then it gradually diminished in force, and travelled away in front of him. It ended very faintly and distantly.
He felt himself alone with Nature. A sacred stillness came over his heart. Past and future were forgotten. The forest, the sun, the day did not exist for him. He was unconscious of himself—he had no thoughts and no feelings. Yet never had Life had such an altitude for him.
A man stood, with crossed arms, right in his path. He was so clothed that his limbs were exposed, while his body was covered. He was young rather than old. Maskull observed that his countenance possessed none of the special organs of Tormance, to which he had not even yet become reconciled. He was smooth-faced. His whole person seemed to radiate an excess of life, like the trembling of air on a hot day. His eyes had such force that Maskull could not meet them.
He addressed Maskull by name, in an extraordinary voice. It had a double tone. The primary one sounded far away; the second was an undertone, like a sympathetic tanging string.
Maskull felt a rising joy, as he continued standing in the presence of this individual. He believed that something good was happening to him. He found it physically difficult to bring any words out. "Why do you stop me?"
"Maskull, look well at me. Who am I?"
"I think you are Shaping."
"I am Surtur."
Maskull again attempted to meet his eyes, but felt as if he were being stabbed.
"You know that this is my world. Why do you think I have brought you here? I wish you to serve me."
Maskull could no longer speak.
"Those who joke at my world," continued the vision, "those who make a mock of its stern, eternal rhythm, its beauty and sublimity, which are not skin-deep, but proceed from fathomless roots—they shall not escape."
"I do not mock it."
"Ask me your questions, and I will answer them."
"I have nothing."
"It is necessary for you to serve me, Maskull. Do you not understand? You are my servant and helper."
"I shall not fail."
"This is for my sake, and not for yours."
These last words had no sooner left Surtur's mouth than Maskull saw him spring suddenly upward and outward. Looking up at the vault of the sky, he saw the whole expanse of vision filled by Surtur's form—not as a concrete man, but as a vast, concave cloud image, looking down and frowning at him. Then the spectacle vanished, as a light goes out.
Maskull stood inactive, with a thumping heart. Now he again heard the solitary trumpet note. The sound began this time faintly in the far distance in front of him, travelled slowly toward him with regularly increasing intensity, passed overhead at its loudest, and then grew more and more quiet, wonderful, and solemn, as it fell away in the rear, until the note was merged in the deathlike silence of the forest. It appeared to Maskull like the closing of a marvellous and important chapter.
Simultaneously with the fading away of the sound, the heavens seemed to open up with the rapidity of lightning into a blue vault of immeasurable height. He breathed a great breath, stretched all his limbs, and looked around him with a slow smile.
After a while he resumed his journey. His brain was all dark and confused, but one idea was already beginning to stand out from the rest—huge, shapeless, and grand, like the growing image in the soul of a creative artist: the staggering thought that he was a man of destiny.
The more he reflected upon all that had occurred since his arrival in this new world—and even before leaving Earth—the clearer and more indisputable it became, that he could not be here for his own purposes, but must be here for an end. But what that end was, he could not imagine.
Through the forest he saw Branchspell at last sinking in the west. It looked a stupendous ball of red fire—now he could realise at his ease what a sun it was! The avenue took an abrupt turn to the left and began to descend steeply.
A wide, rolling river of clear and dark water was visible in front of him, no great way off. It flowed from north to south. The forest path led him straight to its banks. Maskull stood there, and regarded the lapping, gurgling waters pensively. On the opposite bank, the forest continued. Miles to the south, Poolingdred could just be distinguished. On the northern skyline the Ifdawn Mountains loomed up—high, wild, beautiful, and dangerous. They were not a dozen miles away.
Like the first mutterings of a thunderstorm, the first faint breaths of cool wind, Maskull felt the stirrings of passion in his heart. In spite of his bodily fatigue, he wished to test his strength against something. This craving he identified with the crags of the Marest. They seemed to have the same magical attraction for his will as the lodestone for iron. He kept biting his nails, as he turned his eyes in that direction—wondering if it would not be possible to conquer the heights that evening. But when he glanced back again at Poolingdred, he remembered Joiwind and Panawe, and grew more tranquil. He decided to make his bed at this spot, and to set off as soon after daybreak as he should awake.
He drank at the river, washed himself, and lay down on the bank to sleep. By this time, so far had his idea progressed, that he cared nothing for the possible dangers of the night—he confided in his star.
Branchspell set, the day faded, night with its terrible weight came on, and through it all Maskull slept. Long before midnight, however, he was awakened by a crimson glow in the sky. He opened his eyes, and wondered where he was. He felt heaviness and pain. The red glow was a terrestrial phenomenon; it came from among the trees. He got up and went toward the source of the light.
Away from the river, not a hundred feet off, he nearly stumbled across the form of a sleeping woman. The object which emitted the crimson rays was lying on the ground, several yards away from her. It was like a small jewel, throwing off sparks of red light. He barely threw a glance at that, however.
The woman was clothed in the large skin of an animal. She had big, smooth, shapely limbs, rather muscular than fat. Her magn was not a thin tentacle, but a third arm, terminating in a hand. Her face, which was upturned, was wild, powerful, and exceedingly handsome. But he saw with surprise that in place of a breve on her forehead, she possessed another eye. All three were closed. The colour of her skin in the crimson glow he could not distinguish.
He touched her gently with his hand. She awoke calmly and looked up at him without stirring a muscle. All three eyes stared at him; but the two lower ones were dull and vacant—mere carriers of vision. The middle, upper one alone expressed her inner nature. Its haughty, unflinching glare had yet something seductive and alluring in it. Maskull felt a challenge in that look of lordly, feminine will, and his manner instinctively stiffened.
She sat up.
"Can you speak my language?" he asked. "I wouldn't put such a question, but others have been able to."
"Why should you imagine that I can't read your mind? Is it so extremely complex?"
She spoke in a rich, lingering, musical voice, which delighted him to listen to.
"No, but you have no breve."
"Well, but haven't I a sorb, which is better?" And she pointed to the eye on her brow.
"What is your name?"
"And where do you come from?"
These contemptuous replies began to irritate him, and yet the mere sound of her voice was fascinating.
"I am going there tomorrow," he remarked.
She laughed, as if against her will, but made no comment.
"My name is Maskull," he went on. "I am a stranger—from another world."
"So I should judge, from your absurd appearance."
"Perhaps it would be as well to say at once," said Maskull bluntly, "are we, or are we not, to be friends?"
She yawned and stretched her arms, without rising. "Why should we be friends? If I thought you were a man, I might accept you as a lover."
"You must look elsewhere for that."
"So be it, Maskull! Now go away, and leave me in peace."
She dropped her head again to the ground, but did not at once close her eyes.
"What are you doing here?" he interrogated.
"Oh, we Ifdawn folk occasionally come here to sleep, for there often enough it is a night for us which has no next morning."
"Being such a terrible place, and seeing that I am a total stranger, it would be merely courteous if you were to warn me what I have to expect in the way of dangers."
"I am perfectly and utterly indifferent to what becomes of you," retorted Oceaxe.
"Are you returning in the morning?" persisted Maskull.
"If I wish."
"Then we will go together."
She got up again on her elbow. "Instead of making plans for other people, I would do a very necessary thing."
"Pray, tell me."
"Well, there's no reason why I should, but I will. I would try to convert my women's organs into men's organs. It is a man's country."
"Speak more plainly."
"Oh, it's plain enough. If you attempt to pass through Ifdawn without a sorb, you are simply committing suicide. And that magn too is worse than useless."
"You probably know what you are talking about, Oceaxe. But what do you advise me to do?"
She negligently pointed to the light-emitting stone lying on the ground.
"There is the solution. If you hold that drude to your organs for a good while, perhaps it will start the change, and perhaps nature will do the rest during the night. I promise nothing."
Oceaxe now really turned her back on Maskull.
He considered for a few minutes, and then walked over and to where the stone was lying, and took it in his hand. It was a pebble the size of a hen's egg, radiant with crimson light, as though red-hot, and throwing out a continuous shower of small, blood-red sparks.
Finally deciding that Oceaxe's advice was good, he applied the drude first to his magn, and then to his breve. He experienced a cauterising sensation—a feeling of healing pain.