Lieutenant Gulliver Jones: His Vacation/Chapter V
When I woke, feeling as refreshed as though I had been dreaming through a long night, An, seeing me open-eyed, helped me to my feet, and when I had recovered my senses a little, asked if we should go on. I was myself again by this time, so willingly took her hand, and soon came out of the tangle into the open spaces. I must have been under the spell of the Martian wines longer than it seemed, for already it was late in the afternoon, the shadows of trees were lying deep and far-reaching over the motley crowds of people. Out here as the day waned they had developed some sort of method in their sports. In front of us was a broad, grassy course marked off with garlanded finger-posts, and in this space rallies of workfolk were taking part in all manner of games under the eyes of a great concourse of spectators, doing the Martians' pleasures for them as they did their labours. An led me gently on, leaning on my arm heavier, I thought, than she had done in the morning, and ever and anon turning her gazelle-like eyes upon me with a look I could not understand. As we sauntered forward I noticed all about lesser circles where the yellow-girted ones were drawing delighted laughter from good-tempered crowds by tricks of sleight-of-hand, and posturing, or tossing gilded cups and balls as though they were catering, as indeed they were, for outgrown children. Others fluted or sang songs in chorus to the slow clapping of hands, while others were doing I knew not what, sitting silent amongst silent spectators who every now and then burst out laughing for no cause that I could see. But An would not let me stop, and so we pushed on through the crowd till we came to the main enclosures where a dozen slaves had run a race for the amusement of those too lazy to race themselves, and were sitting panting on the grass.
To give them time to get their breath, perhaps, a man stepped out of the crowd dressed in a dark blue tunic, a strange vacuous-looking fellow, and throwing down a sheaf of javelins marched off a dozen paces, then, facing round, called out loudly he would give sixteen suits of "summer cloth" to any one who could prick him with a javelin from the heap.
"Why," I said in amazement, "this is the best of fools--no one could miss from such a distance."
"Ay but," replied my guide, "he is a gifted one, versed in mystics."
I was just going to say a good javelin, shod with iron, was a stronger argument than any mystic I had ever heard of could stand, when out of the crowd stepped a youth, and amid the derisive cheers of his friends chose a reed from the bundle. He poised it in his hand a minute to get the middle, then turned on the living target. Whatever else they might be, these Martians were certainly beautiful as the daytime. Never had I seen such a perfect embodiment of grace and elegance as that boy as he stood there for a moment poised to the throw; the afternoon sunshine warm and strong on his bunched brown hair, a girlish flush of shyness on his handsome face, and the sleek perfection of his limbs, clear cut against the dusky background beyond. And now the javelin was going. Surely the mystic would think better of it at the last moment! No! the initiate held his ground with tight-shut lips and retrospective eyes, and even as I looked the weapon flew upon its errand.
"There goes the soul of a fool!" I exclaimed, and as the words were uttered the spear struck, or seemed to, between the neck and shoulder, but instead of piercing rose high into the air, quivering and flashing, and presently turning over, fell back, and plunged deep into the turf, while a low murmur of indifferent pleasure went round amongst the onlookers.
Thereat An, yawning gently, looked to me and said, "A strong-willed fellow, isn't he, friend?"
I hesitated a minute and then asked, "Was it WILL which turned that shaft?"
She answered with simplicity, "Why, of course--what else?"
By this time another boy had stepped out, and having chosen a javelin, tested it with hand and foot, then retiring a pace or two rushed up to the throwing mark and flung it straight and true into the bared bosom of the man. And as though it had struck a wall of brass, the shaft leapt back falling quivering at the thrower's feet. Another and another tried unsuccessfully, until at last, vexed at their futility, I said, "I have a somewhat scanty wardrobe that would be all the better for that fellow's summer suiting, by your leave I will venture a throw against him."
"It is useless," answered An; "none but one who knows more magic than he, or is especially befriended by the Fates can touch him through the envelope he has put on."
"Still, I think I will try."
"It is hopeless, I would not willingly see you fail," whispered the girl, with a sudden show of friendship.
"And what," I said, bending down, "would you give me if I succeeded?" Whereat An laughed a little uneasily, and, withdrawing her hand from mine, half turned away. So I pushed through the spectators and stepped into the ring. I went straight up to the pile of weapons, and having chosen one went over to the mystic. "Good fellow," I cried out ostentatiously, trying the sharpness of the javelin-point with my finger, "where are all of those sixteen summer suits of yours lying hid?"
"It matters nothing," said the man, as if he were asleep.
"Ay, but by the stars it does, for it will vex the quiet repose of your soul tomorrow if your heirs should swear they could not find them."
"It matters nothing," muttered the will-wrapped visionary.
"It will matter something if I take you at your word. Come, friend Purple-jerkin, will you take the council with your legs and run while there is yet time, or stand up to be thrown at?"
"I stand here immoveable in the confidence of my initiation."
"Then, by thunder, I will initiate you into the mysteries of a javelin-end, and your blood be on your head."
The Martians were all craning their necks in hushed eagerness as I turned to the casting-place, and, poising the javelin, faced the magician. Would he run at the last moment? I half hoped so; for a minute I gave him the chance, then, as he showed no sign of wavering, I drew my hand back, shook the javelin back till it bent like a reed, and hurled it at him.
The Martians' heads turned as though all on one pivot as the spear sped through the air, expecting no doubt to see it recoil as others had done. But it took him full in the centre of his chest, and with a wild wave of arms and a flutter of purple raiment sent him backwards, and down, and over and over in a shapeless heap of limbs and flying raiment, while a low murmur of awed surprise rose from the spectators. They crowded round him in a dense ring, as An came flitting to me with a startled face.
"Oh, stranger," she burst out, "you have surely killed him!" but more astounded I had broken down his guard than grieved at his injury.
"No," I answered smilingly; "a sore chest he may have tomorrow, but dead he is not, for I turned the lance-point back as I spun it, and it was the butt-end I threw at him!"
"It was none the less wonderful; I thought you were a common man, a prince mayhap, come but from over the hills, but now something tells me you are more than that," and she lapsed into thoughtful silence for a time.
Neither of us were wishful to go back amongst those who were raising the bruised magician to his legs, but wandered away instead through the deepening twilight towards the city over meadows whose damp, soft fragrance loaded the air with sleepy pleasure, neither of us saying a word till the dusk deepened and the quick night descended, while we came amongst the gardened houses, the thousand lights of an unreal city rising like a jewelled bank before us, and there An said she would leave me for a time, meeting me again in the palace square later on, "To see Princess Heru read the destinies of the year."
"What!" I exclaimed, "more magic? I have been brought up on more substantial mental stuff than this."
"Nevertheless, I would advise you to come to the square," persisted my companion. "It affects us all, and--who knows? --may affect you more than any."
Therein poor An was unconsciously wearing the cloak of prophesy herself, and, shrugging my shoulders good-humouredly, I kissed her chin, little realising, as I let her fingers slip from mine, that I should see her no more.
Turning back alone, through the city, through ways twinkling with myriad lights as little lamps began to blink out amongst garlands and flower-decked booths on every hand, I walked on, lost in varying thoughts, until, fairly tired and hungry, I found myself outside a stall where many Martians stood eating and drinking to their hearts' content. I was known to none of them, and, forgetting past experience, was looking on rather enviously, when there came a touch upon my arm, and--
"Are you hungry, sir?" asked a bystander.
"Ay," I said, "hungry, good friend, and with all the zest which an empty purse lends to that condition."
"Then here is what you need, sir, even from here the wine smells good, and the fried fruit would make a mouse's eye twinkle. Why do you wait?"
"Why wait? Why, because though the rich man's dinner goes in at his mouth, the poor man must often be content to dine through his nose. I tell you I have nothing to get me a meal with."
The stranger seemed to speculate on this for a time, and then he said, "I cannot fathom your meaning, sir. Buying and selling, gold and money, all these have no meaning to me. Surely the twin blessings of an appetite and food abundant ready and free before you are enough."
"What! free is it--free like the breakfast served out this morning?"
"Why, of course," said the youth, with mild depreciation; "everything here is free. Everything is his who will take it, without exception. What else is the good of a coherent society and a Government if it cannot provide you with so rudimentary a thing as a meal?"
Whereat joyfully I undid my belt, and, without nicely examining the argument, marched into the booth, and there put Martian hospitality to the test, eating and drinking, but this time with growing wisdom, till I was a new man, and then, paying my leaving with a wave of the hand to the yellow-girted one who dispensed the common provender, I sauntered on again, caring little or nothing which way the road went, and soon across the current of my meditations a peal of laughter broke, accompanied by the piping of a flute somewhere close at hand, and the next minute I found myself amid a ring of light-hearted roisterers who were linking hands for a dance to the music a curly-headed fellow was making close by.
They made me join them! One rosey-faced damsel at the hither end of the chain drew up to me, and, without a word, slipped her soft, baby fingers into my hand; on the other side another came with melting eyes, breath like a bed of violets, and banked-up fun puckering her dainty mouth. What could I do but give her a hand as well? The flute began to gurgle anew, like a drinking spout in spring-time, and away we went, faster and faster each minute, the boys and girls swinging themselves in time to the tune, and capering presently till their tender feet were twinkling over the ground in gay confusion. Faster and faster till, as the infection of the dance spread even to the outside groups, I capered too. My word! if they could have seen me that night from the deck of the old Carolina, how they would have laughed--sword swinging, coat-tails flying--faster and faster, round and round we went, till limbs could stand no more; the gasping piper blew himself quite out, and the dance ended as abruptly as it commenced, the dancers melting away to join others or casting themselves panting on the turf.
Certainly these Martian girls were blessed with an ingratiating simplicity. My new friend of the violet-scented breath hung back a little, then after looking at me demurely for a minute or two, like a child that chooses a new playmate, came softly up, and, standing on tiptoe, kissed me on the cheek. It was not unpleasant, so I turned the other, whereon, guessing my meaning, without the smallest hesitation, she reached up again, and pressed her pretty mouth to my bronzed skin a second time. Then, with a little sigh of satisfaction, she ran an arm through mine, saying, "Comrade, from what country have you come? I never saw one quite like you before."
"From what country had I come?" Again the frown dropped down upon my forehead. Was I dreaming--was I mad? Where indeed had I come from? I stared back over my shoulder, and there, as if in answer to my thought--there, where the black tracery of flowering shrubs waved in the soft night wind, over a gap in the crumbling ivory ramparts, the sky was brightening. As I looked into the centre of that glow, a planet, magnified by the wonderful air, came swinging up, pale but splendid, and mapped by soft colours--green, violet, and red. I knew it on the minute, Heaven only knows how, but I knew it, and a desperate thrill of loneliness swept over me, a spasm of comprehension of the horrible void dividing us. Never did yearning babe stretch arms more wistfully to an unattainable mother than I at that moment to my mother earth. All her meanness and prosaicness was forgotten, all her imperfections and shortcomings; it was home, the one tangible thing in the glittering emptiness of the spheres. All my soul went into my eyes, and then I sneezed violently, and turning round, found that sweet damsel whose silky head nestled so friendly on my shoulder was tickling my nose with a feather she had picked up.
Womanlike, she had forgotten all about her first question, and now asked another, "Will you come to supper with me, stranger? 'Tis nearly ready, I think."
"To be able to say no to such an invitation, lady, is the first thing a young man should learn," I answered lightly; but then, seeing there was nothing save the most innocent friendliness in those hazel eyes, I went on, "but that stern rule may admit of variance. Only, as it chances, I have just supped at the public expense. If, instead, you would be a sailor's sweetheart for an hour, and take me to this show of yours--your princess's benefit, or whatever it is--I shall be obliged; my previous guide is hull down over the horizon, and I am clean out of my reckoning in this crowd."
By way of reply, the little lady, light as an elf, took me by the fingertips, and, gleefully skipping forward, piloted me through the mazes of her city until we came out into the great square fronting on the palace, which rose beyond it like a white chalk cliff in the dull light. Not a taper showed anywhere round its circumference, but a mysterious kind of radiance like sea phosphorescence beamed from the palace porch. All was in such deathlike silence that the nails in my "ammunition" boots made an unpleasant clanking as they struck on the marble pavement; yet, by the uncertain starlight, I saw, to my surprise, the whole square was thronged with Martians, all facing towards the porch, as still, graven images, and as voiceless, for once, as though they had indeed been marble. It was strange to see them sitting there in the twilight, waiting for I knew not what, and my friend's voice at my elbow almost startled me as she said, in a whisper, "The princess knows you are in the crowd, and desires you to go up upon the steps near where she will be."
"Who brought her message?" I asked, gazing vaguely round, for none had spoken to us for an hour or more.
"No one," said my companion, gently pushing me up an open way towards the palace steps left clear by the sitting Martians. "It came direct from her to me this minute."
"But how?" I persisted.
"Nay," said the girl, "if we stop to talk like this we shall not be placed before she comes, and thus throw a whole year's knowledge out."
So, bottling my speculations, I allowed myself to be led up the first flight of worn, white steps to where, on the terrace between them and the next flight leading directly to the palace portico, was a flat, having a circle about twenty feet across, inlaid upon the marble with darker coloured blocks. Inside that circle, as I sat down close by it in the twilight, showed another circle, and then a final one in whose inmost middle stood a tall iron tripod and something atop of it covered by a cloth. And all round the outer circle were magic symbols--I started as I recognised the meaning of some of them--within these again the inner circle held what looked like the representations of planets, ending, as I have said, in that dished hollow made by countless dancers' feet, and its solitary tripod. Back again, I glanced towards the square where the great concourse--ten thousand of them, perhaps--were sitting mute and silent in the deepening shadows, then back to the magic circles, till the silence and expectancy of a strange scene began to possess me.
Shadow down below, star-dusted heaven above, and not a figure moving; when suddenly something like a long-drawn sigh came from the lips of the expectant multitude, and I was aware every eye had suddenly turned back to the palace porch, where, as we looked, a figure, wrapped in pale blue robes, appeared and stood for a minute, then stole down the steps with an eagerness in every movement holding us spellbound. I have seen many splendid pageants and many sights, each of which might be the talk of a lifetime, but somehow nothing ever so engrossing, so thrilling, as that ghostly figure in flowing robes stealing across the piazza in starlight and silence--the princess of a broken kingdom, the priestess of a forgotten faith coming to her station to perform a jugglery of which she knew not even the meaning. It was my versatile friend Heru, and with quick, incisive steps, her whole frame ambent for the time with the fervour of her mission, she came swiftly down to within a dozen yards of where I stood. Heru, indeed, but not the same princess as in the morning; an inspired priestess rather, her slim body wrapped in blue and quivering with emotion, her face ashine with Delphic fire, her hair loose, her feet bare, until at last when, as she stood within the limit of the magic circle, her white hands upon her breast, her eyes flashing like planets themselves in the starshine she looked so ghostly and unreal I felt for a minute I was dreaming.
Then began a strange, weird dance amongst the imagery of the rings, over which my earth planet was beginning to throw a haze of light. At first it was hardly more than a walk, a slow procession round the twin circumferences of the centred tripod. But soon it increased to an extraordinary graceful measure, a cadenced step without music or sound that riveted my eyes to the dancer. Presently I saw those mystic, twinkling feet of hers--as the dance became swifter--were performing a measured round amongst the planet signs--spelling out something, I knew not what, with quick, light touch amongst the zodiac figures, dancing out a soundless invocation of some kind as a dumb man might spell a message by touching letters. Quicker and quicker, for minute after minute, grew the dance, swifter and swifter the swing of the light blue drapery as the priestess, with eager face and staring eyes, swung panting round upon her orbit, and redder and redder over the city tops rose the circumference of the earth. It seemed to me all the silent multitude were breathing heavily as we watched that giddy dance, and whatever THEY felt, all my own senses seemed to be winding up upon that revolving figure as thread winds on a spindle.
"When will she stop?" I whispered to my friend under my breath.
"When the earth-star rests in the roof-niche of the temple it is climbing," she answered back.
"On the tripod is a globe of water. In it she will see the destiny of the year, and will tell us. The whiter the water stays, the better for us; it never varies from white. But we must not talk; see! she is stopping."
And as I looked back, the dance was certainly ebbing now with such smoothly decreasing undulations, that every heart began to beat calmer in response. There was a minute or two of such slow cessation, and then to say she stopped were too gross a description. Motion rather died away from her, and the priestess grounded as smoothly as a ship grounds in fine weather on a sandy bank. There she was at last, crouched behind the tripod, one corner of the cloth covering it grasped in her hand, and her eyes fixed on the shining round just poised upon the distant run.
Keenly the girl watched it slide into zenith, then the cloth was snatched from the tripod-top. As it fell it uncovered a beautiful and perfect globe of clear white glass, a foot or so in diameter, and obviously filled with the thinnest, most limpid water imaginable. At first it seemed to me, who stood near to the priestess of Mars, with that beaming sphere directly between us, and the newly risen world, that its smooth and flawless face was absolutely devoid of sign or colouring. Then, as the distant planet became stronger in the magnifying Martian air, or my eyes better accustomed to that sudden nucleus of brilliancy, a delicate and infinitely lovely network of colours came upon it. They were like the radiant prisms that sometimes flush the surface of a bubble more than aught else for a time. But as I watched that mosaic of yellow and purple creep softly to and fro upon the globe it seemed they slowly took form and meaning. Another minute or two and they had certainly congealed into a settled plan, and then, as I stared and wondered, it burst upon me in a minute that I was looking upon a picture, faithful in every detail, of the world I stood on; all its ruddy forests, its sapphire sea, both broad and narrow ones, its white peaked mountains, and unnumbered islands being mapped out with startling clearness for a spell upon that beaming orb.
Then a strange thing happened. Heru, who had been crouching in a tremulous heap by the tripod, rose stealthily and passed her hands a few times across the sphere. Colour and picture vanished at her touch like breath from a mirror. Again all was clear and pellucid.
"Now," said my companion, "now listen! For Heru reads the destiny; the whiter the globe stays the better for us--" and then I felt her hand tighten on mine with a startled grasp as the words died away upon her lips.
Even as the girl spoke, the sphere, which had been beaming in the centre of the silent square like a mighty white jewel, began to flush with angry red. Redder and redder grew the gleam--a fiery glow which seemed curdling in the interior of the round as though it were filled with flame; redder and redder, until the princess, staring into it, seemed turned against the jet-black night behind, into a form of molten metal. A spasm of terror passed across her as she stared; her limbs stiffened; her frightened hands were clutched in front, and she stood cowering under that great crimson nucleus like one bereft of power and life, and lost to every sense but that of agony. Not a syllable came from her lips, not a movement stirred her body, only that dumb, stupid stare of horror, at the something she saw in the globe. What could I do? I could not sit and see her soul come out at her frightened eyes, and not a Martian moved a finger to her rescue; the red shine gleamed on empty faces, tier above tier, and flung its broad flush over the endless rank of open-mouthed spectators, then back I looked to Heru--that winsome little lady for whom, you will remember, I had already more than a passing fancy--and saw with a thrill of emotion that while she still kept her eyes on the flaming globe like one in a horrible dream her hands were slowly, very slowly, rising in supplication to ME! It was not vanity. There was no mistaking the direction of that silent, imploring appeal.
Not a man of her countrymen moved, not even black Hath! There was not a sound in the world, it seemed, but the noisy clatter of my own shoenails on the marble flags. In the great red eye of that unholy globe the Martians glimmered like a picture multitude under the red cliff of their ruined palace. I glared round at them with contempt for a minute, then sprang forward and snatched the princess up. It was like pulling a flower up by the roots. She was stiff and stark when I lay hold of her, but when I tore her from the magic ground she suddenly gave a piercing shriek, and fainted in my arms.
Then as I turned upon my heels with her upon my breast my foot caught upon the cloths still wound about the tripod of the sphere. Over went that implement of a thousand years of sorcery, and out went the red fire. But little I cared--the princess was safe! And up the palace steps, amidst a low, wailing hum of consternation from the recovering Martians, I bore that bundle of limp and senseless loveliness up into the pale shine of her own porch, and there, laying her down upon a couch, watched her recover presently amongst her women with a varied assortment of emotions tingling in my veins.