Lieutenant Gulliver Jones: His Vacation/Chapter VI
Beyond the first flutter of surprise, the Martians had shown no interest in the abrupt termination of the year's divinations. They melted away, a trifle more silently perhaps than usual, when I shattered the magic globe, but with their invariable indifference, and having handed the reviving Heru over to some women who led her away, apparently already half forgetful of the things that had just happened, I was left alone on the palace steps, not even An beside me, and only the shadow of a passerby now and then to break the solitude. Whereon a great loneliness took hold upon me, and, pacing to and fro along the ancient terrace with bent head and folded arms, I bewailed my fate. To and fro I walked, heedless and melancholy, thinking of the old world, that was so far and this near world so distant from me in everything making life worth living, thinking, as I strode gloomily here and there, how gladly I would exchange these poor puppets and the mockery of a town they dwelt in, for a sight of my comrades and a corner in the poorest wine-shop salon in New York or 'Frisco; idly speculating why, and how, I came here, as I sauntered down amongst the glistening, shell-like fragments of the shattered globe, and finding no answer. How could I? It was too fair, I thought, standing there in the open; there was a fatal sweetness in the air, a deadly sufficiency in the beauty of everything around falling on the lax senses like some sleepy draught of pleasure. Not a leaf stirred, the wide purple roof of the sky was unbroken by the healthy promise of a cloud from rim to rim, the splendid country, teeming with its spring-time richness, lay in rank perfection everywhere; and just as rank and sleek and passionless were those who owned it.
Why, even I, who yesterday was strong, began to come under the spell of it. But yesterday the spirit of the old world was still strong within me, yet how much things were now changing. The well-strung muscles loosening, the heart beating a slower measure, the busy mind drowsing off to listlessness. Was I, too, destined to become like these? Was the red stuff in my veins to be watered down to pallid Martian sap? Was ambition and hope to desert me, and idleness itself become laborious, while life ran to seed in gilded uselessness? Little did I guess how unnecessary my fears were, or of the incredible fairy tale of adventure into which fate was going to plunge me.
Still engrossed the next morning by these thoughts, I decided I would go to Hath. Hath was a man--at least they said so--he might sympathise even though he could not help, and so, dressing finished, I went down towards the innermost palace whence for an hour or two had come sounds of unwonted bustle. Asking for the way occasionally from sleepy folk lolling about the corridors, waiting as it seemed for their breakfasts to come to them, and embarrassed by the new daylight, I wandered to and fro in the labyrinths of that stony ant-heap until I chanced upon a curtained doorway which admitted to a long chamber, high-roofed, ample in proportions, with colonnades on either side separated from the main aisle by rows of flowery figures and emblematic scroll-work, meaning I knew not what. Above those pillars ran a gallery with many windows looking out over the ruined city. While at the further end of the chamber stood three broad steps leading to a dais. As I entered, the whole place was full of bustling girls, their yellow garments like a bed of flowers in the sunlight trickling through the casements, and all intent on the spreading of a feast on long tables ranged up and down the hall. The morning light streamed in on the white cloths. It glittered on the glass and the gold they were putting on the trestles, and gave resplendent depths of colour to the ribbon bands round the pillars. All were so busy no one noticed me standing in the twilight by the door, but presently, laying a hand on a worker's shoulder, I asked who they banqueted for, and why such unwonted preparation?
"It is the marriage-feast tonight, stranger, and a marvel you did not know it. You, too, are to be wed."
"I had not heard of it, damsel; a paternal forethought of your Government, I suppose? Have you any idea who the lady is?"
"How should I know?" she answered laughingly. "That is the secret of the urn. Meanwhile, we have set you a place at the table-head near Princess Heru, and tonight you dip and have your chance like all of them; may luck send you a rosy bride, and save her from Ar-hap."
"Ay, now I remember; An told me of this before; Ar-hap is the sovereign with whom your people have a little difference, and shares unbidden in the free distribution of brides to-night. This promises to be interesting; depend on it I will come; if you will keep me a place where I can hear the speeches, and not forget me when the turtle soup goes round, I shall be more than grateful. Now to another matter. I want to get a few minutes with your President, Prince Hath. He concentrates the fluid intelligence of this sphere, I am told. Where can I find him?"
"He is drunk, in the library, sir!"
"My word! It is early in the day for that, and a singular conjunction of place and circumstance."
"Where," said the girl, "could he safer be? We can always fetch him if we want him, and sunk in blue oblivion he will not come to harm."
"A cheerful view, Miss, which is worthy of the attention of our reformers. Nevertheless, I will go to him. I have known men tell more truth in that state than in any other."
The servitor directed me to the library, and after desolate wanderings up crumbling steps and down mouldering corridors, sunny and lovely in decay, I came to the immense lumber-shed of knowledge they had told me of, a city of dead books, a place of dusty cathedral aisles stored with forgotten learning. At a table sat Hath the purposeless, enthroned in leather and vellum, snoring in divine content amongst all that wasted labour, and nothing I could do was sufficient to shake him into semblance of intelligence. So perforce I turned away till he should have come to himself, and wandering round the splendid litter of a noble library, presently amongst the ruck of volumes on the floor, amongst those lordly tomes in tattered green and gold, and ivory, my eye lit upon a volume propped up curiously on end, and going to it through the confusion I saw by the dried fruit rind upon the sticks supporting it, that the grave and reverend tome was set to catch a mouse! It was a splendid book when I looked more closely, bound as a king might bind his choicest treasure, the sweet-scented leather on it was no doubt frayed; the golden arabesques upon the covers had long since shed their eyes of inset gems, the jewelled clasp locking its learning up from vulgar gaze was bent and open. Yet it was a lordly tome with an odour of sanctity about it, and lifting it with difficulty, I noticed on its cover a red stain of mouse's blood. Those who put it to this quaint use of mouse-trap had already had some sport, but surely never was a mouse crushed before under so much learning. And while I stood guessing at what the book might hold within, Heru, the princess, came tripping in to me, and with the abrupt familiarity of her kind, laid a velvet hand upon my wrist, conned the title over to herself.
"What does it say, sweet girl?" I asked. "The matter is learned, by its feel," and that maid, pursing up her pretty lips, read the title to me--"The Secret of the Gods."
"The Secret of the Gods," I murmured. "Was it possible other worlds had struggled hopelessly to come within the barest ken of that great knowledge, while here the same was set to catch a mouse with?"
I said, "Silver-footed, sit down and read me a passage or two," and propping the mighty volume upon a table drew a bench before it and pulled her down beside me.
"Oh! a horrid, dry old book for certain," cried that lady, her pink fingertips falling as lightly on the musty leaves as almond petals on March dust. "Where shall I begin? It is all equally dull."
"Dip in," was my answer. " 'Tis no great matter where, but near the beginning. What says the writer of his intention? What sets he out to prove?"
"He says that is the Secret of the First Great Truth, descended straight to him--"
"Many have said so much, yet have lied."
"He says that which is written in his book is through him but not of him, past criticism and beyond cavil. 'Tis all in ancient and crabbed characters going back to the threshold of my learning, but here upon this passage-top where they are writ large I make them out to say, 'ONLY THE MAN WHO HAS DIED MANY TIMES BEGINS TO LIVE.'"
"A pregnant passage! Turn another page, and try again; I have an inkling of the book already."
"'Tis poor, silly stuff," said the girl, slipping a hand covertly into my own. "Why will you make me read it? I have a book on pomatums worth twice as much as this." ` "Nevertheless, dip in again, dear lady. What says the next heading?" And with a little sigh at the heaviness of her task, Heru read out: "SOMETIMES THE GODS THEMSELVES FORGET THE ANSWERS TO THEIR OWN RIDDLES."
"Lady, I knew it!
"All this is still preliminary to the great matter of the book, but the mutterings of the priest who draws back the curtains of the shrine--and here, after the scribe has left these two yellow pages blank as though to set a space of reverence between himself and what comes next--here speaks the truth, the voice, the fact of all life." But "Oh! Jones," she said, turning from the dusty pages and clasping her young, milk-warm hands over mine and leaning towards me until her blushing cheek was near to my shoulder and the incense of her breath upon me. "Oh! Gulliver Jones," she said. "Make me read no more; my soul revolts from the task, the crazy brown letters swim before my eyes. Is there no learning near at hand that would be pleasanter reading than this silly book of yours? What, after all," she said, growing bolder at the sound of her own voice, "what, after all, is the musty reticence of gods to the whispered secret of a maid? Jones, splendid stranger for whom all men stand aside and women look over shoulders, oh, let me be your book!" she whispered, slipping on to my knee and winding her arms round my neck till, through the white glimmer of her single vest, I could feel her heart beating against mine. "Newest and dearest of friends, put by this dreary learning and look in my eyes; is there nothing to be spelt out there?"
And I was constrained to do as she bid me, for she was as fresh as an almond blossom touched by the sun, and looking down into two swimming blue lakes where shyness and passion were contending--books easy enough, in truth, to be read, I saw that she loved me, with the unconventional ardour of her nature.
It was a pleasant discovery, if its abruptness was embarrassing, for she was a maid in a thousand; and half ashamed and half laughing I let her escalade me, throwing now and then a rueful look at the Secret of the Gods, and all that priceless knowledge treated so unworthily.
What else could I do? Besides, I loved her myself! And if there was a momentary chagrin at having yonder golden knowledge put off by this lovely interruption, yet I was flesh and blood, the gods could wait--they had to wait long and often before, and when this sweet interpreter was comforted we would have another try. So it happened I took her into my heart and gave her the answer she asked for.
For a long time we sat in the dusky grandeur of the royal library, my mind revolving between wonder and admiration of the neglected knowledge all about, and the stirrings of a new love, while Heru herself, lapsed again into Martian calm, lay half sleeping on my shoulder, but presently, unwinding her arms, I put her down.
"There, sweetheart," I whispered, "enough of this for the moment; tonight, perhaps, some more, but while we are here amongst all this lordly litter, I can think of nothing else." Again I bid her turn the pages, noting as she did so how each chapter was headed by the coloured configuration of a world. Page by page we turned of crackling parchment, until by chance, at the top of one, my eye caught a coloured round I could not fail to recognise--'twas the spinning button on the blue breast of the immeasurable that yesterday I inhabited. "Read here," I cried, clapping my finger upon the page midway down, where there were some signs looking like Egyptian writing. "Says this quaint dabbler in all knowledge anything of Isis, anything of Phra, of Ammon, of Ammon Top?"
"And who was Isis? who Ammon Top?" asked the lady.
"Nay, read," I answered, and down the page her slender fingers went awandering till at a spot of knotted signs they stopped. "Why, here is something about thy Isis," exclaimed Heru, as though amused at my perspicuity. "Here, halfway down this chapter of earth-history, it says," and putting one pink knee across the other to better prop the book she read:
"And the priests of Thebes were gone; the sand stood untrampled on the temple steps a thousand years; the wild bees sang the song of desolation in the ears of Isis; the wild cats littered in the stony lap of Ammon; ay, another thousand years went by, and earth was tilled of unseen hands and sown with yellow grain from Paradise, and the thin veil that separates the known from the unknown was rent, and men walked to and fro."
"Go on," I said.
"Nay," laughed the other, "the little mice in their eagerness have been before you--see, all this corner is gnawed away."
"Read on again," I said, "where the page is whole; those sips of knowledge you have given make me thirsty for more. There, begin where this blazonry of initialed red and gold looks so like the carpet spread by the scribe for the feet of a sovereign truth--what says he here?" And she, half pouting to be set back once more to that task, half wondering as she gazed on those magic letters, let her eyes run down the page, then began:
"And it was the Beginning, and in the centre void presently there came a nucleus of light: and the light brightened in the grey primeval morning and became definite and articulate. And from the midst of that natal splendour, behind which was the Unknowable, the life came hitherward; from the midst of that nucleus undescribed, undescribable, there issued presently the primeval sigh that breathed the breath of life into all things. And that sigh thrilled through the empty spaces of the illimitable: it breathed the breath of promise over the frozen hills of the outside planets where the night-frost had lasted without beginning: and the waters of ten thousand nameless oceans, girding nameless planets, were stirred, trembling into their depth. It crossed the illimitable spaces where the herding aerolites swirl forever through space in the wake of careering world, and all their whistling wings answered to it. It reverberated through the grey wastes of vacuity, and crossed the dark oceans of the Outside, even to the black shores of the eternal night beyond.
"And hardly had echo of that breath died away in the hollow of the heavens and the empty wombs of a million barren worlds, when the light brightened again, and drawing in upon itself became definite and took form, and therefrom, at the moment of primitive conception, there came--"
And just then, as she had read so far as that, when all my faculties were aching to know what came next--whether this were but the idle scribbling of a vacuous fool, or something else--there rose the sound of soft flutes and tinkling bells in the corridors, as seneschals wandered piping round the palace to call folk to meals, a smell of roast meat and grilling fish as that procession lifted the curtains between the halls, and--
"Dinner!" shouted my sweet Martian, slapping the covers of The Secret of the Gods together and pushing the stately tome headlong from the table. "Dinner! 'Tis worth a hundred thousand planets to the hungry!"
Nothing I could say would keep her, and, scarcely knowing whether to laugh or to be angry at so unseemly an interruption, but both being purposeless I dug my hands into my pockets, and somewhat sulkily refusing Heru's invitation to luncheon in the corridor (Navy rations had not fitted my stomach for these constant debauches of gossamer food), strolled into the town again in no very pleasant frame of mind.