WeirdSpace Digital Library - Culture without borders

Lieut. Gulliver Jones: His Vacation

Country of origin: UK UK
Available texts by the same author here Dokument

Chapter XI

   With the new morning came fresh energy and a spasm of conscience as I thought of poor Heru and the shabby sort of rescuer I was to lie about with these pretty triflers while she remained in peril.
   So I had a bath and a swim, a breakfast, and, to my shame be it acknowledged, a sort of farewell merry-go-round dance on the yellow sands with a dozen young persons all light-hearted as the morning, beautiful as the flowers that bound their hair, and in the extremity of statuesque attire.
   Then at last I got them to give me a sea-going canoe, a stock of cakes and fresh water; and with many parting injunctions how to find the Woodman trail, since I would not listen to reason and lie all the rest of my life with them in the sunshine, they pushed me off on my lonely voyage.
   "Over the blue waters!" they shouted in chorus as I dipped my paddle into the diamond-crested wavelets. "Six hours, adventurous stranger, with the sun behind you! Then into the broad river behind the yellow sand-bar. But not the black northward river! Not the strong, black river, above all things, stranger! For that is the River of the Dead, by which many go but none come back. Goodbye!" And waving them adieu, I sternly turned my eyes from delights behind and faced the fascination of perils in front.
   In four hours (for the Martians had forgotten in their calculations that my muscles were something better than theirs) I "rose" the further shore, and then the question was, Where ran that westward river of theirs?
   It turned out afterwards that, knowing nothing of their tides, I had drifted much too far to northward, and consequently the coast had closed up the estuary mouth I should have entered. Not a sign of an opening showed anywhere, and having nothing whatever for guidance I turned northward, eagerly scanning an endless line of low cliffs, as the day lessened, for the promised sand-bar or inlet.
   About dusk my canoe, flying swiftly forward at its own sweet will, brought me into a bight, a bare, desolate-looking country with no vegetation save grass and sedge on the near marshes and stony hills rising up beyond, with others beyond them mounting step by step to a long line of ridges and peaks still covered in winter snow.
   The outlook was anything but cheering. Not a trace of habitation had been seen for a long time, not a single living being in whose neighbourhood I could land and ask the way; nothing living anywhere but a monstrous kind of sea-slug, as big as a dog, battening on the waterside garbage, and gaunt birds like vultures who croaked on the mud-flats, and half-spread wings of funereal blackness as they gambolled here and there. Where was poor Heru? Where pink-shouldered An? Where those wild men who had taken the princess from us? Lastly, but not least, where was I?
   All the first stars of the Martian sky were strange to me, and my boat whirling round and round on the current confused what little geography I might otherwise have retained. It was a cheerless look out, and again and again I cursed my folly for coming on such a fool's errand as I sat, chin in hand, staring at a landscape that grew more and more depressing every mile. To go on looked like destruction, to go back was almost impossible without a guide; and while I was still wondering which of the two might be the lesser evil, the stream I was on turned a corner, and in a moment we were upon water which ran with swift, oily smoothness straight for the snow-ranges now beginning to loom unpleasantly close ahead.
   By this time the night was coming on apace, the last of the evil-looking birds had winged its way across the red sunset glare, and though it was clear enough in mid-river under the banks, now steep and unclimbable, it was already evening.
   And with the darkness came a wondrous cold breath from off the ice-fields, blowing through my lowland wrappings as though they were but tissue. I munched a bit of honey-cake, took a cautious sip of wine, and though I will not own I was frightened, yet no one will deny that the circumstances were discouraging.
   Standing up in the frail canoe and looking around, at the second glance an object caught my eye coming with the stream, and rapidly overtaking me on a strong sluice of water. It was a raft of some sort, and something extra-ordinarily like a sitting Martian on it! Nearer and nearer it came, bobbing to the rise and fall of each wavelet with the last icy sunlight touching it up with reds and golds, nearer and nearer in the deadly hush of that forsaken region, and then at last so near it showed quite plainly on the purple water, a raft with some one sitting under a canopy.
   With a thrill of delight I waved my cap aloft and shouted--
   "Ship-ahoy! Hullo, messmate, where are we bound to?"
   But never an answer came from that swiftly-passing stranger, so again I hailed-- "Put up your helm, Mr. Skipper; I have lost my bearings, and the chronometer has run down," but without a pause or sound that strange craft went slipping by.
   That silence was more than I could stand. It was against all sea courtesies, and the last chance of learning where I was passing away. So, angrily the paddle was snatched from the canoe bottom, and roaring out again--
   "Stop, I say, you d----- lubber, stop, or by all the gods I will make you!" I plunged the paddle into the water and shot my little craft slantingly across the stream to intercept the newcomer. A single stroke sent me into mid-stream, a second brought me within touch of that strange craft. It was a flat raft, undoubtedly, though so disguised by flowers and silk trailers that its shape was difficult to make out. In the centre was a chair of ceremony bedecked with greenery and great pale buds, hardly yet withered--oh, where had I seen such a chair and such a raft before?
   And the riddle did not long remain unanswered. Upon that seat, as I swept up alongside and laid a sunburnt hand upon its edge, was a girl, and another look told me she was dead!
   Such a sweet, pallid, Martian maid, her fair head lolling back against the rear of the chair and gently moving to and fro with the rise and fall of her craft. Her face in the pale light of the evening like carved ivory, and not less passionless and still; her arms bare, and her poor fingers still closed in her lap upon the beautiful buds they had put into them. I fairly gasped with amazement at the dreadful sweetness of that solitary lady, and could hardly believe she was really a corpse! But, alas! there was no doubt of it, and I stared at her, half in admiration and half in fear; noting how the last sunset flush lent a hectic beauty to her face for a moment, and then how fair and ghostly she stood out against the purpling sky; how her light drapery lifted to the icy wind, and how dreadfully strange all those soft-scented flowers and trappings seemed as we sped along side by side into the country of night and snow.
   Then all of a sudden the true meaning of her being there burst upon me, and with a start and a cry I looked around. We were flying swiftly down that river of the dead they had told me of that has no outlet and no returning!
   With frantic haste I snatched up a paddle again and tried to paddle against the great black current sweeping us forward. I worked until the perspiration stood in beads on my forehead, and all the time I worked the river, like some black snake, hissed and twined, and that pretty lady rode cheerily along at my side. Overhead stars of unearthly brilliancy were coming out in the frosty sky, while on either hand the banks were high and the shadows under them black as ink. In those shadows now and then I noticed with a horrible indifference other rafts were travelling, and presently, as the stream narrowed, they came out and joined us, dead Martians, budding boys and girls; older voyagers with their age quickening upon them in the Martian manner, just as some fruit only ripens after it falls; yellow-girt slaves staring into the night in front, quite a merry crew all clustered about I and that gentle lady, and more far ahead and more behind, all bobbing and jostling forward as we hurried to the dreadful graveyard in the Martian regions of eternal winter none had ever seen and no one came to! I cried aloud in my desolation and fear and hid my face in my hands, while the icy cliffs mocked my cry and the dead maid, tripping alongside, rolled her head over, and stared at me with stony, unseeing eyes.
   Well, I am no fine writer. I sat down to tell a plain, unvarnished tale, and I will not let the weird horror of that ride get into my pen. We careened forward, I and those lost Martians, until pretty near on midnight, by which time the great light-giving planets were up, and never a chance did Fate give me all that time of parting company with them. About midnight we were right into the region of snow and ice, not the actual polar region of the planet, as I afterwards guessed, but one of those long outliers which follow the course of the broad waterways almost into fertile regions, and the cold, though intense, was somewhat modified by the complete stillness of the air.
   It was just then that I began to be aware of a low, rumbling sound ahead, increasing steadily until there could not be any doubt the journey was nearly over and we were approaching those great falls An had told me of, over which the dead tumble to perpetual oblivion. There was no opportunity for action, and, luckily, little time for thought. I remember clapping my hand to my heart as I muttered an imperfect prayer, and laughing a little as I felt in my pocket, between it and that organ, an envelope containing some corn-plaster and a packet of unpaid tailors' bills. Then I pulled out that locket with poor forgotten Polly's photograph, and while I was still kissing it fervently, and the dead girl on my right was jealously nudging my canoe with the corner of her raft, we plunged into a narrow gully as black as hell, shot round a sharp corner at a tremendous pace, and the moment afterwards entered a lake in the midst of an unbroken amphitheatre of cliffs gleaming in soft light all round.
   Even to this moment I can recall the blue shine of those terrible ice crags framing the weird picture in on every hand, and the strange effect upon my mind as we passed out of the darkness of the gully down which we had come into the sepulchral radiance of that place. But though it fixed with one instantaneous flash its impression on my mind forever, there was no time to admire it. As we swept on to the lake's surface, and a glance of light coming over a dip in the ice walls to the left lit up the dead faces and half-withered flowers of my fellow-travellers with startling distinctness, I noticed with a new terror at the lower end of the lake towards which we were hurrying the water suddenly disappeared in a cloud of frosty spray, and it was from thence came the low, ominous rumble which had sounded up the ravine as we approached. It was the fall, and beyond the stream dropped down glassy step after step, in wild pools and rapids, through which no boat could live for a moment, to a black cavern entrance, where it was swallowed up in eternal night.
   I would not go that way! With a yell such as those solitudes had probably never heard since the planet was fashioned out of the void, I seized the paddle again and struck out furiously from the main current, with the result of postponing the crisis for a time, and finding myself bobbing round towards the northern amphitheatre, where the light fell clearest from planets overhead. It was like a great ballroom with those constellations for tapers, and a ghastly crowd of Martians were doing cotillions and waltzes all about me on their rafts as the troubled water, icy cold and clear as glass, eddied us here and there in solemn confusion. On the narrow beaches at the cliff foot were hundreds of wrecked voyagers--the wall-flowers of that ghostly assembly-room--and I went jostling and twirling round the circle as though looking for a likely partner, until my brain spun and my heart was sick.
   For twenty minutes Fate played with me, and then the deadly suck of the stream got me down again close to where the water began to race for the falls. I vowed savagely I would not go over them if it could be helped, and struggled furiously.
   On the left, in shadow, a narrow beach seemed to lie between the water and the cliff foot; towards it I fought. At the very first stroke I fouled a raft; the occupant thereof came tumbling aboard and nearly swamped me. But now it was a fight for life, so him I seized without ceremony by clammy neck and leg and threw back into the water. Then another playful Martian butted the behind part of my canoe and set it spinning, so that all the stars seemed to be dancing giddily in the sky. With a yell I shoved him off, but only to find his comrades were closing round me in a solid ring as we sucked down to the abyss at ever-increasing speed.
   Then I fought like a fury, hacking, pushing, and paddling shorewards, crying out in my excitement, and spinning and bumping and twisting ever downwards. For every foot I gained they pushed me on a yard, as though determined their fate should be mine also.
   They crowded round me in a compact circle, their poor flower-girt heads nodding as the swift current curtsied their crafts. They hemmed me in with desperate persistency as we spun through the ghostly starlight in a swirling mass down to destruction! And in a minute we were so close to the edge of the fall I could see the water break into ridges as it felt the solid bottom give way under it. We were so close that already the foremost rafts, ten yards ahead, were tipping and their occupants one by one waving their arms about and tumbling from their funeral chairs as they shot into the spray veil and went out of sight under a faint rainbow that was arched over there, the symbol of peace and the only lovely thing in that gruesome region. Another minute and I must have gone with them. It was too late to think of getting out of the tangle then; the water behind was heavy with trailing silks and flowers. We were jammed together almost like one huge float and in that latter fact lay my one chance.
   On the left was a low ledge of rocks leading back to the narrow beach already mentioned, and the ledge came out to within a few feet of where the outmost boat on that side would pass it. It was the only chance and a poor one, but already the first rank of my fleet was trembling on the brink, and without stopping to weigh matters I bounded off my own canoe on to the raft alongside, which rocked with my weight like a tea-tray. From that I leapt, with such hearty good-will as I had never had before, on to a second and third. I jumped from the footstool of one Martian to the knee of another, steadying myself by a free use of their nodding heads as I passed. And every time I jumped a ship collapsed behind me. As I staggered with my spring into the last and outermost boat the ledge was still six feet away, half hidden in a smother of foam, and the rim of the great fall just under it. Then I drew all my sailor agility together and just as the little vessel was going bow up over the edge I leapt from her--came down blinded with spray on the ledge, rolled over and over, clutched frantically at the frozen soil, and was safe for the moment, but only a few inches from the vortex below!
   As soon as I picked myself up and got breath, I walked shorewards and found, with great satisfaction, that the ledge joined the shelving beach, and so walked on in the blue obscurity of the cliff shadow back from the falls in the bare hope that the beach might lead by some way into the gully through which we had come and open country beyond. But after a couple of hundred yards this hope ended as abruptly as the spit itself in deep water, and there I was, as far as the darkness would allow me to ascertain, as utterly trapped as any mortal could be.
   I will not dwell on the next few minutes, for no one likes to acknowledge that he has been unmanned even for a space. When those minutes were over calmness and consideration returned, and I was able to look about.
   All the opposite cliffs, rising sheer from the water, were in light, their cold blue and white surfaces rising far up into the black starfields overhead. Looking at them intently from this vantage-point I saw without at first understanding that along them horizontally, tier above tier, were rows of objects, like--like--why, good Heavens, they were like men and women in all sorts of strange postures and positions! Rubbing my eyes and looking again I perceived with a start and a strange creepy feeling down my back that they were men and women!--hundreds of them, thousands, all in rows as cormorants stand upon sea-side cliffs, myriads and myriads now I looked about, in every conceivable pose and attitude but never a sound, never a movement amongst the vast concourse.
   Then I turned back to the cliffs behind me. Yes! they ere there too, dimmer by reason of the shadows, but there for certain, from the snowfields far above down, down--good Heavens! to the very level where I stood. There was one of them not ten yards away half in and half out of the ice wall, and setting my teeth I walked over and examined him. And there was another further in behind as I peered into the clear blue depth, another behind that one, another behind him--just like cherries in a jelly.
   It was startling and almost incredible, yet so many wonderful things had happened of late that wonders were losing their sharpness, and I was soon examining the cliff almost as coolly as though it were only some trivial geological "section," some new kind of petrified sea-urchins which had caught my attention and not a whole nation in ice, a huge amphitheatre of fossilised humanity which stared down on me.
   The matter was simple enough when you came to look at it with philosophy. The Martians had sent their dead down here for many thousand years and as they came they were frozen in, the bands and zones in which they sat indicating perhaps alternating seasons. Then after Nature had been storing them like that for long ages some upheaval happened, and this cleft and lake opened through the heart of the preserve. Probably the river once ran far up there where the starlight was crowning the blue cliffs with a silver diadem of light, only when this hollow opened did it slowly deepen a lower course, spreading out in a lake, and eventually tumbling down those icy steps lose itself in the dark roots of the hills. It was very simple, no doubt, but incredibly weird and wonderful to me who stood, the sole living thing in that immense concourse of dead humanity.
   Look where I would it was the same everywhere. Those endless rows of frozen bodies lying, sitting, or standing stared at me from every niche and cornice. It almost seemed, as the light veered slowly round, as though they smiled and frowned at times, but never a word was there amongst those millions; the silence itself was audible, and save the dull low thunder of the fall, so monotonous the ear became accustomed to and soon disregarded it, there was not a sound anywhere, not a rustle, not a whisper broke the eternal calm of that great caravansary of the dead.
   The very rattle of the shingle under my feet and the jingle of my navy scabbard seemed offensive in the perfect hush, and, too awed to be frightened, I presently turned away from the dreadful shine of those cliffs and felt my way along the base of the wall on my own side. There was no means of escape that way, and presently the shingle beach itself gave out as stated, where the cliff wall rose straight from the surface of the lake, so I turned back, and finding a grotto in the ice determined to make myself as comfortable as might be until daylight came.

Chapter 12 >