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 XVI

   The Martian told me of a merchant boat with ten rowers which was going up to the capital in a couple of hours, and as the skipper was a friend of his they would no doubt take me as supercargo, thereby saving the necessity of passenger fees, which was obviously a consideration with me. It was not altogether a romantic approach to the dungeon of an imprisoned beauty, but it was practical, which is often better if not so pleasant. So the offer was gladly closed with, and curling myself in a rug of foxskins, for I was tired with much walking, sailors never being good foot-gangers, I slept soundly fill they came to tell me it was time to go on board.
   The vessel was more like a canal barge than anything else, lean and long, with the cargo piled in a ridge down the centre as farmers store their winter turnips, the rowers sitting on either side of this plying oars like dessert-spoons with long handles, while they chanted a monotonous cadence of monosyllables
“Oh, ho, oh,
Oh, ho, oh,
How high, how high.”
   and then again after a pause--
“How high, how high
Oh, ho, oh,
Oh, ho, oh.”
   the which was infinitely sleep-provoking if not a refrain of a high intellectual order. I shut my eyes as we pulled away from the wharfs of that nameless emporium and picked a passage through a crowd of quaint shipping, wondering where I was, and asking myself whether I was mentally rising equal to my extraordinary surroundings, whether I adequately appreciated the immensity of my remove from those other seas on which I had last travelled, tiller-ropes in hand, piloting a captain's galley from a wharf. Good heavens, what would my comrades on my ship say if they could see me now steering a load of hairy savages up one of those waterways which our biggest telescopes magnify but to the thickness of an indication? No, I was not rising equal to the occasion, and could not. The human mind is of but limited capacity after all, and such freaks of fortune are beyond its conception. I knew I was where I was, but I knew I should probably never get the chance of telling of it, and that no one would ever believe me if I did, and I resigned myself to the inevitable with sullen acquiescence, smothering the wonder that might have been overwhelming in passing interests of the moment.
   There is little to record of that voyage. We passed through a fleet of Ar-hap's warships, empty and at anchor in double line, serviceable half-decked cutters, built of solid timber, not pumpkin rind it was pleasant to notice, and then the town dropped away as we proceeded up a stream about as broad as the Hudson at its widest, and profusely studded with islands. This water was bitterly salt and joined another sea on the other side of the Martian continent. Yet it had a pronounced flow against us eastward, this tide running for three spring months and being followed, I learned, as ocean temperatures varied, by a flow in the opposite direction throughout the summer.
   Just at present the current was so strong eastwards, the moisture beaded upon my rowers' tawny hides as they struggled against it, and their melancholy song dawdled in "linked sweetness long drawn out," while the swing of their oars grew longer and longer. Truly it was very hot, far hotter than was usual for the season, these men declared, and possibly this robbed me of my wonted energy, and you, gentle reader, of a description of all the strange things we passed upon that highway.
   Suffice it to say we spent a scorching afternoon, the greater part of a stifling night moored under a mud-bank with a grove of trees on top from which gigantic fire-flies hung as though the place were illuminated for a garden fete, and then, rowing on again in the comparatively cool hours before dawn, turned into a backwater at cock-crow.
   The skipper of our cargo boat roused me just as we turned, putting under my sleepy nostrils a handful of toasted beans on a leaf, and a small cup full of something that was not coffee, but smelt as good as that matutinal beverage always does to the tired traveller.
   Over our prow was an immense arch of foliage, and underneath a long arcade of cool black shadows, sheltering still water, till water and shadow suddenly ended a quarter of a mile down in a patch of brilliant colour. It was as peaceful as could be in the first morning light, and to me over all there was the inexpressible attraction of the unknown.
   As our boat slipped silently forward up this leafy lane, a thin white "feather" in her mouth alone breaking the steely surface of the stream, the men rested from their work and began, as sailors will, to put on their shore-going clothes, the while they chatted in low tones over the profits of the voyage. Overhead flying squirrels were flitting to and fro like bats, or shelling fruit whereof the husks fell with a pleasant splash about us, and on one bank a couple of early mothers were washing their babies, whose smothered protests were almost the only sound in this morning world.
   Another silent dip or two of the oars and the colour ahead crystallised into a town. If I said it was like an African village on a large scale, I should probably give you the best description in the fewest words. From the very water's edge up to the crown of a low hill inland, extended a mass of huts and wooden buildings, embowered and partly hidden in bright green foliage, with here and there patches of millet, or some such food plant, and the flowers that grow everywhere so abundantly in this country. It was all Arcadian and peaceful enough at the moment, and as we drew near the men were just coming out to the quays along the harbour front, the streets filling and the town waking to busy life.
   A turn to the left through a watergate defended by towers of wood and mud, and we were in the city harbour itself; boats of many kinds moored on every side; quaint craft from the gulfs and bays of Nowhere, full of unheard-of merchandise, and manned by strange-faced crews, every vessel a romance of nameless seas, an epitome of an undiscovered world, and every moment the scene grew busier as the breakfast smoke arose, and wharf and gangway set to work upon the day's labours.
   Our boat--loaded, as it turned out, with spoil from Seth--was run to a place of honour at the bottom of the town square, and was an object of much curiosity to a small crowd which speedily collected and lent a hand with the mooring ropes, the while chatting excitedly with the crew about further tribute and the latest news from overseas. At the same time a swarthy barbarian, whose trappings showed him to be some sort of functionary, came down to our "captain," much wagging of heads and counting of notched sticks taking place between them.
   I, indeed, was apparently the least interesting item of the cargo, and this was embarrassing. No hero likes to be neglected, it is fatal to his part. I had said my prayers and steeled myself to all sorts of fine endurance on the way up, and here, when it came to the crisis, no one was anxious to play the necessary villain. They just helped me ashore civilly enough, the captain nodded his head at me, muttering something in an indifferent tone to the functionary about a ghost who had wandered overseas and begged a passage up the canal; the group about the quay stared a little, but that was all.
   Once I remember seeing a squatting, life-size heathen idol hoisted from a vessel's hold and deposited on a sugar-box on a New York quay. Some ribald passer-by put a battered felt hat upon Vishnu's sacred curls, and there the poor image sat, an alien in an indifferent land, a sack across its shoulders, a "billycock" upon its head, and honoured at most with a passing stare. I thought of that lonely image as almost as lonely I stood on the Thither men's quay, without the support of friends or heroics, wondering what to do next.
   However, a cheerful disposition is sometimes better than a banking account, and not having the one I cultivated the other, sunning myself amongst the bales for a time, and then, since none seemed interested in me, wandered off into the town, partly to satisfy my curiosity, and partly in the vague hope of ascertaining if my princess was really here, and, if possible, getting sight of her.
   Meanwhile it turned hot with a supernatural, heavy sort of heat altogether, I overheard passersby exclaiming, out of the common, and after wandering for an hour through gardens and endless streets of thatched huts, I was glad enough to throw myself down in the shadow of some trees on the outskirts of the great central pile of buildings, a whole village in itself of beam-built towers and dwelling-place, suggesting by its superior size that it might actually be Ar-hap's palace.
   Hotter and hotter it grew, while a curious secondary sunrise in the west, the like of which I never saw before seemed to add to the heat, and heavier and heavier my eyelids, till I dozed at last, and finally slept uncomfortably for a time.
   Rousing up suddenly, imagine my surprise to see sitting, chin on knees, about a yard away, a slender girlish figure, infinitely out of place in that world of rough barbarians. Was it possible? Was I dreaming? No, there was no doubt about it, she was a girl of the Hither folk, slim and pretty, but with a wonderfully sad look in her gazelle eyes, and scarcely a sign of the indolent happiness of Seth in the pale little face regarding me so fixedly.
   "Good gracious, miss," I said, still rubbing my eyes and doubting my senses, "have you dropped from the skies? You are the very last person I expected to see in this barbarian place."
   "And you too, sir. Oh, it is lovely to see one so newly from home, and free-seeming--not a slave."
   "How did you know I was from Seth?"
   "Oh, that was easy enough," and with a little laugh she pointed to a pebble lying between us, on which was a piece of battered sweetmeat in a perforated bamboo box. Poor An had given me something just like that in a playful mood, and I had kept it in my pocket for her sake, being, as you will have doubtless observed, a sentimental young man, and now I clapped my hand where it should have been, but it was gone.
   "Yes," said my new friend, "that is yours. I smelt the sweetmeat coming up the hill, and crossed the grass until I found you here asleep. Oh, it was lovely! I took it from your pocket, and white Seth rose up before my swimming eyes, even at the scent of it. I am Si, well named, for that in our land means sadness, Si, the daughter of Prince Hath's chief sweetmeat-maker, so I should know something of such stuff. May I, please, nibble a little piece?"
   "Eat it all, my lass, and welcome. How came you here? But I can guess. Do not answer if you would rather not."
   "Ay, but I will. It is not every day I can speak to ears so friendly as yours. I am a slave, chosen for my luckless beauty as last year's tribute to Ar-hap."
   "And now?"
   "And now the slave of Ar-hap's horse-keeper, set aside to make room for a fresher face."
   "And do you know whose face that is?"
   "Not I, a hapless maid sent into this land of horrors, to bear ignominy and stripes, to eat coarse food and do coarse work, the miserable plaything of some brute in semi-human form, with but the one consolation of dying early as we tribute-women always die. Poor comrade in exile, I only know her as yet by sympathy."
   "What if I said it was Heru, the princess?"
   The Martian girl sprang to her feet, and clasping her hands exclaimed, "Heru, the Slender! Then the end comes, for it is written in our books that the last tribute is paid when the best is paid. Oh, how splendid if she gave herself of free will to this slavery to end it once for all. Was it so?"
   "I think, Si, your princess could not have known of that tradition; she did not come willingly. Besides, I am come to fetch her back, if it may be, and that spoils the look of sacrifice."
   "You to fetch her back, and from Ar-hap's arms? My word, Sir Spirit, you must know some potent charms; or, what is less likely, my countrymen must have amazingly improved in pluck since I left them. Have you a great army at hand?"
   But I only shook my head, and, touching my sword, said that here was the only army coming to rescue Heru. Whereon the lady replied that she thought my valour did me more honour than my discretion. How did I propose to take the princess from her captors?
   "To tell the truth, damsel, that is a matter which will have to be left to your invention, or the kindness of such as you. I am here on a hare-brained errand, playing knight-errant in a way that shocks my common sense. But since the matter has gone so far I will see it through, or die in the attempt. Your bully lord shall either give me Heru, stock, lock, and block, or hang me from a yard­arm. But I would rather have the lady. Come, you will help me; and, as a beginning, if she is in yonder shanty get me speech with her."
   Poor Si's eyes dilated at the peril of the suggestion, and I saw the sluggish Martian nature at war against her better feelings. But presently the latter conquered. "I will try," she said. "What matter a few stripes more or less?" pointing to her rosy shoulders where red scars crisscross upon one another showed how the Martian girls fared in Ar-hap's palace when their novelty wore off. "I will try to help you; and if they kill me for it--why, that will not matter much." And forthwith in that blazing forenoon under the flickering shadow of the trees we put our heads together to see what we might do for Heru.
   It was not much for the moment. Try what we would that afternoon, I could not persuade those who had charge of the princess to let me even approach her place of imprisonment, but Si, as a woman, was more successful, actually seeing her for a few moments, and managed to whisper in her ear that I had come, the Spirit-with-the-gold-buttons-down-his front, afterwards describing to me in flowing Martian imagery--but doubtless not more highly coloured than poor Heru's emotion warranted--how delightedly that lady had received the news.
   Si also did me another service, presenting me to the porter's wife, who kept a kind of boarding-house at the gates of Ar-hap's palace for gentlemen and ladies with grievances. I had heard of lobbying before, and the presentation of petitions, though I had never indulged myself in the pastime; but the crowd of petitioners here, with petitions as wild and picturesque as their own motley appearances, was surely the strangest that ever gathered round a seat of supreme authority.
   Si whispered in the ear of that good woman the nature of my errand, with doubtless some blandishment of her own; and my errand being one so much above the vulgar and so nearly touching the sovereign, I was at once accorded a separate room in the gate-house, whence I could look down in comparative peace on the common herd of suitors, and listen to the buzz of their invective as they practised speeches which I calculated it would take Ar-hap all the rest of his reign to listen to, without allowing him any time for pronouncing verdicts on them.
   Here I made myself comfortable, and awaited the return of the sovereign as placidly as might be. Meanwhile fate was playing into my feeble hands.
   I have said it was hot weather. At first this seemed but an outcome of the Martian climate, but as the hours went by the heat developed to an incredible extent. Also that red glare previously noted in the west grew in intensity, till, as the hours slipped by, all the town was staring at it in panting horror. I have seen a prairie on fire, luckily from the far side of a comfortably broad river, and have ridden through a pine-forest when every tree for miles was an uplifted torch, and pungent yellow smoke rolled down each corrie side in grey rivers crested with dancing flame. But that Martian glare was more sombre and terrible than either.
   "What is it?" I asked of poor Si, who came out gasping to speak to me by the gate-house.
   "None of us know, and unless the gods these Thither folk believe in are angry, and intend to destroy the world with yonder red sword in the sky, I cannot guess. Perhaps," she added, with a sudden flash of inspiration, "it comes by your machinations for Heru's help."
   "If not by your wish, then, in the name of all you love, set your wish against it. If you know any incantations suitable for the occasion, oh, practise them now at once, for look, even the very grass is withering; birds are dropping from trees; fishes, horribly bloated, are beginning to float down the steaming rills; and I, with all others, have a nameless dread upon me."
   Hotter and hotter it grew, until about sunset the red blaze upon the sky slowly opened, and showed us for about half an hour, through the opening a lurid, flame-coloured meteor far out in space beyond; then the cleft closed again, and through that abominable red curtain came the very breath of Hades.
   What was really happening I am not astronomer enough to say, though on cooler consideration I have come to the conclusion that our planet, in going out to its summer pastures in the remoter fields of space, had somehow come across a wandering lesser world and got pretty well singed in passing. This is purely my own opinion, and I have not yet submitted it to the kindly authorities of the Lick Observatory for verification. All I can say for certain is that in an incredibly short space of time the face of the country changed from green to sear, flowers drooped; streams (there were not many in the neighbourhood apparently) dried up; fishes died; a mighty thirst there was nothing to quench settled down on man and beast, and we all felt that unless Providence listened to the prayers and imprecations which the whole town set to work with frantic zeal to hurl at it, or that abominable comet in the sky sheered off on another tack with the least possible delay, we should all be reduced to cinders in a very brief space of time.

Chapter 17 >