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Lieut. Gulliver Jones: His Vacation

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

Chapter XVII

   The evening of the second day had already come, when Ar-hap arrived home after weekending amongst a tribe of rebellious subjects. But any imposing State entry which might have been intended was rendered impossible by the heat and the threat of that baleful world in the western sky.
   It was a lurid but disordered spectacle which I witnessed from my room in the gate-house just after nightfall. The returning army had apparently fallen away exhausted on its march through the town; only some three hundred of the bodyguard straggled up the hill, limp and sweating, behind a group of pennons, in the midst of which rode a horseman whose commanding presence and splendid war harness impressed me, though I could not make out his features; a wild, impressionist scene of black outlines, tossing headgear, and spears glittering and vanishing in front of the red glare in the sky, but nothing more. Even the dry throats of the suitors in the courtyard hardly mustered a husky cry of welcome as the cavalcade trooped into the enclosure, and then the shadows enfolded them up in silence, and, too hot and listless to care much what the morrow brought forth, I threw myself on the bare floor, tossing and turning in a vain endeavour to sleep until dawn came once more.
   A thin mist which fell with daybreak drew a veil over the horrible glare in the west for an hour or two, and taking advantage of the slight alleviation of heat, I rose and went into the gardens to enjoy a dip in a pool, making, with its surrounding jungle of flowers, one of the pleasantest things about the wood-king's forest citadel. The very earth seemed scorched and baking underfoot--and the pool was gone! It had run as dry as a limekiln; nothing remained of the pretty fall which had fed it but a miserable trickle of drops from the cascade above. Down beyond the town shone a gleam of water where the bitter canal steamed and simmered in the first grey of the morning, but up here six months of scorching drought could not have worked more havoc. The very leaves were dropping from the trees, and the luxuriant growths of the day before looked as though a simoon had played upon them.
   I staggered back in disgust, and found some show of official activity about the palace. It was the king's custom, it appeared, to hear petitions and redress wrongs as soon after his return as possible, but today the ceremony was to be cut short as his majesty was going out with all his court to a neighbouring mountain to "pray away the comet," which by this time was causing dire alarm all through the city.
   "Heaven's own particular blessing on his prayers, my friend," I said to the man who told me this. "Unless his majesty's orisons are fruitful, we shall all be cooked like baked potatoes before nightfall, and though I have faced many kinds of death, that is not the one I would choose by preference. Is there a chance of myself being heard at the throne? Your peculiar climate tempts me to hurry up with my business and begone if I may."
   "Not only may you be heard, sir, but you are summoned. The king has heard of you somehow, and sent me to find and bring you into his presence at once."
   "So be it," I said, too hot to care what happened. "I have no levee dress with me. I lost my luggage check some time ago, but if you will wait outside I will be with you in a moment."
   Hastily tidying myself up, and giving my hair a comb, as though just off to see Mr. Secretary for the Navy, or on the way to get a senator to push a new patent medicine for me, I rejoined my guide outside, and together we crossed the wide courtyard, entered the great log-built portals of Ar-hap's house, and immediately afterwards found ourselves in a vast hall dimly lit by rays coming in through square spaces under the eaves, and crowded on both sides with guards, courtiers, and supplicants. The heat was tremendous, the odour of Thither men and the ill-dressed hides they wore almost overpowering. Yet little I recked for either, for there at the top of the room, seated on a dais made of rough-hewn wood inlet with gold and covered with splendid furs, was Ar-hap himself.
   A fine fellow, swarthy, huge, and hairy, at any other time or place I could have given him due admiration as an admirable example of the savage on the borderland of grace and culture, but now I only glanced at him, and then to where at his side a girl was crouching, a gem of human loveliness against that dusky setting. It was Heru, my ravished princess, and, still clad in her diaphanous Hither robes, her face white with anxiety, her eyes bright as stars, the embodiment of helpless, flowery beauty, my heart turned over at sight of her.
   Poor girl! When she saw me stride into the hall she rose swiftly from Ar-hap's side, clasped her pretty hands, and giving a cry of joy would have rushed towards me, but the king laid a mighty paw upon her, under which she subsided with a shiver as though the touch had blanched all the life within.
   "Good morning, your majesty," I said, walking boldly up to the lower step of the dais. "Good morning, most singular-looking vagrant from the Unknown," answered the monarch.
   "In what way can I be of service to you?""I have come about that girl," I said, nodding to where Heru lay blossoming in the hot gloom like some night-flowering bud. "I do not know whether your majesty is aware how she came here, but it is a highly discreditable incident in what is doubtless your otherwise blameless reign. Some rough scullions intrusted with the duty of collecting your majesty's customs asked Prince Hath of the Hither people to point out the most attractive young person at his wedding feast, and the prince indicated that lady there at your side. It was a dirty trick, and all the worse because it was inspired by malice, which is the meanest of all weaknesses. I had the pleasure of knocking down some of your majesty's representatives, but they stole the girl away while I slept, and, briefly, I have come to fetch her back."
   The monarch had followed my speech, the longest ever made in my life, with fierce, blinking eyes, and when it stopped looked at poor shrinking Heru as though for explanation, then round the circle of his awestruck courtiers, and reading dismay at my boldness in their faces, burst into a guttural laugh.
   "I suppose you have the great and puissant Hither nation behind you in this request, Mr. Spirit?"
   "No, I came alone, hoping to find justice here, and, if not, then prepared to do all I could to make your majesty curse the day your servants maltreated my friends."
   "Tall words, stranger! May I ask what you propose to do if Ar-hap, in his own palace, amongst his people and soldiers, refuses to disgorge a pretty prize at the bidding of one shabby interloper--muddy and friendless?"
   "What should I do?"
   "Yes," said the king, with a haughty frown. "What would you do?"
   I do not know what prompted the reply. For a moment I was completely at a loss what to say to this very obvious question, and then all on a sudden, remembering they held me to be some kind of disembodied spirit, by a happy inspiration, fixing my eyes grimly on the king, I answered,
   "What would I do? Why, I would haunt you!"
   It may not seem a great stroke of genius here, but the effect on the Martian was instantaneous. He sat straight up, his hands tightened, his eyes dilated, and then fidgeting uneasily, after a minute he beckoned to an over-dressed individual, whom Heru afterwards told me was the Court necromancer, and began whispering in his ear.
   After a minute's consultation he turned again, a rather frightened civility struggling in his face with anger, and said, "We have no wish, of course, stranger, to offend you or those who had the honour of your patronage. Perhaps the princess here was a little roughly handled, and, I confess, if she were altogether as reluctant as she seems, a lesser maid would have done as well. I could have wooed this one in Seth, where I may shortly come, and our espousals would possibly have lent, in the eyes of your friends, quite a cheerful aspect to my arrival. But my ambassadors have had no great schooling in diplomacy; they have brought Princess Heru here, and how can I hand her over to one I know nothing of? How do I know you are a ghost, after all? How do I know you have anything but a rusty sword and much impertinence to back your astounding claim?"
   "Oh, let it be just as you like," I said, calmly shelling and eating a nut I had picked up. "Only if you do not give the maid back, why, then--" And I stopped as though the sequel were too painful to put into words.
   Again that superstitious monarch of a land thronged with malicious spirits called up his magician, and, after they had consulted a moment, turned more cheerfully to me.
   "Look here, Mister-from-Nowhere, if you are really a spirit, and have the power to hurt as you say, you will have the power also to go and come between the living and the dead, between the present and the past. Now I will set you an errand, and give you five minutes to do it in."
   "Five minutes!" I exclaimed in incautious alarm.
   "Five minutes," said the monarch savagely. "And if in that time the errand is not done, I shall hold you to be an impostor, an impudent thief from some scoundrel tribe of this world of mine, and will make of you an example which shall keep men's ears tingling for a century or two."
   Poor Heru dropped in a limp and lovely heap at that dire threat, while I am bound to say I felt somewhat uncomfortable, not unnaturally when all the circumstances are considered, but contented myself with remarking, with as much bravado as could be managed,
   "And now to the errand, Ar-hap. What can I do for your majesty?"
   The king consulted with the rogue at his elbow, and then nodding and chuckling in expectancy of his triumph, addressed me.
   "Listen," he cried, smiting a huge hairy hand upon his knee, "listen, and do or die. My magician tells me it is recorded in his books that once, some five thousand years ago, when this land belonged to the Hither people, there lived here a king. It is a pity he died, for he seems to have been a jovial old fellow; but he did die, and, according to their custom, they floated him down the stream that flows to the regions of eternal ice, where doubtless he is at this present moment, caked up with ten million of his subjects. Now just go and find that sovereign for me, oh you bold-tongued dweller in other worlds!"
   "And if I go how am I to know your ancient king, as you say, amongst ten million others?"
   "That is easy enough," quoth Ar-hap lightly. "You have only to pass to and fro through the ice mountains, opening the mouths of the dead men and women you meet, and when you come to a middle-sized man with a fillet on his head and a jaw mended with gold, that will be he whom you look for. Bring me that fillet here within five minutes and the maid is yours."
   I started, and stared hard in amazement. Was this a dream? Was the royal savage in front playing with me? By what incredible chance had he hit upon the very errand I could answer to best, the very trophy I had brought away from the grim valley of ice and death, and had still in my shoulder-bag? No, he was not playing; he was staring hard in turn, joying in my apparent confusion, and clearly thinking he had cornered me beyond hope of redemption.
   "Surely your mightiness is not daunted by so simple a task," scowled the sovereign, playing with the hilt of his huge hunting-knife, "and all amongst your friends' kindred too. On a hot day like this it ought to be a pleasant saunter for a spirit such as yourself."
   "Not daunted," I answered coldly, turning on my heels towards the door, "only marvelling that your majesty's skull and your necromancer's could not between them have devised a harder task."
   Out into the courtyard I went, with my heart beating finely in spite of my assumed indifference; got the bag from a peg in my sleeping-room, and was back before the log throne ere four minutes were gone.
   "The old Hither king's compliments to your majesty," I said, bowing, while a deathly hush fell on all the assembly, "and he says though your ancestors little liked to hear his voice while alive, he says he has no objection to giving you some jaw now he is dead," and I threw down on the floor the golden circlet of the frozen king.
   Ar-hap's eyes almost started from his head as, with his courtiers, he glared in silent amazement at that shining thing while the great drops of fear and perspiration trickled down his forehead. As for poor Heru, she rose like a spirit behind them, gazed at the jaw-bone of her mythical ancestor, and then suddenly realising my errand was done and she apparently free, held out her hands, and, with a tremulous cry, would have come to me.
   But Ar-hap was too quick for her. All the black savage blood swelled into his veins as he swept her away with one great arm, and then with his foot gave the luckless jaw a kick that sent it glittering and spinning through the far doorway out into the sunshine.
   "Sit down," he roared, "you brazen wench, who are so eager to leave a king's side for a nameless vagrant's care! And you, sir," turning to me, and fairly trembling with rage and dread, "I will not gainsay that you have done the errand set you, but it might this once be chance that got you that cursed token, some one happy turn of luck. I will not yield my prize on one throw of the dice. Another task you must do. Once might be chance, but such chance comes not twice."
   "You swore to give me the maid this time."
   "And why should I keep my word to a half-proved spirit such as you?"
   "There are some particularly good reasons why you should," I said, striking an attitude which I had once seen a music-hall dramatist take when he was going to blast somebody's future-- a stick with a star on top of it in his hand and forty lines of blank verse in his mouth.
   The king writhed, and begged me with a sign to desist.
   "We have no wish to anger you. Do us this other task and none will doubt that you are a potent spirit, and even I, Ar-hap, will listen to you."
   "Well, then," I answered sulkily, "what is it to be this time?"
   After a minute's consultation, and speaking slowly as though conscious of how much hung on his words, the king said,
   "Listen! My soothsayer tells me that somewhere there is a city lost in a forest, and a temple lost in the city, and a tomb lost in the temple; a city of ghosts and djins given over to bad spirits, wherefore all human men shun it by day and night. And on the tomb is she who was once queen there, and by her lies her crown. Quick! oh you to whom all distances are nothing, and who see, by your finer essence, into all times and places. Away to that city! Jostle the memories of the unclean things that hide in its shadows; ask which amongst them knows where dead Queen Yang still lies in dusty state. Get guides amongst your comrade ghosts. Find Queen Yang, and bring me here in five minutes the bloody circlet from her hair."
   Then, and then for the first time, I believed the planet was haunted indeed, and I myself unknowingly under some strange and watchful influence. Spirits, demons! Oh! what but some incomprehensible power, some unseen influence shaping my efforts to its ends, could have moved that hairy barbarian to play a second time into my hands like this, to choose from the endless records of his world the second of the two incidents I had touched in hasty travel through it? I was almost overcome for a minute; then, pulling myself together, strode forward fiercely, and, speaking so that all could hear me, cried, "Base king, who neither knows the capacities of a spirit nor has learned as yet to dread its anger, see! your commission is executed in a thought, just as your punishment might be. Heru, come here." And when the girl, speechless with amazement, had risen and slipped over to me, I straightened her pretty hair from her forehead, and then, in a way which would make my fortune if I could repeat it at a conjuror's table, whipped poor Yang's gemmy crown from my pocket, flashed its baleful splendour in the eyes of the courtiers, and placed it on the tresses of the first royal lady who had worn it since its rightful owner died a hundred years before.
   A heavy silence fell on the hall as I finished, and nothing was heard for a time save Heru sobbing on my breast and a thirsty baby somewhere outside calling to its mother for the water that was not to be had. But presently on those sounds came the fall of anxious feet, and a messenger, entering the doorway, approached the throne, laid himself out flat twice, after which obeisance he proceeded to remind the king of the morning's ceremonial on a distant hill to "pray away the comet," telling his majesty that all was ready and the procession anxiously awaiting him.
   Whereon Ar-hap, obviously very well content to change the subject, rose, and, coming down from the dais, gave me his hand. He was a fine fellow, as I have said, strong and bold, and had not behaved badly for an autocrat, so that I gripped his mighty fist with great pleasure.
   "I cannot deny, stranger," he said, "that you have done all that has been asked of you, and the maid is fairly yours. Yet before you take away the prize I must have some assurance of what you yourself will do with her. Therefore, for the moment, until this horrible thing in the sky which threatens my people with destruction has gone, let it be truce between us--you to your lodgings, and the princess back, unharmed, amongst my women till we meet again."
   "No, no," said the king, waving his hand. "Be content with your advantage. And now to business more important than ten thousand silly wenches," and gathering up his robes over his splendid war-gear the wood king stalked haughtily from the hall.

Chapter 18 >