Dare I say it? Dare I say that I, a plain, prosaic lieutenant in the republican service have done the incredible things here set out for the love of a woman—for a chimera in female shape; for a pale, vapid ghost of woman-loveliness? At times I tell myself I dare not: that you will laugh, and cast me aside as a fabricator; and then again I pick up my pen and collect the scattered pages, for I MUST write it—the pallid splendour of that thing I loved, and won, and lost is ever before me, and will not be forgotten. The tumult of the struggle into which that vision led me still throbs in my mind, the soft, lisping voices of the planet I ransacked for its sake and the roar of the destruction which followed me back from the quest drowns all other sounds in my ears! I must and will write—it relieves me; read and believe as you list.
At the moment this story commences I was thinking of grilled steak and tomatoes—steak crisp and brown on both sides, and tomatoes red as a setting sun!
Much else though I have forgotten, THAT fact remains as clear as the last sight of a well-remembered shore in the mind of some wave-tossed traveller. And the occasion which produced that prosaic thought was a night well calculated to make one think of supper and fireside, though the one might be frugal and the other lonely, and as I, Gulliver Jones, the poor foresaid Navy lieutenant, with the honoured stars of our Republic on my collar, and an undeserved snub from those in authority rankling in my heart, picked my way homeward by a short cut through the dismalness of a New York slum I longed for steak and stout, slippers and a pipe, with all the pathetic keenness of a troubled soul.
It was a wild, black kind of night, and the weirdness of it showed up as I passed from light to light or crossed the mouths of dim alleys leading Heaven knows to what infernal dens of mystery and crime even in this latter-day city of ours. The moon was up as far as the church steeples; large vapoury clouds scudding across the sky between us and her, and a strong, gusty wind, laden with big raindrops snarled angrily round corners and sighed in the parapets like strange voices talking about things not of human interest.
It made no difference to me, of course. New York in this year of grace is not the place for the supernatural be the time never so fit for witch-riding and the night wind in the chimney-stacks sound never so much like the last gurgling cries of throttled men. No! the world was very matter-of-fact, and particularly so to me, a poor younger son with five dollars in my purse by way of fortune, a packet of unpaid bills in my breastpocket, and round my neck a locket with a portrait therein of that dear buxom, freckled, stub-nosed girl away in a little southern seaport town whom I thought I loved with a magnificent affection. Gods! I had not even touched the fringe of that affliction.
Thus sauntering along moodily, my chin on my chest and much too absorbed in reflection to have any nice appreciation of what was happening about me, I was crossing in front of a dilapidated block of houses, dating back nearly to the time of the Pilgrim Fathers, when I had a vague consciousness of something dark suddenly sweeping by me—a thing like a huge bat, or a solid shadow, if such a thing could be, and the next instant there was a thud and a bump, a bump again, a half-stifled cry, and then a hurried vision of some black carpeting that flapped and shook as though all the winds of Eblis were in its folds, and then apparently disgorged from its inmost recesses a little man.
Before my first start of half-amused surprise was over I saw him by the flickering lamp-light clutch at space as he tried to steady himself, stumble on the slippery curb, and the next moment go down on the back of his head with a most ugly thud.
Now I was not destitute of feeling, though it had been my lot to see men die in many ways, and I ran over to that motionless form without an idea that anything but an ordinary accident had occurred. There he lay, silent and, as it turned out afterwards, dead as a door-nail, the strangest old fellow ever eyes looked upon, dressed in shabby sorrel-coloured clothes of antique cut, with a long grey beard upon his chin, pent-roof eyebrows, and a wizened complexion so puckered and tanned by exposure to Heaven only knew what weathers that it was impossible to guess his nationality.
I lifted him up out of the puddle of black blood in which he was lying, and his head dropped back over my arm as though it had been fixed to his body with string alone. There was neither heart-beat nor breath in him, and the last flicker of life faded out of that gaunt face even as I watched. It was not altogether a pleasant situation, and the only thing to do appeared to be to get the dead man into proper care (though little good it could do him now!) as speedily as possible. So, sending a chance passer-by into the main street for a cab, I placed him into it as soon as it came, and there being nobody else to go, got in with him myself, telling the driver at the same time to take us to the nearest hospital.
"Is this your rug, captain?" asked a bystander just as we were driving off.
"Not mine," I answered somewhat roughly. "You don't suppose I go about at this time of night with Turkey carpets under my arm, do you? It belongs to this old chap here who has just dropped out of the skies on to his head; chuck it on top and shut the door!" And that rug, the very mainspring of the startling things which followed, was thus carelessly thrown on to the carriage, and off we went.
Well, to be brief, I handed in that stark old traveller from nowhere at the hospital, and as a matter of curiosity sat in the waiting-room while they examined him. In five minutes the house-surgeon on duty came in to see me, and with a shake of his head said briefly—
"Gone, sir—clean gone! Broke his neck like a pipe-stem. Most strange-looking man, and none of us can even guess at his age. Not a friend of yours, I suppose?"
"Nothing whatever to do with me, sir. He slipped on the pavement and fell in front of me just now, and as a matter of common charity I brought him in here. Were there any means of identification on him?"
"None whatever," answered the doctor, taking out his notebook and, as a matter of form, writing down my name and address and a few brief particulars, "nothing whatever except this curious-looking bead hung round his neck by a blackened thong of leather," and he handed me a thing about as big as a filbert nut with a loop for suspension and apparently of rock crystal, though so begrimed and dull its nature was difficult to speak of with certainty. The bead was of no seeming value and slipped unintentionally into my waistcoat pocket as I chatted for a few minutes more with the doctor, and then, shaking hands, I said goodbye, and went back to the cab which was still waiting outside.
It was only on reaching home I noticed the hospital porters had omitted to take the dead man's carpet from the roof of the cab when they carried him in, and as the cabman did not care about driving back to the hospital with it, and it could not well be left in the street, I somewhat reluctantly carried it indoors with me.
Once in the shine of my own lamp and a cigar in my mouth I had a closer look at that ancient piece of art work from heaven, or the other place, only knows what ancient loom.
A big, strong rug of faded Oriental colouring, it covered half the floor of my sitting-room, the substance being of a material more like camel's hair than anything else, and running across, when examined closely, were some dark fibres so long and fine that surely they must have come from the tail of Solomon's favourite black stallion itself. But the strangest thing about that carpet was its pattern. It was threadbare enough to all conscience in places, yet the design still lived in solemn, age-wasted hues, and, as I dragged it to my stove-front and spread it out, it seemed to me that it was as much like a star map done by a scribe who had lately recovered from delirium tremens as anything else. In the centre appeared a round such as might be taken for the sun, while here and there, "in the field," as heralds say, were lesser orbs which from their size and position could represent smaller worlds circling about it. Between these orbs were dotted lines and arrow-heads of the oldest form pointing in all directions, while all the intervening spaces were filled up with woven characters half-way in appearance between Runes and Cryptic-Sanskrit. Round the borders these characters ran into a wild maze, a perfect jungle of an alphabet through which none but a wizard could have forced a way in search of meaning.
Altogether, I thought as I kicked it out straight upon my floor, it was a strange and not unhandsome article of furniture—it would do nicely for the mess-room on the Carolina, and if any representatives of yonder poor old fellow turned up tomorrow, why, I would give them a couple of dollars for it. Little did I guess how dear it would be at any price!
Meanwhile that steak was late, and now that the temporary excitement of the evening was wearing off I fell dull again. What a dark, sodden world it was that frowned in on me as I moved over to the window and opened it for the benefit of the cool air, and how the wind howled about the roof tops. How lonely I was! What a fool I had been to ask for long leave and come ashore like this, to curry favour with a set of stubborn dunderheads who cared nothing for me—or Polly, and could not or would not understand how important it was to the best interests of the Service that I should get that promotion which alone would send me back to her an eligible wooer! What a fool I was not to have volunteered for some desperate service instead of wasting time like this! Then at least life would have been interesting; now it was dull as ditch-water, with wretched vistas of stagnant waiting between now and that joyful day when I could claim that dear, rosy-checked girl for my own. What a fool I had been!
"I wish, I wish," I exclaimed, walking round the little room, "I wish I were—"
While these unfinished exclamations were actually passing my lips I chanced to cross that infernal mat, and it is no more startling than true, but at my word a quiver of expectation ran through that gaunt web—a rustle of anticipation filled its ancient fabric, and one frayed corner surged up, and as I passed off its surface in my stride, the sentence still unfinished on my lips, wrapped itself about my left leg with extraordinary swiftness and so effectively that I nearly fell into the arms of my landlady, who opened the door at the moment and came in with a tray and the steak and tomatoes mentioned more than once already.
It was the draught caused by the opening door, of course, that had made the dead man's rug lift so strangely—what else could it have been? I made this apology to the good woman, and when she had set the table and closed the door took another turn or two about my den, continuing as I did so my angry thoughts.
"Yes, yes," I said at last, returning to the stove and taking my stand, hands in pockets, in front of it, "anything were better than this, any enterprise however wild, any adventure however desperate. Oh, I wish I were anywhere but here, anywhere out of this redtape-ridden world of ours! I WISH I WERE IN THE PLANET MARS!"
How can I describe what followed those luckless words? Even as I spoke the magic carpet quivered responsively under my feet, and an undulation went all round the fringe as though a sudden wind were shaking it. It humped up in the middle so abruptly that I came down sitting with a shock that numbed me for the moment. It threw me on my back and billowed up round me as though I were in the trough of a stormy sea. Quicker than I can write it lapped a corner over and rolled me in its folds like a chrysalis in a cocoon. I gave a wild yell and made one frantic struggle, but it was too late. With the leathery strength of a giant and the swiftness of an accomplished cigar-roller covering a "core" with leaf, it swamped my efforts, straightened my limbs, rolled me over, lapped me in fold after fold till head and feet and everything were gone—crushed life and breath back into my innermost being, and then, with the last particle of consciousness, I felt myself lifted from the floor, pass once round the room, and finally shoot out, point foremost, into space through the open window, and go up and up and up with a sound of rending atmospheres that seemed to tear like riven silk in one prolonged shriek under my head, and to close up in thunder astern until my reeling senses could stand it no longer, and time and space and circumstances all lost their meaning to me.
How long that wild rush lasted I have no means of judging. It may have been an hour, a day, or many days, for I was throughout in a state of suspended animation, but presently my senses began to return and with them a sensation of lessening speed, a grateful relief to a heavy pressure which had held my life crushed in its grasp, without destroying it completely. It was just that sort of sensation though more keen which, drowsy in his bunk, a traveller feels when he is aware, without special perception, harbour is reached and a voyage comes to an end. But in my case the slowing down was for a long time comparative. Yet the sensation served to revive my scattered senses, and just as I was awakening to a lively sense of amazement, an incredible doubt of my own emotions, and an eager desire to know what had happened, my strange conveyance oscillated once or twice, undulated lightly up and down, like a woodpecker flying from tree to tree, and then grounded, bows first, rolled over several times, then steadied again, and, coming at last to rest, the next minute the infernal rug opened, quivering along all its borders in its peculiar way, and humping up in the middle shot me five feet into the air like a cat tossed from a schoolboy's blanket.
As I turned over I had a dim vision of a clear light like the shine of dawn, and solid ground sloping away below me. Upon that slope was ranged a crowd of squatting people, and a staid-looking individual with his back turned stood nearer by. Afterwards I found he was lecturing all those sitters on the ethics of gravity and the inherent properties of falling bodies; at the moment I only knew he was directly in my line as I descended, and him round the waist I seized, giddy with the light and fresh air, waltzed him down the slope with the force of my impetus, and, tripping at the bottom, rolled over and over recklessly with him sheer into the arms of the gaping crowd below. Over and over we went into the thickest mass of bodies, making a way through the people, until at last we came to a stop in a perfect mound of writhing forms and waving legs and arms. When we had done the mass disentangled itself and I was able to raise my head from the shoulder of someone on whom I had fallen, lifting him, or her—which was it?—into a sitting posture alongside of me at the same time, while the others rose about us like wheat-stalks after a storm, and edged shyly off, as well as they might.
Such a sleek, slim youth it was who sat up facing me, with a flush of gentle surprise on his face, and dapper hands that felt cautiously about his anatomy for injured places. He looked so quaintly rueful yet withal so good-tempered that I could not help bursting into laughter in spite of my own amazement. Then he laughed too, a sedate, musical chuckle, and said something incomprehensible, pointing at the same time to a cut upon my finger that was bleeding a little. I shook my head, meaning thereby that it was nothing, but the stranger with graceful solicitude took my hand, and, after examining the hurt, deliberately tore a strip of cloth from a bright yellow toga-like garment he was wearing and bound the place up with a woman's tenderness.
Meanwhile, as he ministered, there was time to look about me. Where was I? It was not the Broadway; it was not Staten Island on a Saturday afternoon. The night was just over, and the sun on the point of rising. Yet it was still shadowy all about, the air being marvellously tepid and pleasant to the senses. Quaint, soft aromas like the breath of a new world—the fragrance of unknown flowers, and the dewy scent of never-trodden fields drifted to my nostrils; and to my ears came a sound of laughter scarcely more human than the murmur of the wind in the trees, and a pretty undulating whisper as though a great concourse of people were talking softly in their sleep. I gazed about scarcely knowing how much of my senses or surroundings were real and how much fanciful, until I presently became aware the rosy twilight was broadening into day, and under the increasing shine a strange scene was fashioning itself.
At first it was an opal sea I looked on of mist, shot along its upper surface with the rosy gold and pinks of dawn. Then, as that soft, translucent lake ebbed, jutting hills came through it, black and crimson, and as they seemed to mount into the air other lower hills showed through the veil with rounded forest knobs till at last the brightening day dispelled the mist, and as the rosy-coloured gauzy fragments went slowly floating away a wonderfully fair country lay at my feet, with a broad sea glimmering in many arms and bays in the distance beyond. It was all dim and unreal at first, the mountains shadowy, the ocean unreal, the flowery fields between it and me vacant and shadowy.
Yet were they vacant? As my eyes cleared and day brightened still more, and I turned my head this way and that, it presently dawned upon me all the meadow coppices and terraces northwards of where I lay, all that blue and spacious ground I had thought to be bare and vacant, were alive with a teeming city of booths and tents; now I came to look more closely there was a whole town upon the slope, built as might be in a night of boughs and branches still unwithered, the streets and ways of that city in the shadows thronged with expectant people moving in groups and shifting to and fro in lively streams—chatting at the stalls and clustering round the tent doors in soft, gauzy, parti-coloured crowds in a way both fascinating and perplexing.
I stared about me like a child at its first pantomime, dimly understanding all I saw was novel, but more allured to the colour and life of the picture than concerned with its exact meaning; and while I stared and turned my finger was bandaged, and my new friend had been lisping away to me without getting anything in turn but a shake of the head. This made him thoughtful, and thereon followed a curious incident which I cannot explain. I doubt even whether you will believe it; but what am I to do in that case? You have already accepted the episode of my coming, or you would have shut the covers before arriving at this page of my modest narrative, and this emboldens me. I may strengthen my claim on your credulity by pointing out the extraordinary marvels which science is teaching you even on our own little world. To quote a single instance: If any one had declared ten years ago that it would shortly be practicable and easy for two persons to converse from shore to shore across the Atlantic without any intervening medium, he would have been laughed at as a possibly amusing but certainly extravagant romancer. Yet that picturesque lie of yesterday is amongst the accomplished facts of today! Therefore I am encouraged to ask your indulgence, in the name of your previous errors, for the following and any other instances in which I may appear to trifle with strict veracity. There is no such thing as the impossible in our universe!
When my friendly companion found I could not understand him, he looked serious for a minute or two, then shortened his brilliant yellow toga, as though he had arrived at some resolve, and knelt down directly in front of me. He next took my face between his hands, and putting his nose within an inch of mine, stared into my eyes with all his might. At first I was inclined to laugh, but before long the most curious sensations took hold of me. They commenced with a thrill which passed all up my body, and next all feeling save the consciousness of the loud beating of my heart ceased. Then it seemed that boy's eyes were inside my head and not outside, while along with them an intangible something pervaded my brain. The sensation at first was like the application of ether to the skin—a cool, numbing emotion. It was followed by a curious tingling feeling, as some dormant cells in my mind answered to the thought-transfer, and were filled and fertilised! My other brain-cells most distinctly felt the vitalising of their companions, and for about a minute I experienced extreme nausea and a headache such as comes from over-study, though both passed swiftly off. I presume that in the future we shall all obtain knowledge in this way. The Professors of a later day will perhaps keep shops for the sale of miscellaneous information, and we shall drop in and be inflated with learning just as the bicyclist gets his tire pumped up, or the motorist is recharged with electricity at so much per unit. Examinations will then become matters of capacity in the real meaning of that word, and we shall be tempted to invest our pocket-money by advertisements of "A cheap line in Astrology," "Try our double-strength, two-minute course of Classics," "This is remnant day for Trigonometry and Metaphysics," and so on.
My friend did not get as far as that. With him the process did not take more than a minute, but it was startling in its results, and reduced me to an extraordinary state of hypnotic receptibility. When it was over my instructor tapped with a finger on my lips, uttering aloud as he did so the words—
"Know none; know some; know little; know morel" again and again; and the strangest part of it is that as he spoke I did know at first a little, then more, and still more, by swift accumulation, of his speech and meaning. In fact, when presently he suddenly laid a hand over my eyes and then let go of my head with a pleasantly put question as to how I felt, I had no difficulty whatever in answering him in his own tongue, and rose from the ground as one gets from a hair-dresser's chair, with a vague idea of looking round for my hat and offering him his fee.
"My word, sir!" I said, in lisping Martian, as I pulled down my cuffs and put my cravat straight, "that was a quick process. I once heard of a man who learnt a language in the moments he gave each day to having his boots blacked; but this beats all. I trust I was a docile pupil?"
"Oh, fairly, sir," answered the soft, musical voice of the strange being by me; "but your head is thick and your brain tough. I could have taught another in half the time."
"Curiously enough," was my response, "those are almost the very words with which my dear old tutor dismissed me the morning I left college. Never mind, the thing is done. Shall I pay you anything?"
"I do not understand."
"Any honorarium, then? Some people understand one word and not the other." But the boy only shook his head in answer.
Strangely enough, I was not greatly surprised all this time either at the novelty of my whereabouts or at the hypnotic instruction in a new language just received. Perhaps it was because my head still spun too giddily with that flight in the old rug for much thought; perhaps because I did not yet fully realise the thing that had happened. But, anyhow, there is the fact, which, like so many others in my narrative, must, alas! remain unexplained for the moment. The rug, by the way, had completely disappeared, my friend comforting me on this score, however, by saying he had seen it rolled up and taken away by one whom he knew.
"We are very tidy people here, stranger," he said, "and everything found Lying about goes back to the Palace store-rooms. You will laugh to see the lumber there, for few of us ever take the trouble to reclaim our property."
Heaven knows I was in no laughing mood when I saw that enchanted web again!
When I had lain and watched the brightening scene for a time, I got up, and having stretched and shaken my clothes into some sort of order, we strolled down the hill and joined the light-hearted crowds that twined across the plain and through the streets of their city of booths. They were the prettiest, daintiest folk ever eyes looked upon, well-formed and like to us as could be in the main, but slender and willowy, so dainty and light, both the men and the women, so pretty of cheek and hair, so mild of aspect, I felt, as I strode amongst them, I could have plucked them like flowers and bound them up in bunches with my belt. And yet somehow I liked them from the first minute; such a happy, careless, light-hearted race, again I say, never was seen before. There was not a stain of thought or care on a single one of those white foreheads that eddied round me under their peaked, blossom-like caps, the perpetual smile their faces wore never suffered rebuke anywhere; their very movements were graceful and slow, their laughter was low and musical, there was an odour of friendly, slothful happiness about them that made me admire whether I would or no.
Unfortunately I was not able to live on laughter, as they appeared to be, so presently turning to my acquaintance, who had told me his name was the plain monosyllabic An, and clapping my hand on his shoulder as he stood lost in sleepy reflection, said, in a good, hearty way, "Hullo, friend Yellow-jerkin! If a stranger might set himself athwart the cheerful current of your meditations, may such a one ask how far 'tis to the nearest wine-shop or a booth where a thirsty man may get a mug of ale at a moderate reckoning?"
That gilded youth staggered under my friendly blow as though the hammer of Thor himself had suddenly lit upon his shoulder, and ruefully rubbing his tender skin, he turned on me mild, handsome eyes, answering after a moment, during which his native mildness struggled with the pain I had unwittingly given him—
"If your thirst be as emphatic as your greeting, friend Heavy-fist, it will certainly be a kindly deed to lead you to the drinking-place. My shoulder tingles with your good-fellowship," he added, keeping two arms'-lengths clear of me. "Do you wish," he said, "merely to cleanse a dusty throat, or for blue or pink oblivion?"
"Why," I answered laughingly, "I have come a longish journey since yesterday night—a journey out of count of all reasonable mileage—and I might fairly plead a dusty throat as excuse for a beginning; but as to the other things mentioned, those tinted forgetfulnesses, I do not even know what you mean."
"Undoubtedly you are a stranger," said the friendly youth, eyeing me from top to toe with renewed wonder, "and by your unknown garb one from afar."
"From how far no man can say—not even I—but from very far, in truth. Let that stay your curiosity for the time. And now to bench and ale-mug, on good fellow!—the shortest way. I was never so thirsty as this since our water-butts went overboard when I sailed the southern seas as a tramp apprentice, and for three days we had to damp our black tongues with the puddles the night-dews left in the lift of our mainsail."
Without more words, being a little awed of me, I thought, the boy led me through the good-humoured crowd to where, facing the main road to the town, but a little sheltered by a thicket of trees covered with gigantic pink blossoms, stood a drinking-place—a cluster of tables set round an open grass-plot. Here he brought me a platter of some light inefficient cakes which merely served to make hunger more self-conscious, and some fine aromatic wine contained in a triple-bodied flask, each division containing vintage of a separate hue. We broke our biscuits, sipped that mysterious wine, and talked of many things until at last something set us on the subject of astronomy, a study I found my dapper gallant had some knowledge of—which was not to be wondered at seeing he dwelt under skies each night set thick above his curly head with tawny planets, and glittering constellations sprinkled through space like flowers in May meadows. He knew what worlds went round the sun, larger or lesser, and seeing this I began to question him, for I was uneasy in my innermost mind and, you will remember, so far had no certain knowledge of where I was, only a dim, restless suspicion that I had come beyond the ken of all men's knowledge.
Therefore, sweeping clear the board with my sleeve, and breaking the wafer cake I was eating, I set down one central piece for the sun, and, "See here!" I said, "good fellow! This morsel shall stand for that sun you have just been welcoming back with quaint ritual. Now stretch your starry knowledge to the utmost, and put down that tankard for a moment. If this be yonder sun and this lesser crumb be the outermost one of our revolving system, and this the next within, and this the next, and so on; now if this be so tell me which of these fragmentary orbs is ours—which of all these crumbs from the hand of the primordial would be that we stand upon?" And I waited with an anxiety a light manner thinly hid, to hear his answer.
It came at once. Laughing as though the question were too trivial, and more to humour my wayward fancy than aught else, that boy circled his rosy thumb about a minute and brought it down on the planet Mars!
I started and stared at him; then all of a tremble cried, "You trifle with me! Choose again—there, see, I will set the symbols and name them to you anew. There now, on your soul tell me truly which this planet is, the one here at our feet?" And again the boy shook his head, wondering at my eagerness, and pointed to Mars, saying gently as he did so the fact was certain as the day above us, nothing was marvellous but my questioning.
Mars! oh, dreadful, tremendous, unexpected! With a cry of affright, and bringing my fist down on the table till all the cups upon it leapt, I told him he lied—lied like a simpleton whose astronomy was as rotten as his wit—smote the table and scowled at him for a spell, then turned away and let my chin fall upon my breast and my hands upon my lap.
And yet, and yet, it might be so! Everything about me was new and strange, the crisp, thin air I breathed was new; the lukewarm sunshine new; the sleek, long, ivory faces of the people new! Yesterday—was it yesterday?—I was back there—away in a world that pines to know of other worlds, and one fantastic wish of mine, backed by a hideous, infernal chance, had swung back the doors of space and shot me—if that boy spoke true—into the outer void where never living man had been before: all my wits about me, all the horrible bathos of my earthly clothing on me, all my terrestrial hungers in my veins!
I sprang to my feet and swept my hands across my eyes. Was that a dream, or this? No, no, both were too real. The hum of my faraway city still rang in my ears: a swift vision of the girl I had loved; of the men I had hated; of the things I had hoped for rose before me, still dazing my inner eye. And these about me were real people, too; it was real earth; real skies, trees, and rocks—had the infernal gods indeed heard, I asked myself, the foolish wish that started from my lips in a moment of fierce discontent, and swept me into another sphere, another existence? I looked at the boy as though he could answer that question, but there was nothing in his face but vacuous wonder; I clapped my hands together and beat my breast; it was true; my soul within me said it was true; the boy had not lied; the djins had heard; I was just in the flesh I had; my common human hungers still unsatisfied where never mortal man had hungered before; and scarcely knowing whether I feared or not, whether to laugh or cry, but with all the wonder and terror of that great remove sweeping suddenly upon me I staggered back to my seat, and dropping my arms upon the table, leant my head heavily upon them and strove to choke back the passion which beset me.
It was the light touch of the boy An upon my shoulder which roused me. He was bending down, his pretty face full of concernful sympathy, and in a minute said—knowing nothing of my thoughts, of course.
"It is the wine, stranger, the pink oblivion, it sometimes makes one feel like that until enough is taken; you stopped just short of what you should have had, and the next cup would have been delight—I should have told you."
"Ay," I answered, glad he should think so, "it was the wine, no doubt; your quaint drink, sir, tangled up my senses for the moment, but they are clearer now, and I am eager past expression to learn a little more of this strange country I have wandered into."
"I would rather," said the boy, relapsing again into his state of kindly lethargy, "that you learnt things as you went, for talking is work, and work we hate, but today we are all new and fresh, and if ever you are to ask questions now is certainly the time. Come with me to the city yonder, and as we go I will answer the things you wish to know;" and I went with him, for I was humble and amazed, and, in truth, at that moment, had not a word to say for myself.
All the way from the plain where I had awoke to the walls of the city stood booths, drinking-places, and gardens divided by labyrinths of canals, and embowered in shrubberies that seemed coming into leaf and flower as we looked, so swift was the process of their growth. These waterways were covered with skiffs being pushed and rowed in every direction; the cheerful rowers calling to each other through the leafy screens separating one lane from another till the place was full of their happy chirruping. Every booth and way-side halting-place was thronged with these delicate and sprightly people, so friendly, so gracious, and withal so purposeless.
I began to think we should never reach the town itself, for first my guide would sit down on a green stream-bank, his feet a-dangle in the clear water, and bandy wit with a passing boat as though there were nothing else in the world to think of. And when I dragged him out of that, whispering in his ear, "The town, my dear boy! the town! I am all agape to see it," he would saunter reluctantly to a booth a hundred yards further on and fall to eating strange confections or sipping coloured wines with chance acquaintances, till again I plucked him by the sleeve and said: "Seth, good comrade—was it not so you called your city just now?—take me to the gates, and I will be grateful to you," then on again down a flowery lane, aimless and happy, wasting my time and his, with placid civility I was led by that simple guide.
Wherever we went the people stared at me, as well they might, as I walked through them overtopping the tallest by a head or more. The drinking-cups paused half-way to their mouths; the jests died away upon their lips; and the blinking eyes of the drinkers shone with a momentary sparkle of wonder as their minds reeled down those many-tinted floods to the realms of oblivion they loved.
I heard men whisper one to another, "Who is he?"; "Whence does he come?"; "Is he a tribute-taker?" as I strolled amongst them, my mind still so thrilled with doubt and wonder that to me they seemed hardly more than painted puppets, the vistas of their lovely glades and the ivory town beyond only the fancy of a dream, and their talk as incontinent as the babble of a stream.
Then happily, as I walked along with bent head brooding over the incredible thing that had happened, my companion's shapely legs gave out, and with a sigh of fatigue he suggested we should take a skiff amongst the many lying about upon the margins and sail towards the town, "For," said he, "the breeze blows thitherward, and 'tis a shame to use one's limbs when Nature will carry us for nothing!"
"But have you a boat of your own hereabouts?" I queried; "for to tell the truth I came from home myself somewhat poorly provided with means to buy or barter, and if your purse be not heavier than mine we must still do as poor men do."
"Oh!" said An, "there is no need to think of that, no one here to hire or hire of; we will just take the first skiff we see that suits us."
"And what if the owner should come along and find his boat gone?"
"Why, what should he do but take the next along the bank, and the master of that the next again—how else could it be?" said the Martian, and shrugging my shoulders, for I was in no great mood to argue, we went down to the waterway, through a thicket of budding trees underlaid with a carpet of small red flowers filling the air with a scent of honey, and soon found a diminutive craft pulled up on the bank. There were some dainty cloaks and wraps in it which An took out and laid under a tree. But first he felt in the pouch of one for a sweetmeat which his fine nostrils, acute as a squirrel's, told him was there, and taking the lump out bit a piece from it, afterwards replacing it in the owner's pocket with the frankest simplicity.
Then we pushed off, hoisted the slender mast, set the smallest lug-sail that ever a sailor smiled at, and, myself at the helm, and that golden youth amidships, away we drifted under thickets of drooping canes tasselled with yellow catkin-flowers, up the blue alley of the water into the broader open river beyond with its rapid flow and crowding boats, the white city front now towering clear before us.
The air was full of sunshine and merry voices; birds were singing, trees were budding; only my heart was heavy, my mind confused. Yet why should I be sad, I said to myself presently? Life beat in my pulses; what had I to fear? This world I had tumbled into was new and strange, no doubt, but tomorrow it would be old and familiar; it discredited my manhood to sit brow-bent like that, so with an effort I roused myself.
"Old chap!" I said to my companion, as he sat astride of a thwart slowly chewing something sticky and eyeing me out of the corner of his eyes with vapid wonder, "tell me something of this land of yours, or something about yourself—which reminds me I have a question to ask.