[From the Sydney Fowler Wright web site: www.sfw.org]
by S. Fowler Wright
George G. Harrap
SHE looked at the magician with eyes that were bright and rather hard, and disputed the evidence of a dimple that came easily.
She was twenty-eight, and looked younger.
"It must be a dry cave, and large and vacant. I hate snakes. I mayn't stay there; but, at least, I'll begin with a cave. I'm not going to find myself drenched with rain before I've had time to turn round."
The magician looked worried, and felt more so.
"My dear Miss Leinster," he said, "I'll do my best. But a dry cave you know they're not common, except in fiction. And they're popular with so many creatures when they do exist. A dry cave, and vacant. I'll do my best. But what would you say to a tree? A really good tree, safe and high?"
"But you said they were dreams?"
"So they are; and so are we, for that matter. They're as real as we are. The human mind cannot invent anything. I couldn't have given you a dream of Atlantis unless it had once been real, and you were there as really as anyone ever was."
"I don't understand," she answered, "and I don't suppose you do either. But I'm going to dream a dry cave for a start this time, or it's the last deal we have."
The magician raised a white and well-fed hand in a gesture of protest. "Miss Leinster!" he said, "have I ever failed in a promise?"
"No," she said. "I had the goods, and I've paid the price and it only makes me resolved to go farther. I know our world from Tibet to the Amazon. Thanks to you I've seen Atlantis, and I've had a few months in Babylon. But I want something primitive this time. I don't care how primitive. And I want a safe place to start from."
She leant forward slightly, and her tone changed. "You might tell me this: Could I get killed in a dream?"
He answered frankly: "I don't know. I don't really know much about it. I've found out some things that are new and seemed strange at first, but they're obvious enough when once you get used to them... In a way, you ought to know better than I."
"Well," she said, "perhaps I ought, but I don't. When I was in Babylon it seemed real. It doesn't seem like a dream now, when I think of it. I can still see Urdu's eyes when " She stopped, and her own eyes became introspective, and her mouth closed firmly. There was no dimple now. Then she shook herself free of the thing she saw, and continued more lightly: "I hurt my foot while I was there, rather badly. It was my fault. I didn't understand the rules of the traffic. There was no scar when I came back I don't know that there had been but it used to hurt in the same place when I thought of it, and sometimes when I didn't. But, then, if they're only dreams "
"I didn't say they were only dreams," he answered. "I should never say 'only' of any dream. We don't know what a dream is... But we do know this. When we dream we see places that never were, and we meet people that never lived. We don't suppose that they know that we make them. But suppose a god were to dream. Wouldn't he dream better than we can? Mightn't his dream be vivid enough to give his consciousness to the creatures of his imagination? And isn't that what we are?... I shouldn't say 'only a dream' if I were you; and I certainly shouldn't try getting killed in it."
She looked at him with amused and friendly eyes, and her lips curved into laughter. "I suppose that's why you like to be paid first... But you're always straight, though you're rather dear. I must trust you for the cave."
"Well," he said, "I won't let you down. I'll tell you if I can't find it just to your liking. But you must give me a clear week from today. I may have to go back a long time. But you shall have it primitive enough. It won't be safe but you know that... Can't we compromise on a really good tree, with a cave to follow?"
"Well," she said doubtfully, "I don't want to be unreasonable. I suppose a dry cave wasn't often to let. If it's a good safe tree "
The magician sighed his relief.
"You can see where you are from a tree," he said. "It gives you a better start."
"Yes," she said, but without enthusiasm, "perhaps it does. But suppose there's some one or some thing at the foot... some one who might do something unpleasant, without waiting long enough to talk it over when we get there together?"
"I have wondered," he said, giving no direct answer, "how you have got over the language difficulty?"
"I was meaning to ask you about that," she replied, "because I had two different experiences. I could not understand anything in Babylon. I never really learned their language the whole time. I was like a wild creature that has lost itself among city streets. The safest time I had was when I was awaiting sale in the slave-pens. But in Atlantis it was quite different. I could talk their tongue from the first. I knew all their ways. I felt and was accepted as one who had been born among them. They knew me by name, and yet I was myself, with my own memories. It was only when I refused to marry the King's nephew that they began to think that something was a bit queer. Ah-Tem, the psychologist, wasn't puzzled even then. He said it was a case of dual personality."
"He may have been right," the magician answered; "but such things are not easy to understand."
IT was two days later when the magician was busy in his private laboratory that he heard a sudden noise of confused shouting in his outer apartment. He was not easily flurried, and he continued his occupation calmly.
At exact intervals of seven seconds he was dropping a golden coin into a sliding funnel, which carried it into a square, bronze-coloured cylinder glowing with heat, From a spout in the farther side of this a thin stream of molten gold trickled into an open bowl of a dull green metallic lustre, surrounded by scroll-work of intricate and snake-like pattern. The bowl must have applied an intense heat to the liquid metal it received, the source of which was not apparent, for from it rose a heavy vapour which was continually received by an overhanging cone, so that the quantity which the bowl held remained constant.
He had dropped in only two more of the golden discs, so that the interval was less than a quarter of a minute, before the door was flung violently backward, and a young man, very tall and largely made, burst into the room.
"Who are you?" asked the magician, in a voice that sounded cool and preoccupied.
"I want to know what the devil you've done with her."
The magician was not a man of exceptional physical courage, and he suffered from a flabby heart, the result of a long period of excessive eating, from which all his wisdom was insufficient to save him. He was aware that he was in some danger of physical assault, which he would be ill-fitted to resist, yet he had confidence in his own adroitness to avoid the danger, and he answered quietly:
"Will you tell me who you are, and of whom you speak?"
"You know who I am well enough. What have you done with Miss Leinster?"
The magician ceased his occupation, and crossed the room to the seat which he usually occupied when receiving callers.
He motioned his visitor to a stool at the other side of the table.
"If you can show me that you have a right to inquire," he said reasonably, "I will give you any information which I possess."
"Then you do know, you you lousy trickster! This is the third time, and if you think I'll leave this room till I know "
"Do you observe that the atmosphere is not quite as pleasant as it was?"
"There's a foul stench about, if you mean that."
"Yes. It will get worse till I resume the work which you interrupted so impetuously. If I am not back at it within about fifteen minutes, I doubt whether either of us will leave the room alive."
"I shall leave this room when I damned well please, but I'll get the truth first, if I wring "
"The door closes with a spring lock. You could not find the secret to open it in a week."
"Then get on with your work, and we can talk at the same time."
"I prefer not to do two things at once."
"Then tell me what I've asked, and I'll clear out."
"I don't know that you have any right to ask it."
"Miss Leinster is engaged to marry me in a month's time."
The magician looked surprised. "I should need proof."
His visitor drew a small folded note from his pocket, and tossed it across the table. "You can read that, if you like."
The magician opened it with deliberation. He read:DEAR PRINCE,He looked up speculatively. "Are you a prince?"
If I'm above ground in a month's time, it's a deal.
"Am I a fool? That's a nickname, of course."
"Why do you suppose that I should be interested in your mother's letters?"
"In my It's not my mother, of course. It's Marguerite."
The magician looked at the letter and his impatient visitor, and at the letter again.
"I thought," he said, half aloud, "that she was a sensible girl." His tone implied that a doubt had arisen. Then he remembered that she was no longer at hand. "Perhaps," he continued, "she is." He looked his visitor full in the eyes for the first time. "Mr Cranleigh," he said, "I will accept this note as authentic, and am willing to admit the interpretation which you would place upon it. It gives you some right to ask, and I will answer as well as I can. She has gone some distance, to a place of which I cannot give you the address. It is a locality which is actually under water at the present time. And, all being well, she should be back in about a fortnight from yesterday."
The young man was conscious that there were heavy fumes in the room, and that he was breathing with an increasing discomfort, but he held to his purpose tenaciously.
"I want something better than that. That's how it's been twice before. She's disappeared for a fortnight, and come back looking fagged out, and no explanation of where she's been."
"Has she told you nothing?"
"She tried to put me off with silly talk about Atlantis, and Nineveh, or Bagdad, or somewhere, till I got sick of it, and gave up asking."
"Then she told you the truth. She has gone farther on this occasion" He saw angry disbelief in the eyes that met him, and he went on: "Mr Cranleigh, why do you suppose I accepted that note as meaning something that it doesn't say?"
"Because you knew better than to call me a liar."
"Not at all. If I thought you wanted Miss Leinster, and wouldn't tell a lie to find her, I wouldn't lift a finger to help you. I believed you because, if you had been offering something that had been made to deceive me, you would have contrived a more explicit forgery... Now, you are an engineer, Mr Cranleigh. You know that you must deduce accurately, or that the price of error will be inexorably exacted... If I were aiming to deceive you, should I not have invented a more likely lie?"
"Have it your own way. But you'll be good enough to have her back in the next five minutes, or to show me how I can go to the same place."
"You are asking a difficult thing. At Miss Leinster's own request I have given her a dream by which she will have a year's experience in a very primitive land."
"A year? You said fourteen days."
"Pardon me. I said she should be with us in fourteen days. Dreams may pass very rapidly."
"But where is she asleep?"
"I cannot tell you that. The physical body disappears in these experiments. I do not understand why. Yet that they are of the nature of dreams there can be no doubt at all."
"If you'd come to the point, instead of talking all this patter... Do you like this stench?... If it's money you want "
A cheque-book came to sight. A fountain-pen poised for action.
Whether it were the sight of the ready pen, or that the fumes were becoming too noisome for his own endurance, may not be easy to decide, but the magician's foot moved under the table, and the door-lock clicked, and the door swung open. There was a movement of icy air. Stephen Cranleigh had a feeling that it swept round like a sentient thing, or like a housemaid's broom. He drew in delicious breaths.
"Come with me," said the magician. He led the way to an inner room. He showed a couch, on which lay a woman's clothes, not folded, but still retaining her shape in a flaccid way, as though her body had been withdrawn without altering the form in which they had covered it.
"In about thirteen days," he said, "I shall expect to find her sleeping there, and that she will wake within a few hours of that time. She will have had her dream."
The engineer looked at the magician in a very sceptical bewilderment. He could not positively recognize the clothes. He was unobservant of such details. Possibly this might explain why he had wooed Miss Leinster for three years without persuading her to the point of marriage. But he recognized the frock to be of a shade of red which he knew she wore.
"Will you swear she's safe?" he asked doubtfully. And then, as the magician hesitated in his reply, "Can you send me the same way?"
The magician was slow to answer. "I don't see why you shouldn't have the same dream," he said at length.
"Does that mean that I should actually get to her, or is it a fake?"
He weighed his answer with care. "To dream in common; to dream the same dream, at the same time, and to believe it true could there be a more effectual reality?"
"I suppose you can't help talking shop," was the impatient answer, as they returned to the laboratory. "How much will it cost?" He did not know what to believe, but he must take the risk. If it were all a silly bluff well, he would know in a few minutes. It was true that no harm had been done to Rita the times before, and whatever had happened she had come for it again.
"It will be two hundred pounds," the magician was saying, "and twenty more for spoiling the experiment that I had in hand."
"Does that cover two?" said a girl's voice from the shadows beyond the door.
Stephen Cranleigh started at the sound. "Elsie!" he exclaimed. "How did you ?"
"The young lady has been here all the time," the magician interrupted. "She followed you in."
As he spoke she advanced to the table, and laid her left hand on the cheque-book that still lay open upon it.
"Will that amount cover two?" she repeated.
The magician observed her hand to be brown and thin and nervous, and bare of rings. It was such a hand as he should have expected from the slim, upright body and small dark head.
"Oh, yes, Stephen, I shall! I shall go if you do," she went on, silencing his protests before they were spoken. Her voice was coaxing, with a note of nervousness, but yet definite, as of one who had learnt how to get her own way in earlier battles. He would have been less a magician than he was had he doubted how that debate would end. He was admiring the dark, pleading eyes, and the fine chiselling of wilful lips, as he said hastily, "It will be four hundred and twenty pounds but I suppose it ends here. I'm not going to do this for a crowd."
Stephen Cranleigh wrote the cheque.
RITA sat in an outer fork of a giant tree in the forest. Its branches spread widely over the interval of a forest aisle, where the yellow rhinos had made their ancient path to the water. They would come along it in the evening, their young cubs sporting clumsily behind cubs as large as the full-grown animals of the time from which she had come. But she did not think of that. She did not think of the size of the animals that would pass beneath her as extraordinary. Animals are large like that. They just are.
She did not think much about anything now. There is much to smell in the forest; so much to see; so much to feel; so much to hear; so much to taste. There is little time for thought, which is always dangerous.
It was a crooked bough, that reminded her of something that she had seen before. Her mind struggled with a reluctant memory, as it might do to recall a dream.
Suddenly she knew. It was like a branch that had obscured the light of her bedroom window and that she had had cut down a few weeks ago. It was a branch that she had often watched as she had lain awake in the early summer mornings, in no haste to rise. A most familiar thing. Yet she had recalled it with a mental effort that was almost torture. Was she forgetting entirely? Her mind was shocked to an instant clarity. It had not been so at Atlantis, nor at Babylon. In those adventures she had been aware always that she was a temporary stranger, who would awaken to her own place and time. But it was different here. Was it that she was so much farther away? Too far for even recollection to bridge the æons that lay between? If her memory went, would she lose herself, indeed? Would she fall from dream to reality, and return no more? She was frightened at that. She would not let herself forget. She would repeat each day... The shadow was moving from the bough she watched. It was at the very edge. The forest was so still that it did not flicker on the edge of a swaying branch. It moved steadily, as though it were a shadow on the ground.
There was no wind which a tree could feel, but she could feel it through her hair. It had been coming from directly behind her, as a wind should, so as not to ruffle the glossy smoothness of the fur; but it had shifted somewhat to her right, and she had been slow to adjust her own position. What strange thing could have made her so negligent?
If the wind were not at her back, what security could she have? She was frightened that she could have been so forgetful. Some dream. But even in sleep She must hold dreams in check, lest she die. Suppose that a tree-leopard Not that it would dare. But suppose it had.
...Or suppose that one of the hated Ogpur
She fancied hairy paws, that grasped her arms from behind. Her head twisted round with so abrupt a motion that a tufted grub-catcher fled from the tree, mocking her voice as it gained the shelter of a great sycamore on the farther side of the forest aisle. She would be careful to keep her ever-consciousness of vision and sound and scent. She would not dream again.
The hated Ogpurs they were creatures that ran upon the ground, hiding among the undergrowth, scraping under tree-roots, making holes like gigantic rabbit-burrows, feeding foully upon the flesh of the smaller creatures that they caught and tore with bloody nails.
They were not of her kind, though they might claim to be so. Nor were they of the kind of the cave-dwellers in the sea-cliffs, the lift of which she could see in the blue distance from the high perch she had chosen.
The Ogpurs were mongrels. They could not climb with the agility of her kind, and had she remained among her people she would have regarded the idea of any danger from them with a light derision. Had one of them ventured to climb among her fellows he would have been the instant centre of a chattering, excited mob, flinging great nuts from every side upon his blinking eyes, even perilously snatching at hand or foot to dislodge him, that he might fall to death upon the distant ground. What use would there be in strength of arm or jaw against foes that he could never reach?
No, the Ogpurs knew their place. If they came out in the open spaces of the forest they did it at the risk of a hard-flung nut and a cracked skull. Only at the drinking-pools might they emerge in safety at the proper period of the day...
And their fate would be worse than that should they venture out to the open downs, toward the sea-cliffs where the cave-men dwelt. Sling or catapult or throwing spear would send its message to meet them.
The men of the caves and trees might hate or despise each other, but the Ogpurs, who were the result of the crossing of the two breeds, were the contempt of both.
She knew that, should she consort with one of them, even though she were an unwilling captive, she would never be allowed to climb again among her own kind.
But she had little fear of that. Even here, alone, in the woods that were too near the cave-men's dwelling to be frequented by such as she, she had confidence in her own agility.
But what did she here alone, when the spring had come, and she was of an age to have been seeking a mate of her own kind?
There was one... She did not think with names, but by vision. We need not trouble about him. He will not concern us further. He was a rather fine specimen, darker-furred than most. He had a broken toe on his left foot.
Had she felt the grasp of his hands upon her, firm and strong, she might have bitten, but she was not sure that she would have bitten hard. It is pleasant to be loved in the spring-time. Very pleasant when you are young, and it is an experience which you have watched, but have been treated as too young to share.
But she did not anticipate such an experience. It was not etiquette for him to use force to obtain her. Not unless she should tease him to do it.
She knew that she could have had him had she willed; and, instead, she was sitting here, looking over to where the cliff-tops showed dim blue against a bluer sky.
But she was not sure what she wanted. It was not the way of the forest-folk to mate casually. Unions were for life, though they might commence with no more ceremony than a chase through swaying boughs, a cry and scuffle among the hiding leaves.
It was different in the caves... The cave-men might have more wives than one, might drive them out in anger, or even buy or exchange at a price. The cave-men were of a lower, hateful kind. They worked. They made implements. They hung grotesquely the skins of other creatures from their shoulders. They ate flesh and shell-fish, dabbling in dirt and blood. They had made their bodies insufficient, so that they must carry things about with them when they moved. Evil, indeed, would it be for one of her cleaner, untoiling kind to be the wife of such as they. To live in a cave which could not be kept habitable (if it could ever be so!) without ceaseless labour. To move encumbered with skins. To eat food which must be scorched beside the fires that ever burned on the rock-platforms.
Rita cracked a nut between sharp teeth, and flung the shell to the distant ground, Fruit and nuts for her. Clean food that never failed. To eat and sleep, that was her life, and to sport in the sunshine. That, and to sit in the high boughs, vaguely aware of beauty, satisfied with sound and sight and the joy of living.
Yet she had come here, none having seen her go or being curious to follow.
She had come here to watch for a sight of one of these cave-men whom she could not wish to wed, and who, she feared and it may have been the strongest urge that had brought her here in this futile folly had lacked the sense to admire her.
She did not doubt that she was a very beautiful woman. She was taller than some of the men. She had a secret belief that there were no longer arms in the forest. More than one of the boys with whom she had played in earlier years had evaded her challenge of measurement
Her body was covered with a seal-soft fur, that lay so close and light that it looked like a naked skin. Only the palms of hands and feet were bare, and she moved slightly to scratch one of the callosities on which she sat; they were of a brighter colour than the fur, and she was inwardly vain of their beauty... She remembered how she had half turned, that he might have a better view, and he had not seemed to observe them. The bat-eyed fool! No wonder she had leapt into the trees without a backward glance that might have called him to follow. Anyway, he couldn't have followed her through the boughs... What had such as he to do with the forest?... He said he liked me in red and I got it to please him. He never noticed it at all. And he couldn't understand why I wouldn't go out with him the next night. He looked like a dog that's been beaten and he can't tell why. Only sulkier...
The thought moved dimly on the threshold of her mind; moved dimly, and went out...
Why did he come into the forest, where even the cave-men, with their killing-tools in their hands, were not safe not one or two alone, anyway from the snarling, lurking Ogpurs?
There was no answer to that.
She sat till the sun was at its noonday height, and then she began to move through the trees.
When she stopped she was about a mile nearer the sea-cliffs.
She sat there during the heat of the afternoon, cracking nuts, which were very abundant even at this time of the year for the cave-men did not climb the trees, only gathering those that fell in their season; and the forest life avoided their vicinity. The time when mankind would become an earth-wide curse, from which all other life would crouch and flee, might be a million years ahead, but its shadow was beginning to move already upon the face of the world...
As the afternoon waned, and the silence of the empty forest continued, she moved again, and when she stopped she was nearer still.
THE Law-maker sat in the inmost cave, which he had not left but once in a dozen years, for he was of a great age, and his life must be guarded vigilantly.
Twelve years ago, when he had been challenged to fight for the place he held, he had survived the duel, but his success had been one part craft and two luck, and he had seen that in the faces round which had warned him that others would soon be bidding for the same stake.
He had lain awake that night, hearing the noise of the feast that celebrated his triumph, which he had been too exhausted to share, and he had seen that he must contrive some safety for himself, if his life were to continue. Was it for nothing that he had been known from boyhood as the Coiling Snake?
In the morning he had moved his precious things into this inmost cave, which was lighted only by the pine-wood torches that were fastened round its walls.
The approach to it was a low passage through which a man must wriggle for a score of yards, for it was too low for hands and knees, nor would a fat man get through it at all.
He had had four old wives who had been his from his youth, and on whose fidelity he could rely; for who else would keep them as he did? He had two young ones, that he had taken to supplement them in recent years, as a man must, if he live long. He was sure enough of them also.
One or other of these wives was always squatting vigilantly where the passage opened to the cave, a stabbing-spear in her hand. That was the greeting for any, man or woman, who came unasked; and there had been more than one who had learnt that it was no idle threat.
There had been incidents and changes in the twelve years.
Two of the older wives had died.
One of the younger ones had attempted to leave him. She had been but a few yards along that wriggling passage, making slow way, for lack of exercise and plenteous food had made her girth too great, when she had felt a sharp pain in the calf of her left leg. Other pains had followed.
What was the use of haste when the Law-maker was shooting arrows into the mouth of the passage as rapidly as he could fit them to the bow arrows that could not fail to be stayed by some portion of her desperately wriggling corpulence?
She had emerged with half a dozen showing their feathered shafts, as though they had been shot up from the ground beneath her.
She had lived two days, and then been knocked on the head by a kindly cousin, who, before he did it, promised her that she should have revenge. Then they had dropped her body into the sea from the cliff-top, though food was short, and she would have made excellent eating, for the Law-maker had forbidden them the flesh of the tribe, and there was none who dare break his laws, even though they might design to destroy him.
The cousin had proposed a plan, which had been readily adopted. It seemed simple, and quite sure. The Law-maker was little more now than a dreaded name. He was seen of few. It was easy to be bold in the sunlight.
There was water in the cave; but suppose they withheld food? Those who stayed inside the cave would die. If the Law-maker came outside he could be challenged by whoever would, and his end would follow.
So it was tried.
But the Coiling Snake had foreseen this danger. He had stored much food. For months he made no protest, and there was no suffering in the cave.
He had hoped that the plot would cease, but it did not do so. The blockade continued.
At last he must try the only chance that remained. He sent an ultimatum that, unless food were supplied within seven days, his wife's cousin would die as she had done. It seemed a foolish threat, and the man laughed, but they doubled the watch at the entrance to the cave, so that anyone should surely be captured who wriggled out. But, except the Law-maker and the three wives who remained, there was none in the cave. It seemed a very foolish threat.
Yet in the night the Law-maker arose. He knew a secret way from the cave, which he had kept from knowledge of all, even of his most trusted wives. Now two slept, and one watched at the hole.
None saw what he did. He climbed to a high ledge. He squeezed into a narrow cleft. He had a bow in his hand.
Half an hour later he was in the cave where his enemy slept, with his head on the tanned pelt of a sea-beast. There is little noise that can be made when such a pelt is wrapped over the head, and drawn with a tight thong. He was told that he would die if he cried, and he lay still. Then his hands and feet were tied, and he was so muffled that he could not cry if he would. Then the Law-maker shot six arrows from the foot of the bed, choosing their places with care. After a sufficient time he untied the hands and feet. He loosed the pelt from the head. He left all as it had been, except for the arrows in the dead man.
The next day food came.
* * * * *
The Law-maker was a wise man, seeking the good of his tribe.
In the silence of the cave he thought much.
He did not intend to be starved by the cousin of a false wife, or to be killed by any, but, while he lived, he would contrive the welfare of the tribe, even beyond his death.
He sent for his son, Stele, who was now grown, and for Elsya, his daughter, both being children of his favoured wife, who still lived. They were two he could trust.
He said to them, "You are son and daughter of mine, yet you are no more than others, for the law has been that he shall rule who is of the strongest arm, and he may be challenged by whoever will. Who is there that will seize the rule when I die?"
And Stele said, "There is Borl."
The Law maker said, "I would have you to rule."
Stele said, "Then I must kill Borl."
The Law-maker said, "You must try to kill Borl. You may fail, and my plan may fail also. Yet it is worth trial. For I will that if you kill Borl, or any other who may be stronger than he, you shall then be secure. I will make a caste. And to that end I will make a law.
"You will go out and say that, though I may live for summers to be, I grow old. I will that you be my heir. Yet I would not break the old law. Let any who will make claim that he have the better right, and you will fight it out, as the old law is. If there be more than one, let them first fight among themselves, and you shall fight him that survives. By this means you will fight once only, and against one who may be wounded by then, and will have spent strength. I cannot do more for you than that.
"But that you shall be secure when you have fought this one fight, I shall make a new law that none shall be king hereafter if he be wed to any woman of his own tribe, lest he favour those of her kin, and for other reasons which I will set out in chosen words.
"You shall go to the tribe that is far to the south, beyond the river-mouth and the great bay, and ask their king for a woman comely and sound, who is of his near kin; and if he have a son who is fit to rule then we will give him your sister as a fair price, if that king shall agree that I have made a good law, and his son shall establish himself in the same way."
Stele answered to this, "I will do all that you say. But I do not think that many will be willing that the old custom die."
"Yet you will find it otherwise," said his father. "I am wiser than you... Have you a heart to be king?"
"I have a good heart to be king," said Stele, "for I have a plan to make a dam of felled trees, from which we should take much fish, and it needs the labour of all, but they will not hear."
His father was pleased at this. "You will make a good king. When are you of an age to wed?"
"By the law you made," he answered, "I am of that age next year, as is Elsya also."
"That is so," said their mother. For Elsya was two years older than he, and the law was that the women must remain unwed for two years longer than the men. It may have been a good law, or a bad one, but such it was.
So Stele went out and told these words to the tribe. There was none who could be discontent, for all had the chance to make claim if they would, and if they lost they would die, and if they gained, was it not well that they should be made secure by a new law?
There were two who challenged beside Borl, but he killed them both, making it a light thing.
When Stele would have fought him, he said he must have a week's rest, for he was no longer fresh, and he thought that Stele would make a hard fight. There were murmurs at this, for it was beyond the law, but Stele said it should be so, thinking it a fair claim.
When the Coiling Snake heard he was ill-pleased; yet he pondered, and said, "If it be well at all, it is very well. He may be a great king."
There was no fight when the week was done, for Borl was hurt at the fishing, catching his thigh on a hook of bone, so that it bled much. Seeing the blood that he lost, he said, "Let Stele have it, for I am but dead if I fight, being so hurt."
So the plan proved good to that point; but when Stele went to the south country he came back having fled through the night, and he brought no bride.
THE Law-maker drowsed on a bed of skins, for he was weary of years. Also, he did not know whether it were night or day, for no light came to the cave. For twelve years he had seen no light of the sun, and of the moon once only.
The mother of Stele came to his side. She said, "He has come back, but he has brought no bride. He says that " She went on for some time, making the best she could of the tale on her son's part, not knowing if she were heard.
When the time came that she paused, needing breath, Coiling Snake answered her.
"Has he no words? Let him tell the tale for himself."
So Stele came to his father's side.
"Have you fared well?" said the King, putting the woman's talk aside, as though it had not been.
"I have not fared as ill as I might, having brought back my life," his son answered. "I could not wed such as they. I would rather wed an Ogpur woman, with the wet dirt of her burrow caking about her loins."
"What is wrong?" asked his father. "They are people of your own blood."
"I know not how that may be, nor what is wrong, but they are of a dead white colour, like an evil frost, they are blotched with sores, and their women are weak at the knees."
Coiling Snake pondered at that. "It is the food," he said, as one who talks to himself, "for the ground that is behind their cliffs is bare and high, and the jerboas, which we catch on our downs, do not live south of the river. Neither have they the nuts which we gather once a year under the forest trees, going together so that the Ogpurs flee. Nor have they the goats' milk which we feed to our babes when their mothers are with child again. But they have shell-fish there beyond count, so that they are not awake to their loss... This means war, if they have the courage to strike."
Stele did not deny that, but he had seen their men, and he thought it a small thing.
His father went on: "You have done well. Yet will not alter a good law. You cannot wed with the Ogpur trash. You must go farther away."
"There are the women of the trees," Stele said doubtfully. "They, at least, are clean."
"It is a child's thought. They are clean enough; but they are not of our kind. For one thing, they have no brains. They do not work, nor dress, nor make tools. They have few words. For another thing, you would not get one to come. She would not eat of our food, nor would she sleep in a cave. We might catch one, and keep her with gyve and lash, but you want something better than that... Besides, what would there be at your death? It is of such matings that the Ogpurs come."
Stele answered, "It is all true. Yet I have seen one that seemed of a fine kind, though she was over-long in the arms, as they are too apt to be. Also, I had a thought that, had I chased her, she would not have run too hard. Yet I may have been wrong in that, for while I looked she made off."
His father said, "It is foolish talk. She would scorn your ways, as you would hers. You must look farther away."
Stele agreed to this. He made several short expeditions into the forest, seeking signs of any people such as themselves, or for open country that might be crossed with speed.
He found little to give him hope.
At last his father said, "I grow weak, and the time is short. There are men in the world on the far coasts, and beyond the trees. You must go out, not returning till you have found a bride, either by barter, or force, or wile. You shall take Elsya, that you may have that with which to pay if you will, and that there may be a watch when you sleep. If you leave her, you will have bought a wife, and she can watch in her turn."
Stele said that it was a good plan, though he should sleep ill if he were watched by one who came not of her own will. But his father answered to that, "You know little of women, being young. There are few that will not hold to your part when you have dealt with them as a man should, be they loath or fain. Yet if you find such a one, and would sleep in doubt, you will break her neck in good time."
"It is a good thought," said Stele, and went in a very cheerful mood to gather his killing-tools, and a light fish-net which Elsya could carry.
Yet he spoke to his father again before he set forth.
"How will it be if you die while I am far off? There will be no rule in the tribe."
The Law-maker answered, "None will know if I die; for I will give orders that none come into the cave. Yet you will do well to speak to Borl that he order all that has been in your hands if you be long away. For he will do it, whether you ask or no. But if he do it at your charge he will not seek it for himself, being of that kind."
It was early morning when Stele set out, making such way as he might under the forest trees, and holding the Ogpurs in scorn.
Elsya walked at his side.
Rita saw them, looking down through the high leaves, though they saw nothing of her. It was an evil sight that he walked with a woman thus, and anger rose in her heart. Yet she knew that they were no more than cave-dwellers, taking their women and changing them as they would. Also, she was not sure that he walked with a wife.
Curiosity would have caused her to follow had she had no livelier motive.
Watching all that day, she guessed their relationship accurately. They were familiar; but they were not lovers. They were of a like carriage, with a resemblance in face and gesture, and in the darkness of the hair on their skulls (for they were otherwise very bald, as far as their skins showed), having similarity in many ways, though he was large, even for a man, and she, being a woman, was of a lower stature.
Rita could not guess why they should wander thus. They gathered nothing but for a passing meal. They hunted nothing. They seemed to have no purpose but to get lost in the woods.
They slept side by side, on a grassy patch great tree and a stream's bank, and Rita slept branches above.
There was a full moon, rather low in and the sky was pale to the dawn when came.
RITA slept ill in a tree's fork. She was not used to wandering thus by night. In her own tree she had made herself a platform of plaited boughs and a canopy from the rain. She knew that it might be taken by others if she left it long.
Yet she had a mind to see more.
She could not have followed all the day as she did but that Stele kept ever to the trees. There were open glades, of high grass, which was of twice a man's height at its most. These were of a width to be measured in miles, but Stele knew that the rhinoceri fed on the open plains, and were not easy to see when they were lying down, being of the yellow of the tall grass when it is in seed, or when the sun has scorched and the wind dried it; and it is their habit to trample all living things that come out from the trees, though they will not eat them when they are dead.
So, heeding naught of the Ogpurs, he had kept to the trees.
Had he been alone he might have justified his contempt, for these creatures were not careless of their own skins, and they might have thought him a prey too dangerous to attempt, either for the flesh on his bones or for the things he carried; yet these last were a strong bait, for they could make use of any tool or weapon that fell into their hands, though they would not make them, nor would they encumber themselves either with clothes or with the carrying of anything, unless it were for a settled object.
But Elsya was a different matter. For a woman either of the caves or the high boughs to walk the forest paths was to invite capture, and the Ogpurs had learnt that once she was in their hands she was there for life. For the men of the trees and caves were alike in this, that they would have no woman among them who had once been in the power of the Ogpurs, lest she bear a babe of mixed blood. And the women knew that should they return from an unseen adventure and bear a babe showing the Ogpur teeth (as it surely would), it would be very quickly thrown to the ground from the high boughs, or to the waters below the cliff, which few mothers would care to see.
It was the weakness of the Ogpurs that they had no leaders, nor any spoken laws. They lived in their own burrows, and they foraged each for himself, or for his own young. They lived like rats, lurking under the thick undergrowths of the forest. They could stand upright if they would, but they crawled much. They could run on their hind-legs, with the body bent forward from the hips, and the arms swinging ahead, but they relapsed to the ground when the need for motion was over. It was against their habit to stand or lie in an open space.
But though they lived so, and each was for himself, they would go back if they found that to be done which was beyond a single strength, and call others to aid. There may have been some who had done this, but it is less than sure, for the two had walked far during the past day, and must have been seen of many who would take their trail, though at a slower pace than they had used, not loving the open paths.
However that may have been, it is a fact that, during the later hours of the night, there was a gathering of Ogpurs in the dark bushes that fringed the stream, both behind and ahead. It was at this time that Elsya watched, for Stele had given her the privilege of the first rest.
She had roused herself reluctantly, for she had been heavy with sleep after the exercise of the day, yet for several hours she had watched well, being alertly conscious of the dangers of the night in this unfamiliar place. She was of the temperament which can meet a seen foe well enough, but is nervous of the unknown. She had very good hearing, and, as the night passed, she became aware of stealthy movements in the darkness around her. She wished that they had fire, but they had thought that a supply would be too difficult to carry.
She would have given much to be back in her cave, even though she should have lost the prospect of being sold by her brother as bride to a king's son, as she hoped to be. Yet there was nothing definite enough to justify her in disturbing his rest.
As the hours passed, though the sounds did not cease, she became less fearful, thinking that, whatever might be round them, no attack was intended.
The time came when she was aware that the dawn was near. She was to wake Stele when the sun showed, which was not yet, but she saw the pallor of the disc of the setting moon, which told that the greater light was advancing upon it, though it might yet be under the horizon line.
With the relief of feeling that the night was over, she dozed where she sat, and waked to find that she could not scream for the Ogpur claws that were round her throat.
She was pulled backward to the ground, and it seemed for a moment that she might have been dragged away in a silence that would have left Stele unawakened, when they might have killed him in his sleep, or been content with the prize they had taken, in which case he would have waked and found Elsya gone, and looked round for a time, and then gone on his own way (for what could he have done then that would have been worth doing?), and there must have been great difference in the events that followed.
But Elsya, though she could not loose the stranglehold from her neck, yet fought as hard as she might, and so far rose to her feet that she was able to draw up a leg and give a backward kick, with a great strength, for she had no will to be taken; and though she was one who walked little, she swam much.
The kick went home to a good place, and the Ogpur screamed, so that it may be said that Elsya gave the warning which a watcher should, though it was not through her own mouth.
Stele waked quickly. There were no Ogpurs round him. Their first aim had been to remove Elsya in silence, and there may have been an unwillingness on the part of each to withdraw from the chance of the greater prize, about which they might soon have been fighting among themselves.
Stele had a good bone-headed spear and a stone axe, heavy and sharp. This axe had been his father's gift when he left. There was nothing like it in all the land.
The spear went through the Ogpur that had screamed, from side to side. He was having more than his share. He loosed the girl's throat at that, as he well might.
Stele let the spear go. He fell to work with his axe. Elsya was willing to do her part. She tried to pull out the spear...
Rita had been awake for some time. She had been roused first by the stench of the Ogpurs, which was unpleasant, and of which she would have been aware at a much greater distance.
She watched the stalking of Elsya with interest, seeing it clearly in the dim light. She had no thought to interfere.
There was a moment during which it seemed that Stele had an easy victory. He felled two with his axe, and their screams rose. The others drew back. Elsya had time to pull out the spear. She came to her brother's side. They had their backs to the tree.
The Ogpurs faced them in a circle which was beyond their reach. Gathering thus, they became conscious of their own strength, for they were like rats in this, that they had a kind of corporate courage such as they did not possess separately, and which increased as their numbers grew. They came on with a rush.
Stele struck quickly and hard. I dare say he was the tallest man of his tribe, though he might not yet have come to his full strength. He was twice as tall as any Ogpur, and three times as strong. He struck hard with the axe in his right hand, while he flung them off with his left. Their teeth caught in the skins he wore, which saved his flesh. Bones snapped where the axe fell. For a moment it seemed that he would scatter them, but they were too many for that. As he smote one, another got its teeth in his sleeve, hindering his next stroke. They came on with a second rush, and he went down beneath them.
Elsya fared worse than he. She did the best she could with the spear, getting it well into the groin of the first that came, but she could not recover it in time to be of any further aid. It was too long for close fighting, nor was she trained in its use.
She went down, and Rita watched that she was drawn into the thicket, and the way she went.
Now a strange thing happened to Stele as he fell, for he looked up through the branches, and he saw Rita where she sat like a white ape by the tree-fork, and it seemed to him that he was not Stele, but Stephen Cranleigh, and that what he saw there, in the half-light of the dawn, was not one of the tree-folk, but Marguerite Leinster, whom he had given proof that he loved well. The next moment she was hidden from him, for his face was covered by the belly of one of the leaping Ogpurs, and he must seize this creature round the body, drawing it down with all the strength that he had, lest the others should get their teeth to his face and throat. For a moment they had impeded their own attack by the numbers that had rushed upon him as he fell. He was conscious of a suffocating mass, beneath which he kicked as hard as he might, and of teeth that worried at the leather garments he wore. And then he was free of the weight, and he felt the ribs crack that were within his arms, and he flung his assailant from him, and came to his feet, for the fight was done.
The fantasy that had come to him a moment before had left his mind, but he saw what had been, and from where the help had come.
For when he had looked up as he fell Rita had sat with a nut-pod in her hand, which she had plucked when the Ogpurs had come out, but from that time she had sat watching the fight, too interested to interfere.
Now these nut-pods were black and smooth, and almost round, and of the size of an orange. There were six kernels in each, not unlike the sections which an orange holds. But these pods were not soft and light, like an orange. They were as hard as stones, and very nearly as heavy.
They were the greeting which the tree-folk always gave to the Ogpurs, should they venture out from their burrows, or from the undergrowth, in the daylight hours. Rita had known this game from the time when she had swung perilously by one arm from her mother's neck as they made their way through the branches.
She saw Stele's face as he fell, and though his thought did not reach her (or she did not know, if it did), she took a good aim, and threw.
The nut struck one of the leaping Ogpurs on the skull, and he went down. The next nut struck another on the back of the neck, and there was a dead weight across Stele's knees. The third brought one down that was already loping to cover. There was no need to throw more. They knew well that the nuts were death.
Stele looked up, conscious of some bewilderment. He looked round for his sister, and started to find her, as a man should. Not knowing which way they had taken her, he started in the wrong direction, and was stayed by a cry overhead. He did not know the tree-language. He had a belief that there was little to know, but the gesture which his eyes met was unmistakable. He turned, and was warned back again. From the great height at which she sat, Rita could see the commotion which still continued where Elsya was being dragged away. It was not far, for these things had happened in a little space.
She knew that the thicket was alive with his enemies. Should they pull him down in a dim place, as they well might, she would be less able to help. She ran out to a branch's length, throwing far and well. There was scanty cover at the spot at which they strove with their reluctant captive. They took the hint, and went. Elsya came back. She was somewhat scratched, she had a bite on the hand, and her bruises were many, but she was not badly hurt.
THE need for many words does not depend upon the number of human thoughts, but their divergencies.
It was true that the tree-folk had few words. They had sounds for love, and pleasure, and fear; for anger, and pain, and warning. Most of them conveyed feelings rather than facts, and they were all in the present tense. The rest would be understood by those whose lives were alike. There was mother-talk of a kind; and there were wooing sounds which were understood by those who were most concerned; and there was the mating cry, which was exultant, on a high note; and there was the talk of lovers in the years that followed, chattering or crooning, and with no thought that they had any shortness of words.
The cave-men had more words, having more need, being (as was obvious to Rita) of a lower kind. They worked; they made; they wore; they carried about. Probably these things were necessary to them. They were of a lower kind.
Yet she would have been glad of words when Stele signalled to her to come down from the tree, and she would not move.
She was tempted more than she knew. She would have been glad to explain. She really wanted to flirt.
She did not think that the invitation was of a hostile or treacherous kind, but it was not natural to her to leave the trees.
Also, she could not forget, now that they were so close, that he was of a lower kind than herself, living in huts and caves, eating flesh, fighting and killing each other for greed of the things they hoarded useless, foolish things, for what is life worth if it be spent in the bearing of weights when we move, or in ceaseless guarding of such things as are too heavy to be carried with ease?
She remembered also that they were observed to change their wives, fighting at times concerning them, and having many or few, as their strength or craft prevailed over their companions.
She saw that if she came down she would be in the power of this man; and though she followed him as she did, she was more afraid of his friendship than of his hostility, now that the time of choice was upon her.
She had no mind for any temporary association, being as monogamous as a monkey, or, let us say, as a chimpanzee.
She was the more repelled as she watched the two at their morning meal. For, after some discussion with Elsya, which she could not understand, Stele cut some chops with his axe from one of the Ogpurs, which they ate raw, having no fire; Elsya doing her full part, for, though of a slim build, she was one of those who eat well, and the women of her race attached a mystic value to the eating of flesh above all other foods, as they have done at all times, even to our own day.
So Rita kept to the trees...
They went on that morning through the forest, meeting with no adventure that we need pause to watch, for we have still far to go, and our tale is ahead; and at midday they came to a valley, great and wide, sinking very gently to a river that flowed through it, and showing distant hills, wide rather than high, on its farther side.
Now they must leave the forest, if they were to go forward at all.
Elsya said, "What will she do now?"
For one who sought a bride in a far land, Stele felt more interest in this question than can be considered wise. He had recognized Rita as the one whom he had seen before, and of whom he had spoken to the Coiling Snake. He might conclude, with some reason, that he excited her curiosity, and possibly a warmer feeling. Yet she kept to her own place.
They looked up, and she was out of sight.
They were not likely to know what she would do, for she was in doubt herself.
She had climbed to a tree's height to see that the plain was safe. She looked for a herd of rhinoceri, but she saw none. She knew that they were too huge to be hidden, and she knew that, wherever they were, there they would stay through the day's heat. So that, if the plain must be crossed, there could be no better time.
From her height she watched them start. They looked back and saw her. Stele motioned to her to follow. There was no doubt of how he felt.
Then Elsya did so. She could not be expected to share his feeling, but she would do her brother's will. Also, she was a generous girl, and this strange, unclad tree-creature had saved her from a life among the Ogpurs, which she was glad to miss.
Yet Rita would not come, though, being a woman, she did not go back either. She sat in the tree, watching them move through the tall grass of the plain.
She still saw them when they were miles away, and still she did not know what she had a mind to do. She was conscious of a great misery and a great doubt.
Then she heard a movement beneath her. A man of the cave-people came out from the trees, his killing-tools in his hands. His eyes were on the trampled grass, and he hunted an easy trail.
Rita could not guess why he followed them. She knew nothing of the purpose which had brought Stele and his sister forth, and even that might have been little help to this problem. Neither, if he came with a hostile aim, could she be of any likely help, being but a weak thing at a distance from her familiar trees.
Yet, after a time, though in trembling fear, she came down, and followed through the trodden grass.
RITA walked straightly and well, for she had been taught in childhood, as all her people were, to stand upright, running along a level bough with outstretched hands, till, in time, though the branches swayed, she could walk thus, having her hands where she would. It was a tradition of her race that they kept their uprightness of form, though their arms might lengthen, showing that they were not born of the trees, but had come from the ground, as those seeking a higher life.
She had rested long, and she could make a good pace, which was well, for the man she followed took no rest, but she kept close enough, tracking him by the sound of his feet in the grass, for she could hear far.
Her own walking was very quiet. She had no need for a better pace than that, not wishing to catch him up. So they came to the river.
Rita was thirty yards behind, or it may have been more, when she heard him stop, and she stood still, listening well. The grass amid which she stood was too high for her to see anything but the sky, which was blue and white with cloud, and a few yards ahead, where it was broken by those who had gone before.
Hearing that he moved, but did not go forward, she thought, "It is the river," which brought a fresh doubt to her mind, for she could not swim.
Then she made a new way through the grass for herself, moving to the left, which was northward, for their way had been to the east the sun, which was now low, being behind her back.
The grass became shorter as she went on, till she could see ahead, and it was the river indeed. It lay very broad and quiet, having little current, but shining in the light of the level sun. The ground sloped very gently toward it, becoming stony, and meeting it as a level beach, having no bank at all. In time of flood it must have spread far.
Rita did not think of that, though she was well aware that the ground had been sloping gently downward for a half-mile past. She looked at the river's width, which was worse than had been her fear, and she wondered what its depth would be.
She sat down to think, choosing a spot where the grass was still of some height, for she did not wish to be seen by him who must be near at her right hand.
Sitting thus, she became aware that her feet ached, for they were not used to the level ground, and she curved them inward till the toes and heels were but a short space apart, so that they might rest while they could.
She felt desolate and afraid, and was more than half minded to return. But she thought that the way back would be too far to traverse before the darkness fell, which gave her a sharper fear.
She looked over the water, and she saw that the land rose gently toward the distant hills.
The sun shone on a low shoulder of hill, bare and green, about five miles ahead, and her sight, being as it was, she saw those two that she followed, taking rest on the ground.
She was not the only one who had good sight, for the man she followed came along the edge of the stream, his eyes being on the same spot. She would have been plain in sight had he looked, and she saw that he carried a fishing-spear in his hand and bore a flint-headed club at his girdle.
She had no weapons but the strength of her hands and teeth, and she knew that if his eyes should be turned her way she must be his, either as mate or meat, as his will chose. Her heart beat like that of a handled bird; but, beyond that, she was very still, making no movement at all.
The man did not look her way, having other thoughts. He fastened the spear aslant across his back, so that it would be clear of his limbs. He waded into the stream.
Rita looked, and courage came back to her heart. There were stones between him and her, and she could throw well. He was swimming now, and she knew that she could hit the back of his head so that he would sink, though it would not be an easy mark as the distance grew, for he swam low. Yet she did not do this, feeling unsure of all. She did not know that he was at enmity with those she followed, and he would do no harm to her now. She let him live.
She saw him come out of the water on the farther side, and shake himself for a time, his skin being wet, but he did not stay long for this, going on again at as good a pace as before.
Rita got up to follow. She did not know why she did this. It may have been that she was resolute to give warning to those that were pursued. She thought on the man's face, which she did not like. That proved nothing, for she did not like the looks of any of the cave-dwellers except one.
Her feet had become stiff while she rested, and ached worse than before when she flattened them on the level ground.
She came to the waterside, not expecting to be able to get through it, but of a mind to try. She remembered that she had seen trees in a fold of the hills beyond the bare bluff on which she had seen them camped. They might be reached before dark. So, not knowing the impulse through which she moved, she waded in.
It was shallow at first, and then, suddenly, it became deep. She stumbled, went under, and rose with difficulty, finding the water to her neck. She tried to wade back, but the depth between her and the shore was too great. She must have come in by a somewhat different way, the current, however feeble, doing its part.
She kept her footing with difficulty, feeling the ground round her, and only seeking the shallower place, without regard to whether it led her farther from the shore she left.
This should have taken her back, but it did not do so. It took her to midstream, and then she found that she was out of the water to her waist, and could wade with ease to the farther shore. She was glad when she came to land, and went on again at a quick pace, having forgotten the aching of her feet.
NATURE has placed in the hearts of all men, in their dealings with women, an optimism incalculable and incurable, such as it has placed in the hearts of some women also in their dealings with men some, but not most. It was true a million years ago as it is true today.
Amul had three wives, of whom one was barren and two were shrews. He was a man who would have enjoyed beating his wives. That might have been well, for there are women who enjoy being beaten, and there are others who are easy to beat. But his wives were not of those kinds. Rather they were united against him with a threefold strength that he feared, though they might quarrel among themselves. They chastised him with tongues. If he replied with the only argument that he knew (for he was slow of speech), they did mean things while he slept. Things that are best untold. Much.
Yet Amul's thoughts had been on a fourth wife, and he had counted that Elsya would be his when her age of marriage should come, in the next fall of the year. Thinking it probable that Borl would be chief of the tribe by that time, he had bought his friendship with the best fish-hook he had, before any other had spoken for Elsya at all, for he was a prudent, far-sighted man one who would dry fish in the season when the nets were full, and a storer of many nuts, being foolish only with women, as some are.
Borl had agreed, for the fish-hook was a great gift, and the thing, in itself, was good.
He saw that Amul was a man of full age, needing a young wife; for it was the wisdom of the tribe that such matings were best, as it was that a man's first wives should be mature in years, for it was from such that the hardiest children came; and this instinct persists in the race to the present day.
It was otherwise with the tree-people, who would have said, had they cultivated the folly of words, that matings should be for life, and that both should be young at the first, or how should they endure as they ought, which is an opposing instinct that has also endured in the race to the present day.
If we suppose the Ogpurs to have been the ancestors of the men of our own kind (and there is much evidence of character, of habit, and of physique to support this theory), then it becomes easy to see how these contending instincts may bring misery to our own young.
But Amul's foresight had failed. Borl was rejected from any hope of chiefhood, and Elsya was removed from the marriage claims of the tribe.
No one minded this, except Amul, for the truth is that Elsya was not greatly esteemed. She had the name of an idle, capricious child, such as might make a wilful and wasteful wife. She had hunted shell-fish since she could walk, and there was none that could dive so deep nor remain under water so long; but that was not for any use, but that she might find the small white stones that were sometimes inside the shells, so that she now wore a double string of pearls on her sun-browned neck. And this was the more foolish as her body was not a thing to be looked at with any pleasure, either by women or men, being lean, and narrow at the hams, making it the greater wonder that she could swim as she did.
So it might be thought that Amul, having blundered thrice, was saved, by circumstance when he would have blundered again; but he was not disposed to this view.
Amul thought over that laugh in the night, while his wives slept. It is the fair reward of those who are mated as he that they have little fear of anything outside their own doors. Amul thought of a plan. He could retrieve the fish-hook by stealth, but he could not use it afterward. Borl was too strong. He could not use it if he stayed here, but It was a wild plan. It excited his mind so much that he was still awake when the dawn came. He looked at the wife who slept nearest, and he saw that she was haggard and stringy, being of an evil temper, such as ages a woman faster than the going of years. He looked at the next, and she also was of a meagre and skinny kind. He did not look at the third, knowing her too well; and we may gain by that which he had paid much to learn. When he considered the sleepers the plan was a much better one than it had been before. He rose quietly to steal the hook.
AMUL did not start till the morning after that on which Stele and his sister set out. That was doubly wise, because none would connect his disappearance with theirs, and that which he willed to do was best done far away. He planned it for the second night. He counted that he would travel faster than they. He carried nothing at all except his weapons, and the fish-hook of which we know, because it was part of his plan to kill Stele in the night, and then he could take all that he had. Till then let him bear the weight.
For Amul had had a great dream when he lay awake in the night. That was the way of the cave-men. The tree-people dreamed only while they slept. That was why the cave-people worked and quarrelled, carried and wore; why they were of a lower kind than the tree-people. They had been discontent with life as it was, and having made it worse they were more discontent still.
Amul's dream was that he should go forth, and never return; that he should kill Stele, and take his sister, as he had meant to have her before. Wandering in strange ways, he thought that it would not be hard to find a couple or more of women whom he could add to his household, or, if he came on a peaceful folk, he could buy them with the pearls that were on Elsya's neck. He had heard that inland folk would give much for such stones as those, and he knew that women are cheap, to the world's end. For, then as now, men took the risks of life, so that they died, and there were always less of them than of the women. And so women were cheap. That was the price they paid.
Such was Amul's dream in the night. He would found a tribe.
* * * * *
There are few times when a man can forecast how a thing will be, and say after that it was so; or, if there be such, they are things on which he lies still.
If he move to shape them to his own end there will be one thing that will not be just as he thought a thing that may be small in itself, but will change all.
Amul had thought of those he trailed as camping in an open space, and he had considered that a watcher cannot look all ways at once. He had not thought that they might find shelter under a shelving rock, so that one could sleep secure while the other sat with a shelf projecting overhead and looked out at the night.
Or, at least, should so have looked out; but Elsya was weary. She had the first watch, it being her turn, and when Amul crept up, very quietly, the moon being covered by a great cloud, Elsya sat with her chin on her knees, which her hands held, but her eyes were closed.
Had it been Stele who so slept our tale had been soon done, at the price of a reddened spear, but Elsya was one that he had no will to hurt. She sat there, her hairless body covered with the skins of beasts (for it was not the custom of her tribe to take them off in the coldness of the night), showing a head of black hair that was very thick and glossy and short (for she had found that long hair would catch the weeds when she dived, so that she kept it cut short with the labour of many hours, hammering it between two stones); and Amul, looking, was well content, for though she was somewhat thin she was not skinny, as were the wives he had left, and the pearls gleamed on her neck.
Amul could have done with her very well for that night, and he cursed the chance that she was not the one that slept in the rear. Still, she would keep. He was a cautious man, not one to lose his life in foolish haste. He resolved to withdraw. He did not know that Rita was but two yards behind him, nor was there much cause for trouble in that, for she was in a deadly fear. Had she been in the trees she had feared little, being of a natural courage, but here she knew that she had neither weapons nor speed, being at the mercy of all. Her heart beat like a caught bird, as it had done a few hours before, yet she had been resolute to come to the place she feared.
Yet he did not find her there; for, as he resolved to withdraw, the moon shone suddenly where the cloud broke. It shone full on to Amul's face, and Elsya opened her eyes and saw.
At the first moment she showed neither surprise nor fear. It was the way of men (and women) of her time to wake quickly and wide. She gave no sign that she saw. Yet she was of the mood to kill, if she could. She guessed why he had come.
So far we have looked at him from the inside. We have seen his dreams. We must look at him with Elsya's eyes now.
She saw a man ugly and mean-featured; crafty enough, which is good in its way, but of a kind that would use its craft (if it dared) against those of his own house, rather than against the stranger that is without the gates. One (she might have thought) who would take her necklace to buy other wives.
She saw more than that. She saw Rita behind him. While she puzzled as to what that might mean, and how best she should wake Stele, he lifted his spear as though to cast it upon her.
Elsya was not disturbed. She did not think he would throw. Probably he meant no more than to frighten her into silence; but Rita saw the movement also, and did not interpret it with an equal sureness. She caught the shaft of the spear from behind, and Amul was a startled man.
His first thought was that it had caught in some impediment of earth or tree. He swung round very quickly, wrenching the spear as he did so. Seeing a human foe, and having a very clear perception of the trouble which would be upon him from the other side, he used all his strength. Rita's arms were not weak, and she held on also with the strength of fear. Naturally, the spear broke.
Amul had no time to turn the weapon. He thrust with the broken shaft, and felt it strike bone. As he did this his troubles ceased.
Elsya was not a woman of war. She liked to sit by herself. Even a fight with another girl was a thing to avoid, if she could. For this weakness she was a joke in the tribe. It was not thought that she feared over-much, having courage in other ways, though of a nervous kind, which there were few around her who understood. There was a girl who wore a string of the precious pearls which had been given for peace. As to that, Elsya had always been content in mind, for she was a girl who bit on the face, and Elsya had no will to have her face spoiled, of which she thought more than others would have allowed for truth. After that the two became friends, through a strange chance, but it is a long tale, which we may leave to itself.
But if Elsya was a lover of peace, yet she was not slow at this time. She did not pause to waken Stele. While she watched Amul in a still silence she had thought just where the stone axe lay. This she seized as Amul turned to recover the spear. She sprang forward, and struck. Amul fell where he stood. It was the end of his dream.
Stele waked to a finished thing. He looked down on the body of Amul. "Am I never to sleep?" he asked in a natural wrath.
He saw the body stir. He looked at Amul's wound, by the light of the moon, which still shone. It was a poor stroke. Elsya," he said, "is that the best you can do? You should be whipped for that."
We have seen that he was a man of strength. He took Amul by the two feet. He whirled him three times round his head and he cast him far. He went back to his rest.
The moon clouded again. Elsya sat watching as before. She did not think that it had been a bad stroke. She thought she had done rather well. But brothers are like that.
Her thoughts turned to Rita, of whom she had seen no more since the axe fell She did not know she was hurt. She considered that she must have followed them over the open land. It was a very strange thing. She must be seeking Stele. That was plain enough. Yet she kept to herself. Elsya had a practical mind. She saw that they had a very watchful ally. She had a sympathetic imagination also. When she had gazed into the night for another hour she understood the position. Not very well, perhaps; yet it was clearer to her than to either Rita or Stele. When her jealousy was asleep, as it was now, she was of a generous kind. She decided that she could coax Rita to join them, not doubting her power. She knew that she could persuade better than most, though she might fight ill. A wife more or less would do Stele no harm. She was not greatly concerned about the new law, though it pleased her well to think that she should be sold as a prince's bride. Of course she might change her mind when she saw the prince; but, if so, she would find a way for her will. She had belief in her own powers.
She waked Stele and went to her own dreams, which were of a good kind.
IT got colder during the night, when the sky clouded, and a wind came from the north.
Stele walked for warmth, before the dawn came. Elsya waked chilled and stiff. They were used to a cave's roof and a fire outside; and it was colder today than yesterday.
They ate what was left of the Ogpur steaks, and they talked of fire, which they wished they had found means to bring.
Elsya said, "We must rub sticks, at the worst,"
"You may rub sticks till you tire," Stele replied. "But will you get sparks?"
"Yes," she said. "I shall go on till I do."
"Or your arm might fail, or you might sleep."
Stele did not look hopeful. They knew it could be done, but they had not done it themselves. Fire could always be borrowed. It was a proverb that it was better to walk far than to try the sticks.
It could be done also with stones. But it was better fun to watch some one else than to try yourself.
Elsya was not urgent to prove her skill. She said, "We shall get colder if we sit here. Should we come to a bleak land, if there are men, there will be fire that we can ask or steal."
They got up to go.
Stepping out, they saw blood on the ground.
They looked, for they had not thought that Amul had been so hurt that he bled much. Elsya picked up half of a broken spear. Its point was bright, but the jagged end of the broken shaft showed blood, and some clinging hairs. The hairs were very short and fine, and of a very light. colour.
"It is the tree-woman," she said. They looked around. The ground was bare, except for some crawling shrubs of a prickly kind, which would not have hidden a goat; but it was uneven, so that they could not see far.
Stele said nothing, though his eyes searched.
Elsya spoke again. "She would seek the trees."
"I cannot see what she does here," said Stele.
Elsya laughed at that. "You know well enough," she said, and he was silent again. They saw trees in a fold of the hills, about a mile away. Stele set off in that direction, looking round as he walked.
They saw blood on a stone, which told them that they came the right way.
Farther on they came to a place where there was much blood.
"She stumbled here," Elsya said, "where the ground falls, making the wound bleed again. Here she lay for some time."
Stele said nothing to that. Why talk when they both had eyes? That was a woman's way. Yet he looked for a longer time, and added the one thing which Elsya had not said, though she saw it as soon as he: "She has not long left." They went on.
Making a straight path for the trees, they came to a place where there was a hollow in the ground and a stream ran over stones. There was a steep bank on the farther side.
"She would not climb that," Elsya said; "she was too much hurt." Yet they could not see her, nor any trace, since they had left the place where she had been.
Elsya spoke again: "She is not far off." They began to search up the stream, and so found her almost at once, for she had not gone far, but had turned from the straight way.
They thought at first she was dead, for she lay with her head in the stream; but they saw, as they came close, that the water was very shallow, and though the little waves broke over her mouth, it was only covered at times, so that she could breathe well enough.
The wound was in her left side. There was a long tear, and a rib showed white to the sun. All beneath on that side was dark with blood, which had run down to her foot.
Elsya was first to kneel at her side. She would not put her fingers into the wound, knowing that dirt kills, but she pulled the sides apart, so that she could see in. Rita moaned at that, though she did not wake.
"She will not die," Elsya said. Stele agreed. They were wise of wounds, having seen enough.
"But she will if we leave her here." Stele did not dispute that, though it was less sure. He was looking at her with more interest than he meant to show. He had a thought that she was more beautiful than the women of the caves. Certainly she was more graceful of form, though he thought that her arms were too long. He was not sure that it was not better to be clad in a golden down than to be a clothes-rack of skins. He knew that the people of the trees had no brains, and it may seem that she had shown this plainly enough in the way in which she had followed him there; but he did not look at it quite in that way. He was not sure that his father's plan was as good as he had thought it before. He was already aware that the law that he would not be old enough to wed till the next year was of an exceptional folly. If he were old enough to fight Borl for the tribe's rule What he said was, "She would be a damned weight." (But he spoke a more emphatic vernacular.)
Elsya was amused again. She had known what he would do, but she made a diplomatic reply, being of those women who will humour children whether old or young.
"To most men it would be too much; but it will be little for you, you are so strong."
Stele only grunted at this. He turned her over, gently enough. He handed his spear to Elsya, with other things. He put both hands to her waist, grasping under the wound. She went over his right shoulder, the head hanging behind.
Elsya said, "It is bleeding again."
"It will soon stop," he answered, not over-content in tone.
She was heavier than he had thought. But he liked the feel of the bare, warm, down-clad body that his right arm was raised to hold. He was less sure than ever of the wisdom of Coiling Snake.
RITA had not known at first that she was much hurt, the stunned nerves being slow to wake, from a wound of the kind she had received. But, as she drew back into the darkness and watched the body of Amul twirling round Stele's head for the throw, she felt the blood drip on her knee, at which she put hand to side, and felt bone, and a cruel pain which did not cease though the hand withdrew.
She was of the same courage as was Marguerite Leinster of a million years ahead, for personality does not change, either from youth to age, or from life to life, or, if it does, it is a very gradual thing. Yet, with the knowledge of that wound, there came a panic fear that she should fall into the hands of those whom she had twice interposed to save. She felt that the ground moved as she walked, and she roused all the power of her will that she should not fail to reach the trees, which she knew were not very far ahead. She thought them nearer than they were.
The moon went from sight and the night darkened. Yet she kept straight enough, till she fell at a sudden break of the ground, and must rest for a time, waiting the strength to rise.
It was not only that she lost blood: she was weary from the toil of the last day, and she lacked food.
When she rose again it was to stumble at every stone, and to walk in a crooked way, not knowing where she went, till she heard the sound of the water which was her greatest need. She had a hard effort of will to bring her to that place, and when she lay and drank it was with a feeling that she had done that at which she aimed. With that feeling the strength of her effort ceased. Her heart slackened its pace. Her mind wandered to distant dreams, till she waked to know that her head hung between her downward arms, and that her face was against the skin of a dead seal, on a man's back.
It is not a method of travel to be recommended, in any circumstances When the course is the uphill climb of a stony pass, and there is a raw wound to jolt, it is one to avoid with care. But Rita made no sound. She gave no sign that she was aware of the position in which she hung. Yet her mind was awake again, and alert to such sight as she could gain from half-opened eyes, and aware of every sound, and of the strength of the arm that was across her loins.
So they came to the head of the pass, meeting a cold wind, and a very desolate sight of barren hills and of a reed-fringed lake, that was in that high place, very deep and clear, over which there was a wailing of birds.
Chapter: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 OUT
[From the Sydney Fowler Wright web site: www.sfw.org]