A torrent of the shafts fell all about us, and many pelted against our shields. Those which struck the soft earth of the bank sank into it and stuck there, but those which struck our steel were shivered and broken.
"Sit still and let them shoot away their arrows," I whispered. "This will soon be over."
The next volley came with a little more force, as if they had marched further up the hill. One or two arrows fell very near me, and I reached for them to examine their construction. They were made of the hollow, filmy stock of a rather tough reed, and were pointed with a chipped stone tip, which was brittle, but not harder than porous chalk.
"That stuff wouldn't pierce my two coats, to say nothing of the linked steel shirt," I sneered. "I will show them what fools they are!" and I walked boldly out to the brink and faced them. They let fly a quick volley with a concerted shout. As I saw the arrows start, I turned my back and bent down my head quickly. Perhaps a dozen of the slim reeds pelted me, and then I stooped over and gathered up as many as I could find, and broke them all in my hands before their eyes.
This sent a hum of excited jabbering through their ranks, and they fired no more. I stood watching them, and presently I grasped my two hands together and shook hands with myself, to try to convey to them the idea that we were friendly; but it must have carried no meaning to them. By this time the slingers had come up, and I retired behind my shield to await their action. The archers seemed very glad of their arrival, and yielded the foremost place to them. I noted their operations carefully, and saw them place something, which did not look like a round stone, in the pocket of their slings, and then they whirled it long and cautiously. Suddenly they discharged it with a swift movement of their bodies backward, which landed them on one knee.
"Wide of the mark!" I cried, as the missiles sailed off far to the right of us. But just before landing they bent a sharp, surprising curve, and lacked but little of hitting us behind the shields! The things they had thrown were the thin, concave shells of a large nut, and the trick of discharging them gave them their peculiar flight.
"I don't like this throwing around the corner!" exclaimed the doctor. "With a little truer aim they will be able to hit us behind anything."
"Hurry, bring your shield over behind mine, and face it the other way," said I; "then we will crouch between the two in safety."
He did this just in time, for some of the next volley actually curved around and hit his shield, but none struck mine in front. However, the shells which fell near us were of light weight, and would not have bruised us much with heavy clothing on. Presently their pelting ceased, and we concluded that they were planning something new. We decided to let them know that we were not hurt, so we emerged; and I tried throwing the shells back with my hand, but I could not control their erratic course. When they saw this they jeered at me, and I itched to treat them to just one pistol shot, only to show them what child's play their fighting was! Presently we saw what they were waiting for. Far down the road the two great birds were returning harnessed together, and dragging behind them an enormous catapult. Tied across their backs were two stout darts, seemingly twelve feet long and three inches square. Each of them had a wicked-looking barbed tip.
There was a pleased and confident jabber among the slingers and archers below as the birds arrived. The catapult was turned about toward us, and lashed tightly to stakes driven in front and behind. Then the birds were hitched to the cord of the immense bow, and they pulled it far back, until the men made it fast in a notch. The cross-piece had now become almost a half-circle, quite ten feet in diameter. The captain of a company of archers acted as gunner, and carefully adjusted the catapult, aiming it evidently at our shield. Upon seeing this we placed the two shields together, and leaned them both inward toward us, so as to make their angle with the upward course of the dart more obtuse, and thus cause a glancing blow instead of a solid impact. Crouching under the steel shelters, we awaited the dart.
Whiz-z-z it whistled up through the thin air! Bimm-m! it struck the top of our outer shield, and glanced off as we had hoped. The outer steel rattled and banged against the inner, and both shields pressed hard over against us, but not the slightest damage was done.
We went out to watch them load the second dart. They evidently saw the impotence of the glancing blow, and were noisily discussing it. A captain of the slingers was arguing hotly with the gunner, who was finally persuaded to take his aim a little lower. Then a hum of approval went through the throng.
"They do think a little, but they are not secretive!" I sneered, flopping our inner shield over flat on the ground. "Come, sit on this, Doctor, and we will lean the outer shield over us, and snuggle in between them as cosy as two oysters! Let them fondly imagine they can shoot us through this pasty soil, and keep their own counsel better after this!"
It was not a bad guess on my part; for the second dart struck the edge of the cliff, bored through the loose soil, and thumped our lower shield with a dull thud that lifted us from the ground. But the point and edges of the dart were blunted, and crumbled with the blow, and I could find no dent in the shield.
"See, the birds are returning to the city in haste for more darts!" said the doctor. But I was interested in examining the first dart, which had fallen a few hundred feet behind us. Its shaft was of roughly-hewn, spongy wood, and it weighed far less than half the mass of soft pine would on Earth. Its tip was not metal, but chipped stone--crumbly, like the arrow-heads. Either they did not know the metals, or they were too rare to be used in their arts. And it was to be supposed that they would use the hardest stone they had for arrow-heads and dart-tips.
I carried the shaft easily upon my shoulder forward to the edge of the cliff. This surprised even the doctor a little, for four Martians had been necessary to put it in place upon the catapult. It must have astonished them still more, for they were staring at me so blankly that I was tempted to toss the dart down their gaping throats!
"Give them just one dose of their own medicine!" suggested the doctor.
"Perhaps I had better teach them to keep their dangerous weapons at home," I said; and, balancing the dart easily above my head, I aimed it carefully at a dense group around the catapult. I threw my whole force into the thrust, and sent the shaft whizzing down at them. Then I staggered back, quite exhausted by the effort and gasping for breath.
"Good God! You have impaled two of them upon the dart!" cried the doctor, "and it is causing a panic in the whole army!"
And when I sprang up to look, I saw two writhing Martians, much shrunken in size and dying upon the dart. The terror-stricken archers and slingers were scattering and scurrying in every direction, regardless of the shouted orders of their captains. The foremost of the impaled men wore a beard, and was no other than the gunner of the catapult.
"I am sorry for the poor devils!" I exclaimed. "I had no idea they were so soft and tender. They have shrunk like a pricked balloon!"
"They thought they could prick us like that, and let the life ooze out," said the doctor. "There is no danger that they will shoot any more at us. The whole army is afraid that you will throw down the other dart."
Nevertheless, other companies of archers and slingers were seen leaving the palace, and the birds were already returning with two more darts. And the soldiers below were gaining courage and responding to the rallying cries of the captains, who were halloing and pointing toward the edge of the cliff, down in the direction of the cataract. I looked quickly that way, and instantly shouted,-- "To the rifles, quick, doctor! The other two birds have ascended the cliff, and are racing toward us along its edge. Take careful aim at the head of that front one. Afterward, let drive two random bullets into his body!"
Urged on by their riders, who with their hands swayed the long necks of the birds in unison with their rhythmical stride, these two-legged giraffes, with the wild look and sharp beak of an eagle, swept menacingly toward us.
"Ready now!" I cried, as the foremost came within fifty feet of us. "Fire!"
Two sharp reports almost simultaneous, with a less thunderous explosion than on Earth, but singing in a higher key and flaming vastly more, startled and terrified the Martians. Then crack! crack! bang! bang! four other shots in swift succession, followed by the terrific croaking of the wounded Terror-bird, which fell ponderously forward, kicking violently and beating the ground wildly with its head.
Seizing my broadsword in a flash, I dealt it such a blow upon the neck as quite to sever the head from the body. There was a gush of red blood; and those who have seen the antics of a decapitated chicken, may correspondingly multiply the corpse and imagine the confusion that now ensued.
"Stand ready for the second bird!" I shouted to the doctor; but on looking, I saw that the other animal refused to be urged forward, after seeing the fate of his companion. His rider was half-hearted in his efforts, and was watching the forward rider, who had been severely thrown with the bird's fall, and badly bruised by the kicking and threshing. He seemed to realize that he was in our power, and was thoroughly desperate. With a wailing cry he rushed at me with open arms, as if to embrace death, for I still held the sword. Dropping the weapon, I grappled with him, catching him about the wrists, which shrank under my grasp. He seemed to have scarcely the strength of a child; and everywhere I touched him, his flesh yielded like the flabby muscles of a fat baby. I bent him over backwards, then swung him around and caught him by the shoulders, and whirled him around my head. Finally, I tossed him over the edge of the cliff, where he landed among some bushes, and scrambled down as fast as he could, glad to have saved his life. The other rider had turned his bird back toward the cataract with all possible despatch.
"The whole army below us is now thoroughly demoralized!" said the jubilant doctor. "Many of them fled dismayed on hearing the firing, and others screamed and ran away when they saw you decapitate the bird. But your wrestling with the rider, and flinging him about like an infant, was an object lesson none of them could stay to see repeated. I saw one trembling fool slink back to cut the thong of the catapult, so that we could not use it on them. They have wholly abandoned the attack!"
"If this is the worst they can do, I will undertake to make myself king, and you prime minister here, within twenty-four hours!" I ejaculated, decidedly pleased with the idea. "And I will maintain supremacy with a standing army of a thousand Terror-birds!"
"The consciousness of superior strength always brings that desire for conquest," answered the doctor. "We must not allow it to master us, but we must push our advantage. Look! the panic of the first ones reaching the city is spreading to the new companies marching out. They are trampled over by the fleeing host, they turn and mingle with the frightened mob in one struggling, terror-stricken mass! Come, let us be into the projectile and after them. With a few booming shots above their heads, we will make them think their Thunder-gods have come!"
The Strange Bravery of Miss Blank Telescope, rifles, and shields were tumbled into the projectile pell-mell, and without stopping to close the port-hole, we steered towards the city as we mounted rapidly. When the soldiers, weary of running, saw us start, they were stricken with a new fear, and made all possible haste for shelter. When they perceived that we were rising into the red haze, they took a little courage, but still hastened.
"Perhaps they think we are mounting to the sky for more thunder and lightning," I suggested. "Little do they know the destruction we could do them with the handful of ammunition we have, if we really meant war as much as they at first desired it and now fear it!"
By this time we were almost above the thickest crowd of the fleeing army, while the most energetic runners and the Terror-bird that had turned back had reached the heart of the city; and we could see the alarm spreading like wild-fire to all its inhabitants. I was busy loading the rifles with the cartridges which the doctor had robbed of their bullets for the pickle-bottle experiment soon after our start.
"We will execute a little coup, to show them the difficulties of retreat when the enemy is armed with gravity projectiles," said the doctor. "Do you see that great gate of the city they are all making for? We will drop down there, just in front of them, and prevent their entrance. It will be better to keep the whole army outside the walls, if possible, for its absence and disorganization will make the rulers all the more tractable when we are ready to drop down into their city and make peace with them on our own terms."
"I must say you are a good general, Doctor!" I exclaimed. "You plan the campaign, and I will do the fighting."
The blank dismay of the soldiers when they saw us descending again, and their abject desperation when they perceived that we should land in front of them and cut off their entrance to the city, was pitiful to see.
"Doctor, do you remember the grand display and the proud strength with which these soldiers marched forth? Look at the difference now!"
"Oh, war! war!" he exclaimed. "The glory of its beginning! The terror of its prosecution! The misery of its end! Would that it could always be carried on by terrorizing the mind instead of by slaying the body!"
As we were about to come to land in front of the straggling multitude of soldiers, I fired a dozen blank cartridges as rapidly as I could work the rifle. This was at very near range, and although the explosions sounded weak to me, the excessive flaming of the powder added a new terror. The disorganized army stopped in dread; the stragglers pushing up from behind, and the frightened turning of those in front, crushed the multitude together and increased the confusion. Throngs of people, whose curiosity was still stronger than their fear, were coming out from the city. As they saw us float down and land, and then heard the firing, they turned and rushed within the gates again, ready to believe far worse stories than they had yet heard.
"We must scatter this rabble army and put it wholly to rout," insisted the doctor. "I will swing amongst them and over their heads, while you burn powder for them. If they won't scatter, use your revolver and wound one or two of them."
"No, I will not harm another man," I answered. "They are too weak and defenceless a foe, and are no match for us. Hereafter I will fight only with the birds."
We rose and sailed slantingly toward them, but they had already started to disperse. Those who had jumping-staves disentangled themselves from the crowd and scattered into the bushy wastes. I continued firing until my blank cartridges were gone, and then we landed just outside the entrance and emerged from the projectile to examine the gates and see if we could close and fasten them.
Within the wall those who had gained entrance during our last movements were rapidly retreating toward the centre of the city, warning all whom they passed. One single stately figure showed no fear, and paid no heed to the exclamations of the runners. The ampler dress and flowing flaxen hair indicated that it was a woman, and to our surprise, though she was well clothed, she seemed to be demanding alms of every one as she approached us. No one gave her anything, and occasionally a runner seized her arm and tried to persuade her to return. But she caught none of their excitement, and composedly pursued her course.
"Egad! This beautiful girl is braver than the whole Martian army!" I exclaimed in amazement, as she calmly approached where I was standing by the gate and extended her fair, plump hand. If she was asking alms, I had nothing to give her; but here, at least, was one pacific, composed, and reasonable person. Perhaps it was the queen, or a diplomatic envoy of the ruler!
"Now is the time to demonstrate our friendliness," I exclaimed, and reaching forth my hand I grasped hers in a warm clasp of welcome.
She looked up at me blankly. Her beautiful face carried no expression of satisfaction or surprise. Her transparent complexion was neither paled by fear nor flushed by pleasure. Her great dreamy eyes, of a deep liquid blue, wandered unfixedly in their languid gaze. Still holding her soft hand, which was far warmer than my own, I opened her fingers with my other hand and pointed at her pink extended palm as if to inquire what she wished. I watched her closely, but she made no sign, said nothing, looked nothing.
"Since I do not know you, I can think of no more fitting name to call you by than Miss Blank," I said, more to express my thought in articulate sounds than anything else, for I had no idea she would understand me. From her expression I could not judge whether she had even heard me, to say nothing of comprehending. She was looking beyond me, through the gate, as if searching others from whom she might ask alms. Seeing none, she wheeled slowly about to return. Unwillingly I released her hand, and stood unspeakably puzzled by the whole matter. She was commanding in appearance, being taller than I by a few inches, not slim, but well proportioned. She had the stately serenity of a dreaming queen, but the blank, unresponsive soul of one who dwelt within herself; and though she saw, she did not realize the existence or meaning of anything outside.
"Doctor, will all your learning solve this riddle for me!" I exclaimed. "Can all the Martian women be like this? She is beautiful of body and strangely warm and winning to the touch, but as cold of heart as the drifting snow that suffocates a poor lost lamb. She has had a strange influence over me; a puzzling, baffling attraction. A suggestion of something delicate and subtlely charming, which, when one seeks to seize and to define, retires icily behind the drawn curtain of her soul."
"I hope you won't play the lost lamb to her snowdrift!" he sneered, in a way that I resented. "One would think she had hypnotized you on the spot! And she must be in a trance herself, for she had not sense enough to fear us."
"Those who have the most sense fear us the least!" I retorted.
"But fear is our sharp weapon now," he answered; "and some of the stragglers, looking back, saw you stand there holding her hand in a manner far from warlike. They will report this to the rulers unless we forestall them. Come, fasten the gates tightly upon the inside to keep the soldiers out, and I will sail over the wall to pick you up."
"Doctor, we make our peace at once, and fight no more with the brothers of this girl," I said with decision.
The massive gates were of hewn stone, turning in sockets at their outer corners above and below. They swung as easily as if hung upon hinges, and when closed a slab of stone came down to bar them. I made them fast, and then called out to the doctor,-- "Don't come for me. I have found a jumping-staff, and I think I can leap to the top of the wall."
It was a sheer fifteen feet of solid masonry, but my chief delight since landing on Martian soil was the inordinate springiness of my leg muscles against the feeble gravity. I ran and sprang lustily with the aid of the cross-bow, and I remember the doctor's surprised look when he saw me clear the entire wall without touching the top and land safely with a very mild jolt on his side.
A short oblique ascent of the projectile brought us over the city, and revealed to us the condition of desperate panic into which the wild reports of the soldiers and the bird-rider had thrown the frantic populace. The soldiers still within the walls could not restrain the people, or did not try. If there was any government, it lacked a head or could not command attention. The stubborn instinct of self-preservation was king. Distracted throngs surged out at one gate, to separate and waver and hesitate, and finally to fight for a speedy entrance at another. On one side soldiers were apparently ordering people down from the wall, while on another the excited populace was hauling sentinel soldiers from the same elevation, lest our attention should be attracted. Within, strong men were weeping and wailing; without, nervous men were haranguing the vacillating multitude; but more were stolidly pushing with the rabble or being hustled by it.
Only one sign of order and forethought was apparent. Evidently for better safety and for an easier defence, the women and children had been taken to a central park or pleasure ground, and left there with a small guard of soldiers. The men to whom they belonged had apparently all gone elsewhere.
"Doctor, we must put an end to this fear and frenzy at the earliest possible moment. If we are not destroying those people, we are exciting them to destroy each other, which is equally blameworthy. We must go down at once, but we had best avoid the frantic men. The women seem far more reposeful. Let us drop quietly into that open field in the park, and I will make friendly signs to the women, pat the children on the head, and give them all to understand that we mean no harm."
He evidently saw that we had quite overdone the scare, and was as much impressed by the terrible picture below as I was. We turned down without delay, and landed quietly behind a clump of trees. I took a tin of sweet biscuits under my arm, and the doctor following me, with a generous handful of his trinkets and tinsel toys, we left the projectile, and rounding the grove of dwarfed trees we approached the romping children first. I patted their flaxen curls, lightly pinched their cheeks, and handed each of them a sweet biscuit. Then, while the doctor distributed strange toys amongst them, I put on my most courtly ways and addressed myself to the women. Their first impulses of fear had been somewhat allayed by our attentions to the children, and I bowed profusely and made bold to kiss the hands of a few of the youngest of them. Each of these looked to see if I had left anything visible or harmful on her hand, from which I judged the custom was wholly strange to them. The others looked on askance and whispered excitedly among themselves.
One of the soldiers who had seen us approach, but offered no resistance, had now started to run, as fast as his jumping-staff would carry him, toward the palace. I knew at once that this meant some new development, and I hoped it meant a report of our friendly actions and a truce all around. But the doctor reminded me that we must be prepared for surprises and treachery. Therefore we re-entered the projectile, and out of the sight of all the Martians I re-loaded the rifles, and then we waited a long time.
Our patience was finally rewarded, for we saw the soldier returning, slowly leading a woman. In her left arm, which the soldier held, she carried something white which wriggled occasionally. All this we considered so favourable a development that we went out again, bowing to the women about us, petting the children, and looking as peaceable and amiable as the politest of Earth's people. But it may have passed for imbecility, or worse, on Mars.
When I looked toward the soldier again, my heart began a queer thumping, for he was leading no other than the woman who had met us at the gate, and she was carrying our white rabbit, which we had released early that morning a long way from this spot.
"By all that is wonderful!" I exclaimed to the doctor, "if we have not fallen upon a country which is ruled by yon dumb queen, and she brings to us as a peace offering the only thing that we have lost!"
"Since when have potentates learned to beg, and forgotten to command and to exact?" he answered with half a sneer. "See, she still extends her hand to every one she passes."
And as the soldier, trained to revere a beard, led the woman directly up to the doctor, she stretched forth her pretty palm again; but if he had presumed to take it I could have struck him! To my cordial grasp I added a kiss this time, and then I raised my eyes slowly to her face, fearing to see that blank look again. There was no look in her eyes; they did not look, they only wandered!
The soldier, who still held her other arm, waved his cross-bow toward the palace meaningly, and a hush fell upon the murmuring crowd. I ignored him and spoke to her,-- "If thou art the queen, command me but by a look or sign, and I obey. And if thou art not the queen, then they should make thee one. Dost thou wish us to follow thee to yon palace?" said I; but the only mind that understood scoffed at my rapturous declamation.
The woman merely drew her hand from my warm clasp and stretched it out to the people, who crowded about and paid her no attention. Then the soldier, as if suddenly remembering, took the rabbit from her arm and handed it to me. She looked about at this, as if missing the snuggling animal, and I stared hard at the meddling soldier to reprove him for interfering with his queen, and gently restored the rabbit to her arm.
"The soldier wishes us to go to the palace," put in the doctor. "But we must not go unarmed. He may be leading us into an ambush. Let us take all of our arms and follow him."
Accordingly, we buckled on the swords, and took the rifles on our shoulders. As we dragged out the heavy shields, the soldier pointed to a group of donkeys laden with bags of something like grain. I waved assent, and the muleteer unburdened one of them and loaded the shields upon him.
"Why not take the telescope?" I suggested; "it is big and bright, and perhaps they may fear it too. Or we may wish to show its wondrous use." As I drew it out the crowd started back, but the soldier and the muleteer gingerly loaded it upon another donkey. Then the soldier took the woman's arm again, and pushed her extended palm around toward me, as if I would be unwilling to go unless I had it. My right hand held my rifle, but I was secretly glad that my left was free to clasp the woman's hand. The doctor walked behind to watch the muleteer, and thus we marched to the palace.
Zaphnath, Ruler of the Kemi Two hieroglyph-bearing columns of red sandstone, strong and broad enough to have supported a Tower of Babel, formed the portals of the outer gate of the palace. A pair of Terror-birds, whose plumage was a pearly grey, stood sleepily on guard. Our soldier, who could scarcely have reached to the backs of the birds, lifted up his cross-bow and tapped upon their long necks. Acting perfectly in concert, the animals each engaged with its beak a wooden ring suspended high in front of them, and then, bending down their necks, the hempen ropes, to which the rings were fastened, hauled up a ponderous portcullis, made of slabs of stone, and thus afforded us an entrance.
As this stone gate rumbled slowly down again, we saw that we were shut into a vast courtyard, surrounded by a colonnade, whence cavernous passages led circuitously to the various compartments of the palace. Within the courtyard were drawn up in expectant readiness four companies of archers and three of slingers, in all, perhaps, seven hundred men, who gaped and stared at us.
The doctor touched my elbow, and whispered: "We should have landed in here with the projectile, which would have given us a means of ready escape."
"Remember the saying of General Grant," I answered. "'When you are frightened, don't forget that the enemy may be far more so.' These soldiers have heard enough to make them believe us capable of anything. They would tear down the very walls, if we were to open fire on them. Besides, I could leap that courtyard wall and drag you with me."
Unsheathing our swords, as an object lesson to the soldiers, we followed our guide to the blind end of a long passage, which apparently gave entrance only to a small stone chamber. Following the soldier and muleteer, who were now carrying our shields and telescope, we crowded into this and waited. Presently the entire chamber, operated in some unseen manner, turned slowly half way round, so that its door now gave entrance directly to a vast but gloomy and tomb-like audience chamber, where we were evidently expected.
Upon a massive throne of richly-chiselled stone a youth of scarcely more than five-and-twenty years (if judged by earthly standards) sat gorgeously arrayed in vestments of richly coloured feathers, woven skilfully into the meshes of coarse cloth. Longer plumes of changeable colours radiated from a wide collar which he wore, covering his breast and back, and extending over his shoulders. The peach-blow of his fair cheeks was partly hidden by a heavy false beard, plaited into stubby braids, which hung to an even line a little below the chin. His own soft, flaxen hair peeped meekly out from under a wig of tightly curled grey strands, cropped all round to a level with the beard. His feet and arms were bare, except for thin ribbons of downy, purple feathers, which circled the wrists and ankles. No crown was on his head, but among the stringy wig-curls the sinuous body of an asp bent in and out, and the curved neck and threatening head surmounted his clear brow.
To his right, round an oval table of highly polished stone, sat twelve wrinkled men, not one of whom but had seen three times his years. They wore their own white beards, unplaited, and their feather clothing was less elaborate and of simple grey, like the plumage of the Terror-bird.
Our soldier placed his right hand upon his cheek, and inclined his head slightly forward and to the right, as a salutation to the ruler, and, leaving the woman standing by me, he and the muleteer retired. She seemed neither surprised at, nor accustomed to, these surroundings. She made no salutation or obeisance to the ruler or to the old men, and they made none to her. Withdrawing her hand from mine, she stretched it toward them, as she had toward the commonest man outside. They paid her no attention, but the oldest of the men signalled to an attendant, who led her back and placed her hand in mine again. That soldiers and counsellors alike should consider this necessary or fitting seemed strange to me. The doctor jokingly suggested that they wished to keep me permanently hypnotized, lest I should become dangerous again.
Having laid off our rifles, swords, and outer coats, I lifted my cap and made a low bow to the youth and to the old men, but the doctor tried the salute of the right hand upon the cheek, as he had seen the soldier do. In answer the youth simply looked toward the twelve, waving his hand towards us in a way which seemed to say to them, "Gentlemen, behold the enigma!" Then, beginning with the eldest, the twelve jabbered at us in turn, apparently in different tongues, some sibilant, some guttural, and others with the musical cadence of frequent vowel sounds. Needless to say, each was equally incomprehensible to us, and we did not think it worth while to try German or English upon them. When they had finished, they looked much vexed, and slowly wagged their beards. Then the youth spoke something to them with a confident gesture toward himself. He arose, and began addressing us. I suddenly stopped short in the middle of a sentence I was whispering to the doctor. It seemed as if the youth had ceased making mere sounds, and had begun to speak a coherent language, a tongue which has lived ages while others have languished into forgetfulness; a language whose words I understood, but yet the words carried little clear meaning to me.
"Listen, Doctor! The boy is speaking Hebrew! Ancient and archaic in form, but yet Hebrew which I understand!" And this is what he had said: "Oh ye, who speak among yourselves, but understand only those who speak not at all, I, Zaphnath, revealer of God's hidden things, will address ye in my native tongue, which none but me in all the land of Kem hath any knowledge of."
"There be two of us in Kem, O Zaphnath, who understand that tongue. Speak on!" I cried.
But the boy stripped off his wig and beard, and, leaving the throne, hastened toward me and laid his soft right cheek against my own with gentle pressure.
"Comest thou, then, from the land of my father, a stranger wandering into Kem, even as I came?" he asked.
"Nay, gentle youth, we came a vastly farther way, from another world, so distant that thou seest it from here only as a twinkling star in the night. But if, indeed, thou camest a wandering stranger into Kem, art thou then the king?" He had resumed his wig and beard, and his proud seat upon the throne, and after he had translated my words for the twelve old men, he answered me,-- "I am Zaphnath, ruler over all the land of Kem, without whom the Pharaoh doeth not, nor sayeth anything. These are his twelve wise men, who do not believe what thou hast said, for there is no other world large enough for the abode of two men, except the Day-Giver, whence they think ye have come. The Pharaoh may believe them, but I will believe what ye tell me. He hath given me full power to treat with you, and hath taken refuge with all his women in his tomb, and will not come forth until ye be appeased. Tell me in truth, then, are ye men, or gods? Ye look not half so warlike as all the soldiers have described you."
I translated this to the doctor, but replied without waiting to consult with him,-- "We know but one God, who hath made all the stars, and all who dwell upon them. We are men to whom it hath been given to travel the infinite distances which reach from one of His stars to another, and we are come to this one, not to make war but to find peace. We would have sought thee peacefully as friends, had not thine armies made war upon us on the plateau yonder. But our means of warfare proved far more terrible and dreadful here than on our proper star. Thus have we unwittingly slain two of thy soldiers and frightened all the army. We have with us the means to kill them all, but we seek a peaceable life here for a brief time, that we may learn your ways and test your wisdom, when we shall be gone again."
"The Pharaoh could have better spared a thousand men than the bird which thy lightning hath killed. For are not his slaves as the plenteous grain of a rich harvest, while his birds are but as the fingers of his hands. If ye came but to learn, 'tis well ye know these wise men, though, since I came to Kem, their profession hath fallen somewhat into disrepute. I doubt not but they could learn far more from thee than thou from them, but they will not do it. Whatever they do not know is not true in Kem, but what they know continues true long after common men know better. Now, wilt thou explain to me the mysteries the soldiers have reported to us? But first tell us which of all the stars it is thou comest from."
"Know then, O Zaphnath, that we call our star the Earth, and in her wanderings she hath now approached so near to the great Orb of Day that her rays are paled by his brighter light; she sets with him, and shines no more by night. But yet a few days now, and she shall triumph even over him, and, entering on his glowing disc, she shall be seen at mid-day, obscuring his light and travelling as a spot across his glory."
The old men wagged their beards as the boy translated, but he sprang to his feet with no little excitement, and exclaimed,-- "Meanest thou that blue star with its attendant speck of white, which but a little while ago shone with great brightness as a Twilight Star?"
"That is the Earth, O Zaphnath, the world from whence we came," I exclaimed; and the youth again threw off his wig and beard, and rushing toward me, pressed first his right cheek and then his left cheek against mine, and then against the doctor's.
"Then ye are most welcome to the land of Kem, and we shall be friends for ever. For ye should know that my mother was barren all the years of her life until this same Blue Star came to shine wondrously, even in the presence of the Day-Giver, before his setting. It was then, under the beneficent influence of this star, that she gave birth to me. And when the star paled and wandered again I tarried not in the land of my father, but came strangely hither, to be ruler in a great land which my people had never known."
When he had resumed his seat again, I said, "All that I have told thee shalt thou see come to pass, and through this Larger Eye, which we have made to pierce the deep of space, thou shalt see more clearly that the Blue Star is indeed a great orb, where many men may dwell, and after she hath passed the Day-Giver, she will appear as a bright morning star again to announce his coming."
"Why now, if this be true, then every one of these old men must die. For Pharaoh's laws provide that whatsoever wise man faileth to predict such an appearance, or predicteth one which doth not occur, must lose his life. These grey-beards, always jealous of me, have said that the Blue Star, which beareth my destiny, hath disappeared, never to be seen again. Now, when they are slain, Pharaoh shall appoint you to sit in their places. Ye shall reign jointly with Zaphnath if it pleaseth you, and ye may choose what seemeth good to you of everything that is in the land of Kem and in all the countries which pay tribute unto Pharaoh. And he will give you as wives all the women ye saw in Long Breath Park, and an equal part of all the slaves and women taken in war will he give you also. For hath he not bidden me treat generously with you, even to his tributary countries and half his women?"