A Voyage to Arcturus/Chapter 11
BY THE TIME that they regained the mouth of the cavern, Blodsombre was at its height. In front of them the scenery sloped downward—a long succession of mountain islands in a sea of clouds. Behind them the bright, stupendous crags of Disscourn loomed up for a thousand feet or more. Maskull's eyes were red, and his face looked stupid; he was still holding the woman by the arm. She made no attempt to speak, or to get away. She seemed perfectly gentle and composed.
After gazing at the country for along time in silence, he turned toward her. "Whereabouts is the fiery lake you spoke of?"
"It lies on the other side of the mountain. But why do you ask?"
"It is just as well if we have some way to walk. I shall grow calmer, and that's what I want. I wish you to understand that what is going to happen is not a murder, but an execution."
"It will taste the same," said Tydomin.
"When I have gone out of this country, I don't wish to feel that I have left a demon behind me, wandering at large. That would not be fair to others. So we will go to the lake, which promises an easy death for you."
She shrugged her shoulders. "We must wait till Blodsombre is over."
"Is this a time for luxurious feelings? However hot it is now, we will both be cool by evening. We must start at once."
"Without doubt, you are the master, Maskull.... May I not carry Crimtyphon?"
Maskull looked at her strangely.
"I grudge no man his funeral."
She painfully hoisted the body on her narrow shoulders, and they stepped out into the sunlight. The heat struck them like a blow on the head. Maskull moved aside, to allow her to precede him, but no compassion entered his heart. He brooded over the wrongs the woman had done him.
The way went along the south side of the great pyramid, near its base. It was a rough road, clogged with boulders and crossed by cracks and water gullies; they could see the water, but could not get at it. There was no shade. Blisters formed on their skin, while all the water in their blood seemed to dry up.
Maskull forgot his own tortures in his devil's delight at Tydomin's. "Sing me a song!" he called out presently. "A characteristic one."
She turned her head and gave him a long, peculiar look; then, without any sort of expostulation, started singing. Her voice was low and weird. The song was so extraordinary that he had to rub his eyes to ascertain whether he was awake or dreaming. The slow surprises of the grotesque melody began to agitate him in a horrible fashion; the words were pure nonsense—or else their significance was too deep for him.
"Where, in the name of all unholy things, did you acquire that stuff, woman?"
Tydomin shed a sickly smile, while the corpse swayed about with ghastly jerks over her left shoulder. She held it in position with her two left arms. "It's a pity we could not have met as friends, Maskull. I could have shown you a side of Tormance which now perhaps you will never see. The wild, mad, side. But now it's too late, and it doesn't matter."
They turned the angle of the mountain, and started to traverse the western base.
"Which is the quickest way out of this miserable land?" asked Maskull.
"It is easiest to go to Sant."
"Will we see it from anywhere?"
"Yes, though it is a long way off."
"Have you been there?"
"I am a woman, and interdicted."
"True. I have heard something of the sort."
"But don't ask me any more questions," said Tydomin, who was becoming faint.
Maskull stopped at a little spring. He himself drank, and then made a cup of his hand for the woman, so that she might not have to lay down her burden. The gnawl water acted like magic—it seemed to replenish all the cells of his body as though they had been thirsty sponge pores, sucking up liquid. Tydomin recovered her self-possession.
About three-quarters of an hour later they worked around the second corner, and entered into full view of the north aspect of Disscourn.
A hundred yards lower down the slope on which they were walking, the mountain ended abruptly in a chasm. The air above it was filled with a sort of green haze, which trembled violently like the atmosphere immediately over a furnace.
"The lake is underneath," said Tydomin.
Maskull looked curiously about him. Beyond the crater the country sloped away in a continuous descent to the skyline. Behind them, a narrow path channelled its way up through the rocks toward the towering summit of the pyramid. Miles away, in the north-east quarter, a long, flat-topped plateau raised its head far above all the surrounding country. It was Sant—and there and then he made up his mind that that should be his destination that day.
Tydomin meanwhile had walked straight to the gulf, and set down Crimtyphon's body on the edge. In a minute or two, Maskull joined her; arrived at the brink, he immediately flung himself at full length on his chest, to see what could be seen of the lake of fire. A gust of hot, asphyxiating air smote his face and set him coughing, but he did not get up until he had stared his fill at the huge sea of green, molten lava, tossing and swirling at no great distance below, like a living will.
A faint sound of drumming came up. He listened intently, and as he did so his heart quickened and the black cares rolled away from his soul. All the world and its accidents seemed at that moment false, and without meaning....
He climbed abstractedly to his feet. Tydomin was talking to her dead husband. She was peering into the hideous face of ivory, and fondling his violet hair. When she perceived Maskull, she hastily kissed the withered lips, and got up from her knees. Lifting the corpse with all three arms, she staggered with it to the extreme edge of the gulf and, after an instant's hesitation, allowed it to drop into the lava. It disappeared immediately without sound; a metallic splash came up. That was Crimtyphon's funeral.
"Now I am ready, Maskull."
He did not answer, but stared past her. Another figure was standing, erect and mournful, not far behind her. It was Joiwind. Her face was wan, and there was an accusing look in her eyes. Maskull knew that it was a phantasm, and that the real Joiwind was miles away, at Poolingdred.
"Turn around, Tydomin," he said oddly, "and tell me what you see behind you."
"I don't see anything," she answered, looking around.
"But I see Joiwind."
Just as he was speaking, the apparition vanished.
"Now I present you with your life, Tydomin. She wishes it."
The woman fingered her chin thoughtfully.
"I little expected I should ever be beholden for my life to one of my own sex—but so be it. What really happened to you in my cavern?"
"I really saw Krag."
"Yes, some miracle must have taken place." She suddenly shivered. "Come, let us leave this horrible spot. I shall never come here again."
"Yes," said Maskull, "it stinks of death and dying. But where are we to go—what are we to do? Take me to Sant. I must get away from this hellish land."
Tydomin remained standing, dull and hollow-eyed. Then she gave an abrupt, bitter little laugh. "We make our journey together in singular stages. Rather than be alone, I'll come with you—but you know that if I set foot in Sant they will kill me."
"At least set me on the way. I wish to get there before night. Is it possible?"
"If you are willing to take risks with nature. And why should you not take risks today? Your luck holds. But someday or other it won't hold—your luck."
"Let us start," said Maskull. "The luck I've had so far is nothing to brag about."
Blodsombre was over when they set off; it was early afternoon, but the heat seemed more stifling than ever. They made no more pretence at conversation; both were buried in their own painful thoughts. The land fell away from Disscourn in all other directions, but toward Sant there was a gentle, persistent rise. Its dark, distant plateau continued to dominate the landscape, and after walking for an hour they seemed none the nearer to it. The air was stale and stagnant.
By and by, an upright object, apparently the work of man, attracted Maskull's notice. It was a slender tree stem, with the bark still on, imbedded in the stony ground. From the upper end three branches sprang out, pointing aloft at a sharp angle. They were stripped to twigs and leaves and, getting closer, he saw that they had been artificially fastened on, at equal distances from each other.
As he stared at the object, a strange, sudden flush of confident vanity and self-sufficiency seemed to pass through him, but it was so momentary that he could be sure of nothing.
"What may that be, Tydomin?"
"It is Hator's Trifork."
"And what is its purpose?"
"It's a guide to Sant."
"But who or what is Hator?"
"Hator was the founder of Sant—many thousands of years ago. He laid down the principles they all live by, and that trifork is his symbol. When I was a little child my father told me the legends, but I've forgotten most of them."
Maskull regarded it attentively.
"Does it affect you in any way?"
"And why should it do that?" she said, dropping her lip scornfully. "I am only a woman, and these are masculine mysteries."
"A sort of gladness came over me," said Maskull, "but perhaps I am mistaken."
They passed on. The scenery gradually changed in character. The solid parts of the land grew more continuous, the fissures became narrower and more infrequent. There were now no more subsidences or upheavals. The peculiar nature of the Ifdawn Marest appeared to be giving place to a different order of things.
Later on, they encountered a flock of pale blue jellies floating in the air. They were miniature animals. Tydomin caught one in her hand and began to eat it, just as one eats a luscious pear plucked from a tree. Maskull, who had fasted since early morning, was not slow in following her example. A sort of electric vigour at once entered his limbs and body, his muscles regained their elasticity, his heart began to beat with hard, slow, strong throbs.
"Food and body seem to agree well in this world," he remarked smiling.
She glanced toward him. "Perhaps the explanation is not in the food, but in your body."
"I brought my body with me."
"You brought your soul with you, but that's altering fast, too."
In a copse they came across a short, wide tree, without leaves, but possessing a multitude of thin, flexible branches, like the tentacles of a cuttlefish. Some of these branches were moving rapidly. A furry animal, somewhat resembling a wildcat, leaped about among them in the most extraordinary way. But the next minute Maskull was shocked to realise that the beast was not leaping at all, but was being thrown from branch to branch by the volition of the tree, exactly as an imprisoned mouse is thrown by a cat from paw to paw.
He watched the spectacle a while with morbid interest.
"That's a gruesome reversal of roles, Tydomin."
"One can see you're disgusted," she replied, stifling a yawn. "But that is because you are a slave to words. If you called that plant an animal, you would find its occupation perfectly natural and pleasing. And why should you not call it an animal?"
"I am quite aware that, as long as I remain in the Ifdawn Marest, I shall go on listening to this sort of language."
They trudged along for an hour or more without talking. The day became overcast. A thin mist began to shroud the landscape, and the sun changed into an immense ruddy disk which could be stared at without flinching. A chill, damp wind blew against them. Presently it grew still darker, the sun disappeared and, glancing first at his companion and then at himself, Maskull noticed that their skin and clothing were coated by a kind of green hoarfrost.
The land was now completely solid. About half a mile, in front of them, against a background of dark fog, a moving forest of tall waterspouts gyrated slowly and gracefully hither and thither. They were green and self-luminous, and looked terrifying. Tydomin explained that they were not waterspouts at all, but mobile columns of lightning.
"Then they are dangerous?"
"So we think," she answered, watching them closely.
"Someone is wandering there who appears to have a different opinion."
Among the spouts, and entirely encompassed by them, a man was walking with a slow, calm, composed gait, his back turned toward Maskull and Tydomin. There was something unusual in his appearance—his form looked extraordinarily distinct, solid, and real.
"If there's danger, he ought to be warned," said Maskull.
"He who is always anxious to teach will learn nothing," returned the woman coolly. She restrained Maskull by a pressure of the arm, and continued to watch.
The base of one of the columns touched the man. He remained unharmed, but turned sharply around, as if for the first time made aware of the proximity of these deadly waltzers. Then he raised himself to his full height, and stretched both arms aloft above his head, like a diver. He seemed to be addressing the columns.
While they looked on, the electric spouts discharged themselves, with a series of loud explosions. The stranger stood alone, uninjured. He dropped his arms. The next moment he caught sight of the two, and stood still, waiting for them to come up. The pictorial clarity of his person grew more and more noticeable as they approached; his body seemed to be composed of some substance heavier and denser than solid matter.
Tydomin looked perplexed.
"He must be a Sant man. I have seen no one quite like him before. This is a day of days for me."
"He must be an individual of great importance," murmured Maskull.
They now came up to him. He was tall, strong, and bearded, and was clothed in a shirt and breeches of skin. Since turning his back to the wind, the green deposit on his face and limbs had changed to streaming moisture, through which his natural colour was visible; it was that of pale iron. There was no third arm. His face was harsh and frowning, and a projecting chin pushed the beard forward. On his forehead there were two flat membranes, like rudimentary eyes, but no sorb. These membranes were expressionless, but in some strange way seemed to add vigour to the stem eyes underneath. When his glance rested on Maskull, the latter felt as though his brain were being thoroughly travelled through. The man was middle-aged.
His physical distinctness transcended nature. By contrast with him, every object in the neighbourhood looked vague and blurred. Tydomin's person suddenly appeared faint, sketch-like, without significance, and Maskull realised that it was no better with himself. A queer, quickening fire began running through his veins.
He turned to the woman. "If this man is going to Sant, I shall bear him company. We can now part. No doubt you will think it high time."
"Let Tydomin come too."
The words were delivered in a rough, foreign tongue, but were as intelligible to Maskull as if spoken in English.
"You who know my name, also know my sex," said Tydomin quietly. "It is death for me to enter Sant."
"That is the old law. I am the bearer of the new law."
"Is it so—and will it be accepted?"
"The old skin is cracking, the new skin has been silently forming underneath, the moment of sloughing has arrived."
The storm gathered. The green snow drove against them, as they stood talking, and it grew intensely cold. None noticed it.
"What is your name?" asked Maskull, with a beating heart.
"My name, Maskull, is Spadevil. You, a voyager across the dark ocean of space, shall be my first witness and follower. You, Tydomin, a daughter of the despised sex, shall be my second."
"The new law? But what is it?"
"Until eye sees, of what use it is for ear to hear?.... Come, both of you, to me!"
Tydomin went to him unhesitatingly. Spadevil pressed his hand on her sorb and kept it there for a few minutes, while he closed his own eyes. When he removed it, Maskull observed that the sorb was transformed into twin membranes like Spadevil's own.
Tydomin looked dazed. She glanced quietly about for a little while, apparently testing her new faculty. Then the tears started to her eyes and, snatching up Spadevil's hand, she bent over and kissed it hurriedly many times.
"My past has been bad," she said. "Numbers have received harm from me, and none good. I have killed and worse. But now I can throw all that away, and laugh. Nothing can now injure me. Oh, Maskull, you and I have been fools together!"
"Don't you repent your crimes?" asked Maskull.
"Leave the past alone," said Spadevil, "it cannot be reshaped. The future alone is ours. It starts fresh and clean from this very minute. Why do you hesitate, Maskull? Are you afraid?"
"What is the name of, those organs, and what is their function?"
"They are probes, and they are the gates opening into a new world."
Maskull lingered no longer, but permitted Spadevil to cover his sorb.
While the iron hand was still pressing his forehead, the new law quietly flowed into his consciousness, like a smooth-running stream of clean water which had hitherto been dammed by his obstructive will. The law was duty.