A Voyage to Arcturus/Chapter 6
IT WAS DENSE NIGHT when Maskull awoke from his profound sleep. A wind was blowing against him, gentle but wall-like, such as he had never experienced on earth. He remained sprawling on the ground, as he was unable to lift his body because of its intense weight. A numbing pain, which he could not identify with any region of his frame, acted from now onward as a lower, sympathetic note to all his other sensations. It gnawed away at him continuously; sometimes it embittered and irritated him, at other times he forgot it.
He felt something hard on his forehead. Putting his hand up, he discovered there a fleshy protuberance the size of a small plum, having a cavity in the middle, of which he could not feel the bottom. Then he also became aware of a large knob on each side of his neck, an inch below the ear.
From the region of his heart, a tentacle had budded. It was as long as his arm, but thin, like whipcord, and soft and flexible.
As soon as he thoroughly realised the significance of these new organs, his heart began to pump. Whatever might, or might not, be their use, they proved one thing that he was in a new world.
One part of the sky began to get lighter than the rest. Maskull cried out to his companions, but received no response. This frightened him. He went on shouting out, at irregular intervals—equally alarmed at the silence and at the sound of his own voice. Finally, as no answering hail came, he thought it wiser not to make too much noise, and after that he lay quiet, waiting in cold blood for what might happen.
In a short while he perceived dim shadows around him, but these were not his friends.
A pale, milky vapour over the ground began to succeed the black night, while in the upper sky rosy tints appeared. On earth, one would have said that day was breaking. The brightness went on imperceptibly increasing for a very long time.
Maskull then discovered that he was lying on sand. The colour of the sand was scarlet. The obscure shadows he had seen were bushes, with black stems and purple leaves. So far, nothing else was visible.
The day surged up. It was too misty for direct sunshine, but before long the brilliance of the light was already greater than that of the midday sun on earth. The heat, too, was intense, but Maskull welcomed it—it relieved his pain and diminished his sense of crushing weight. The wind had dropped with the rising of the sun.
He now tried to get onto his feet, but succeeded only in kneeling. He was unable to see far. The mists had no more than partially dissolved, and all that he could distinguish was a narrow circle of red sand dotted with ten or twenty bushes.
He felt a soft, cool touch on the back of his neck. He started forward in nervous fright and, in doing so, tumbled over onto the sand. Looking up over his shoulder quickly, he was astounded to see a woman standing beside him.
She was clothed in a single flowing, pale green garment, rather classically draped. According to earth standards she was not beautiful, for, although her face was otherwise human, she was endowed—or afflicted—with the additional disfiguring organs that Maskull had discovered in himself. She also possessed the heart tentacle. But when he sat up, and their eyes met and remained in sympathetic contact, he seemed to see right into a soul that was the home of love, warmth, kindness, tenderness, and intimacy. Such was the noble familiarity of that gaze, that he thought he knew her. After that, he recognised all the loveliness of her person. She was tall and slight. All her movements were as graceful as music. Her skin was not of a dead, opaque colour, like that of an earth beauty, but was opalescent; its hue was continually changing, with every thought and emotion, but none of these tints was vivid—all were delicate, half-toned, and poetic. She had very long, loosely plaited, flaxen hair. The new organs, as soon as Maskull had familiarised himself with them, imparted something to her face that was unique and striking. He could not quite define it to himself, but subtlety and inwardness seemed added. The organs did not contradict the love of her eyes or the angelic purity of her features, but nevertheless sounded a deeper note—a note that saved her from mere girlishness.
Her gaze was so friendly and unembarrassed that Maskull felt scarcely any humiliation at sitting at her feet, naked and helpless. She realised his plight, and put into his hands a garment that she had been carrying over her arm. It was similar to the one she was wearing, but of a darker, more masculine colour.
"Do you think you can put it on by yourself?"
He was distinctly conscious of these words, yet her voice had not sounded.
He forced himself up to his feet, and she helped him to master the complications of the drapery.
"Poor man—how you are suffering!" she said, in the same inaudible language. This time he discovered that the sense of what she said was received by his brain through the organ on his forehead.
"Where am I? Is this Tormance?" he asked. As he spoke, he staggered.
She caught him, and helped him to sit down. "Yes. You are with friends."
Then she regarded him with a smile, and began speaking aloud, in English. Her voice somehow reminded him of an April day, it was so fresh, nervous, and girlish. "I can now understand your language. It was strange at first. In the future I'll speak to you with my mouth."
"This is extraordinary! What is this organ?" he asked, touching his forehead.
"It is named the 'breve.' By means of it we read one another's thoughts. Still, speech is better, for then the heart can be read too."
He smiled. "They say that speech is given us to deceive others."
"One can deceive with thought, too. But I'm thinking of the best, not the worst."
"Have you seen my friends?"
She scrutinised him quietly, before answering. "Did you not come alone?"
"I came with two other men, in a machine. I must have lost consciousness on arrival, and I haven't seen them since."
"That's very strange! No, I haven't seen them. They can't be here, or we would have known it. My husband and I—"
"What is your name, and your husband's name?"
"Mine is Joiwind—my husband's is Panawe. We live a very long way from here; still, it came to us both last night that you were lying here insensible. We almost quarrelled about which of us should come to you, but in the end I won." Here she laughed. "I won, because I am the stronger-hearted of the two; he is the purer in perception."
"Thanks, Joiwind!" said Maskull simply.
The colors chased each other rapidly beneath her skin. "Oh, why do you say that? What pleasure is greater than loving-kindness? I rejoiced at the opportunity.... But now we must exchange blood."
"What is this?" he demanded, rather puzzled.
"It must be so. Your blood is far too thick and heavy for our world. Until you have an infusion of mine, you will never get up."
Maskull flushed. "I feel like a complete ignoramus here.... Won't it hurt you?"
"If your blood pains you, I suppose it will pain me. But we will share the pain."
"This is a new kind of hospitality to me," he muttered.
"Wouldn't you do the same for me?" asked Joiwind, half smiling, half agitated.
"I can't answer for any of my actions in this world. I scarcely know where I am.... Why, yes—of course I would, Joiwind."
While they were talking it had become full day. The mists had rolled away from the ground, and only the upper atmosphere remained fog-charged. The desert of scarlet sand stretched in all directions, except one, where there was a sort of little oasis—some low hills, clothed sparsely with little purple trees from base to summit. It was about a quarter of a mile distant.
Joiwind had brought with her a small flint knife. Without any trace of nervousness, she made a careful, deep incision on her upper arm. Maskull expostulated.
"Really, this part of it is nothing," she said, laughing. "And if it were—a sacrifice that is no sacrifice—what merit is there in that?... Come now—your arm!"
The blood was streaming down her arm. It was not red blood, but a milky, opalescent fluid.
"Not that one!" said Maskull, shrinking. "I have already been cut there." He submitted the other, and his blood poured forth.
Joiwind delicately and skilfully placed the mouths of the two wounds together, and then kept her arm pressed tightly against Maskull's for a long time. He felt a stream of pleasure entering his body through the incision. His old lightness and vigour began to return to him. After about five minutes a duel of kindness started between them; he wanted to remove his arm, and she to continue. At last he had his way, but it was none too soon—she stood there pale and dispirited.
She looked at him with a more serious expression than before, as if strange depths had opened up before her eyes.
"What is your name?"
"Where have you come from, with this awful blood?"
"From a world called Earth.... The blood is clearly unsuitable for this world, Joiwind, but after all, that was only to be expected. I am sorry I let you have your way."
"Oh, don't say that! There was nothing else to be done. We must all help one another. Yet, somehow—forgive me—I feel polluted."
"And well you may, for it's a fearful thing for a girl to accept in her own veins the blood of a strange man from a strange planet. If I had not been so dazed and weak I would never have allowed it."
"But I would have insisted. Are we not all brothers and sisters? Why did you come here, Maskull?"
He was conscious of a slight degree of embarrassment. "Will you think it foolish if I say I hardly know?—I came with those two men. Perhaps I was attracted by curiosity, or perhaps it was the love of adventure."
"Perhaps," said Joiwind. "I wonder... These friends of yours must be terrible men. Why did they come?"
"That I can tell you. They came to follow Surtur."
Her face grew troubled. "I don't understand it. One of them at least must be a bad man, and yet if he is following Surtur—or Shaping, as he is called here—he can't be really bad."
"What do you know of Surtur?" asked Maskull in astonishment.
Joiwind remained silent for a time, studying his face. His brain moved restlessly, as though it were being probed from outside. "I see.... and yet I don't see," she said at last. "It is very difficult.... Your God is a dreadful Being—bodyless, unfriendly, invisible. Here we don't worship a God like that. Tell me, has any man set eyes on your God?"
"What does all this mean, Joiwind? Why speak of God?"
"I want to know."
"In ancient times, when the earth was young and grand, a few holy men are reputed to have walked and spoken with God, but those days are past."
"Our world is still young," said Joiwind. "Shaping goes among us and converses with us. He is real and active—a friend and lover. Shaping made us, and he loves his work."
"Have you met him?" demanded Maskull, hardly believing his ears.
"No. I have done nothing to deserve it yet. Some day I may have an opportunity to sacrifice myself, and then I may be rewarded by meeting and talking with Shaping."
"I have certainly come to another world. But why do you say he is the same as Surtur?"
"Yes, he is the same. We women call him Shaping, and so do most men, but a few name him Surtur."
Maskull bit his nail. "Have you ever heard of Crystalman?"
"That is Shaping once again. You see, he has many names—which shows how much he occupies our minds. Crystalman is a name of affection."
"It's odd," said Maskull. "I came here with quite different ideas about Crystalman."
Joiwind shook her hair. "In that grove of trees over there stands a desert shrine of his. Let us go and pray there, and then we'll go on our way to Poolingdred. That is my home. It's a long way off, and we must get there before Blodsombre."
"Now, what is Blodsombre?"
"For about four hours in the middle of the day Branchspell's rays are so hot that no one can endure them. We call it Blodsombre."
"Is Branchspell another name for Arcturus?"
Joiwind threw off her seriousness and laughed. "Naturally we don't take our names from you, Maskull. I don't think our names are very poetic, but they follow nature."
She took his arm affectionately, and directed their walk towards the tree-covered hills. As they went along, the sun broke through the upper mists and a terrible gust of scorching heat, like a blast from a furnace, struck Maskull's head. He involuntarily looked up, but lowered his eyes again like lightning. All that he saw in that instant was a glaring ball of electric white, three times the apparent diameter of the sun. For a few minutes he was quite blind.
"My God!" he exclaimed. "If it's like this in early morning you must be right enough about Blodsombre." When he had somewhat recovered himself he asked, "How long are the days here, Joiwind?"
Again he felt his brain being probed.
"At this time of the year, for every hour's daylight that you have in summer, we have two."
"The heat is terrific—and yet somehow I don't feel so distressed by it as I would have expected."
"I feel it more than usual. It's not difficult to account for it; you have some of my blood, and I have some of yours."
"Yes, every time I realise that, I—Tell me, Joiwind, will my blood alter, if I stay here long enough?—I mean, will it lose its redness and thickness, and become pure and thin and light-coloured, like yours?"
"Why not? If you live as we live, you will assuredly grow like us."
"Do you mean food and drink?"
"We eat no food, and drink only water."
"And on that you manage to sustain life?"
"Well, Maskull, our water is good water," replied Joiwind, smiling.
As soon as he could see again he stared around at the landscape. The enormous scarlet desert extended everywhere to the horizon, excepting where it was broken by the oasis. It was roofed by a cloudless, deep blue, almost violet, sky. The circle of the horizon was far larger than on earth. On the skyline, at right angles to the direction in which they were walking, appeared a chain of mountains, apparently about forty miles distant. One, which was higher than the rest, was shaped like a cup. Maskull would have felt inclined to believe he was travelling in dreamland, but for the intensity of the light, which made everything vividly real.
Joiwind pointed to the cup-shaped mountain. "That's Poolingdred."
"You didn't come from there!" he exclaimed, quite startled.
"Yes, I did indeed. And that is where we have to go to now."
"With the single object of finding me?"
The colour mounted to his face. "Then you are the bravest and noblest of all girls," he said quietly, after a pause. "Without exception. Why, this is a journey for an athlete!"
She pressed his arm, while a score of unpaintable, delicate hues stained her cheeks in rapid transition. "Please don't say any more about it, Maskull. It makes me feel unpleasant."
"Very well. But can we possibly get there before midday?"
"Oh, yes. And you mustn't be frightened at the distance. We think nothing of long distances here—we have so much to think about and feel. Time goes all too quickly."
During their conversation they had drawn neat the base of the hills, which sloped gently, and were not above fifty feet in height. Maskull now began to see strange specimens of vegetable life. What looked like a small patch of purple grass, above five feet square, was moving across the sand in their direction. When it came near enough he perceived that it was not grass; there were no blades, but only purple roots. The roots were revolving, for each small plant in the whole patch, like the spokes of a rimless wheel. They were alternately plunged in the sand, and withdrawn from it, and by this means the plant proceeded forward. Some uncanny, semi-intelligent instinct was keeping all the plants together, moving at one pace, in one direction, like a flock of migrating birds in flight.
Another remarkable plant was a large, feathery ball, resembling a dandelion fruit, which they encountered sailing through the air. Joiwind caught it with an exceedingly graceful movement of her arm, and showed it to Maskull. It had roots and presumably lived in the air and fed on the chemical constituents of the atmosphere. But what was peculiar about it was its colour. It was an entirely new colour—not a new shade or combination, but a new primary colour, as vivid as blue, red, or yellow, but quite different. When he inquired, she told him that it was known as "ulfire." Presently he met with a second new colour. This she designated "jale." The sense impressions caused in Maskull by these two additional primary colors can only be vaguely hinted at by analogy. Just as blue is delicate and mysterious, yellow clear and unsubtle, and red sanguine and passionate, so he felt ulfire to be wild and painful, and jale dreamlike, feverish, and voluptuous.
The hills were composed of a rich, dark mould. Small trees, of weird shapes, all differing from each other, but all purple-coloured, covered the slopes and top. Maskull and Joiwind climbed up and through. Some hard fruit, bright blue in colour, of the size of a large apple, and shaped like an egg, was lying in profusion underneath the trees.
"Is the fruit here poisonous, or why don't you eat it?" asked Maskull.
She looked at him tranquilly. "We don't eat living things. The thought is horrible to us."
"I have nothing to say against that, theoretically. But do you really sustain your bodies on water?"
"Supposing you could find nothing else to live on, Maskull—would you eat other men?"
"I would not."
"Neither will we eat plants and animals, which are our fellow creatures. So nothing is left to us but water, and as one can really live on anything, water does very well."
Maskull picked up one of the fruits and handled it curiously. As he did so another of his newly acquired sense organs came into action. He found that the fleshy knobs beneath his ears were in some novel fashion acquainting him with the inward properties of the fruit. He could not only see, feel, and smell it, but could detect its intrinsic nature. This nature was hard, persistent and melancholy.
Joiwind answered the questions he had not asked.
"Those organs are called 'poigns.' Their use is to enable us to understand and sympathise with all living creatures."
"What advantage do you derive from that, Joiwind?"
"The advantage of not being cruel and selfish, dear Maskull."
He threw the fruit away and flushed again.
Joiwind looked into his swarthy, bearded face without embarrassment and slowly smiled. "Have I said too much? Have I been too familiar? Do you know why you think so? It's because you are still impure. By and by you will listen to all language without shame."
Before he realised what she was about to do, she threw her tentacle round his neck, like another arm. He offered no resistance to its cool pressure. The contact of her soft flesh with his own was so moist and sensitive that it resembled another kind of kiss. He saw who it was that embraced him—a pale, beautiful girl. Yet, oddly enough, he experienced neither voluptuousness nor sexual pride. The love expressed by the caress was rich, glowing, and personal, but there was not the least trace of sex in it—and so he received it.
She removed her tentacle, placed her two arms on his shoulders and penetrated with her eyes right into his very soul.
"Yes, I wish to be pure," he muttered. "Without that what can I ever be but a weak, squirming devil?"
Joiwind released him. "This we call the 'magn,'" she said, indicating her tentacle. "By means of it what we love already we love more, and what we don't love at all we begin to love."
"A godlike organ!"
"It is the one we guard most jealously," said Joiwind.
The shade of the trees afforded a timely screen from the now almost insufferable rays of Branchspell, which was climbing steadily upward to the zenith. On descending the other side of the little hills, Maskull looked anxiously for traces of Nightspore and Krag, but without result. After staring about him for a few minutes he shrugged his shoulders; but suspicions had already begun to gather in his mind.
A small, natural amphitheatre lay at their feet, completely circled by the tree-clad heights. The centre was of red sand. In the very middle shot up a tall, stately tree, with a black trunk and branches, and transparent, crystal leaves. At the foot of this tree was a natural, circular well, containing dark green water.
When they had reached the bottom, Joiwind took him straight over to the well.
Maskull gazed at it intently. "Is this the shrine you talked about?"
"Yes. It is called Shaping's Well. The man or woman who wishes to invoke Shaping must take up some of the gnawl water, and drink it."
"Pray for me," said Maskull. "Your unspotted prayer will carry more weight."
"What do you wish for?"
"For purity," answered Maskull, in a troubled voice.
Joiwind made a cup of her hand, and drank a little of the water. She held it up to Maskull's mouth. "You must drink too." He obeyed. She then stood erect, closed her eyes, and, in a voice like the soft murmurings of spring, prayed aloud.
"Shaping, my father, I am hoping you can hear me. A strange man has come to us weighed down with heavy blood. He wishes to be pure. Let him know the meaning of love, let him live for others. Don't spare him pain, dear Shaping, but let him seek his own pain. Breathe into him a noble soul."
Maskull listened with tears in his heart.
As Joiwind finished speaking, a blurred mist came over his eyes, and, half buried in the scarlet sand, appeared a large circle of dazzlingly white pillars. For some minutes they flickered to and fro between distinctness and indistinctness, like an object being focused. Then they faded out of sight again.
"Is that a sign from Shaping?" asked Maskull, in a low, awed tone.
"Perhaps it is. It is a time mirage."
"What can that be, Joiwind?"
"You see, dear Maskull, the temple does not yet exist but it will do so, because it must. What you and I are now doing in simplicity, wise men will do hereafter in full knowledge."
"It is right for man to pray," said Maskull. "Good and evil in the world don't originate from nothing. God and Devil must exist. And we should pray to the one, and fight the other."
"Yes, we must fight Krag."
"What name did you say?" asked Maskull in amazement.
"Krag—the author of evil and misery—whom you call Devil."
He immediately concealed his thoughts. To prevent Joiwind from learning his relationship to this being, he made his mind a blank.
"Why do you hide your mind from me?" she demanded, looking at him strangely and changing colour.
"In this bright, pure, radiant world, evil seems so remote, one can scarcely grasp its meaning." But he lied.
Joiwind continued gazing at him, straight out of her clean soul. "The world is good and pure, but many men are corrupt. Panawe, my husband, has travelled, and he has told me things I would almost rather have not heard. One person he met believed the universe to be, from top to bottom, a conjurer's cave."
"I should like to meet your husband."
"Well, we are going home now."
Maskull was on the point of inquiring whether she had any children, but was afraid of offending her, and checked himself.
She read the mental question. "What need is there? Is not the whole world full of lovely children? Why should I want selfish possessions?"
An extraordinary creature flew past, uttering a plaintive cry of five distinct notes. It was not a bird, but had a balloon-shaped body, paddled by five webbed feet. It disappeared among the trees.
Joiwind pointed to it, as it went by. "I love that beast, grotesque as it is—perhaps all the more for its grotesqueness. But if I had children of my own, would I still love it? Which is best—to love two or three, or to love all?"
"Every woman can't be like you, Joiwind, but it is good to have a few like you. Wouldn't it be as well," he went on, "since we've got to walk through that sun-baked wilderness, to make turbans for our heads out of some of those long leaves?"
She smiled rather pathetically. "You will think me foolish, but every tearing off of a leaf would be a wound in my heart. We have only to throw our robes over our heads."
"No doubt that will answer the same purpose, but tell me—weren't these very robes once part of a living creature?"
"Oh, no—no, they are the webs of a certain animal, but they have never been in themselves alive."
"You reduce life to extreme simplicity," remarked Maskull meditatively, "but it is very beautiful."
Climbing back over the hills, they now without further ceremony began their march across the desert.
They walked side by side. Joiwind directed their course straight toward Poolingdred. From the position of the sun, Maskull judged their way to lie due north. The sand was soft and powdery, very tiring to his naked feet. The red glare dazed his eyes, and made him semi-blind. He was hot, parched, and tormented with the craving to drink; his undertone of pain emerged into full consciousness.
"I see my friends nowhere, and it is very queer."
"Yes, it is queer—if it is accidental," said Joiwind, with a peculiar intonation.
"Exactly!" agreed Maskull. "If they had met with a mishap, their bodies would still be there. It begins to look like a piece of bad work to me. They must have gone on, and left me.... Well, I am here, and I must make the best of it, I will trouble no more about them."
"I don't wish to speak ill of anyone," said Joiwind, "but my instinct tells me that you are better away from those men. They did not come here for your sake, but for their own."
They walked on for a long time. Maskull was beginning to feel faint. She twined her magn lovingly around his waist, and a strong current of confidence and well-being instantly coursed through his veins.
"Thanks, Joiwind! But am I not weakening you?"
"Yes," she replied, with a quick, thrilling glance. "But not much—and it gives me great happiness."
Presently they met a fantastic little creature, the size of a new-born lamb, waltzing along on three legs. Each leg in turn moved to the front, and so the little monstrosity proceeded by means of a series of complete rotations. It was vividly coloured, as though it had been dipped into pots of bright blue and yellow paint. It looked up with small, shining eyes, as they passed.
Joiwind nodded and smiled to it. "That's a personal friend of mine, Maskull. Whenever I come this way, I see it. It's always waltzing, and always in a hurry, but it never seems to get anywhere."
"It seems to me that life is so self-sufficient here that there is no need for anyone to get anywhere. What I don't quite understand is how you manage to pass your days without ennui."
"That's a strange word. It means, does it not, craving for excitement?"
"Something of the kind," said Maskull.
"That must be a disease brought on by rich food."
"But are you never dull?"
"How could we be? Our blood is quick and light and free, our flesh is clean and unclogged, inside and out.... Before long I hope you will understand what sort of question you have asked."
Farther on they encountered a strange phenomenon. In the heart of the desert a fountain rose perpendicularly fifty feet into the air, with a cool and pleasant hissing sound. It differed, however, from a fountain in this respect—that the water of which it was composed did not return to the ground but was absorbed by the atmosphere at the summit. It was in fact a tall, graceful column of dark green fluid, with a capital of coiling and twisting vapours.
When they came closer, Maskull perceived that this water column was the continuation and termination of a flowing brook, which came down from the direction of the mountains. The explanation of the phenomenon was evidently that the water at this spot found chemical affinities in the upper air, and consequently forsook the ground.
"Now let us drink," said Joiwind.
She threw herself unaffectedly at full length on the sand, face downward, by the side of the brook, and Maskull was not long in following her example. She refused to quench her thirst until she had seen him drink. He found the water heavy, but bubbling with gas. He drank copiously. It affected his palate in a new way—with the purity and cleanness of water was combined the exhilaration of a sparkling wine, raising his spirits—but somehow the intoxication brought out his better nature, and not his lower.
"We call it 'gnawl water'," said Joiwind. "This is not quite pure, as you can see by the colour. At Poolingdred it is crystal clear. But we would be ungrateful if we complained. After this you'll find we'll get along much better."
Maskull now began to realise his environment, as it were for the first time. All his sense organs started to show him beauties and wonders that he had not hitherto suspected. The uniform glaring scarlet of the sands became separated into a score of clearly distinguished shades of red. The sky was similarly split up into different blues. The radiant heat of Branchspell he found to affect every part of his body with unequal intensities. His ears awakened; the atmosphere was full of murmurs, the sands hummed, even the sun's rays had a sound of their own—a kind of faint Aeolian harp. Subtle, puzzling perfumes assailed his nostrils. His palate lingered over the memory of the gnawl water. All the pores of his skin were tickled and soothed by hitherto unperceived currents of air. His poigns explored actively the inward nature of everything in his immediate vicinity. His magn touched Joiwind, and drew from her person a stream of love and joy. And lastly by means of his breve he exchanged thoughts with her in silence. This mighty sense symphony stirred him to the depths, and throughout the walk of that endless morning he felt no more fatigue.
When it was drawing near to Blodsombre, they approached the sedgy margin of a dark green lake, which lay underneath Poolingdred.
Panawe was sitting on a dark rock, waiting for them.