A Voyage to Arcturus/Chapter 18
While Maskull sat, Corpang walked restlessly to and fro, swinging his arms. He had lost his staff. His face was inflamed with suppressed impatience, which accentuated its natural coarseness. At last he stopped short in front of Maskull and looked down at him. "What do you intend to do?"
Maskull glanced up and idly waved his hand toward the distant mountains. "Since we can't walk, we must wait."
"I don't know... How's this, though? Those peaks have changed colour, from red to green."
"Yes, the lich wind is travelling this way."
"The lich wind?"
"It's the atmosphere of Lichstorm. It always clings to the mountains, but when the wind blows from the north it comes as far as Threal."
"It's a sort of fog, then?"
"A peculiar sort, for they say it excites the sexual passions."
"So we are to have lovemaking," said Maskull, laughing.
"Perhaps you won't find it so joyous," replied Corpang a little grimly.
"But tell me—these peaks, how do they preserve their balance?"
Corpang gazed at the distant, overhanging summits, which were fast fading into obscurity.
"Passion keeps them from falling."
Maskull laughed again; he was feeling a strange disturbance of spirit. "What, the love of rock for rock?"
"It is comical, but true."
"We'll take a closer peep at them presently. Beyond the mountains is Barey, is it not?"
"And then the Ocean. But what is the name of that Ocean?"
"That is told only to those who die beside it."
"Is the secret so precious, Corpang?"
Branchspell was nearing the horizon in the west; there were more than two hours of daylight remaining. The air all around them became murky. It was a thin mist, neither damp nor cold. The Lichstorm Range now appeared only as a blur on the sky. The air was electric and tingling, and was exciting in its effect. Maskull felt a sort of emotional inflammation, as though a very slight external cause would serve to overturn his self-control. Corpang stood silent with a mouth like iron.
Maskull kept looking toward a high pile of rocks in the vicinity.
"That seems to me a good watchtower. Perhaps we shall see something from the top."
Without waiting for his companion's opinion, he began to scramble up the tower, and in a few minutes was standing on the summit. Corpang joined him.
From their viewpoint they saw the whole countryside sloping down to the sea, which appeared as a mere flash of far-off, glittering water. Leaving all that, however, Maskull's eyes immediately fastened themselves on a small, boat-shaped object, about two miles away, which was travelling rapidly toward them, suspended only a few feet in the air.
"What do you make of that?" he asked in a tone of astonishment.
Corpang shook his head and said nothing.
Within two minutes the flying object, whatever it was, had diminished the distance between them by one half. It resembled a boat more and more, but its flight was erratic, rather than smooth; its nose was continually jerking upward and downward, and from side to side. Maskull now made out a man sitting in the stern, and what looked like a large dead animal lying amidships. As the aerial craft drew nearer, he observed a thick, blue haze underneath it, and a similar haze behind, but the front, facing them, was clear.
"Here must be what we are waiting for, Corpang. But what on earth carries it?"
He stroked his beard contemplatively, and then, fearing that they had not been seen, stepped onto the highest rock, bellowed loudly, and made wild motions with his arm. The flying-boat, which was only a few hundred yards distant, slightly altered its course, now heading toward them in a way that left no doubt that the steersman had detected their presence.
The boat slackened speed until it was travelling no faster than a walking man, but the irregularity of its movements continued. It was shaped rather queerly. About twenty feet long, its straight sides tapered off from a flat bow, four feet broad, to a sharp-angled stern. The flat bottom was not above ten feet from the ground. It was undecked, and carried only one living occupant; the other object they had distinguished was really the carcass of an animal, of about the size of a large sheep. The blue haze trailing behind the boat appeared to emanate from the glittering point of a short upright pole fastened in the stem. When the craft was within a few feet of them, and they were looking down at it in wonder from above, the man removed this pole and covered the brightly shining tip with a cap. The forward motion then ceased altogether, and the boat began to drift hither and thither, but still it remained suspended in the air, while the haze underneath persisted. Finally the broad side came gently up against the pile of rocks on which they were standing. The steersman jumped ashore and immediately clambered up to meet them.
Maskull offered him a hand, but he refused it disdainfully. He was a young man, of middle height. He wore a close-fitting fur garment. His limbs were quite ordinary, but his trunk was disproportionately long, and he had the biggest and deepest chest that Maskull had ever seen in a man. His hairless face was sharp, pointed, and ugly, with protruding teeth, and a spiteful, grinning expression. His eyes and brows sloped upward. On his forehead was an organ which looked as though it had been mutilated—it was a mere disagreeable stump of flesh. His hair was short and thin. Maskull could not name the colour of his skin, but it seemed to stand in the same relation to jale as green to red.
Once up, the stranger stood for a minute or two, scrutinising the two companions through half-closed lids, all the time smiling insolently. Maskull was all eagerness to exchange words, but did not care to be the first to speak. Corpang stood moodily, a little in the background.
"What men are you?" demanded the aerial navigator at last. His voice was extremely loud, and possessed a most unpleasant timbre. It sounded to Maskull like a large volume of air trying to force its way through a narrow orifice.
"I am Maskull; my friend is Corpang. He comes from Threal, but where I come from, don't ask."
"I am Haunte, from Sarclash."
"Where may that be?"
"Half an hour ago I could have shown it to you, but now it has got too murky. It is a mountain in Lichstorm."
"Are you returning there now?"
"And how long will it take to get there in that boat?"
"Will it accommodate us too?"
"What, are you for Lichstorm as well? What can you want there?"
"To see the sights," responded Maskull with twinkling eyes. "But first of all, to dine. I can't remember having eaten all day. You seem to have been hunting to some purpose, so we won't lack for food."
Haunte eyed him quizzically. "You certainly don't lack impudence. However, I'm a man of that sort myself, and it is the sort I prefer. Your friend, now, would probably rather starve than ask a meal of a stranger. He looks to me just like a bewildered toad dragged up out of a dark hole."
Maskull took Corpang's arm, and constrained him to silence.
"Where have you been hunting, Haunte?"
"Matterplay. I had the worst luck—I speared one wold horse, and there it lies."
"What is Lichstorm like?"
"There are men there, and there are women there, but there are no men-women, as with you."
"What do you call men-women?"
"Persons of mixed sex, like yourself. In Lichstorm the sexes are pure."
"I have always regarded myself as a man."
"Very likely you have; but the test is, do you hate and fear women?"
"Why, do you?"
Haunte grinned and showed his teeth. "Things are different in Lichstorm.... So you want to see the sights?"
"I confess I am curious to see your women, for example, after what you say."
"Then I'll introduce you to Sullenbode."
He paused a moment after making this remark, and then suddenly uttered a great, bass laugh, so that his chest shook.
"Let us share the joke," said Maskull.
"Oh, you'll understand it later."
"If you play pranks with me, I won't stand on ceremony with you."
Haunte laughed again. "I won't be the one to play pranks. Sullenbode will be deeply obliged to me. If I don't visit her myself as often as she would like, I'm always glad to serve her in other ways.... Well, you shall have your boat ride."
Maskull rubbed his nose doubtfully. "If the sexes hate one another in your land, is it because passion is weaker, or stronger?"
"In other parts of the world there is soft passion, but in Lichstorm there is hard passion."
"But what do you call hard passion?"
"Where men are called to women by pain, and not pleasure."
"I intend to understand, before I've finished."
"Yes," answered Haunte, with a taunting look, "it would be a pity to let the chance slip, since you're going to Lichstorm."
It was now Corpang's turn to take Maskull by the arm. "This journey will end badly."
"Your goal was Muspel a short while ago; now it is women."
"Let me alone," said Maskull. "Give luck a slack rein. What brought this boat here?"
"What is this talk about Muspel?" demanded Haunte.
Corpang caught his shoulder roughly, and stared straight into his eyes. "What do you know?"
"Not much, but something, perhaps. Ask me at supper. Now it is high time to start. Navigating the mountains by night isn't child's play, let me tell you."
"I shall not forget," said Corpang.
Maskull gazed down at the boat. "Are we to get in?"
"Gently, my friend. It's only canework and skin."
"First of all, you might enlighten me as to how you have contrived to dispense with the laws of gravitation."
Haunte smiled sarcastically. "A secret in your ear, Maskull. All laws are female. A true male is an outlaw—outside the law."
"I don't understand."
"The great body of the earth is continually giving out female particles, and the male parts of rocks and living bodies are equally continually trying to reach them. That's gravitation."
"Then how do you manage with your boat?"
"My two male stones do the work. The one underneath the boat prevents it from falling to the ground; the one in the stem shuts it off from solid objects in the rear. The only part of the boat attracted by any part of the earth is the bow, for that's the only part the light of the male stones does not fall on. So in that direction the boat travels."
"And what are these wondrous male stones?"
"They really are male stones. There is nothing female in them; they are showering out male sparks all the time. These sparks devour all the female particles rising from the earth. No female particles are left over to attract the male parts of the boat, and so they are not in the least attracted in that direction."
Maskull ruminated for a minute.
"With your hunting, and boatbuilding, and science, you seem a very handy, skilful fellow, Haunte.... But the sun's sinking, and we'd better start."
"Get down first, then, and shift that carcass farther forward. Then you and your gloomy friend can sit amidships."
Maskull immediately climbed down, and dropped himself into the boat; but then he received a surprise. The moment he stood on the frail bottom, still clinging to the rock, not only did his weight entirely disappear, as though he were floating in some heavy medium, like salt water, but the rock he held onto drew him, as by a mild current of electricity, and he was able to withdraw his hands only with difficulty.
After the first moment's shock, he quietly accepted the new order of things, and set about shifting the carcass. Since there was no weight in the boat this was effected without any great labour. Corpang then descended. The astonishing physical change had no power to disturb his settled composure, which was founded on moral ideas. Haunte came last; grasping the staff which held the upper male stone, he proceeded to erect it, after removing the cap. Maskull then obtained his first near view of the mysterious light, which, by counteracting the forces of Nature, acted indirectly not only as elevator but as motive force. In the last ruddy gleams of the great sun, its rays were obscured, and it looked little more impressive than an extremely brilliant, scintillating blue-white jewel, but its power could be gauged by the visible, coloured mist that it threw out for many yards around.
The steering was effected by means of a shutter attached by a cord to the top of the staff, which could be so manipulated that any segment of the male stone's rays, or all the rays, or none at all, could be shut off at will. No sooner was the staff raised than the aerial vessel quietly detached itself from the rock to which it had been drawn, and passed slowly forward in the direction of the mountains. Branchspell sank below the horizon. The gathering mist blotted out everything outside a radius of a few miles. The air grew cool and fresh.
Soon the rock masses ceased on the great, rising plain. Haunte withdrew the shutter entirely, and the boat gathered full speed.
"You say that navigation among the mountains is difficult at night," exclaimed Maskull. "I would have thought it impossible."
Haunte grunted. "You will have to take risks, and think yourself fortunate if you come off with nothing worse than a cracked skull. But one thing I can tell you—if you go on disturbing me with your chitchat we shan't get as far as the mountains."
Thereafter Maskull was silent.
The twilight deepened; the murk grew denser. There was little to look at, but much to feel. The motion of the boat, which was due to the never-ending struggle between the male stones and the force of gravitation, resembled in an exaggerated fashion the violent tossing of a small craft on a choppy sea. The two passengers became unhappy. Haunte, from his seat in the stern, gazed at them sardonically with one eye. The darkness now came on rapidly.
About ninety minutes after the commencement of the voyage they arrived at the foothills of Lichstorm. They began to mount. There was no daylight left to see by. Beneath them, however, on both sides of them and in the rear, the landscape was lighted up for a considerable distance by the now vivid blue rays of the twin male stones. Ahead, where these rays did not shine, Haunte was guided by the self-luminous nature of the rocks, grass, and trees. These were faintly phosphorescent; the vegetation shone out more strongly than the soil.
The moon was not shining and there were no stars; Maskull therefore inferred that the upper atmosphere was dense with mist. Once or twice, from his sensations of choking, he thought that they were entering a fogbank, but it was a strange kind of fog, for it had the effect of doubling the intensity of every light in front of them. Whenever this happened, nightmare feelings attacked him; he experienced transitory, unreasoning fright and horror.
Now they passed high above the valley that separated the foothills from the mountains themselves. The boat began an ascent of many thousands of feet and, as the cliffs were near, Haunte had to manoeuvre carefully with the rear light in order to keep clear of them. Maskull watched the delicacy of his movements, not without admiration. A long time went by. It grew much colder; the air was damp and drafty. The fog began to deposit something like snow on their persons. Maskull kept sweating with terror, not because of the danger they were in, but because of the cloud banks that continued to envelop them.
They cleared the first line of precipices. Still mounting, but this time with a forward motion, as could be seen by the vapours illuminated by the male stones through which they passed, they were soon altogether out of sight of solid ground. Suddenly and quite unexpectedly the moon broke through. In the upper atmosphere thick masses of fog were seen crawling hither and thither, broken in many places by thin rifts of sky, through one of which Teargeld was shining. Below them, to their left, a gigantic peak, glittering with green ice, showed itself for a few seconds, and was then swallowed up again. All the rest of the world was hidden by the mist. The moon went in again. Maskull had seen quite enough to make him long for the aerial voyage to end.
The light from the male stones presently illuminated the face of a new cliff. It was grand, rugged, and perpendicular. Upward, downward, and on both sides, it faded imperceptibly into the night. After coasting it a little way, they observed a shelf of rock jutting out. It was square, measuring about a dozen feet each way. Green snow covered it to a depth of some inches. Immediately behind it was a dark slit in the rock, which promised to be the mouth of a cave.
Haunte skilfully landed the boat on this platform. Standing up, he raised the staff bearing the keel light and lowered the other; then removed both male stones, which he continued to hold in his hand. His face was thrown into strong relief by the vivid, sparkling blue-white rays. It looked rather surly.
"Do we get out?" inquired Maskull.
"Yes. I live here."
"Thanks for the successful end of a dangerous journey."
"Yes, it has been touch-and-go."
Corpang jumped onto the platform. He was smiling coarsely. "There has been no danger, for our destinies lie elsewhere. You are merely a ferryman, Haunte."
"Is that so?" returned Haunte, with a most unpleasant laugh. "I thought I was carrying men, not gods."
"Where are we?" asked Maskull. As he spoke, he got out, but Haunte remained standing a minute in the boat.
"This is Sarclash—the second highest mountain in the land."
"Which is the highest, then?"
"Adage. Between Sarclash and Adage there is a long ridge—very difficult in places. About halfway along the ridge, at the lowest point, lies the top of the Mornstab Pass, which goes through to Barey. Now you know the lay of the land."
"Does the woman Sullenbode live near here?"
"Near enough." Haunte grinned.
He leaped out of the boat and, pushing past the others without ceremony, walked straight into the cave.
Maskull followed, with Corpang at his heels. A few stone steps led to a doorway, curtained by the skin of some large beast. Their host pushed his way in, never offering to hold the skin aside for them. Maskull made no comment, but grabbed it with his fist and tugged it away from its fastenings to the ground. Haunte looked at the skin, and then stared hard at Maskull with his disagreeable smile, but neither said anything.
The place in which they found themselves was a large oblong cavern, with walls, floor, and ceiling of natural rock. There were two doorways: that by which they had entered, and another of smaller size directly opposite. The cave was cold and cheerless; a damp draft passed from door to door. Many skins of wild animals lay scattered on the ground. A number of lumps of sun-dried flesh were hanging on a string along the wall, and a few bulging liquor skins reposed in a corner. There were tusks, horns, and bones everywhere. Resting against the wall were two short hunting spears, having beautiful crystal heads.
Haunte set down the two male stones on the ground, near the farther door; their light illuminated the whole cave. He then walked over to the meat and, snatching a large piece, began to gnaw it ravenously.
"Are we invited to the feast?" asked Maskull.
Haunte pointed to the hanging flesh and to the liquor skins, but did not pause in his chewing.
"Where's a cup?" inquired Maskull, lifting one of the skins.
Haunte indicated a clay goblet lying on the floor. Maskull picked it up, undid the neck of the skin, and, resting it under his arm, filled the cup. Tasting the liquor, he discovered it to be raw spirit. He tossed off the draught, and then felt much better.
The second cupful he proffered to Corpang. The latter took a single sip, swallowed it, and then passed the cup back without a word. He refused to drink again, as long as they were in the cave. Maskull finished the cup, and began to throw off care.
Going to the meat line, he took down a large double handful, and sat down on a pile of skins to eat at his ease. The flesh was tough and coarse, but he had never tasted anything sweeter. He could not understand the flavour, which was not surprising in a world of strange animals. The meal proceeded in silence. Corpang ate sparingly, standing up, and afterward lay down on a bundle of furs. His bold eyes watched all the movements of the other two. Haunte had not drunk as yet.
At last Maskull concluded his meal. He emptied another cup, sighed pleasantly, and prepared to talk.
"Now explain further about your women, Haunte."
Haunte fetched another skin of liquor and a second cup. He tore off the string with his teeth, and poured out and drank cup after cup in quick succession. Then he sat down, crossed his legs, and turned to Maskull.
"So they are objectionable?"
"They are deadly."
"Deadly? In what way can they possibly be deadly?"
"You will learn. I was watching you in the boat, Maskull. You had some bad feelings, eh?"
"I don't conceal it. There were times when I felt as if I were struggling with a nightmare. What caused it?"
"The female atmosphere of Lichstorm. Sexual passion."
"I had no passion."
"That was passion—the first stage. Nature tickles your people into marriage, but it tortures us. Wait till you get outside. You'll have a return of those sensations—only ten times worse. The drink you've had will see to that.... How do you suppose it will all end?"
"If I knew, I wouldn't be asking you questions."
Haunte laughed loudly. "Sullenbode."
"You mean it will end in my seeking Sullenbode?"
"But what will come of it, Maskull? What will she give you? Sweet, fainting, white-armed, feminine voluptuousness?"
Maskull coolly drank another cup. "And why should she give all that to a passerby?"
"Well, as a matter of fact, she hasn't it to give. No, what she will give you, and what you'll accept from her, because you can't help it, is—anguish, insanity, possibly death."
"You may be talking sense, but it sounds like raving to me. Why should I accept insanity and death?"
"Because your passion will force you to."
"What about yourself?" Maskull asked, biting his nails.
"Oh, I have my male stones. I am immune."
"Is that all that prevents you from being like other men?"
"Yes, but don't attempt any tricks, Maskull."
Maskull went on drinking steadily, and said nothing for a time. "So men and women here are hostile to each other, and love is unknown?" he proceeded at last.
"That magic word.... Shall I tell you what love is, Maskull? Love between male and female is impossible. When Maskull loves a woman, it is Maskull's female ancestors who are loving her. But here in this land the men are pure males. They have drawn nothing from the female side."
"Where do the male stones come from?"
"Oh, they are not freaks. There must be whole beds of the stuff somewhere. It is all that prevents the world from being a pure female world. It would be one big mass of heavy sweetness, without individual shapes."
"Yet this same sweetness is torturing to men?"
"The life of an absolute male is fierce. An excess of life is dangerous to the body. How can it be anything else than torturing?"
Corpang now sat up suddenly, and addressed Haunte. "I remind you of your promise to tell about Muspel."
Haunte regarded him with a malevolent smile. "Ha! The underground man has come to life."
"Yes, tell us," put in Maskull carelessly.
Haunte drank, and laughed a little. "Well, the tale's short, and hardly worth telling, but since you're interested.... A stranger came here five years ago, inquiring after Muspel-light. His name was Lodd. He came from the east. He came up to me one bright morning in summer, outside this very cave. If you ask me to describe him—I can't imagine a second man like him. He looked so proud, noble, superior, that I felt my own blood to be dirty by comparison. You can guess I don't have this feeling for everyone. Now that I am recalling him, he was not so much superior as different. I was so impressed that I rose and talked to him standing. He inquired the direction of the mountain Adage. He went on to say, 'They say Muspel-light is sometimes seen there. What do you know of such a thing?' I told him the truth—that I knew nothing about it, and then he went on, 'Well, I am going to Adage. And tell those who come after me on the same errand that they had better do the same thing.' That was the whole conversation. He started on his way, and I've never seen him or heard of him since."
"So you didn't have the curiosity to follow him?"
"No, because the moment he had turned his back all my interest in the man somehow seemed to vanish."
"Probably because he was useless to you."
Corpang glanced at Maskull. "Our road is marked out for us."
"So it would appear," said Maskull indifferently.
The talk flagged for a time. Maskull felt the silence oppressive, and grew restless.
"What do you call the colour of your skin, Haunte, as I saw it in daylight? It struck me as strange."
"Dolm," said Haunte.
"A compound of ulfire and blue," explained Corpang.
"Now I know. These colours are puzzling for a stranger."
"What colours have you in your world?" asked Corpang.
"Only three primary ones, but here you seem to have five, though how it comes about I can't imagine."
"There are two sets of three primary colours here," said Corpang, "but as one of the colours—blue—is identical in both sets, altogether there are five primary colours."
"Why two sets?"
"Produced by the two suns. Branchspell produces blue, yellow, and red; Alppain, ulfire, blue, and jale."
"It's remarkable that explanation has never occurred to me before."
"So here you have another illustration of the necessary trinity of nature. Blue is existence. It is darkness seen through light; a contrasting of existence and nothingness. Yellow is relation. In yellow light we see the relation of objects in the clearest way. Red is feeling. When we see red, we are thrown back on our personal feelings.... As regards the Alppain colours, blue stands in the middle and is therefore not existence, but relation. Ulfire is existence; so it must be a different sort of existence."
Haunte yawned. "There are marvellous philosophers in your underground hole."
Maskull got up and looked about him.
"Where does that other door lead to?"
"Better explore," said Haunte.
Maskull took him at his word, and strolled across the cave, flinging the curtain aside and disappearing into the night. Haunte rose abruptly and hurried after him.
Corpang too got to his feet. He went over to the untouched spirit skins, untied the necks, and allowed the contents to gush out on to the floor. Next he took the hunting spears, and snapped off the points between his hands. Before he had time to resume his seat, Haunte and Maskull reappeared. The host's quick, shifty eyes at once took in what had happened. He smiled, and turned pale.
"You haven't been idle, friend."
Corpang fixed Haunte with his bold, heavy gaze. "I thought it well to draw your teeth."
Maskull burst out laughing. "The toad's come into the light to some purpose, Haunte. Who would have expected it?"
Haunte, after staring hard at Corpang for two or three minutes, suddenly uttered a strange cry, like an evil spirit, and flung himself upon him. The two men began to wrestle like wildcats. They were as often on the floor as on their legs, and Maskull could not see who was getting the better of it. He made no attempt to separate them. A thought came into his head and, snatching up the two male stones, he ran with them, laughing, through the upper doorway, into the open night air.
The door overlooked an abyss on another face of the mountain. A narrow ledge, sprinkled with green snow, wound along the cliff to the right; it was the only available path. He pitched the pebbles over the edge of the chasm. Although hard and heavy in his hand, they sank more like feathers than stones, and left a long trail of vapour behind. While Maskull was still watching them disappear, Haunte came rushing out of the cavern, followed by Corpang. He gripped Maskull's arm excitedly.
"What in Krag's name have you done?"
"Overboard they have gone," replied Maskull, renewing his laughter.
"You accursed madman!"
Haunte's luminous colour came and went, just as though his internal light were breathing. Then he grew suddenly calm, by a supreme exertion of his will.
"You know this kills me?"
"Haven't you been doing your best this last hour to make me ripe for Sullenbode? Well then, cheer up, and join the pleasure party!"
"You say it as a joke, but it is the miserable truth."
Haunte's jeering malevolence had completely vanished. He looked a sick man—yet somehow his face had become nobler.
"I would be very sorry for you, Haunte, if it did not entail my being also very sorry for myself. We are now all three together on the same errand—which doesn't appear to have struck you yet."
"But why this errand at all?" asked Corpang quietly. "Can't you men exercise self-control till you have arrived out of danger?"
Haunte fixed him with wild eyes. "No. The phantoms come trooping in on me already."
He sat down moodily, but the next minute was up again.
"And I cannot wait.... the game is started."
Soon afterward, by silent consent, they began to walk the ledge, Haunte in front. It was narrow, ascending, and slippery, so that extreme caution was demanded. The way was lighted by the self-luminous snow and rocks.
When they had covered about half a mile, Maskull, who went second of the party, staggered, caught the cliff, and finally sat down.
"The drink works. My old sensations are returning, but worse."
Haunte turned back. "Then you are a doomed man."
Maskull, though fully conscious of his companions and situation, imagined that he was being oppressed by a black, shapeless, supernatural being, who was trying to clasp him. He was filled with horror, trembled violently, yet could not move a limb. Sweat tumbled off his face in great drops. The waking nightmare lasted a long time, but during that space it kept coming and going. At one moment the vision seemed on the point of departing; the next it almost took shape—which he knew would be his death. Suddenly it vanished altogether—he was free. A fresh spring breeze fanned his face; he heard the slow, solitary singing of a sweet bird; and it seemed to him as if a poem had shot together in his soul. Such flashing, heartbreaking joy he had never experienced before in all his life! Almost immediately that too vanished.
Sitting up, he passed his hand across his eyes and swayed quietly, like one who has been visited by an angel.
"Your colour changed to white," said Corpang. "What happened?"
"I passed through torture to love," replied Maskull simply.
He stood up. Haunte gazed at him sombrely. "Will you not describe that passage?"
Maskull answered slowly and thoughtfully. "When I was in Matterplay, I saw heavy clouds discharge themselves and change to coloured, living animals. In the same way, my black, chaotic pangs just now seemed to consolidate themselves and spring together as a new sort of joy. The joy would not have been possible without the preliminary nightmare. It is not accidental; Nature intends it so. The truth has just flashed through my brain.... You men of Lichstorm don't go far enough. You stop at the pangs, Without realising that they are birth pangs."
"If this is true, you are a great pioneer," muttered Haunte.
"How does this sensation differ from common love?" interrogated Corpang.
"This was all that love is, multiplied by wildness."
Corpang fingered his chin awhile. "The Lichstorm men, however, will never reach this stage, for they are too masculine."
Haunte turned pale. "Why should we alone suffer?"
"Nature is freakish and cruel, and doesn't act according to justice.... Follow us, Haunte, and escape from it all."
"I'll see," muttered Haunte. "Perhaps I will."
"Have we far to go, to Sullenbode?" inquired Maskull.
"No, her home's under the hanging cap of Sarclash."
"What is to happen tonight?" Maskull spoke to himself, but Haunte answered him.
"Don't expect anything pleasant, in spite of what has just occurred. She is not a woman, but a mass of pure sex. Your passion will draw her out into human shape, but only for a moment. If the change were permanent, you would have endowed her with a soul."
"Perhaps the change might be made permanent."
"To do that, it is not enough to desire her; she must desire you as well. But why should she desire you?"
"Nothing turns out as one expects," said Maskull, shaking his head. "We had better get on again."
They resumed the journey. The ledge still rose, but, on turning a corner of the cliff, Haunte quitted it and began to climb a steep gully, which mounted directly to the upper heights. Here they were compelled to use both hands and feet. Maskull thought all the while of nothing but the overwhelming sweetness he had just experienced.
The flat ground on top was dry and springy. There was no more snow, and bright plants appeared. Haunte turned sharply to the left.
"This must be under the cap," said Maskull.
"It is; and within five minutes you will see Sullenbode."
When he spoke his words, Maskull's lips surprised him by their tender sensitiveness. Their action against each other sent thrills throughout his body.
The grass shone dimly. A huge tree, with glowing branches, came into sight. It bore a multitude of red fruit, like hanging lanterns, but no leaves. Underneath this tree Sullenbode was sitting. Her beautiful light—a mingling of jale and white—gleamed softly through the darkness. She sat erect, on crossed legs, asleep. She was clothed in a singular skin garment, which started as a cloak thrown over one shoulder, and ended as loose breeches terminating above the knees. Her forearms were lightly folded, and in one hand she held a half-eaten fruit.
Maskull stood over her and looked down, deeply interested. He thought he had never seen anything half so feminine. Her flesh was almost melting in its softness. So undeveloped were the facial organs that they looked scarcely human; only the lips were full, pouting, and expressive. In their richness, these lips seemed like a splash of vivid will on a background of slumbering protoplasm. Her hair was undressed. Its colour could not be distinguished. It was long and tangled, and had been tucked into her garment behind, for convenience.
Corpang looked calm and sullen, but both the others were visibly agitated. Maskull's heart was hammering away under his chest. Haunte pulled him, and said, "My head feels as if it were being torn from my shoulders."
"What can that mean?"
"Yet there's a horrible joy in it," added Haunte, with a sickly smile.
He put his hand on the woman's shoulder. She awoke softly, glanced up at them, smiled, and then resumed eating her fruit. Maskull did not imagine that she had intelligence enough to speak. Haunte suddenly dropped on his knees, and kissed her lips.
She did not repulse him. During the continuance of the kiss, Maskull noticed with a shock that her face was altering. The features emerged from their indistinctness and became human, and almost powerful. The smile faded, a scowl took its place. She thrust Haunte away, rose to her feet, and stared beneath bent brows at the three men, each one in turn. Maskull came last; his face she studied for quite a long time, but nothing indicated what she thought.
Meanwhile Haunte again approached her, staggering and grinning. She suffered him quietly; but the instant lips met lips the second time, he fell backward with a startled cry, as though he had come in contact with an electric wire. The back of his head struck the ground, and he lay there motionless.
Corpang sprang forward to his assistance. But, when he saw what had happened, he left him where he was.
"Maskull, come here quickly!"
The light was perceptibly fading from Haunte's skin, as Maskull bent over. The man was dead. His face was unrecognisable. The head had been split from the top downward into two halves, streaming with strange-coloured blood, as though it had received a terrible blow from an axe.
"This couldn't be from the fall," said Maskull.
"No, Sullenbode did it."
Maskull turned quickly to look at the woman. She had resumed her former attitude on the ground. The momentary intelligence had vanished from her face, and she was again smiling.