[From the Sydney Fowler Wright web site: www.sfw.org]
by S. Fowler Wright
THE cave-mouth was at some height from the land over which it looked. It must have been a hard way to climb at the first, but now steps had been built in a bow's shape, curving outward from side to side, shallow and broad, and being three tens and four to the count.
Stele did not count these steps, as he would have been likely to do, for he could not come so forward as that. In fact, he could not come forward enough to see very much, for the cave's roof ended, and the darkness therefore, at a place where the rock slit upward in a fissure very narrow and high, so that those who went forth must walk by not more than two, with the walls pressing on either hand.
There was one that had gone ahead at a quick pace to make it known that the King came. Now he walked forward alone. The cave had narrowed as it rose, becoming an upward slit in the rock, very lofty, before it split to the sky. Standing back in the dark mouth, there was not space for a level front. Some must keep to a dark rear.
Elsya walked three paces behind the King. Thelmo and Tekla followed, being side by side.
Elsya saw things which were so strange that she had no eyes for the steps, though they were wonder enough, being of hand-smoothed stone, and showing the labour of many men. But below the steps were horses in ordered lines, to a number of two hundred, or more than that, and on the back of each there sat a warrior, woman or man, of the dress of those who were the five wives of the King. Elsya had not thought that a man could find seat on a horse's back, nor that it could be so ruled to a rider's will. She saw that she had come to a land that was strange and great. If she were to be first in this land it seemed to her to be no more than a natural end.
When the King had said some words which she did not follow as well as she would have liked to do, being phrased in an old way, with some that were not in her tongue, he called her that she should step to his side, and so she came with a mind that was proud and cool, looking with a smile at those who shouted to greet their prince's bride, that came thus from the gods.
Elsya could see more now than she had done while she stood back. There were men who stood on foot round the cave-mouth, on the outcurving platform above the steps. There were others on foot beyond the mounted force. But there were not many of these, for none knew at what dawn the King would come forth, when he went in to the god, and none had thought that Thelmo would find a bride in the sacred place.
Thelmo and Tekla came outward now, and were greeted with a new cry.
Tekla said to Elsya, "I will show you the skill of those whom I lead."
Elsya asked, "Are they women or men?"
"They are neither women nor men. They will breed never at all. They will ride thus till they die with a rat's teeth at the throat. They are the Riders of the Left Wing." She went down the steps, having said this, and one brought her a horse which looked to be of a savage kind, for men held it with ropes, pulling different ways, and looking fearful of that they did. Yet Elsya saw that she walked to it without fear, casting the ropes off, and heeding not that she was in reach of its teeth, and then climbed to its back in a quick way. It was a yellow stallion, swift and strong as it was savage and huge. Tekla rode to the centre of the space at the steps' foot, and gave a call, at which the regiment broke into two parts and rode outward, curving apart, and coming back by such a way that they were face to face below the place where Elsya stood between Thelmo and the King.
They rode now in lines of ten, the horses of each line being of the same colour, black or yellow, or brown or grey, by which they could the more quickly regain their form if they should be scattered apart.
The horses showed their own colours on back and head, but they were all covered below, which was to guard them from those they were trained to meet.
Their legs were cased in reptile-skin, which was smooth and supple and strong, and their bellies were covered in the same way, to guard them from the swamp-rats' teeth. Their manes and tails were clipped close for the same need. Their belly-guards were fastened with girths of leather, drawn over the shoulders and loins, and to these girths there were attached sheaths and thongs for throwing-knives, and spears, and for what else their riders might will.
These rode without saddles and with their legs drawn up, so that heel and buttock met, holding on with their knees, which must have been hard to learn; but for those who must watch ever for a rat's leap it was a good way. They looked small as they rode, the stallions being of a great size, and the close-fitting snake-skin showing them to be as small as they were, but they looked lithe and fierce, and it was to be seen how they were trained when their leader gave a sudden cry, at which those in the hinder lines on either hand drew each a throwing-knife with a quick wench, and spun it through the air, so that it was caught by the one of the front for whom it was meant.
This was more than a vain trick, for each Amazon carried six of the knives very near to her hands (being trained to throw both with the left and the right), and each of these was a sure death to one within twenty yards, or it might be more, against whom it should come; and by this means the knives could be passed forward with speed, if those of the front rank should be used, and the need last. Four times Tekla called, using different words either for left or right, and twice the knives were thrown forward, and twice returned to those from whom they had come, as the two squadrons swept round again at their highest speed and halted before the King.
Stele saw something of this, as Tekla had hoped that he might, though not much. He had a view of a narrow width of the farther land, seeing buildings of hewn logs, larger than the huts of the valley-folk, and squared spaces of land where but one thing grew, showing that these men had so ruled the earth that it did their will like a beaten child. He saw enough to know that Elsya had come to be queen of a great race, such as he had not thought that the world held, and he had done half of that for which he had set forth. He saw also that he had asked a vain thing when he had thought to take Tekla back to be his queen in the coast caves. Yet he did not think that Coiling Snake would be well pleased when he should take Rita back for the same end, having come from the trees, which he could not hide if he would. He saw that their lives would be hard to join, and he knew not how they would rule their days, whose ways and food were not one. Yet it was a doubt that he meant to bring to a good end, let him but get clear of this trap in which they were caught. He did not think of Tekla at all, except as one who had power which she might use to injure or aid. Had he done so he would have felt, if he had not thought, that she was one who knew too much that he did not, and who would go her own way more than a wife should. As to which he might have seen that there was wider space in some ways between Rita and him, but there was the blindness, or at least the impulse, of love to lessen or leap that gap.
...So Elsya went on to be called goddess, and Prince's wife, by those who lived in a rich way, such as she had not thought to be when she had threaded pearls in her own cave. She lay in a soft bed in a raftered room; she had food of many kinds when she would; she saw things round her of which others must tell her the use, for she did not know her own needs till they were shown, and she took to all with as much ease as a chicken shows at its first drink, lifting her head in the same way. She lay in Thelmo's arms in the night, and thought that she had come to a good place, not seeing farther than that, as few would.
But Tekla rode to the barren plain which lay between the tamed land and the endless swamps where the rats bred. There was talk among those of the Left Wing that the rats were bolder and more at the swamp's edge than had been known of late years, and she shortened their hours of rest, and added two riders to each patrol, for it was their honour to see that the rats should keep to the swamp, or that they should die in a quick way, so that the land rested in peace.
...Stele and Rita turned back, to be led again through the long night of the caves. They were guided by one that was most in the King's trust, and who spake no words to them but such as he had been told to do, or which were little comfort to hear. They did not go back at once resting for a time, and taking food in the caves, as they had done in the night before; and it was at this time that Stele, who looked ever to learn ll that he might, noticed that there was a break in the wall of the cave in which they ate the meal, long and low, as it were a level rift in the rock.
He said to their guide, "Is that a hole that ends, or does it go through to a farther cave?"
The guide took a torch from where it burned in a socket on the wall. He held it low. They looked in, seeing some way, but not to an end. There were bones on the floor of this low slit in the rock, about six feet in. Stele said, "What are they?"
The guide said, "They are the bones of one who was lost in the caves, and who tried to crawl through to this place, which (as you can see) it is too low to do. If one shall try to come here from the valley, having no guide, there are many ways by which he may go wrong, but the most will lead at least to a cave which is not more than two tens of feet from where we now stand, yet from which there is no way through but by this shallow
slit. If you look through it, as far as the light shows,
you will see that it is of so little height that you will wonder that any should have come so far as he did. It is thought that he had been starved till he was so thin that he thought that he could wriggle through, yet he was stuck tight when he was as near as you see."
Stele said nothing to that, though he had more fear of the caves than before. He thought to watch well as they went back, knowing that he could remember much.
Rita said no more than he, but she had more horror than she had felt before since she had followed Stele in the ways of the lower men. To be held so by the rock that you could scarce breathe, nor move forward nor back!... To struggle vainly, being so pressed by the rock, which would yield nothing at all... It would be to go mad while you yet lived... It was a horror to think... When would she be again in the free light, instead of here, with the mountains above her head?
...They went back after that, following the long path in the dark (but the guide, being alone, bore a torch, so that Stele saw more than he had done before), and they spoke little either to their guide or to each other till they were once more in the sun's light. The guide gave the King's word to the valley-folk, and the word of their priestess, of whom they had a like dread, that they should be treated well, and so they stayed there for some days, doing well enough, but longing ever for some way by which they could go free.
TEN days later Elsya came.
She came alone, a very different Elsya from her who had come down the cliffs in the skins, filthy and torn, which she had worn since she left her cave.
She had the short deer's horns in her hair which were sign of rank, and she had on a garment such as Stele had not seen till that day, woven of a plant's fibre, and stained red with an insect's juice. But the necklace of pearls w as still round her neck, and looked to have found its place with the newer things.
She had things to tell, many and strange, and the greatest (not to Stele, but to her) was of pins of bone for the hair, which were so made that it could be lifted to certain shapes which were strange to see, but not easy to do for oneself with unpractised hands, so that, for this time, she had left her hair as it was.
As to why she had come alone she was not over-clear; but it had not been meant at the first. It had been the King's will that Thelmo and Tekla should come also, and he himself, but there had been sudden talk of a gathering of rats in the swamp, and Tekla had said that she could not leave till she had seen for herself what it might mean. The King had said that she was right to stay, but Elsya must go, as had been planned, because of some tale they had made that she was going back (for some days) to the gods from whom she had come, and they were in the mesh of their own lie.
Tekla, for some reason which Elsya could not tell, and concerning which Thelmo had been less easy to read than he mostly was, had been unwilling that the King should go if she were held back; and after many words, which Elsya did-not hear, it had been agreed that she and Thelmo should come first, and that the King and Tekla should follow when the rats were stilled, which Tekla thought to be a short thing.
Then, at the last, when they were in the cave-mouth, Thelmo had been called back, the menace of the rats (which Elsya thought to have more heed than it should) being said to be more great than had been thought, and so she had started alone, with Thelmo's promise that he would come to her arms again in a space of four days, at the most, or she back where she had been.
That seemed well enough till the four days passed, and became eight, and Thelmo did not come, nor any word through the caves, and Elsya, who had little patience to wait, would walk ever backward and forth in a doubt that was plain to the valley-folk, till Stele said, "Will you never stay in one place? Do you not see that you are watched, and that these people, who are no friends at heart, and who are prisoned here as are we ourselves, can see that something is wrong? Do you take no heed that they are of slower feet than they were when we call for aught, though they have no quarrel with us?"
Elsya said, "Yes, I can see that. I can see more, which is why I fret as I do. There are words said which are not for us. I think they plot some evil, though it may be in a clumsy way, for they are fools, as I think. Yet I would that Thelmo were here, or one other who could lead us clear of this trap."
"Yet," said Stele, "things will be as they are though you walk for a whole day. Can you not sit still in one place?"
"I have no mind to that, whether I could do it or no. I go out in the dark. I will learn more if I can. What can you learn doing naught here? "
Stele thought her a restless fool, for he was one to sit still while in doubt, though he could move quickly enough on a clear path; but in this she was wiser than he, as he was able to see when she roused him and Rita in the darkness before the dawn with a whispered tale of that she had learnt by going on quiet feet.
It was not warm at that hour. Elsya's hand was shaking and cold when she touched Stele in the night, and she was fearful of that she had learnt, but yet of a better heart than she knew, for she had done well, and would have the praise that she loved.
She said, "I have that to tell which should be spoken low; and besides, I am cold. I would lie close to Rita and you."
"You may lie as close as you will," Stele answered, "and speak as low, but I would have it in few words, the hour being as it is. It is time for sleep, not for talk."
Elsya was not pleased at that. "You shall have few words, as you will. The way through the caves is changed, so that those who come to us, as they think, will fall into the god's pool."
Stele was roused. "How learnt you that? If it be true we have more foes than we know, or we are lost in a quarrel which is not ours."
Elsya said, "It matters not how it was learnt. So it is. Few words are best in the night."
Stele saw how she was vexed, but so was he. He would not give her the praise she sought, nor ask more, being answered thus. He said, "So they are. Be it as it may, it will keep till the dawn." After a time he saw that there was some fault on his side, and would have asked more, but then Elsya slept, having been awake all the night till then, and come to a warm place. Stele thought, "It may be more tale than truth." He had little faith in aught that might be done by the valley-folk, either of wrong or right. "Be it how it may it can be told at dawn." He went to sleep also. He did not know that Rita had heard. She had said nothing, as her way was.
...Stele waked again while the light was yet dim. He rose without pause of thought, and roused Elsya, who could have slept more. Elsya waked with a fear in her mind's depth, but with another mood at its door. She said nothing till Stele asked, "Was it fact or dream that you told, when you roused us thus in the night?"
Elsya said, "You can learn that for yourself. You can seek as I."
"You can speak or not," said Stele, "as you will. You are for Thelmo to whip now, as I hope he will. If you spoke a true word he may go to his death the while you sulk as you do... He may be dead before this."
Elsya answered quickly to that. "He was not dead in the night. They watched by an empty net. So I saw with my own eyes."
Stele said, "This is nothing at all, or it is a great thing. You may have done much. Will you tell us now? How learnt you all that you did?"
Rita looked at Elsya, saying nothing at all.
Elsya answered, more to her than to Stele, "I went on quiet feet. I stood at windows and doors. When I learnt enough to fear more I went into the caves' mouth. I saw those who watched. I crept in, even to the god's pool. I heard their words. They have changed the way through the caves, so that those who come will fall down a steep place, even as they see the light at the end, and think that they have come through. They watch day and night, there being ever six that sit over the god's pool that they may see whom the trap takes, and the end to which they will fall."
"I know where they could do that," Stele said. "I think it is as you say... Well, we must have food... This is to be thought."
ELSYA said, "We must find a way. He shall not come to that death in the dark!"
She spoke of Thelmo, thinking only of him, and, indeed, he was the most likely to come with speed, that she should be again in his arms, for she was of the kind which have maddened men since the world's dawn.
And then, Stele being silent, she spoke again, "If there be no better way, we must slay their guard in the night. You are a better fighter than they. I could kill one, and, it may be, more. Rita can throw well."
But Stele was still slow to speak, not because he could think of naught, but because he could see that of which he dreaded to think. For he saw that warning should be tried, and there was but one way. There were the unclimbable hills, which he knew that he could not scale; there was the lake, in which no man could fight the beasts and live, even could he swim so far, of which he had some doubt; and there was the way through the caves, which might be a poor chance, but was yet a chance that he ought to try.
He said, "Can you think of nothing better than that? We must find a way. But we cannot kill the whole guard. Not before help would be there. It is silly to say that. If you have nothing better to say you should sit with a shut mouth."
He spoke as he did because he was in an evil mood, and while he spoke Elsya looked at him with a bloodless face, for she had seen what she should do, and it was that which she did not dare. She knew that they could not climb the unscalable hills, and it would be no use to Thelmo that one should be lost in the dark caves, as they had been told was the sure end of any who should go by that way, but there was a chance that one might swim the lake while the beasts were fed at the dawn; and she was Thelmo's wife, and she could swim three yards to Stele's two, and it was a thing that she ought to try, and she knew that she would not dare. She shook with fear at the thought.
And while they talked thus, Rita, who had eaten well, but had said nothing at all, reached for more of the nuts she loved, and ate with a steady will, which Elsya was vexed to see, for what was it to her, or to Stele either, that Thelmo should die thus? They had each other, which was enough. But it was her part to swim in the lake, which she would never dare. And so Thelmo would die, and she thought that she would die too.
Rita reached for the nuts again. She looked at Elsya, and she may have read her mind. She looked at Stele, and she knew his very well. She said, "When I have eaten all that I can I will go over the hills."
Stele looked at her, and there was fear in his eyes. "You cannot do that. I would not let you go. There is only one thing to be done: I will find my way through the caves."
Elsya knew what she ought to say then, but she was silent, being afraid.
Rita answered quietly, but with no change in her will, "You would be lost in the caves. There is only one way, and there is only one who can go."
She had a strange gladness in her heart, though Thelmo was nothing to her, and she guessed that he would have brought her to a quick death for his sister's gain. But she knew that she should not have come down from her own trees. She had been useless here, sitting apart, and her love of Stele did not blind her to the folly of the way she took, being one who was better to see than to do. But there was something here that they could not do, at which she did not think she should fail something by which she felt that she might escape from the uncleanness of the life to which she had come down.
Stele said, "You shall not go. Even if you did should still go by the caves, so what use were there in that? I would rather think that you are safe here, and that we shall lie warm again when I shall come back."
Rita looked at him at that, and there was love in her eyes. "You would only die in the caves, which were loss to all. I also would lie warm when we meet. You must let me do this, which I think I can."
Elsya thought to herself, "She seems sure that she can, and, if so, it is the right way." She cared little for any so that Thelmo were warned, being of those who can love one at a time, rather than more. She said aloud, "You would take food?"
Rita said, "I shall not take more than I eat. It is not our way. I shall not die in that time."
Stele went to the door. He looked up at the eastern heights, over which the dawn came. They rose, cliff beyond cliff, very steep and grim, and the highest were slippery with ice and cloaked with snow. They were unclimbable hills.
He spoke with a firmer voice. "You cannot go by that way."
Rita came to his side. "But it is a thing I can. Were it to be done with a club I would stand aside. But I have good feet. I am not of those who can fall." And Stele saw, by the look in her eyes, that he might say what he would but she would go her way.
He said, "I had not thought you to be one to do, while I should stay still."
Rita knew what he meant, and that it held all that was between them two. She said, "I am not one to toil, making things that I do not need, or bearing from place to place things that might lie as they are, but this is of a different kind. I will go now while the light is long."
She looked at Stele, as he at her, for they were not sure that they would come together again, and, as they did this, there came to them the memory of a lost thing, so that their eyes changed to a strange surprise, and then Rita knew that her mind searched for a thought that it could not keep, and it was all as before. But they parted, after that, with a holding kiss and a feeling that all was well.
Rita had gone for a time when Stele said, "I am going to try the caves. She will be glad to be met on that side if she comes through."
He went to the door again and looked up at the hills. The day was high, and the sun showed over the tops. There was a snowy height flanking the dawn to the north, which was of a clear rose. He wished he were with Rita in the clean hills, but he knew that those were heights that he could not climb.
Elsya said sharply, "Do not go. I shall be frightened alone. You will be lost in the caves."
He said, "It is a double chance. Do you want Thelmo to die?" At which she was still.
He was ashamed that he had not said that he would go at the first. Perhaps Rita would have stayed where she was if he had spoken a quick word. They were cold and terrible hills.
He came back into the hut. He packed all the food that he found. He said nothing more to Elsya, nor she to him. She sat with a white face, seeing snouts that rose in the lake. The water was red with blood, and her pearls were spilled, and she knew that it was a thing that she would not dare; but the fact stood that it was one that she ought to do, and her life was spoiled from this day, for either Thelmo would die, or she would be ashamed to look in his eyes, for he would know that she had sat still.
So Stele went; and she sat until she was aware that the hut was watched, and she thought that there would be questions asked as to where Stele and Rita were, and she was afraid, being alone. She had never felt alone in her life as she felt then.
She went out, at last, being afraid to sit longer alone, having the thoughts she had, and began to walk toward the entrance to the black caves, as though she would come closer to that from which her fear sprang. But I she was stopped on the way by a man that she did not know, who asked in a rude way what she would do.
She answered to that, boldly enough, "I walk as I will. What is that to you?" But he said, "You must walk in another way." He was curt of speech, as one who knew that the Prince her husband was no more than a dead man, and a new time come, so that she felt more alone than before.
She went back to the hut, feeling that she was watched now, and by those who looked also for Stele and Rita, being puzzled that they were not seen. She thought, "They will begin to ask me soon, and what shall I say? Shall I betray my friends if they threaten pain, being the coward that I am? Where can I go to be safe?"
She went out again, being followed, at which, on a sudden thought, she went to a place where she was sure that they would not come, being the stallion's field. She slipped through the fence, whereat he lifted his head, and then grazed as before. She went down the field, and sat, looking at the lake.
After a time the stallion can over to where she was. He stood a little way off, stretching his head down toward her, at which she got up and went to him, stroking his face with her hand. After that he stayed near her, and she felt less alone; but she could not keep her thoughts from those who had taken the danger that should have been hers.
Later in the day she went back and sat in the hut, eating some food; but she felt that she could not be alone there for the quiet hours, and she went out again in the dusk and sat where she had been before.
It was a warm night, and she sat there till the dawn, sleeping much of the time, with her head on her drawn-up knees, and having a dream at one time that Thelmo took the pearls from her neck to give to a braver girl, so that when she slept again she held them with a tight hand.
In the grey of the dawn she waked, shivering in a cold wind that came from the lake. The water was very still, and she thought, "Shall I go now?" For the beasts would all be at the eastern end, waiting to be fed. But then she thought of their teeth, and she remembered that the lake was three miles long. "Do I know that they all go to be fed at that place? There may be those at the far end that have other ways." So she sat still.
But after that she thought, "I shall go in the end, and every minute that I sit here I lose many yards. I may lose my life while I sit here." So, at that, she got over the fence, not because she was of a good heart, but for fear that she should lose her life if she should be slower than that.
RITA went without haste or fear, choosing a quiet path, that she might not be stayed by those with whom she had no will to talk. She was not afraid of the hills, though she had a doubt of how cold they would be, for she had never met with a great cold, though there had been frost in the winter nights, and at times a little snow that fell through the trees, for her people would be warm in the cold days in the shelters that they built, and eating of the nuts that they had stored for that time.
But she knew that she could climb well, and she thought to make better speed in the steep heights than on level ground, for it was there that she could use her arms.
She climbed up the valley-wall, at the eastern side, which was not easy to do, being seen by none (as she thought), and came to a place of cliffs, slippery and smooth and steep, where she made such way as could not have been done by one who had not lived in the trees, for she had feet that could hold with a sure grip, and she could judge her leap to an inch, grasping just as she would, either with feet or hands, and having no fear of a great depth. How she went up ever from height to height had been wonder to see for a man of our own day. Yet the hours passed, and though she was glad of the strong light of the sun, and of a clear air which was good to breathe, yet she was aware of a cold that she had not known in her life-days, and she had come to a field of ice, which was rough in some places, but not all. The smooth places were hard to climb, though she had feet which were not quick to slip.
The ice-field did not rise, but fell somewhat, not sloping toward the valley from which she came, but another way, to the south, so that there was a glad moment in which she felt that she could go down by that way; but when she thought of the way under the hills she knew that she was already more to the south, and that it was a poor chance that she could find a quick way if she went down by this southward gorge. She looked up at the sun and round at the hills, which she had watched as she came, and she knew that she must face the height which was at the far side of the ice.
When she had come to that height she saw no sure way either down or up, but many hollows and heights, and all rocky and very bleak. There was a cold wind at her back, which she would be glad to leave, going down if she could; yet she would not go by the wrong way.
It was at this time that she saw some large-horned deer, that ran on a bare height, going the way that it seemed most like that she should, at which she thought (though she may have been wrong in that), "It must be in the lower vales that they find water and food. If I follow them they may show the best way down from the heights, for they must know the hills from their birth."
So she went on to keep them in sight with all the speed that she could, though she was tired now, as she had not known such feeling to be, and they led her well, as she thought.
At the last she looked down on a round valley that was a green depth in the hills. It went down very far, and in its midst a lake shone.
It was wooded at the one side, and would have been a fair place to seek had she been free of her life. But there was no way out. It was not her way. She had been wrongly led. She must turn to climb again, when she had thought that she was far down.
She knew then that it was that which she had not the strength to do, nor would the light hold, it being then near the dusk. All the day she had gone on, taking neither rest nor food. She saw trees by the lake, and she thought that she might find food of her own kind. She went down to the valley's depth, though she knew that she must climb again when the dawn came.
ELSYA waded in for a few yards in a frightened way, the water being shallow in a receded place, and she looked right and left for a sign of the beasts she feared. Had a reed stirred or a ripple moved she might have run back, and have stayed where she was, but it was all vacant and still, and so she slipped into the deeper lake and swam out at the greatest pace that she could.
She thought little of the lake's length, for she had learnt to stay all day in the sea, if it were not too cold, but she did not go long at that speed, for her thoughts would change with her fears, which were very great.
At one time she would think that she should swim quietly and low, that she might not be observed, and at another that the sooner she could come to land the less must the danger be, so that she should use all the strength she had. At another she would think that she should save her strength for a great need. Then she swam very quietly, as she knew how, scarcely moving her limbs, and sometimes keeping under the water for a time. But then she would think that she would be safer if she could watch the surface of the lake, and must raise herself with a hard stroke, so that she could see far.
All this time she kept to the centre of the lake, where the stream ran, that she might have its help. The lake was no more than a wide gorge, the hills being sheer cliffs on either side that none could hope to climb. There was no way but to go on to the end.
And so she did, seeing the southern shore, low and green, and it was when she felt that she was safe at last, and was swimming faster than before, and in a good current for she was coming to where the stream drained from the lake that she saw the snout of one of the dreaded beasts that seemed adrift on the lake.
He must have seen her as she saw him, for the snout came round, so that he was almost across her way, and then he came very fast, swimming with feet and tail, his head half out of the lake, and the water breaking round his jaw. Then his head went down and he made a snap at her arm.
She gave a swift twist to one side, so that the jaws closed to no more than the water gave, but it was so close that she felt the beast's snout as it brushed her neck, and she had a panic thought that it had broken her pearls and that they would be lost in the flood, and at that fear she turned, as a woman will if her child be seized in a dog's teeth, and gave battle as best she could.
It would have been the beast's way to have caught her by arm or leg, and to have pulled her down till her breath should fail, and he could make his meal of a drowned thing. She did not know this, nor did he know how long she could hold her breath if she would, but, having avoided his jaws, she dived in a way which he did not expect, coming up beneath, so that she grasped his neck, and their bellies met, they being of a like size. He was not holding her, but she held him, and in a way that he did not choose, so that he had no use for his jaws; and as he struggled and splashed he was aware of two pains, and his sight went, for her fingers had found his eyes. And after that she let him go free.
STELE was not one to move with a rash speed into a danger that he had not measured with care. When he went out he took not only his axe and such food as he could, he carried also a spear of a length to guide his steps in the dark. Not that he meant to move without the light of a torch, which would have been to bring a poor chance to none. But he would have trouble enough to make his way to the cave-mouth without hindrance or note, being armed as he was. Should he be stopped with a torch in hand it would tell where he would go louder than any word could deny. But for that he would have taken a torch to be lit at one of those in the god's cave. He thought it better than that to take one of those torches from its grip in the wall. Yet either to take or light might not be easy to do, for Elsya had told that there were those who watched in that cave, and he must pass them by force, or unseen.
As to force, he had called in vain when Elsya had spoken first, and so he thought still of her plan, for they would have had to overcome all the strength of the valley-folk before they could undo the trap they had made, even though the guard were down before aid should reach. Yet he thought now of a sudden rush and some good axe-blows, which would take him through. He thought little of the valour of these men, or of their skill in strife. But there was the torch, which might not be easy to take in a quick way, and there was the fact that Elsya was left, and there might be doubt as to how she would fare if it were known that he had passed the cave, having slain men to win way. He did not think overmuch of that, for women must take their own chances at such times, but he saw that she was in peril enough. He would go unseen, if he could.
That might not be easy to do, yet he had a hope, thinking that the men would watch and listen for those who might come from the depths of the caves, rather than by the outer way. He was one who could move without sound, though he was large.
He gained so much as to enter the caves unseen, and he came to where the watch, which was of six men, was grouped on the edge of the god's pool. They looked and pointed at something which was below, but what it was he could not see, being farther back, nor had he care to know. He saw only that he could pass unseen at their backs, but for the torch, which he must have, and they might look round if he made noise in that, or it were slow to come loose.
He passed but six feet behind their backs as they bent, and as he did this he had a good thought. With the blunt end of the spear he gave a push to one of the bending men. It was just a quick jab, given between the buttocks of one who bent far to look, but it was enough to send him over the edge. As he fell he screamed, clutching at the man on his left, who was dragged over alike. They fell with a great splash. Stele could hear a rush and turmoil in the pool below. He guessed that they had been watching the god, and that he had given him a good meal. The other men did not think to look round. They thought only that he who fell had leaned over too far. Their eyes were better fixed on the pool than before.
Though Stele listened he did not pause. He was quick to take a torch from the wall, finding it to come away without effort or noise, and was quick also to take the inward turn of the rock, where its light could not be seen by those who watched, should they look round. He would not go farther than that till he had seen what was the snare that had been laid for those who might be next to come through the hills.
This was easy to see by the light he had, he being so warned, yet it must have been no less than a swift death for those who would have come without thought. For at this place the floor of the cave by which they would come was wide, and there were loose boulders that lay about on which men would be bruised who walked not in the right way. And among these was one very large, which was the mark of the path, which passed by its side.
This boulder had been moved, as had other smaller ones which would be earlier reached, so that those who would come, having no great light, and moving with no more care than do those who come by a known way, would be off the path without heed, till those who were first would be aware that it sloped downward more than it should, and, at the same time, that their feet slipped, for the path had been made smooth with fat. This might have been less sure than it was, for those in the rear, being all joined, might have pulled them back, but that their own feet would have little grip, for the level floor also had been made greasy and smooth, though less so than the slope, that it should not be noticed too soon. It was a good trap, for the slope would have shot them all down to the depth of the god's pool, where they could not have done much, after such a fall, and being held in one string. So the god would feed, and if any should struggle free, more or less, that was for the dealing of those who watched.
Stele saw that it was a good plot, but he had little time to admire. He must go on while his light would last. All his mind must be bent to recall, to recount, to measure, to watch lest he overlook either turning or gap in the dark walls.
He went on for some hours, now in doubt, and now sure that he was in the right way; after which there was a long time that he thought he was lost, and was of half a mind to turn back; and then he came to a gap that must be jumped, and that he knew. There was no doubt of that. He must have come half the way, and be right still. He thought that the King might have willed it to be thought it was that worse than it was. He was in better heart for that, but did not lessen his care.
He was the more vexed when he came again to the gap he knew, but at that side that showed he had turned round and, had he crossed it again, he had been on his way back.
He must turn again, and go with a greater care. It was hard to guess what he had done. He went on at a slow pace, thinking hard. He chose a way more to the right, even though he thought it wrong. He was soon back from that. It led nowhere at all.
He went on, trying another turn. It went far, coming at last to a place of shallow pools. That was new, and he turned back again, after drinking, which he was glad to do, though the water had an ill taste.
He was scarcely lost, for he got back again to the place he knew, but he could not find the way forward from that.
He tried again, and found a way that might be wrong or right; he went in doubt for some hours, and as he went the doubt grew, but so also did the length of the way back, which he was the less ready to try. He saw that if he turned back, being on the right way, his case was evil indeed.
When he became sure that he had gone wrong he turned back, but not long after that he came to a turn of which he felt better hope. He went down this but a short way, when he came to a sudden fall, and slipping there on a loose stone he came down, with a twisted foot, and his torch went out as he fell.
The torch could be kindled anew, if he would work for sufficient time with the means he had, and, being hot, it was a thing to be started in haste, for it would be harder when it became cool. So he sat where he was, twisting it in the hollow socket which he had brought for that need, and after a time it broke again into flame.
He was glad of this, but slow to move, for his ankle was swollen and hot; also, he knew by that fall that he was again in a wrong way.
Yet when he found how slowly he must now move, and with what pain, he resolved to go on, for, though it were a poor chance, it was better than none, and to go back was beyond hope with the strength he had left that he would come through.
He went on then for what seemed a very long time, though he could but crawl, and rested, and went on again. He went on till his food was gone, having stayed for sleep at one time, and at the last he came to a rocky wall, and knew that it had been all for naught, and it would be a strange chance indeed that would make him more than a dead man. He had little hope, yet he must search round with the torch which was now but a short length), as a trapped rat searches the bars; and, doing so, he came to the low horizontal slit in the rock which had been shown to him once before, only now he was on the wrong side. He knew that it was the same, for, when he thrust in the torch as far as he might, he could see the bones that he had been shown before, only where he had seen a skull and an outstretched arm he saw now the bones of a leg that was stretched out and of another that was drawn up, as they had been at the last when the man died.
Stele knew that he had come to an ill end. There was nothing surer than that. He let the torch lie so that it flickered and went out. With enough toil it might be kindled again, but it was nearly done, and he did not think that it would be of a longer use. If there were anything to be done now it must be done in the dark. If he were once through that narrow slit he could find his way to the light, even with his leg as it was, but he had little hope of that.
He lay for a time without movement, thinking what might be done. Could he cut through with his axe? He judged the thickness of the rock to be the length of three men, lying heel to head. He would need to cut a large way. He was bigger than most. He tried to push his head in at the place where he lay. It went in, and then stuck so that he had some pain in his neck when he had pulled it forth. He had had a moment of panic fear when he had thought that it would not come, so that his heart beat very fast for a time, as he had never known it to do.
He would not be in a haste to try that again. Yet he might not have tried at the best spot. He crawled along from end to end about three tens of feet feeling the height of the slit with his hand, and with his spear, as far as it would go. Being still in doubt, he did this three times before he chose what he thought to be the best place. He did not wish to waste strength through not choosing with care.
Then he began to chip with the axe. The rock did not powder, but flaked, giving him a little hope at the first, though not much, being very hard; and when he had worked till he was tired, he rested a while, and made a count, by which it seemed that he would get through at that rate in three moons, or in two at the best. It was little more than a guess. He could not tell to a ten of days, but what did it matter if it were two moons or three? His strength would not last, nor his axe, to a tenth of either. Counting thus, he might have ceased an effort that was so vain; yet this he did not do, for he was one to take the last ounce from the scales of chance. He thought, "If help come, they may hew from that side, and will be the sooner through. Also, the noise of the axe may be heard, if any pass, and that will bring help. They could give water and food, pushing them with a long spear, and I could live as long as I need." He thought also that he could give warning to any who should be about to try the passage, and so do that for which he had come.
So he worked till he was wearied again (which was in a shorter time than before); and then his mind turned to wonder whether Rita were over the hills. If she were so, it might mean that the passage would soon be tried in the King's wrath, which was a new hope. He chipped again, though for a shorter time than the last, and rested again. He wished that Rita were there. If he perished thus, how soon would she learn his death? She would say little, as her way was. Would she go back to the trees?
RITA came down from the hills. She saw a wide plain, with squared fields having one colour of growth, showing that the plants they held had become the slaves of mankind; she saw also many dwellings of men.
It was a greater land than she had been able to see from the cave-mouth. She was of a good courage, though not one to aggress without cause. While she had lived in the trees she had not doubted that she was sufficient for her own safety. Even the tree-leopards turned aside if they met one of her people. They did not like the nuts that could be thrown so straight and hard, nor the speed with which the tree-folk gathered at the call of one of their kind. They knew that they would not move in peace through the high boughs should they wake a feud which would be taken up by all. Only if a child were alone in a leafy place.
But since she had come down from the trees she had known fear. She was in a hateful place: a place always of danger and of frequent dirt. She had chosen this for a love which she did not regret, but she saw it with clear eyes.
She looked on this strange land, where men were busy to do, and had (as she thought) no leisure left to live, and she was reluctant to go down to take the chance of being in the power of such, even for the warning which she had come to give.
She did not think to fail, but she knew that there was no haste while she could watch the steps to the cave, as she did, for none could enter unseen; and as she looked she thought of another way. Why should she not wait in the cave? None would come there but those whom she knew, and who would know her, and for whom her warning was meant. Could she enter the caves unstayed?
She could not see that there was any guard at the cave-mouth, or that there were those who walked by that way. She thought that it might be left alone, except when the King was within and they waited for his return. She looked far over the plain, and she thought she saw a gathering or tumult of many men. It seemed that there were few or none in the nearer ways, or who toiled in the nearer fields, as men must who have made slave of a growing plant, and are slaves also to it, by the law which none may break or avoid. It seemed that there must be that which drew all to the farther side of the land, both the women and men, but though she stood high and her sight was clear for many miles in a pure air she could not tell what it was.
Well, she would wait in the cave-mouth, and give warning to those who came, which would be Thelmo by the best guess, Elsya being where she was.
So she made her way down the last slope, and came to a flattened track, such as she had not seen before, for it was paved with flat stones. Stele would have looked at it with judging eyes, counting the men that must have toiled for the making of so great a thing, and wondering how the stones were smoothed; but Rita thought it a foolish toil for a poor end. She did not give it two thoughts, but she was glad that it was empty of men, and she made her way with speed till she came to the crescent of steps, and mounted them, meeting no one at all, and so entered to the cave-mouth.
She had thought to go inward to the furnished caves which were at the end of the first passage, where they had spent the night-hours when first they had come through.
But when she came to the face of the dark she had little will to walk in a blind way. The hole under the hills was a fearful thing to one who was born on the twisted boughs of a high tree. The grey, cold walls and the closing roof were like a weight that would bear her down. The dark of night beneath the cloudiest sky in the forest-land, where no smoke rose, was a clear light to the blackness of that hateful hole. Every instinct, in a body alive to feeling, as that of one who is bred in streets can never be, warned her against the entering of such a cave. It was true that she had been there before, but that was with Stele, and for him, when love had conquered fear, or her will had held it below.
Now she would do no more than sit in the narrow cleft that approached the roofed cave, where she could still see the sun's light, and something of the sky and of the plain afar. She thought it could not be long before Thelmo would come.
But she sat there for some hours, and none came. At times she heard a sound as of a steady tapping within the dark hollow of the cave. She might have thought more of that had she meant to venture therein. As it was, being tired, she thought more of sleep. She did not wish to be caught in sleep by whoever might come first to the cave-mouth, who might be no more than the servants of Thelmo, preparing for him to come, and who might not know her at all. She did not know how they would deal with such as she, but she guessed that she might wake, at the best, with shackled limbs, or it might be with a knife in her neck, being good meat, as she was.
Yet, being weary from her coming over the hills, she went from time to time to the platform from which she could gain a wider view, and seeing none coming from there she went back and had a short sleep, being able to wake when she would.
It was at the third of such times of sleep that she waked from a dream which had vexed her rest. It did not seem to have been a good dream, though it had been about Stele. It had been of the dark caves, and of that narrow slit in the rock which had been a terror to see, thinking of what it must have been to him who had tried to crawl through and had been stuck in the midst.
But she could not tell what the dream was. It was one which her mind would chase, seeming to come very near, but it could not catch. When she tried to think of the dream she thought always of the bones that the torch had shown, and she could not clear them out of her mind, though she knew that the dream had not been of them.
While she tried to recall this dream the tapping within the cave was commenced again, and the two seemed one in a way which she could not understand. She thought for the first time: what could it be? Having heeded it once it would not go from her mind. It went on but for a short time, and when it ceased she listened long for it to commence again. It had become to her as that which could open the dream and give ease to her mind.
She was not one who would hurry thought, or cast it aside, as men must do who have toils to take at an ordered hour. She listened for the sound to commence again, which it was not quick to do. When it did she went somewhat into the dark of the cave that she might better hear what it was. She was afraid to do this, but was of too high a courage to let fear rule when there was a wish in her mind.
When she heard it thus (for the sound was louder and of a different tone when she stood under the cave's roof) she guessed at once what it was. At least, she guessed that it was made by one who was caught in the cave's trap, and with that thought there came a swift knowledge of whom it would be. "Stele hath come under the hills."
She went with quick steps to the cave's wall. She bent somewhat, feeling along it with her hand, as she moved inward, till she came to the place where the gap was. Here she stayed, but there was nothing to hear, for the tapping had ceased as she approached. "Stele," she called through the slit.
STELE had worked as hard as his strength would let him do, and he was not weak, as w e know. But it was not as it would have been could he have stood upright, giving the axe a good swing. Also, he was getting weaker from hour to hour through lack of water and food, which was why he must work for a shorter time, and rest longer between. His leg did not get better from the rest it had, but was more swollen, and of a sharper pain should it be dragged as he worked.
Worse than these was the fact of which he had not thought until the trouble came, that every foot which he should cut into the rock would make the work harder to reach in such a way that he could smite well, unless he should cut a much wider gap than he had counted to do.
As he worked thus he saw that he would never cut his way through with his living hands, and he went on less from any hope of that than that the noise might be heard, and because he was of a stubborn kind.
When Rita called as she did, he had ceased to smite with a weak hand, or to think how his leg throbbed, but lay with a wandering mind, not being troubled or aware of the gin in which he was caught. But her voice waked him to his own life. It waked him less to fear of the pain and peril in which he lay than to anger that he was fallen thus, who had never been used to call for help, nor had he thought of Rita but as one who would live in the safety of his own arm.
Yet he was very glad of her voice, both for the love they had, and because it brought hope of life. He thought also that it showed she had come safely over the hills. His first word was of that.
"Yes. It is I. I am here, having lost myself like a fool... Did you come safely through? Are you unhurt by the cold, and the bitter heights?"
"I am well. I found food and rest in a high vale... It is good that you are here too." She did not doubt at the first that all would be well, they being so nearly met.
But as they talked more, and she learnt how he lay, and how he was nearly spent, and how little he had cut through, she saw that there was but one way, which must be taken with speed, and from which she did not shrink now, though she would not face it before.
She said, "I will find Thelmo or the King."
Stele said, "The King is a vain hope. He will laugh that I lie thus."
"He will not laugh when he hears why we came."
"He may not, or he may. He may not believe. Tekla is the better chance."
Rita would have put her last, if at all. But she could not say he was wrong.
"I will seek her first, if you will... There shall be water and food brought."
She did not lose time in more words.
RITA went on for some time through the strange land, being stayed by none, and seeing none but some children that were less than half grown, though able to run by themselves, and an old man that lay in the sun, with a weeding-tool in his hand. She did not blame him for that. She might have thought him sane in a mad land. She roused him with a foot at his ribs in a gentle way, for she must have speech with some one. She might wander long without finding those she sought, losing much time, if no worse evil should breed. She said, "Can you tell me where I can find the King?... Where I can find the King's daughter, or his son?"
The man did not understand her words very well. He was dazed with sleep. He had never seen a tree-woman before, though he knew that there were such in the great woods in other parts of the world. Once, in his youth, he had eaten part of a man of the trees, who had been caught on the ground, when he had been in another place. That was before this land was as great or as safe as it was now. As to it being safe, it was fighting for its life on that day against the swamp-rats' teeth, but he was too old to be called to fight, so he was not greatly troubled by that. He could lie in the sun.
When he understood what Rita would know he pointed in the right way, though he was not sure that he waked.
"The King's house is on that road. The King's daughter, or his son, will be farther to find. They will be at the war. But the King will sit in his house."
There was no more to be learnt from him. Rita went on.
She made her way with more ease than she might have done at another time, and when the sun was very low in the sky she came to the King's house, and stood where she would be seen.
It was a house of more state than he could have when he went to the valley-folk, as she had seen him first, but the five sat in a row before him, as they had done then, seeming to see naught, but having their hands near to the knives they wore.
Rita thought, "It is the second from the right who will throw, if the King wills. Could I be quicker than she?"
She saw all, but she gave no more sign than they.
The King knew her at once. He had troubles enough, and his mind was on greater things, but he had thought for all. He was not pleased that she had come there. He was quicker than she to speak.
"How left you the vale?"
"I came over the hills... There is that which you should know... Stele came also, through the caves, but he lies at the wrong side of the wall, needing swift aid lest he die."
This was a foolish speech, as she had leisure to think at a later hour, but not now. She should have said what it was that she had come to tell before talking of Stele at all. But she was not used to dealing with such as the King was, and she had half her thought on the one who was second from the right, who she felt sure was alert to throw.
The King took no heed of her middle words. He heard the first and the end. He thought that they had defied him in a vain attempt to escape. He laughed a little at that.
He said, "Had he found his way through, you had not been here. He is well caught. There is none can come through the hills and live. Let him stay where he is, or go back, if he think he can."
He thought, "She might tell that which should not be known here. She should have a quick death."
Rita made a quick bend as the knife came, so that it passed the side of her neck. She knew well how to move with speed if the need were, and not to show before what she was thinking to do. It was unlucky for one that stood behind, and took that which was meant for her. But he is not in this tale.
The King was a just man. He saw that the knife had passed where her neck had been. The fault was not with the throw. He saw that Rita was gone. She had had enough of those knives. She did not think to dodge four others at once.
The King was not fevered in mind. He said aloud, so that all might hear, "The tree-woman is not to save, or to keep. She is meat to catch." He did not think that she would live long, she being what she was, and his people that which they were, nor that she would hold speech, either for gain or loss. He turned his regard to the more urgent and greater things...
Rita ran well. She was glad that the dark was not far. She dodged stones, and was near to death from a well-flung spear. She came to a wooden hut in which goats were tied. As she ran by it, she caught up a stone which would fill her hand. She sprang to the roof of the shed. She threw as hard as she might. A man fell with a broken skull. There was meat, if they would.
She outpaced a pursuit that had become more cautious than it had first been. She shook it off. She hid till the night fell.
When it was dark she went back to Stele, but it was a poor tale that she had to tell.
WHEN she had told her tale Stele was silent for some time. He was weak of body, and his mind wandered at times, though it would become very clear after that. He did not blame her at all, seeing that, in her own way, she had done bravely and well, though he thought that she might have brought it to a better end had she been wiser of word. But even that was not sure.
Anyway, that was done.
He thought of many ways, for he was slow to believe that he was to die there, but there was none that was any good. He said at last, "There is no more to be done. I must die here. You must go back to the trees where you can live in peace and forget that you had come down."
She said, "I shall not do that, as you should know, if you know me at all. Nor do I see why you should die. I can fetch water and food when the light comes, and you can live well enough, if I push it through, as I shall. Soon or late, Thelmo or Tekla will come, and will listen to what I say, which will change all."
"That is what you would to be," Stele answered, "but is unlikely from end to end. You cannot get water and food in a land where you are hunted by all. At the best they will chase you here, and if they do not follow you in, they will close the hole, or catch you if you go forth again. You will lose your own life and do no better than give me a slower death.
"As to Thelmo and Tekla, in whom you trust, they may not come for many days, if at all. For you can see that they are at a great strife, of which we know naught except that it goes ill. For had it gone well they had been here before this. Besides, you have seen that there are few, either of women or men, who are left in the land. I think they fight at a great loss. Those of whom we talk may be now dead, or if they live now they may be dead sooner than I.
"You must go to the hills, where you may still live. You may find a way to our own land, where you can be as you were."
"I shall not do that. I shall wait here, as I said."
Stele was angered at that, though he was glad too. He said, "You are my wife, and should do as I say, even though I am near to death. It is vain to sit there. I am more near to death than you know. My leg is of a great heat, but except for that it is like a dead thing."
Rita did not answer at once. It had come into her mind that her arms were long and of a great strength. Why should not she use the axe? She felt along the gap in the rock. She was smaller than Stele. Was there not a place where she could squeeze through?
She felt it for all its length, and backward again. She found what she thought to be the best place, at least for the start. She could not feel beyond that. But she could push her head and shoulders in at that place when she lay flat. She said, "I shall try to come through."
"It is vain. No one could. I saw that on the day when it was shown by the torch's light. You will stick fast and die."
It was a fearful thought, not being a death that would be chosen by most, and least of all by one who had no love for a close space. Her heart paused in its fear. She said, "Well, I shall try."
"If you try, let it be where I have cut for some way. It is shorter risk."
He showed her where it was by his voice. It was at the place which she had chosen at her own side. There was hope in that.
As she began to crawl under the rock lying very flat, and wriggling forward with outstretched arms, she had a doubt that she could keep straight, having no light. She saw that if she would do this she must try to force her way through, even though it should get tighter at every inch. If she should move to left or right, as it might be the easier to breathe and wriggle on, she might soon be so lost that she would not know where she would be. She might come out at last on the side at which she went in. Or she might be nearly through, and wriggle back to be fixed at last where she could move no more. It might be that that was how he had died in the dark whose bones were so near her now. But she was not as he. She had Stele's voice for her guide.
Stele had chipped away so much of the rock that he could wriggle under to half his length without feeling the roof. Beyond that his head could not go, but his arm could, and this he put in to its length, feeling for which might be the better way, and hoping to reach her hand.
Inch by inch Rita came on. Now her head was held. Should she push if forward or try to draw back? She pushed it on, feeling the rock tighten, and then it was in a better place. She found that if her head could get through her body would follow, though it might be with pain at times. If there were any space over her head, though it were but a shallow inch, she would keep it down so that it did not feel the roof, for, being thus, she might try to think that she was in a free place and not doomed to a dreadful death. There were times when the rock held her down, and she would cry out to Stele, as though he could give any help, but for the most part she saved her breath, moving slowly, as he urged her to do... and so there came a time when their hands met.
But though their hands met they were little he]ped, for she found at the next moment that she could not come through at that place, there being a spot where the roof sank more than at most, and they were still some distance apart, their two arms being stretched as they were. She must loose hands, trying to wriggle somewhat aside.
This she did well enough for a short way it may have been two feet or three and then she found that she had come again to a place where her head was held. She tried to move back at that, and found that there was pressure also upon her back. She seemed to be held down both before and behind. She tried to move to either side, and could find little help. If it were better at one spot it was worse at another. It must have been that the way by which she tried to withdraw was not quite that by which she had come.
When she felt herself to be so held, and could find no way of relief, there was a moment that her courage failed. She struggled with a foolish strength, as though she would lift the mountain that held her down. She did not know that she screamed. As the panic passed, and she knew that she had done but a vain thing, she had to learn that it was worse than that, for she had used her strength to force herself into a tighter place.
Now she lay so that her head could not move, nor her back. nor could she tell in which way to try for relief. She was in such fear for a time that she did not heed the voice of Stele who called to her, hearing the sobs she gave. She knew how fast her heart beat in its fear, and that she must use all her will that she should not waste her strength once again. She would have liked to strain with her back till her spine broke. She did not heed that her head bled much, being scraped of skin, though this had been so, more or less, from the first, or that her body was in a like case.
She would have given most of the life she had to be in the free space which to Stele was a trap of death. It seemed then that no man could have a real grief if he could move his head, and his limbs could go as they would.
"Stele," she said, "I am caught. It is here that my bones will be." She wrenched again at the word, but in a useless toil, not knowing which-.way to pull, and feeling held on all sides.
He called to her, "Do not haste. Lie as flat as you can. You must move to the left to be back in the place you were. If you make less haste you can feel for the better way."
She said, "You do not know how I am. I am held down that I cannot move. I cannot breathe as I would... I would die now if I might."
For the first time he thought of the spear. He should have done that before, but his own mind was becoming a blurred thing, with the toil he had gone through, and the hunger and thirst, and the pain of the wrenched leg. He groped for it now, and pushed the blunt end about till he felt where Rita was, and sounded the space that was between her and him, scraping the rock above and below, feeling for freer space. At the last he said, "It is this way, if at all, unless you do better to go back. Will it help if you hold the spear and I pull at the right time?
"But she laughed at this, giving words in reply that had no meaning at all, for she knew not that which she said.
It was a mood that passed at a later hour, when she waked to life with a thought that she slept in the high boughs where her nest had been in her young days, and then screamed as she found that she could not move, but she had scarcely time for her fear to rise to its full height before Stele spoke in a quiet voice, and the spear haft was against her hand.
Her mind for that moment was on Stele more than herself, so that she became of a calmed will to be at his side if she yet might, as she had meant at the first. Holding the spear as he urged, and with his pulling at the right time, her shoulder moved for a short way, and it was less pressed than before. She was so that she could draw her head for an inch back and then sideways for more than that. She felt on that side with her hand. It was but a short way, and a better space.
Inch by inch she moved till she was much nearer to Stele. She thought at one time that she had but to rule her will, and to move with no haste, and she would come clear at the end. But it was not to be. She came at last to such a place that her head was not pressed. It could lift for a short space. But her back was so held that she could not move it at all. The roof pressed her spine at the root so that she was in great pain, but to try to move it either to right or left, either forward or back, was to make the pain worse; but beyond that it did nothing at all.
At this time she was so near to Stele that she had his hands in her own, and he was of a mind to use his strength that she should be wrenched free. But when he found that she screamed at the first pull, wrenching her hands back and loose from his own, he stopped (as he thought) for a time, till she should have fixed her mind to endure.
But she said, "You cannot do that, unless you would have me die at once. You would pull me out with a broken back, and with I know not what hurts beside, if my arms came not off before that. It is much that my arms are free, and that I can breathe as I will. But I would that I could have used the axe to get us both free, as I thought to do."
As she said this she saw that the hope of life was a past thing, both for him and her, and as the thought came there was another that moved in the dark of her mind, but so that she could not catch it at all, yet it made the death that was at their door a less dreadful thing than she would have thought it to be. She saw in a clear light that it was well that she had come down from the trees, though it was ending here as it did, and that it would have been a poor thing that she should have tried to live the life that Stele would have had her to do. He would not be vexed now when the women of his tribe should say that her arms were too long (of which she had had pride from her first years), or that she was useless for the toils with which they burdened their lives. She saw that death was not so dreadful a thing that one should step from its path at a great cost, but that it was much that they had done well while they yet lived, taking the risks they did, though it were for a warning that' they would not give. She knew not then that her back was in a great pain, nor was her mind irked that she could not move as she would.
Stele spoke to her once or twice, calling (as it were) from the mist that was in his own mind, and when he found that she did not heed he had a fear that she was already dead. But his voice came to her when he called again, though it seemed that it was a far thing, and her hands closed on his in a firm grip which did not loose when they died.
THE King sat in his house, and before him, as ever, was the line of the sexless wives, but Thelmo and Tekla were not there.
It was high noon when Elsya came. She was weary and soiled of body, and she wore but a torn rag.
The King looked at her in wonder which would have found quick word, but that he was never hasty of speech, and when she saw that the seats of Thelmo and Tekla were bare she exclaimed in a sharp fear, "They have not gone by the caves? They must be stayed in haste!"
The King was in an angered doubt as to how she should have come there at all. He was not pleased to think that she had found a way. Yet he saw that her coming at that time was a god's boon. He was one who saw all in its true place, as one who looks from a height. He would know both how she had come, and why they should not go, but he was not of those who ask two things in one breath. He said only, "Why should they not go by the caves?"
"It is a sure death if they do. There is a plot among the valley-folk. They have changed the path in the dark. Those who go next by that way will fall to the god's pool."
"Have they so?" said the King. "Then they will be soon dead. They were ever a futile folk."
He thought of how he had been in their midst, with but half a score of his own, and they had not lifted a spear. Then he asked, "How did you come?"
Elsya was as quick as he, though she had a less cool mind. She saw that he was not troubled, nor roused to haste, and she knew that Thelmo was not gone to the caves. She answered what she was asked.
"I swam the lake while the beasts fed. I had need to kill one at the last. But for that I came clear." She told, at some length, how it had died. We need not pause for a known tale; but it was much to her. She thought she had done well. She was one who loved praise, which the King gave, though his words were fewer than hers. But her tale went on after that. She had gone of need for a far way down the river-bank, seeking a firm path, and had come at last through the swamp, which was neither water nor land. The King was amazed at that, as he might well be. He said, "What of the rats?"
"I saw one that looked out from the reeds. It had a lame leg, by which I think I was saved. It showed teeth, but I stood, being in a place where I could not run. But I was in a great fear. It was the first I have seen. I had not thought them of that size. I think it was larger than I."
"It was less than that," said the King. "Saw you naught else?"
"I came on a woman's bones, and on this rag, which was caught on the near reeds. This I took, having swum the lake bare."
"You saw no rats but the one?... Then it is worse than I thought... It has been well for you, for had you come on another day you had died in that swamp. You had been torn prey for a hundred jaws. But the rats are gathered to take our land, and our people fight now at the long stockade. Thelmo and Tekla are there... It is a good chance that you have come as you did. You will hearten the host... But why did not your brother come?"
"Stele does not swim as do I... Yet he ventured first. He tried the way of the caves. Rita also came before me. She tried the way of the hills... I was afraid, so that I did not start till the dawn."
She told this truth for her brother's name, though it was hard to say. The King did not show his thoughts. If he had wonder or shame that those he had planned to slay should have taken such risk it was a thought that did not rise to the light. He said only, "You did well to fear, taking such risk as you did." He had no doubt that Stele and Rita were dead, or on a short way to that end. It did not cross his thought to send rescue or aid. As to that, we may say. that he had cares enough, as we learn what he then knew. He thought, as he had done before, that Thelmo had a wife of a good kind.
As he spoke, a woman came with word from the host. He had message thus every time that the shadow moved to a marked point.
"How does it go?" said the King. He spoke first, for the woman was short of breath, having run well. "It goes hard."
"Is that Thelmo's word?"
"The Prince said, 'Tell the King that the rats are many, but the line holds.' "
"How goes it with those of the Left Wing?"
"They ride out yet, when the press is most hard on the stockade, charging from gate to gate, but they have lost much."
"How many are left?"
"There may be four score at the most."
"The Princess is unhurt?"
"The Princess Tekla still leads."
"It is well," said the King. His face showed no sign, yet he knew, if there were but four score alive of the riders of the Left Wing, which were the best strength that he had, that his land and all those that he ruled might be at their last day. He had thought of this for many hours as he sat still, pondering how many and who might be led through the caves to the safety of the hidden vale, should the fight be lost. Yet of this he had said nothing, even to those of his own house, for it is not well, when men fight, that they be aware of a backward way.
He said to Elsya, "You have done well, and a greater thing than you yet know. You shall neither loiter nor haste, but go to your own house, eating food there, and clothing yourself as your state is, and come again here to me."
So Elsya did this, and the sun was somewhat lower than its noon height when she came again to the King.
The King said, "The people were in a poor heart when it was known at the dawn that the swamp-rats came anew, being in a great host, and that they had crossed the width of the barren land. They said, 'Where is she whom the gods sent? They have had her back to themselves, that she should not die with our deaths.' If you go to Thelmo now, and be shown to those who still live, it may be they will hold the line... So I think it will be, and I will stake all on this throw."
Then he spoke to the five, and they rose without word or look, going to their deaths at the King's word, and leaving him where he was, without service or guard. He had thought, "They have six knives each, and each knife, as they throw, will be a rat's death. It is thirty sped. Who could say but that were the turn of the high tide? The meal is not cooled at one breath, be it first or last, yet each breath is a needed thing." He would save his land if he might.
Elsya went on foot, of which she was glad, for though she had no fear of a horse she had no practice upon its back, and she had a dread lest she should do ill in the eyes of all.
She went with a guide before and with the King's guard at the rear. They would have drawn eyes, even though she had not been there, for they never moved but where the King was.
She came first to those who were withdrawn from the line, for none can fight without rest in the sun's heat, and the rats' attack had not ceased since the dawn rose. Thelmo had ruled that men should strive for a space in the front line, and rest for a double space after that, before they should fight again. That had been at the first. Later in the day he had made the times of fight and rest of an equal length. Then he had cause to lengthen his line, as the rats spread more to the north, and the women had been called to take their share of the strife. Now men must fight for two spaces in the line, and must rest but one, for only so was the line held.
Elsya came to those who sat on the ground. They bound wounds. They looked downward, with sombre eyes, as but waiting their time to die.
Yet, when they saw her come thus, they forgot that their knees were weak, leaping up with a glad shout. "It is the god's aid at the last. God's daughter comes to the war."
They cried her name out of sight to the south, and to the far north, above the sound of the men that fought, and the squealing of rats, which was a noise that did not lessen or change.
Elsya had a great pride at that cry, loving it better than most things that the world holds, unless it were the beads at her throat.
So she came to where Thelmo fought. His folk held the line of the long ditch which had been cut where the level rose from the plain. At its inner edge there was a low stockade of half the height of a man, so that those who stood there could smite over its top at the rats that climbed up the ditch's side, while their legs would be safe from the rats' teeth. Those who stood thus could look far over the plain, but they could not see where the army of the rats ceased, so that it seemed useless to slay.
Thelmo did not stand in one place. He moved ever behind the line, giving aid where the need was the most sore, for there were places where the ditch was so filled with the dead that it was easy to mount to the stockade's edge, and at such spots there was ever a sharp strife, the rats leaping clean over at times, and at the necks of women and men, who must throw them off as they could, and perhaps draw back from the line with a spurt of blood at the throat that they could not stay.
THELMO turned at that shout, and saw where Elsya came, even as soon as she saw him. At the first sight, he was too glad to give thought to the wonder of how she came.
As to her, she looked only at him, seeing not the savage sea of the rats, over which those must look who stood at the front, till she gained the strength of his arms, and felt that she had come to a safe place, as he caught her up from the ground; for, as we know, she was much smaller than he.
Yet as they kissed, his thoughts went beyond their own joy to what she was to his land. "You must go higher yet," he said, at that thought; "you must let all men see.
He made his shield level as he spoke, on his left arm, and he lifted her with his right, so that she sat on the shield, drawing up her feet at the side. There was good space on the shield, which was large and round, she being as small as she was.
When she was well set he lifted the shield high over his head, so that all might see, at which the shout broke out anew.
So raised, she saw much which was ill to view. She looked once at the rat-thronged plain, and she had looked more than enough, turning her eyes to those who shouted her name, which was a better sight; and then Thelmo spoke, and she leapt down from the shield, as Tekla rode in through a gap in the stockade, bringing what was left of the Wing she led, and halted behind the line.
It needed but a short glance at those of whom Tekla was head, even from one who was little skilled in such war, to see that it was a harder fight than could be long held. Of all those that Elsya had seen when they made flourish before the King, there were but thirty-seven who yet lived, and of these there were few but showed their wounds through the reddened, tooth-torn skins that they wore. Their horses stood with bent heads, breathing hard, as they were drawn up in such array as they might still make, having more wounds than those whose legs were higher than theirs.
Thelmo said, "They are spent. They have saved the day, as it is. It is for the footmen now, and for the women, to do what we yet must. I think still that we shall prevail, for they are heartened anew."
Tekla looked at the great plain, on which the swamp-rats swarmed, and at the barrier, jagged and gapped, along which the men and women fought with wearied hands.
"It is not won," she said, "but we must win this fight, you and I." She looked at Thelmo with the understanding which had been theirs from birth. "Will you charge when you see the time?"
His glance answered hers with bewilderment, and then protest, and then assent. To defend as they then did must be death to all at the last, for there was no end to the numbers of those that came, and the sun was still high. They must turn the tide if they could.
He looked again at the remnant of the Left Wing. "You will give them an hour?" he asked. "We can endure for that time."
"No. They will do no more if they learn how weary they are. It is no time for the counting of wounds. I will give them no time at all." Her eyes hardened at the word, and were lit with the exaltation of a great resolve. She turned her horse to ride back to the squadron's head, and as she did this her eyes met those of Elsya, who stood, bravely enough, at Thelmo's side. Elsya thought that they changed to a swift pity, of which she saw not the cause, but, if so, it was gone as soon as it came. Her glance moved to Thelmo's shield, and then to Elsya again. He saw what she meant, though he gave no sign from a doubtful mind.
Tekla rode that charge at the greatest pace that she could yet rouse in a willing horse, with no care for how far behind were those that she led, and they came behind her with levelled spears, at the best they might, for it was their honour that she should not outride them thus, so that she should fall without aid. She rode from side to side through the snapping, squealing horde, doing all the harm that she might, and the rest came at her heels, a bolt of death through the foul, crowding ranks that leapt with tearing jaws or cowered sideways from the trampling feet.
As she came through their midst, Thelmo cast from him a broken sword, and caught up one that was yet sound from a dead hand. He raised it high, calling for all to follow. He leapt over the barrier,- striking right and left at the loathly, red-eyed beasts that snapped at him from every side, yet shrank back from the bronze sword, that gave death to all that its edge could reach. He called, but none followed at all. Elsya looked at him in a great dread. She came to the edge of the barrier, calling to him to return. At length, so he did; there being no use in standing there alone, at a hard fight that he could not longer sustain.
They looked northward, and saw that Tekla was through. They supposed that she would ride inward again by the barrier gap at that point, which should be opened at her need. But she did not do this. She swung the troop round, and must have seen that Thelmo's effort had failed. She charged back through the swamp-rats' ranks.
This time she led the way in a straight course close under the barriers, so that she cleared a space that gave some respite to those who fought on that line. She called something to Thelmo as she passed, pointing to Elsya, who could not hear what it was. She brought her troop clear again, but it was less than before. There were horses that rolled and screamed as they were torn in a score of jaws; there were riders that went to death by the same way, striking still, till their sight failed.
Yet she wheeled again for the third charge, and went in, this time with a throwing of the deadly knives, giving death to those which were too distant for the spears to reach. But this time she did not ride through. She wheeled the troop in the very midst of the foe, turning it as a dog turns that would flatten a smooth bed, and again there was a throwing of knives, that did not cease till there was but one left of the six that had been at the hands of each. There was such slaughter in that crowded place that it gave relief for a minute's length to the barrier fight, drawing the eyes of all that could see. There were rats that turned to run inward to where they thought that the riders of the Left Wing were being ended at last; there were others, of poorer heart, who would be farther from the deadly range of the flying knives and the rush of the sharp-hooved steeds.
Thelmo saw that it would be never, if it were not now. He made level shield. He gave Elsya his other hand, that she should step up. She looked at him with a bloodless face, knowing now what he would do. But she did not draw back her hand. She stepped on to the shield, seating herself with side-drawn feet, as before. He raised her up with a great strength, so that all could see. They went over the barrier, and, with a shout, the whole army of those who fought leapt down in the same way.
Elsya saw that she had led them thus, though they had not followed Thelmo at all. There was a glad pride in her heart, so that she forgot her fear. She rose upright on the shield so that she could be seen afar.
There were some seconds during which she stood thus on the swaying shield. It seemed longer to her. She thought only that it was she who had moved that host, that it was through her that men shouted and smote, and the swamp-rats squealed and gave way. There was a pride in her heart that was more than fear.
Yet fear she must, and with more cause than she had known in her life's length; for the shield swayed and sloped, though Thelmo strove with a giant strength that she should not be overset, taking what wounds he must for that end, and there were those to the right hand and the left who fought well in the same cause. The rats had been in good heart. They had thought that they were near to win. They were hard to turn.
It is not easy to say how their ranks were ruled, yet there must have been those of them who saw that, if Elsya were brought down, the spirit of this charge must fail, and it might be the end of all. For they came together, it may have been a hundred of them, or more, even while their lines broke both to right and left, and while the pressure slackened in that fierce whirlpool of strife where Tekla, with a little group of the Amazons who yet lived, fought on foot against their crowding foes. They came with a rush as of one rat a hundred strong, and Thelmo's bravest, fighting with reddened spears, went down beneath the swarming heap, and stabbed upward the while they died. It was then that the five of the King's guard, who had stood somewhat to the rear, throwing only a knife at times with a sure aim when the need was most, came forward to Thelmo's side. There they fell, giving many deaths as they died, and breaking the force of that rush, as much as they might, being so few.
They gave such aid that Thelmo stood while they lived, though the rats leapt to drag him down from all sides. Yet it was a thing that could not endure. The rats still came on, and those who should have struck for him on either hand were busy with their own deaths on the ground. So the rats leapt and bit. There was one that leapt so that it got its fore-paws on to the shield, its body curving somewhat beneath, and its hind-claws deep in the back of Thelmo's shoulder and neck. Elsya beat at it with her bare hands, and got a clutch of its throat at last, doing bravely enough at this need, but so that the shield shook the more.
Thelmo looked to where his sister yet fought in the little group that was now like a rock that the tide covers higher at every wave, the rats crowding over them from all sides. He thought that her life was done, and his too; but he saw beyond that, that they had bought the great thing for which they had so paid, for the rats gave w ay on the long front, as far as his sight went. Their lives might be done, yet he would hold Elsya safe as long as he might, though he would not bear her back to the safety of the stockade. She must take her chance at this stake, as a wife should.
So he stood there for a moment more, steadying the shield with his last strength, and heedless of the teeth that drained his life from a dozen wounds. He saw that the tide so turned that he judged that Elsya would be safe if he could endure for a little space, and then he sank to the ground, for a rat bit so that his leg failed.
Elsya went down with a swamp-rat's teeth at her throat. She did not know that she screamed so that her voice reached to Tekla, where she still fought on foot beside a horse that was down with a dozen rat-snouts drinking blood from a torn flank. She knew that her necklace broke in the rat's jaws, and she beat its face with her hands, as it pushed to get a grip under her chin. Thelmo was down at her left side, and she knew that their lives were done, but, with a fierce hatred for that broken toy, she gathered strength to take the beast in her arms, and fling the hinder part of its body over to where Thelmo struggled vainly to gain his feet. As she did this she raised her chin, so that the beast got the grip that it sought, even as she flung its hind-quarters round.
She called out to Thelmo, "Kill this for me!" even as the teeth bit, and she saw his two hands close with a strong grasp on its back, and heard the spine snap. Her eyes laughed over to Thelmo then, so that she did not heed that the blood pulsed from her throat. She saw that his eyes met her own in a good way, and then the beasts hid them, or there was a blur of mist, and it was hard to rule her mind as she would. Knowledge and thought wavered and failed, though she fought to hold them with a stubborn and frightened will, and then a memory came, distant and sharp, a vision of strange and unremembered things, and whether she went from life to death, or from death to life, was a thing that she could not tell.
Tekla, heaving the last rat from Elsya's side on a spear's point, saw surely that she was dead... Thelmo was dead too.
Tekla looked round, and there was none near but those whose fighting had found its end. The rats were in flight at last, and the men and women that had faced death since dawn now followed, and laughed, and slew such as lagged in a wounded way. Tekla looked down at herself, and she knew that her end was near. Life drained from a score of wounds that she had taken as she fought her way to her brother's side. There was none to stanch those streams, and her sight wavered the while she stood.
"I must lie down," she thought, "lest I fall... yet it is a good end for us three."
She lay down at her brother's side. She was glad that they were together in death. Life had been good, though she had missed that which the meanest wins. Her voice came as one who speaks in a dream: "It is the best end that could be..."
MISS LEINSTER came into the outer room, where the magician sat at his books. She looked weary and dazed, as one who had come by a hard way.
He looked up, and was glad of that sight. He had not been without fears. Also, when she came back thus there were good tales to be heard.
"Was it well?"
"It was well enough. I had all I asked, either of caves or trees. I think I have asked for the last time."
He answered, "You may change in that," being wiser than she.
She was slow to speak, so he must do so again. "At least, you have taken no hurt?"
"So you say. I have been Eve in a tree. I have cracked nuts. I have lacked words when a thought came... I have..." She was about to say that she had picked fleas from her own fur, but there were things that were best untold. More than that. Much. She had done things which she could not believe. Yet they were beyond dreams. Was she maid or wife? Her mind went back, and terror came, and a great grief. Can you have grief for a dream?
The magician saw that it would need patience to learn all, which he was eager to do. He said, "It was a very far time."
"It was very near. It is as near as the next room."
He made no answer to that. "Were there men," he asked, "of our own kind?"
"There were men enough, but you had made me an ape." She was sorry when she had said that. It was not a tale to be. told. She would say no more.
But she had said too much, or so the magician thought. "Miss Leinster," he said, with reproach, "you have made a wrong charge. I could do no such thing if I would. You could be no less than yourself."
"Well," she said, "it can't be as you will. I did not mean to complain. I will go home."
She rose with a gesture as of one who throws off a cloak which is too heavy to wear. She went out, saying nothing more.
The magician recalled something which he might have thought sooner than he did. "There should have been three." So there were in the end. He had two others to meet in the latter part of that day, at which time there was more said. But we can leave that to itself.
MARGUERITE LEINSTER went to her own home, which was a Mayfair flat on a fifth floor, having no lift, for she was one who would have light and air, even though her legs must work for its gain.
She went first to a desk, where her letters lay. She found one that had been sent on the day on which she had gone by a way of which we know more than most, and she read this, and was well pleased. After that she turned over those that remained, and was discontent. Her hand went to the bell.
"Mildred," she said, when the maid came, "have there been no letters but these?... Who has called while I have been away?"
The answer giving her no satisfaction, she must be more explicit. "Mr Cranleigh has not been? That is just as well... I rang to know what you can get me for lunch."
The maid went. Miss Leinster looked no more content than before. She let the other letters lie as they were.
It was evening when Stephen came. She gave him her hand, but was less free with her eyes. She said, when they were seated somewhat apart, "You must have worked hard while I have been away. You look tired."
He met this with, "So do you. You always do when you go away by yourself. I hope this is the last time."
"Perhaps it is... I am glad that you have come to believe at last, and didn't pester Mildred again."
"I don't know what I believe... I'm going to Hungary in a month's time. I've got work that will keep me there, off and on, for the next three years."
"Oh, have you?... I'm glad of that... If it's a good job."
"It's well enough. It will be a good job if you'll come along."
"I might look you up in the spring. I've never seen Hungary yet."
"You know I don't mean that. There's plenty of time to get married before we go."
"Not for me."
He rose at that, but made no effort to shorten the distance between them. He leaned moodily against the mantelpiece. "You mean you won't come?"
"I mean I prefer to go where I please, rather than be always bullied by you."
"Then you can damned well stay where you are!"
She recognized the authentic Stephen, who would never leave her alone, and never knew what she wore. She doubted at times if he could have told whether her hair was black or blonde. It was the authentic Stephen, and yet... Well, he had never spoken to her before with quite that brusqueness, even when she had drawn back from a promise which she had almost made.
"So I will," she said, "and I hope you won't come here again, if you're going to talk like that."
"I haven't gone yet... Look here, Marguerite, it's about time that this fooling stopped. You're twenty-eight, if you're a day, and you'd have married me five years ago if I'd the sense to treat you in the right way."
Marguerite rose angrily, though not so much so as she felt that the occasion required. "A thing can't stop that hasn't begun. What fooling do you mean?... You won't gain anything by going on like this... Why not sit down and talk sensibly?"
"So I will," he said, "if you'll do the same. You know you'll marry me in the end, and if it isn't time yet I'd like to know when it will be."
"You know we've had this over a dozen times, and it always ends at the same point. I like to wander about in my own way. I don't want to spend all the year dusting a flat... You haven't even asked me where I've been since you saw me last! "
If this were intended to delay the decision which she recognized as more than usually critical, and which she had not made up her mind how to meet, it was a disastrous error.
"Well," he said, "what's the tale now?"
It was not the words so much as the look he gave which disconcerted her with a memory of things which she must never tell, either to him or to any.
"It's no use," she fenced, "telling you things that you don't believe."
"Oh, I'll believe right enough."
"There isn't much to tell," she said weakly. "It was a very primitive time... I don't think it could have been real."
"Anyone to knock you on the head with a club?"
"No, of course not. It was just caves and trees, and... and things like that."
"Ever come down from the trees?"
"Yes, of course."
"Without being fetched?"
"Yes, of course."
"So I thought... You must have got worse since then."
There was a moment's silence after that, and then Stephen added, "You're not telling me very much. Not very lucid, is it?"
"I've told you other times and you wouldn't believe, so what's the good?"
"But I will this time."
"How can you tell till you've heard?"
Stephen didn't answer to that. He was looking at the bare forearm that was offered to his inspection by a short-sleeved dress. He seemed to have noticed something at last!
"Anything wrong with my arm?"
"The colour hasn't changed."
Miss Leinster looked puzzled, as she was. Did he mean her dress? But his eyes had been on her arm. She was sure of that. Her arm had some downy hairs, very fine, but somewhat longer than are usual, and which would have been more conspicuous had they been of a darker colour. She knew that it was somewhat hairier than a girl's arm usually is, and was never sure that this singularity pleased her. She had been accustomed to settle the doubt with a razor, but she had been careless of late, or there seemed to have been some growth during the last fortnight... Suddenly she knew what he meant. The colour was the same. But how could he know, or guess?... It was incredible, and yet she felt that he knew... But how much?... She would have given anything she possessed to stop the blush which seemed to get worse as she raged inwardly that she could not control it. What could he know? lt was absurd.
"I think you're hateful," she said.
"I think you're just the opposite." He did not seem perturbed by her outburst. He seemed to be enjoying himself much better than he had done a few minutes earlier. He added, in a tone and words in which he might have been better practised to his own advantage, "I think you're just lovely."
She was not mollified by this compliment. Incident after incident came to her mind... Did he know that... and that? How could he? It was absurd. "I wish you'd go," she said furiously.
"If you'd kindly tell me what I've done wrong. I don't want to carry you all the way to Hungary. Elsie says you were such a weight that she thought I was going to throw you down more than once during the afternoon."
"Elsya... Elsie says? What can she?... Stephen, it was no more than a dream... Unless it's still going on... Tell me just what do you know, and how." She spoke now with a nervous earnestness, such as he had never known her to show. She looked at him with frightened eyes.
"I know everything. You didn't think that three could play at that game."
"But it was no more than a dream."
"Well, we dreamed the same."
"And Elsie?... Elsie knows everything?"
"No, I shouldn't say that. She doesn't know..." He mentioned things which were known to themselves only, which were too intimate to be told when they occurred, or to be detailed now. "And if you think," he ended, "I'm going to Hungary alone after all that, well, you're just wrong. So the question is, Will you come quiet, as the police say, or have you got to be carried again?"
She broke into a sudden smile, which brought back to its own place the dimple which we had occasion to notice when we saw her first. She met his eyes at last with an invitation in her own which he had never seen there before.
"Yes," she said, "I suppose I shall." But which she meant is not as clear as we should have liked it to be.
Chapter: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 OUT
[From the Sydney Fowler Wright web site: www.sfw.org]