“You do not know where the sea lies?” she asked.
“I shook my head. “No.”
“Then we are lost?”
“I am afraid so. I am sorry, Duare; I was so sure that we would find the Sofal and that you would soon be out of danger. It is all my fault, the fault of my stupidity and ignorance.”
“Do not say that; no one could have known the direction he was going during the darkness of last night. Perhaps we shall find the sea yet.”
“Even if we could, I am afraid that it will be too late to insure your safety.”
“What do you mean—that the Sofal will be gone?” she asked.
“There is that danger, of course; but what I most fear is that we may be recaptured by the Thorists. They will certainly search along the coast for us in the locality where they found us yesterday. They are not so stupid as not to guess that we will try to reach the Sofal.”
“If we can find the ocean, we might hide from them,” she suggested, “until they tire of the search and return to Kapdor; then, if the Sofal is still there, we may yet be saved.”
“And if not, what?” I asked. “Do you know anything about Noobol? Is there not some likelihood that we may find a friendly people somewhere in this land who will aid us to reach Vepaja again?”
She shook her head. “I know little about Noobol,” she replied, “but what little I have heard is not good. It is a sparsely settled land reaching, it is supposed, far into Strabol, the hot country, where no man may live. It is filled with wild beasts and savage tribes. There are scattered settlements along the coast, but most of these have been captured or reduced by the Thorists; the others, of course, would be equally dangerous, for the inhabitants would consider all strangers as enemies.”
“The outlook is not bright,” I admitted, “but we wil not give up; we will find a way.”
“If any man can, I am sure that it is you,” she said.
Praise from Duare was sweet. In all the time that I had known her she had said only one other kind thing to me, and later she had retracted that.
“I could work miracles if only you loved me, Duare.”
She straightened haughtily. “You will not speak of that,” she said.
“Why do you hate me, Duare, who have given you only love?” I demanded.
“I do not hate you,” she replied, “but you must not speak of love to the daughter of a jong. We may be together for a long time, and you must remember that I may not listen to love from the lips of any man. Our very speaking together is a sin, but circumstances have made it impossible to do otherwise.
“Before I was stolen from the house of the jong no man had ever addressed me other than the members of my own family, except a few loyal and privileged members of my father’s household, and until I should be twenty it were a sin in me and a crime in any man who should disregard this ancient law of the royal families of Amtor.”
“You forget,” I reminded her, “that one man did address you in the house of your father.”
“An impudent knave,” she said, “who should have died for his temerity.”
“Yet you did not inform on me.”
“Which made me equally guilty with you,” she replied, flushing. “It is a shameful secret that will abide with me until my death.”
“A glorious memory that will always sustain my hope,” I told her.
“A false hope that you would do well to kill,” she said, and then, “Why did you remind me of that day?” she demanded. “When I think of it, I hate you; and I do not want to hate you.”
“That is something,” I suggested.
“Your effrontery and your hope feed on meager fare.”
“Which reminds me that it might be well for me to see if I can find something in the way of food for our bodies, too.”
“There may be game in that forest,” she suggested, indicating the wood toward which we had been moving.
“We’ll have a look,” I said, “and then turn back and search for the elusive sea.”
A Venusan forest is a gorgeous sight. The foliage itself is rather pale—orchid, heliotrope and violet predominate—but the boles of the trees are gorgeous. They are of brilliant colors and often so glossy as to give the impression of having been lacquered.
The wood we were approaching was of the smaller varieties of trees, ranging in height from two hundred to three hundred feet, and in diameter from twenty to thirty feet. There were none of the colossi of the island of Vepaja that reared their heads upward five thousand feet to penetrate the eternal inner cloud envelope of the planet.
The interior of the forest was illuminated by the mysterious Venusan ground glow, so that, unlike an earthly forest of similar magnitude upon a cloudy day, it was far from dark or gloomy. Yet there was something sinister about it. I cannot explain just what, nor why it should have been.
“I do not like this place,” said Duare, with a little shudder; there is no sight of animal, no sound of bird.”
“Perhaps we frightened them away,” I suggested.
“I do not think so; it is more likely that there is something else in the forest that has frightened them.”
I shrugged. “Nevertheless, we must have food,” I reminded her, and I continued on into the forbidding, and at the same time gorgeous, wood that reminded me of a beautiful but wicked woman.
Several times I thought I saw a suggestion of movement among the boles of distant trees, but when I reached them there was nothing there. And so I pressed on, deeper and deeper; and constantly a sense of impending evil grew stronger as I advanced.
“There!” whispered Duare suddenly, pointing. “There is something there, behind that tree. I saw it move.”
Something, just glimpsed from the corner of my eye, caught my attention to the left of us; and as I turned quickly in that direction something else dodged behind the bole of a large tree.
Duare wheeled about. “There are things all round us!”
“Can you make out what they are?” I asked.
“I thought that I saw a hairy hand, but I am not sure. They move quickly and keep always out of sight. Oh, let us go back! This is an evil place, and I am afraid.”
“Very well,” I agreed. “Anyway, this doesn’t seem to be a particularly good hunting ground; and after all that is all that we are looking for.”
As we turned to retrace our steps a chorus of hoarse shouts arose upon all sides of us—half human, half bestial, like the growls and roars of animals blending with the voices of men; and then, suddenly, from behind the boles of trees a score of hairy, manlike creatures sprang toward us.
Instantly I recognized them—nobargans—the same hairy, manlike creatures that had attacked the abductors of Duare, whom I had rescued from them. They were armed with crude bows and arrows and with slings from which they hurled rocks; but, as they closed upon us, it appeared that they wished to take us alive, for they launched no missiles at us.
But I had no mind to be thus taken so easily, nor to permit Duare to fall into the hands of these savage beast-men. Raising my pistol, I loosed the deadly r-ray upon them; and as some fell others leaped behind the boles of the trees.
“Do not let them take me,” said Duare in a level voice unshaken by emotion. “When you see there is no further hope of escape, shoot me.”
The very thought of it turned me cold, but I knew that I should do it before permitting her to fall into the hands of these degraded creatures.
A nobargan showed himself, and I dropped him with my pistol; then they commenced to hurl rocks at me from behind. I wheeled and fired, and in the same instant a rock felled me to the ground unconscious.
When I regained consciousness I was aware first of an incredible stench, and then of something rough rubbing against my skin, and of a rhythmic jouncing of my body. These sensations were vaguely appreciable in the first dim light of returning reason. With the return of full control of my faculties they were accounted for; I was being carried across the shoulder of a powerful nobargan.
The odor from his body was almost suffocating in its intensity, and the rough hair abrading my skin was only a trifle more annoying than the motion that his stride imparted to my body.
I sought to push myself from his shoulder; and, realizing that I was no longer unconscious, he dropped me to the ground. All about me were the hideous faces and hairy bodies of the nobargans and permeating the air the horrid stench that emanated from them.
They are, I am sure, the filthiest and most repulsive creatures I have ever seen. Presumably they are one of evoultion’s first steps from beast to man; but they are no improvement upon the beast. For the privilege of walking upright upon two feet, thus releasing their hands from the mean servitude of ages, and for the gift of speech they have sacrificed all that is fine and noble in the beast.
It is true, I believe, that man descended from the beasts; and it took him countless ages to rise to the level of his progenitors. In some respects he has not succeeded yet, even at the height of his vaunted civilization.
As I looked about, I saw Duare being dragged along by her hair by a huge nobargan. It was then that I discovered that my weapons had been taken from me. So low in the scale of intelligence are the nobargans, they cannot use the weapons of civilized man that fall into their hands, so they had simply thrown mine aside.
But even though I was disarmed, I could not see Duare suffering this ignominy and abuse without making an effort to aid her.
I sprang forward before the beasts at my side could prevent and hurled myself upon the creature that dared to maltreat this daughter of a jong, this incomparable creature who had aroused within my breast the first exquisite tortures of love.
I seized him by one hairy arm and swung him around until he faced me, and then I struck him a terrific blow upon the chin that felled him. Instantly his fellows broke into loud laughter at his discomfiture; but that did not prevent them from falling upon me and subduing me, and you may be assured that their methods were none too gentle.
As the brute that I had knocked down staggered to his feet his eyes fell upon me, and with a roar of rage he charged me. It might have fared badly with me had not another of them interfered. He was a burly creature, and when he interposed himself between me and my antagonist the latter paused.
“Stop!” commanded my ally, and had I heard a gorilla speak I could not have been more surprised. It was my introduction to a remarkable ethnological fact: All the races of mankind on Venus (at least those that I have come in contact with) speak the same tongue. Perhaps you can explain it; I cannot. When I have questioned Amtorian savants on the matter, they were merely dumfounded by the question; they could not conceive of any other condition; therefore there had never been any occasion to explain it.
Of course the languages differ in accordance with the culture of the nations; those with the fewest wants and the fewest experiences have the fewest words. The language of the nobargans is probably the most limited; a vocabulary of a hundred words may suffice them. But the basic root-words are the same everywhere.
The creature that had protected me, it presently developed, was the jong, or king, of this tribe; and I later learned that his act was not prompted by humanitarian considerations but by a desire to save me for another fate.
My act had not been entirely without good results, for during the balance of the march Duare was no longer dragged along by her hair, she thanked me for championing her; and that in itself was something worth being manhandled for, but she cautioned me against antagonizing them further.
Having discovered that at least one of these creatures could speak at least one word of the Amtorian language with which I was familiar, I sought to delve farther in the hope that I might ascertain the purpose for which they had captured us.
“Why have you seized us?” I inquired of the brute that had spoken that single word.
He looked at me in surprise, and those near enough to have overheard my question commenced to laugh and repeat it. Their laugh is far from light, airy, or reassuring. They bare their teeth in a grimace and emit a sound that is for all the world like the retching of mal de mer, and there is no laughter in their eyes. It took quite a stretch of my imagination to identify this as laughter.
“Albargan not know?” asked the jong. Albargan is, literally, no-hair-man, or without-hair-man, otherwise, hairless man.
“I do not know,” I replied. “We were not harming you. We were searching for the sea coast where our people are.”
“Albargan find out soon,” and then he laughed again.
I tried to think of some way to bribe him into letting us go; but inasmuch as he had thrown away as useless the only things of value that we possessed, it seemed rather hopeless.
“Tell me what you want most,” I suggested, “and perhaps I can get it for you if you will take us to the coast.”
“We have what we want,” he replied, and that answer made them all laugh.
I was walking close to Duare now, and she looked up at me with a hopeless expression. “I am afraid we are in for it,” she said.
“It is all my fault. If I had had brains enough to find the ocean this would never have happened.”
“Don’t blame yourself. No one could have done more to protect and save me than you have. Please do not think that I do not appreciate it.”
That was a lot for Duare to say, and it was like a ray of sunshine in the gloom of my despondency. That is a simile entirely earthly, for there is no sunshine upon Venus. The relative proximity of the sun lights up the inner cloud envelope brilliantly, but it is a diffused light that casts no well defined shadows nor produces contrasting highlights. There is an all pervading glow from above that blends with the perpetual light emanations from the soil, and the resultant scene is that of a soft and beautiful pastel.
Our captors conducted us into the forest for a considerable distance; we marched practically all day. They spoke but seldom and then usually in monosyllables. They did not laugh again, and for that I was thankful. One can scarcely imagine a more disagreeable sound.
We had an opportunity to study them during this long march, and there is a question if either of us was quite sure in his own mind as to whether they were beast-like men or man-like beasts. Their bodies were entirely covered with hair; their feet were large and flat, and their toes were armed, like the fingers, with thick, heavy, pointed nails that resembled talons. They were large and heavy, with tremendous shoulders and necks.
Their eyes were extremely close set in a baboon-like face; so that in some respects their heads bore a more striking similarity to the heads of dogs than to men. There was no remarkable dissimilarity between the males and the females, several of which were in the party; and the latter deported themselves the same as the bulls and appeared to be upon a plane of equality with these, carrying bows and arrows and slings for hurling rocks, a small supply of which they carried in skin pouches slung across their shoulders.
At last we reached an open space beside a small river where there stood a collection of the rudest and most primitive of shelters. These were constructed of branches of all sizes and shapes thrown together without symmetry and covered with a thatch of leaves and grasses. At the bottom of each was a single aperture through which one might crawl on hands and knees. They reminded me of the nests of pack rats built upon a Gargantuan scale.
Here were other members of the tribe, including several young, and at sight of us they rushed forward with excited cries. It was with difficulty that the jong and other members of the returning party kept them from tearing us to pieces.
The former hustled us into one of their evil smelling nests and placed a guard before the entrance, more to protect us from his fellows, I suspect, than to prevent our escape.
The hut in which we were was filthy beyond words, but in the dim light of the interior I found a short stick with which I scraped aside the foul litter that covered the floor until I had uncovered a space large enough for us to lie down on the relatively clean earth.
We lay with our heads close to the entrance that we might get the benefit of whatever fresh air should find its way within. Beyond the entrance we could see a number of the savages digging two parallel trenches in the soft earth; each was about seven feet long and two feet wide.
“Why are they doing that, do you suppose?” asked Duare.
“I do not know,” I replied, although I had my suspicions; they looked remarkably like graves.
“Perhaps we can escape after they have gone to sleep tonight,” suggested Duare.
“We shall certainly take advantage of the first opportunity,” I replied, but there was no hope within me. I had a premonition that we should not be alive when the nobargans slept next.
“Look what they’re doing,” said Duare, presently; “they’re filling the trenches with wood and dry leaves. You don’t suppose—?” she exclaimed, and caught her breath with a lithe gasp.
I placed a hand on one of hers and pressed it. “We must not conjure unnecessary horrors in our imaginations,” but I feared what she had guessed what I had already surmised—that my graves had become pits for cooking fires.
In silence we watched the creatures working about the two trenches. They built up walls of stone and earth about a foot high along each of the long sides of each pit; When they laid poles at intervals of a few inches across the tops of each pair of walls. Slowly before our eyes we saw two grilles take shape.
“It is horrible,” whispered Duare.
Night came before the preparations were completed; then the savage jong came to our prison and commanded us to come forth. As we did so we were seized by several shes and bulls who carried the long stems of tough jungle vines.
They drew us down and wound the vines about us. They were very clumsy and inept, not having sufficient intelligence to tie knots; but they accomplished their purpose in binding us by wrapping these fiber ropes around and around us until it seemed that it would be impossible to extricate ourselves even were we given the opportunity.
They bound me more securely than they did Duare, but even so the job was a clumsy one. Yet I guessed that it would be adequate to their purpose as they lifted us and laid us on the two parallel grilles.
This done, they comenced to move slowly about us in a rude circle, while near us, and also inside the circle, squatted a bull that was engaged in the business of making fire in the most primitive manner, twirling the end of a sharpened stick in a tinder-filled hole in a log.
From the throats of the circling tribesmen issued strange sounds that were neither speech nor song, yet I guessed that they were groping blindly after song just as in their awkward circling they were seeking self-expression in the rhythm of the dance.
The gloomy wood, feebly illumined by the mysterious ground glow, brooded darkly above and about the weird and savage scene. In the distance the roar of a beast rumbled menacingly.
As the hairy men-things circled about us the bull beside the log at last achieved fire. A slow wisp of smoke rose lazily from the tinder. The bull added a few dry leaves and blew upon the feeble spark. A tiny flame burst forth, and a savage cry arose from the circling dancers. It was answered from the forest by the roar of the beast we had heard a short time before. Now it was closer, and was followed by the thundering voices of others of its kind.
The nobargans paused in their dancing to look apprehensively into the dark wood, voicing their displeasure in grumblings and low growls; then the bull beside the fire commenced to light torches, a quantity of which lay prepared beside him; and as he passed them out the others resumed their dancing.
The circle contracted, and occasionally a dancer would leap in and pretend to light the faggots beneath us. The blazing torches illumined the weird scene, casting grotesque shadows that leaped and played like gigantic demons.
The truth of our predicament was now all too obvious, though I knew that we both suspected it since long before we had been laid upon the grilles—we were to be barbecued to furnish the flesh for a cannibal feast.
Duare turned her head toward me. “Good-by, Carson Napier!” she whispered. “Before I go, I want you to know that I appreciate the sacrifice you have made for me. But for me you would be aboard the Sofal now, safe among loyal friends.”
“I would rather be here with you, Duare,” I replied, “than to be anywhere else in the universe without you.”
I saw that her eyes were wet as she turned her face from me, but she did not reply, and then a huge, shaggy bull leaped in with a flaming torch and ignited the faggots at the lower end of the trench beneath her.