And it was a big river, comparable to the Mississippi. It ran between low cliffs of gleaming white limestone, flowing silently out of the mystery above, flowing silently toward the mystery below. Upon its broad expanse, from where it swept majestically into sight around a low promontory to where it disappeared again beyond a curve down stream, there was no sign of life, nor on either bank—only the girl, Nalte, and I. I felt the awe of its grandeur and my own insignificance.
I had no words to express my thoughts; and I was glad that Nalte stood in silence that was almost reverential as we viewed the majesty and the desolation of the scene.
Presently the girl sighed. It awoke me to the need of the moment. I could not stand mooning there in the face of the immediate necessity that confronted us.
“Well,” I said, “this is not crossing the river.” I referred to the affluent that we had followed down from the castle of Skor.
“I am glad that we do not have to cross the big river,” remarked Nalte.
“We may have enough trouble crossing this other,” I suggested.
It flowed at our left, making a sudden turn before it emptied into the larger stream. below us was a great eddy that had strewn the nearer bank with flotsam—leaves, twigs, branches of all sizes, and even the boles of great trees. These things appeared to have been deposited during a period of high water.
“How are we going to cross?” asked Nalte. “There is no ford, and it seems too wide and swift to swim even if I were a good swimmer.” She looked up at me quickly then as a new thought seemed to strike her. “I am a burden to you,” she said. “If you were alone you would doubtless be able to cross easily. Pay no attention to me; I shall remain on this side and start up the river on my journey toward Andoo.”
I looked down at her and smiled. “You really do not believe or hope that I will do anything of the sort.”
“It would be the sensible thing to do,” she said.
“The sensible thing to do is to build a raft with some of that stuff down there and float across the river.” I pointed to the debris piled up on the bank.
“Why, we could do that, couldn’t we?” she cried.
She was all eagerness and excitement now, and a moment later she pitched in and helped me drag out such pieces as I thought we could use in the construction of a raft.
It was hard work, but at last we had enough material to float us in safety. The next job was to fasten the elements of our prospective raft together so securely that the river could not tear it to pieces before we had gained the opposite bank.
We gathered lianas for that purpose, and though we worked as rapidly as we could it was almost dark before we had completed our rude ferry.
As I contemplated the fruit of our labor, I saw Nalte surveying the swirling waters of the eddy with a dubious eye.
“Are we going to cross now,” she asked, “or wait until morning?”
“It is almost dark now,” I replied. “I think we had better wait until tomorrow.”
She brightened visibly and drew a deep sigh of relief.
“Then we had better think about eating now,” she said. I had found the girls of Venus not unlike their earthly sisters in this respect.
The meal that night was a matter of fruit and tubers, but it was sufficient. Once more I constructed a platform among the branches of a tree and prayed that no prowling arboreal carnivore would discover us.
Each morning that I awoke on Venus it was with a sense of surprise that I still lived, and this first morning on the big river was no exception.
As soon as we had eaten we went to our raft, and after some difficulty succeeded in launching it. I had equipped it with several long branches for poling and some shorter ones that we might use as oars after we got into the deep channel, but they were most inadequate makeshifts. I was depending almost exclusively on the eddy to carry us within striking distance of the opposite shore, where I hoped that we would then be able to pole the raft to the bank.
Our craft floated much better than I had anticipated. I had feared that it would be almost awash and most uncomfortable; but the wood was evidently light, with the result that the top of the raft was several inches above the water.
No sooner had we shoved off than the eddy seized us and commenced to bear us up stream and out toward the center. Our only concern now was to keep from being drawn into the vortex, and by poling frantically we managed to keep near the periphery of the whirlpool until the water deepened to such a degree that our poles would no longer touch bottom; then we seized the shorter branches and paddled desperately. It was gruelling work, yet Nalte never faltered.
At last we swung in toward the left bank, and once more we seized our poles, but, to my astonishment and chagrin, I discovered that the water here was still too deep. The current, too, was much stronger on this side than on the other; and our futile oars were almost useless.
Remorselessly the river held us in its grip and dragged us back toward the vortex. We paddled furiously, and held our own; we were keeping away from the center of the eddy, but we were being carried farther from the left bank.
Presently we were in mid-channel. We seemed to be hanging on the very edge of the eddy. Both of us were almost exhausted by this time, yet we might not pause for an instant. With a last, supreme effort we tore the raft from the clutches of the current that would have drawn us back into the embrace of the swirling Titan; then the main current of the mid-channel seized us—a fierce, relentless force. Our craft swirled and bobbed about absolutely beyond control, and we were swept down toward the great river.
I laid aside my inadequate paddle. “We have done our best, Nalte,” I said, “but it wasn’t good enough. Now all that we can do is to hope that this thing will hang together until we drift to one shore or the other somewhere along the big river.”
“It will have to be soon,” said Nalte.
“Why?” I asked.
“When Skor found me he said that I was fortunate to have come to shore where I did, as farther down the river tumbles over falls.”
I looked at the low cliffs that lined the river on both sides. “There isn’t any chance of making a landing here,” I said.
“Perhaps we shall have better luck lower down,” suggested Nalte.
Down we drifted with the current, sometimes borne close to one shore, sometimes close to the other as the channel meandered from bank to bank; or again we rode far out on the center of the flood. Sometimes we saw little breaks in the cliffs where we might have made a landing; but we always saw them too late, and were carried past before we could maneuver our clumsy craft within reach.
As we approached each bend we looked expectantly for some change in the shore line that would offer us some hope of landing, but always we were disappointed. And then, at last, as we swung around a headland, we saw two cities. One lay upon the left bank of the river, the other on the right directly opposite. The former appeared gray and drab even at a distance, while that upon the right bank shone white and beautiful and gay with its limestone walls and towers and its roofs of many colors.
Nalte nodded toward the city on the left bank. “That must be Kormor; this is about the location that Skor told me his city occupied.”
“And the other?” I asked.
She shook her head. “Skor never mentioned another city.”
“Perhaps it is all one city built upon both banks of the river,” I suggested.
“No; I do not think so. Skor told me that the people who dwelt across the river from Kormor were his enemies, but he never said anything about a city. I thought it was just some savage tribe. Why, that is a splendid city—far larger and handsomer than Kormor.”
We could not, of course, see the entire expanse of either city, but as we drifted closer it was apparent that the city on our right extended along the river front for several miles. This we could see because at this point the river ran almost as straight as a canal for a greater distance than I could see. But the city on our left, which was Kormor, was much smaller, extending but about a mile along the water front. As far as we could see both cities were walled, a high wall extending along the river side of each. Kormor had a short quay in front of a gate about the center of this wall, while the quay of the other city appeared to be a long avenue extending as far as I could see.
We had been drifting for some time opposite the right hand city before we came close to Kormor. There were a few fishermen on the long quay of the former city, and others, possibly sentries, on top of the wall behind them. Many of these saw us and pointed at us and seemed to be discussing us, but at no time did we drift close enough to that side of the river so that we could obtain a close view of them.
As we came down toward the quay of Kormor, a small boat pushed out into the river. It contained three men, two of whom were rowing while the third stood in the bow. That they were pulling out to intercept us appeared quite evident.
“They are Skor’s men,” said Nalte.
“What do you suppose they want of us?” I asked.
“To capture us, of course, for Skor; but they will never capture me!” She stepped toward the edge of the raft.
“What do you mean?” I demanded. “What are you going to do?”
“I am going to jump into the river.”
“But you can’t swim,” I objected. “You will be sure to drown.”
“That is what I wish to do. I shall never let Skor take me again.”
“Wait, Nalte,” I begged. “Why haven’t taken us yet. Perhaps they won’t.”
“Yes, they will,” she said hopelessly.
“We must never give up hope, Nalte. Promise me that you will wait. Even in the last second you can still carry out your plan.”
“I will wait,” she promised, “but in the last second you had better follow my example and join me in death rather than fall into the hands of Skor and become one of those hopeless creatures that you saw at his castle, for then you will be denied even the final escape of death.”
The boat was now approaching closer, and I hailed its occupants. “What do you want of us?” I demanded.
“You must come ashore with us,” said the man in the bow.
I was close enough now so that I could get a good look at the fellow. I had thought at first that they were some more of Skor’s living dead, but now I saw that this fellow’s cheeks had the hue of health and blood.
“We will not come with you,” I called back to him. “Leave us alone; we are not harming you. Let us go our way in peace.”
“You will come ashore with us,” said the man, as his boat drew closer.
“Keep away, or I’ll kill you” I cried, fitting an arrow to my bow.
The fellow laughed—a dry, mirthless laugh. Then it was that I saw his eyes, and a cold chill swept over me. They were the dead eyes of a corpse!
I loosed an arrow. It drove straight through the creature’s chest, but he only laughed again and left the arrow sticking there.
“Do you know,” cried Nalte, “that you cannot kill the dead?” She stepped to the far side of the raft. “Good-by, Carson,” she said quietly; “the last second is herel”
“No! No, Nalte!” I cried. “Wait! It is not the last second.”
I turned again toward the approaching boat. Its bow was already within a foot of the raft. I leaped upon him. He struck at me with his dead hands; his dead fingers clutched for my throat. But my attack had been too quick and unexpected. I had carried him off his balance, and in the same instant I seized him and threw him overboard.
The two other creatures had been rowing with their backs toward the bow and were unaware that any danger threatened them until I crashed upon their leader. As he went overboard the nearer of the others rose and turned upon me. His skin, too, was painted in the semblance of life, but those dead eyes could not be changed.
With a horrid, inarticulate scream he leaped for me. I met his rush with a right to the jaw that would have knocked a living man down for a long count; and while, of course, I couldn’t knock the thing out, I did knock it overboard.
A quick glance at the two in the water convinced me that my guess had not been amiss—like their fellows at the castle, the two could not swim and were floating helplessly down stream with the current. But there was still another, and it was stepping across the thwarts toward me.
I sprang forward to meet it, ripping in a blow toward the side of the jaw that would have sent it after the other two had it connected; but it did not. Our movements caused the boat to rock and threw me off my balance, and before I could regain my equilibrium the creature seized me.
It was very powerful, but it fought without fire or enthusiasm just the cold, deadly application of force. It reached for my throat; to reach for its throat was useless. I could not choke the life from something that had no lafe. The best that I could do was to try to evade its clutches and wait for an opening that might never come.
I am rather muscular myself; and I did manage to push the thing from me for a moment, but it came right back. It didn’t say anything; it didn’t make any sound at all. There was no expression in its glazed eyes, but its dry lips were drawn back over yellow teeth in a snarling grimace. The sight of it and the touch of those cold, clammy fingers almost unnerved me—these and the strange odor that emanated from it, the strange odor that is the odor of death.
As it came toward me the second time it came with lowered head and outstretched arms. I leaped for it, and locked my right arm about its head from above. The back of its neck was snug against my armpit as I seized my own right wrist with my left hand and locked my hold tighter. Then I swung quickly around, straightening up as I did so and, incidentally, nearly capsizing the boat. The creature lost its footing as I swung it about; its arms flailed wildly, as with a last mighty surge I released my hold and sent it stumbling over the gunwale into the river. Like the others, it floated away.
A few yards away, the raft was drifting with Nalte wide-eyed and tense with excitement. Seizing an oar I brought the boat alongside and extending a hand assisted Nalte over the side, I noticed that she was trembling.
“Were you frightened, Nalte?” I asked.
“For you, yes. I didn’t think that you had a chance against three of them. Even now I can’t believe what I saw. It is incredible that one man could have done what you did.”
“Luck had a lot to do with it,” I replied, “and the fact that I took them by surprise. They weren’t expecting anything of the sort.”
“How strangely things happen,” mused Nalte. “A moment ago I was about to drown myself in sheer desperation, and now everything is changed. The danger is over, and instead of an inadequate raft we have a comfortable boat.”
“Which proves that one should never give up hope.”
“I shan’t again—while you are with me.” I had been keeping an eye on the Kormor quay rather expecting to see another boat put out in pursuit of us, but none did.
The fishermen and the sentries on the waterfront of the other city had all stopped what they were doing and were watching us.
“Shall we row over there and see if they will take us in?” I asked.
“I am afraid,” replied Nalte. “We have a saying in Andoo that the farther strangers are away the better friends they are.”
“You think that they would harm us?” I asked.
Nalte shrugged. “I do not know, but the chances are that they would kill you and keep me.”
“Then we won’t take the chance, but I would like to remain near here for a while and search for Duare.”
“You can’t land on the left bank until we are out of sight of Kormor,” said Nalte, “or they would be after us in no time.”
“And if we land in sight of this other city these people would take after us, if what you fear be true,”
“Let’s go down stream until we are out of sight of both cities,” suggested the girl, “and then wait until night before coming back near Kormor to search, for that is where you will have to search for Duare.”
Following Nalte’s suggestion we drifted slowly down stream. We soon passed Kormor, but the white city on the right bank extended on for a couple of miles farther. I should say that its full length along the river front was fully five miles, and along all that length was the broad quay backed by a gleaming white wall pierced by an occasional gate—I counted six or seven along the full length of the water front.
Just below the city the river turned to the right, and almost immediately the cliffs shut off our view of both cities. Simultaneously the aspect of the country changed. The limestone cliffs ended abruptly, the river running between low banks. Here it spread out to considerable width, but farther ahead I could see where it narrowed again and entered a gorge between cliffs much higher than any that we had passed. They were wooded cliffs, and even from a distance I could see that they were not of the white limestone that formed those with which we had now become familiar.
There came to my ears faintly an insistent sound that was at first little more than a murmur, but as we drifted down the river it seemed to grow constantly in volume.
“Do you hear what I hear?” I demanded, “or am I the victim of head noises?”
“That distant roaring?”
“Yes; it has become a roar now. What do you suppose it can be?”
“It must be the falls that Skor told me of,” said Nalte.
“By Jove! That’s just what it is,” I exclaimed. “And the best thing that we can do is to get to shore while we can.”
The current had carried us closer to the right bank at this point, and just ahead of us I saw a small stream emptying into the river. There was an open forest on the farther side of the stream and scattered trees on the nearer.
It appeared an ideal location for a camp.
We made the shore easily, for the current here was not swift. I ran the boat into the mouth of the small stream, but there was not water enough to float it. However, I managed to drag it up far enough to tie it to an overhanging limb of a tree where it was out of sight of any possible pursuers from Kormor who might come down the river in search of Nalte and myself.
“Now, I said, “the thing that interests me most at present is securing food.”
“That is something that always interests me,” admitted Nalte, with a laugh. “Where are you going to hunt? That forest on the other side of this little stream looks as though it should be filled with game.”
She was facing the forest as she spoke, while my back was toward it. Suddenly the expression on her face changed, and she seized my arm with a little cry of alarm. “Look, Carson! What is that?”