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Gulliver of Mars

Gulliver of Mars

Author:Edwin Lester Linden Arnold


Dare I say it? Dare I say that I, a plain, prosaic lieutenant in the republican service have done the incredible things here set out for the love of a woman--for a chimera in female shape; for a pale, vapid ghost of woman-loveliness? At times I tell myself I dare not: that you will laugh, and cast me aside as a fabricator...
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  Dare I say it? Dare I say that I, a plain, prosaic lieutenant in therepublican service have done the incredible things here set out for thelove of a woman--for a chimera in female shape; for a pale, vapid ghostof woman-loveliness? At times I tell myself I dare not: that you willlaugh, and cast me aside as a fabricator; and then again I pick up mypen and collect the scattered pages, for I MUST write it--the pallidsplendour of that thing I loved, and won, and lost is ever before me,and will not be forgotten. The tumult of the struggle into which thatvision led me still throbs in my mind, the soft, lisping voices of theplanet I ransacked for its sake and the roar of the destruction whichfollowed me back from the quest drowns all other sounds in my ears! Imust and will write--it relieves me; read and believe as you list.

  At the moment this story commences I was thinking of grilled steak andtomatoes--steak crisp and brown on both sides, and tomatoes red as asetting sun!

  Much else though I have forgotten, THAT fact remains as clear as thelast sight of a well-remembered shore in the mind of some wave-tossedtraveller. And the occasion which produced that prosaic thought was anight well calculated to make one think of supper and fireside, thoughthe one might be frugal and the other lonely, and as I, Gulliver Jones,the poor foresaid Navy lieutenant, with the honoured stars of ourRepublic on my collar, and an undeserved snub from those in authorityrankling in my heart, picked my way homeward by a short cut through thedismalness of a New York slum I longed for steak and stout, slippersand a pipe, with all the pathetic keenness of a troubled soul.

  It was a wild, black kind of night, and the weirdness of it showed upas I passed from light to light or crossed the mouths of dim alleysleading Heaven knows to what infernal dens of mystery and crime even inthis latter-day city of ours. The moon was up as far as the churchsteeples; large vapoury clouds scudding across the sky between us andher, and a strong, gusty wind, laden with big raindrops snarled angrilyround corners and sighed in the parapets like strange voices talkingabout things not of human interest.

  It made no difference to me, of course. New York in this year of graceis not the place for the supernatural be the time never so fit forwitch-riding and the night wind in the chimney-stacks sound never somuch like the last gurgling cries of throttled men. No! the world wasvery matter-of-fact, and particularly so to me, a poor younger son withfive dollars in my purse by way of fortune, a packet of unpaid bills inmy breastpocket, and round my neck a locket with a portrait therein ofthat dear buxom, freckled, stub-nosed girl away in a little southernseaport town whom I thought I loved with a magnificent affection.Gods! I had not even touched the fringe of that affliction.

  Thus sauntering along moodily, my chin on my chest and much tooabsorbed in reflection to have any nice appreciation of what washappening about me, I was crossing in front of a dilapidated block ofhouses, dating back nearly to the time of the Pilgrim Fathers, when Ihad a vague consciousness of something dark suddenly sweeping by me--athing like a huge bat, or a solid shadow, if such a thing could be, andthe next instant there was a thud and a bump, a bump again, ahalf-stifled cry, and then a hurried vision of some black carpetingthat flapped and shook as though all the winds of Eblis were in itsfolds, and then apparently disgorged from its inmost recesses a littleman.

  Before my first start of half-amused surprise was over I saw him by theflickering lamp-light clutch at space as he tried to steady himself,stumble on the slippery curb, and the next moment go down on the backof his head with a most ugly thud.

  Now I was not destitute of feeling, though it had been my lot to seemen die in many ways, and I ran over to that motionless form without anidea that anything but an ordinary accident had occurred. There helay, silent and, as it turned out afterwards, dead as a door-nail, thestrangest old fellow ever eyes looked upon, dressed in shabbysorrel-coloured clothes of antique cut, with a long grey beard upon hischin, pent-roof eyebrows, and a wizened complexion so puckered andtanned by exposure to Heaven only knew what weathers that it wasimpossible to guess his nationality.

  I lifted him up out of the puddle of black blood in which he was lying,and his head dropped back over my arm as though it had been fixed tohis body with string alone. There was neither heart-beat nor breath inhim, and the last flicker of life faded out of that gaunt face even asI watched. It was not altogether a pleasant situation, and the onlything to do appeared to be to get the dead man into proper care

thoughlittle good it could do him now!

as speedily as possible. So,sending a chance passer-by into the main street for a cab, I placed himinto it as soon as it came, and there being nobody else to go, got inwith him myself, telling the driver at the same time to take us to thenearest hospital.

  "Is this your rug, captain?" asked a bystander just as we were drivingoff.

  "Not mine," I answered somewhat roughly. "You don't suppose I go aboutat this time of night with Turkey carpets under my arm, do you? Itbelongs to this old chap here who has just dropped out of the skies onto his head; chuck it on top and shut the door!" And that rug, thevery mainspring of the startling things which followed, was thuscarelessly thrown on to the carriage, and off we went.

  Well, to be brief, I handed in that stark old traveller from nowhere atthe hospital, and as a matter of curiosity sat in the waiting-roomwhile they examined him. In five minutes the house-surgeon on dutycame in to see me, and with a shake of his head said briefly--

  "Gone, sir--clean gone! Broke his neck like a pipe-stem. Moststrange-looking man, and none of us can even guess at his age. Not afriend of yours, I suppose?"

  "Nothing whatever to do with me, sir. He slipped on the pavement andfell in front of me just now, and as a matter of common charity Ibrought him in here. Were there any means of identification on him?"

  "None whatever," answered the doctor, taking out his notebook and, as amatter of form, writing down my name and address and a few briefparticulars, "nothing whatever except this curious-looking bead hunground his neck by a blackened thong of leather," and he handed me athing about as big as a filbert nut with a loop for suspension andapparently of rock crystal, though so begrimed and dull its nature wasdifficult to speak of with certainty. The bead was of no seeming valueand slipped unintentionally into my waistcoat pocket as I chatted for afew minutes more with the doctor, and then, shaking hands, I saidgoodbye, and went back to the cab which was still waiting outside.

  It was only on reaching home I noticed the hospital porters had omittedto take the dead man's carpet from the roof of the cab when theycarried him in, and as the cabman did not care about driving back tothe hospital with it, and it could not well be left in the street, Isomewhat reluctantly carried it indoors with me.

  Once in the shine of my own lamp and a cigar in my mouth I had a closerlook at that ancient piece of art work from heaven, or the other place,only knows what ancient loom.

  A big, strong rug of faded Oriental colouring, it covered half thefloor of my sitting-room, the substance being of a material more likecamel's hair than anything else, and running across, when examinedclosely, were some dark fibres so long and fine that surely they musthave come from the tail of Solomon's favourite black stallion itself.But the strangest thing about that carpet was its pattern. It wasthreadbare enough to all conscience in places, yet the design stilllived in solemn, age-wasted hues, and, as I dragged it to mystove-front and spread it out, it seemed to me that it was as much likea star map done by a scribe who had lately recovered from deliriumtremens as anything else. In the centre appeared a round such as mightbe taken for the sun, while here and there, "in the field," as heraldssay, were lesser orbs which from their size and position couldrepresent smaller worlds circling about it. Between these orbs weredotted lines and arrow-heads of the oldest form pointing in alldirections, while all the intervening spaces were filled up with wovencharacters half-way in appearance between Runes and Cryptic-Sanskrit.Round the borders these characters ran into a wild maze, a perfectjungle of an alphabet through which none but a wizard could have forceda way in search of meaning.

  Altogether, I thought as I kicked it out straight upon my floor, it wasa strange and not unhandsome article of furniture--it would do nicelyfor the mess-room on the Carolina, and if any representatives of yonderpoor old fellow turned up tomorrow, why, I would give them a couple ofdollars for it. Little did I guess how dear it would be at any price!

  Meanwhile that steak was late, and now that the temporary excitement ofthe evening was wearing off I fell dull again. What a dark, soddenworld it was that frowned in on me as I moved over to the window andopened it for the benefit of the cool air, and how the wind howledabout the roof tops. How lonely I was! What a fool I had been to askfor long leave and come ashore like this, to curry favour with a set ofstubborn dunderheads who cared nothing for me--or Polly, and could notor would not understand how important it was to the best interests ofthe Service that I should get that promotion which alone would send meback to her an eligible wooer! What a fool I was not to havevolunteered for some desperate service instead of wasting time likethis! Then at least life would have been interesting; now it was dullas ditch-water, with wretched vistas of stagnant waiting between nowand that joyful day when I could claim that dear, rosy-checked girl formy own. What a fool I had been!

  "I wish, I wish," I exclaimed, walking round the little room, "I wish Iwere--"

  While these unfinished exclamations were actually passing my lips Ichanced to cross that infernal mat, and it is no more startling thantrue, but at my word a quiver of expectation ran through that gauntweb--a rustle of anticipation filled its ancient fabric, and one frayedcorner surged up, and as I passed off its surface in my stride, thesentence still unfinished on my lips, wrapped itself about my left legwith extraordinary swiftness and so effectively that I nearly fell intothe arms of my landlady, who opened the door at the moment and came inwith a tray and the steak and tomatoes mentioned more than once already.

  It was the draught caused by the opening door, of course, that had madethe dead man's rug lift so strangely--what else could it have been? Imade this apology to the good woman, and when she had set the table andclosed the door took another turn or two about my den, continuing as Idid so my angry thoughts.

  "Yes, yes," I said at last, returning to the stove and taking my stand,hands in pockets, in front of it, "anything were better than this, anyenterprise however wild, any adventure however desperate. Oh, I wish Iwere anywhere but here, anywhere out of this redtape-ridden world ofours! I WISH I WERE IN THE PLANET MARS!"

  How can I describe what followed those luckless words? Even as I spokethe magic carpet quivered responsively under my feet, and an undulationwent all round the fringe as though a sudden wind were shaking it. Ithumped up in the middle so abruptly that I came down sitting with ashock that numbed me for the moment. It threw me on my back andbillowed up round me as though I were in the trough of a stormy sea.Quicker than I can write it lapped a corner over and rolled me in itsfolds like a chrysalis in a cocoon. I gave a wild yell and made onefrantic struggle, but it was too late. With the leathery strength of agiant and the swiftness of an accomplished cigar-roller covering a"core" with leaf, it swamped my efforts, straightened my limbs, rolledme over, lapped me in fold after fold till head and feet and everythingwere gone--crushed life and breath back into my innermost being, andthen, with the last particle of consciousness, I felt myself liftedfrom the floor, pass once round the room, and finally shoot out, pointforemost, into space through the open window, and go up and up and upwith a sound of rending atmospheres that seemed to tear like riven silkin one prolonged shriek under my head, and to close up in thunderastern until my reeling senses could stand it no longer, and time andspace and circumstances all lost their meaning to me.