H.G. Wells.

The Country of the Blind, and Other Stories online

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"I carried her," he said, "towards the temples, in my arms - as though it
mattered. I don't know why. They seemed a sort of sanctuary, you know,
they had lasted so long, I suppose.

"She must have died almost instantly. Only - I talked to her - all the way."

Silence again.

"I have seen those temples," I said abruptly, and indeed he had brought
those still, sunlit arcades of worn sandstone very vividly before me.

"It was the brown one, the big brown one. I sat down on a fallen pillar
and held her in my arms... Silent after the first babble was over. And
after a little while the lizards came out and ran about again, as though
nothing unusual was going on, as though nothing had changed... It was
tremendously still there, the sun high and the shadows still; even the
shadows of the weeds upon the entablature were still - in spite of the
thudding and banging that went all about the sky.

"I seem to remember that the aeroplanes came up out of the south, and that
the battle went away to the west. One aeroplane was struck, and overset
and fell. I remember that - though it didn't interest me in the least. It
didn't seem to signify. It was like a wounded gull, you know - flapping for
a time in the water. I could see it down the aisle of the temple - a black
thing in the bright blue water.

"Three or four times shells burst about the beach, and then that ceased.
Each time that happened all the lizards scuttled in and hid for a space.
That was all the mischief done, except that once a stray bullet gashed the
stone hard by - made just a fresh bright surface.

"As the shadows grew longer, the stillness seemed greater.

"The curious thing," he remarked, with the manner of a man who makes a
trivial conversation, "is that I didn't _think_ - I didn't think at
all. I sat with her in my arms amidst the stones - in a sort of lethargy -
stagnant.

"And I don't remember waking up. I don't remember dressing that day. I
know I found myself in my office, with my letters all slit open in front
of me, and how I was struck by the absurdity of being there, seeing that
in reality I was sitting, stunned, in that Paestum Temple with a dead
woman in my arms. I read my letters like a machine. I have forgotten what
they were about."

He stopped, and there was a long silence.

Suddenly I perceived that we were running down the incline from Chalk Farm
to Euston. I started at this passing of time. I turned on him with a
brutal question with the tone of "Now or never."

"And did you dream again?"

"Yes."

He seemed to force himself to finish. His voice was very low.

"Once more, and as it were only for a few instants. I seemed to have
suddenly awakened out of a great apathy, to have risen into a sitting
position, and the body lay there on the stones beside me. A gaunt body.
Not her, you know. So soon - it was not her...

"I may have heard voices. I do not know. Only I knew clearly that men were
coming into the solitude and that that was a last outrage.

"I stood up and walked through the temple, and then there came into
sight - first one man with a yellow face, dressed in a uniform of dirty
white, trimmed with blue, and then several, climbing to the crest of the
old wall of the vanished city, and crouching there. They were little
bright figures in the sunlight, and there they hung, weapon in hand,
peering cautiously before them.

"And further away I saw others, and then more at another point in the
wall. It was a long lax line of men in open order.

"Presently the man I had first seen stood up and shouted a command, and
his men came tumbling down the wall and into the high weeds towards the
temple. He scrambled down with them and led them. He came facing towards
me, and when he saw me he stopped.

"At first I had watched these men with a mere curiosity, but when I had
seen they meant to come to the temple I was moved to forbid them. I
shouted to the officer.

"'You must not come here,' I cried, '_I_ am here. I am here with my
dead.'

"He stared, and then shouted a question back to me in some unknown tongue.

"I repeated what I had said.

"He shouted again, and I folded my arms and stood still. Presently he
spoke to his men and came forward. He carried a drawn sword.

"I signed to him to keep away, but he continued to advance. I told him
again very patiently and clearly: 'You must not come here. These are old
temples, and I am here with my dead.'

"Presently he was so close I could see his face clearly. It was a narrow
face, with dull grey eyes, and a black moustache. He had a scar on his
upper lip, and he was dirty and unshaven. He kept shouting unintelligible
things, questions perhaps, at me.

"I know now that he was afraid of me, but at the time that did not occur
to me. As I tried to explain to him he interrupted me in imperious tones,
bidding me, I suppose, stand aside.

"He made to go past me, and I caught hold of him.

"I saw his face change at my grip.

"'You fool,' I cried. 'Don't you know? She is dead!'

"He started back. He looked at me with cruel eyes.

"I saw a sort of exultant resolve leap into them - delight. Then suddenly,
with a scowl, he swept his sword back - _so_ - and thrust."

He stopped abruptly.

I became aware of a change in the rhythm of the train. The brakes lifted
their voices and the carriage jarred and jerked. This present world
insisted upon itself, became clamorous. I saw through the steamy window
huge electric lights glaring down from tall masts upon a fog, saw rows of
stationary empty carriages passing by, and then a signal-box, hoisting its
constellation of green and red into the murky London twilight, marched
after them. I looked again at his drawn features.

"He ran me through the heart. It was with a sort of astonishment - no fear,
no pain - but just amazement, that I felt it pierce me, felt the sword
drive home into my body. It didn't hurt, you know. It didn't hurt at all."

The yellow platform lights came into the field of view, passing first
rapidly, then slowly, and at last stopping with a jerk. Dim shapes of men
passed to and fro without.

"Euston!" cried a voice.

"Do you mean - ?"

"There was no pain, no sting or smart. Amazement and then darkness
sweeping over everything. The hot, brutal face before me, the face of the
man who had killed me, seemed to recede. It swept out of existence - "

"Euston!" clamoured the voices outside; "Euston!"

The carriage door opened, admitting a flood of sound, and a porter stood
regarding us. The sounds of doors slamming, and the hoof-clatter of
cab-horses, and behind these things the featureless remote roar of the
London cobble-stones, came to my ears. A truck-load of lighted lamps
blazed along the platform.

"A darkness, a flood of darkness that opened and spread and blotted out
all things."

"Any luggage, sir?" said the porter.

"And that was the end?" I asked.

He seemed to hesitate. Then, almost inaudibly, he answered, "_No_."

"You mean?"

"I couldn't get to her. She was there on the other side of the temple -
And then - "

"Yes," I insisted. "Yes?"

"Nightmares," he cried; "nightmares indeed! My God! Great birds that
fought and tore."




XXVI.

THE VALLEY OF SPIDERS.


Towards mid-day the three pursuers came abruptly round a bend in the
torrent bed upon the sight of a very broad and spacious valley. The
difficult and winding trench of pebbles along which they had tracked the
fugitives for so long expanded to a broad slope, and with a common impulse
the three men left the trail, and rode to a little eminence set with
olive-dun trees, and there halted, the two others, as became them, a
little behind the man with the silver-studded bridle.

For a space they scanned the great expanse below them with eager eyes. It
spread remoter and remoter, with only a few clusters of sere thorn bushes
here and there, and the dim suggestions of some now waterless ravine to
break its desolation of yellow grass. Its purple distances melted at last
into the bluish slopes of the further hills - hills it might be of a
greener kind - and above them, invisibly supported, and seeming indeed to
hang in the blue, were the snow-clad summits of mountains - that grew
larger and bolder to the northwestward as the sides of the valley drew
together. And westward the valley opened until a distant darkness under
the sky told where the forests began. But the three men looked neither
east nor west, but only steadfastly across the valley.

The gaunt man with the scarred lip was the first to speak. "Nowhere," he
said, with a sigh of disappointment in his voice. "But, after all, they
had a full day's start."

"They don't know we are after them," said the little man on the white
horse.

"_She_ would know," said the leader bitterly, as if speaking to
himself.

"Even then they can't go fast. They've got no beast but the mule, and all
to-day the girl's foot has been bleeding - - "

The man with the silver bridle flashed a quick intensity of rage on him.
"Do you think I haven't seen that?" he snarled.

"It helps, anyhow," whispered the little man to himself.

The gaunt man with the scarred lip stared impassively. "They can't be over
the valley," he said. "If we ride hard - - "

He glanced at the white horse and paused.

"Curse all white horses!" said the man with the silver bridle, and turned
to scan the beast his curse included.

The little man looked down between the melancholy ears of his steed.

"I did my best," he said.

The two others stared again across the valley for a space. The gaunt man
passed the back of his hand across the scarred lip.

"Come up!" said the man who owned the silver bridle, suddenly. The little
man started and jerked his rein, and the horse hoofs of the three made a
multitudinous faint pattering upon the withered grass as they turned back
towards the trail...

They rode cautiously down the long slope before them, and so came through
a waste of prickly twisted bushes and strange dry shapes of thorny
branches that grew amongst the rocks, into the levels below. And there the
trail grew faint, for the soil was scanty, and the only herbage was this
scorched dead straw that lay upon the ground. Still, by hard scanning, by
leaning beside the horses' necks and pausing ever and again, even these
white men could contrive to follow after their prey.

There were trodden places, bent and broken blades of the coarse grass, and
ever and again the sufficient intimation of a footmark. And once the
leader saw a brown smear of blood where the half-caste girl may have trod.
And at that under his breath he cursed her for a fool.

The gaunt man checked his leader's tracking, and the little man on the
white horse rode behind, a man lost in a dream. They rode one after
another, the man with the silver bridle led the way, and they spoke never
a word. After a time it came to the little man on the white horse that the
world was very still. He started out of his dream. Besides the little
noises of their horses and equipment, the whole great valley kept the
brooding quiet of a painted scene.

Before him went his master and his fellow, each intently leaning forward
to the left, each impassively moving with the paces of his horse; their
shadows went before them - still, noiseless, tapering attendants; and
nearer a crouched cool shape was his own. He looked about him. What was it
had gone? Then he remembered the reverberation from the banks of the gorge
and the perpetual accompaniment of shifting, jostling pebbles. And,
moreover - - ? There was no breeze. That was it! What a vast, still place
it was, a monotonous afternoon slumber! And the sky open and blank except
for a sombre veil of haze that had gathered in the upper valley.

He straightened his back, fretted with his bridle, puckered his lips to
whistle, and simply sighed. He turned in his saddle for a time, and stared
at the throat of the mountain gorge out of which they had come. Blank!
Blank slopes on either side, with never a sign of a decent beast or tree -
much less a man. What a land it was! What a wilderness! He dropped again
into his former pose.

It filled him with a momentary pleasure to see a wry stick of purple black
flash out into the form of a snake, and vanish amidst the brown. After
all, the infernal valley _was_ alive. And then, to rejoice him still
more, came a little breath across his face, a whisper that came and went,
the faintest inclination of a stiff black-antlered bush upon a little
crest, the first intimations of a possible breeze. Idly he wetted his
finger, and held it up.

He pulled up sharply to avoid a collision with the gaunt man, who had
stopped at fault upon the trail. Just at that guilty moment he caught his
master's eye looking towards him.

For a time he forced an interest in the tracking. Then, as they rode on
again, he studied his master's shadow and hat and shoulder, appearing and
disappearing behind the gaunt man's nearer contours. They had ridden four
days out of the very limits of the world into this desolate place, short
of water, with nothing but a strip of dried meat under their saddles, over
rocks and mountains, where surely none but these fugitives had ever been
before - for _that_!

And all this was for a girl, a mere wilful child! And the man had whole
cityfuls of people to do his basest bidding - girls, women! Why in the name
of passionate folly _this_ one in particular? asked the little man,
and scowled at the world, and licked his parched lips with a blackened
tongue. It was the way of the master, and that was all he knew. Just
because she sought to evade him...

His eye caught a whole row of high-plumed canes bending in unison, and
then the tails of silk that hung before his neck flapped and fell. The
breeze was growing stronger. Somehow it took the stiff stillness out of
things - and that was well.

"Hullo!" said the gaunt man.

All three stopped abruptly.

"What?" asked the master. "What?"

"Over there," said the gaunt man, pointing up the valley.

"What?"

"Something coming towards us."

And as he spoke a yellow animal crested a rise and came bearing down upon
them. It was a big wild dog, coming before the wind, tongue out, at a
steady pace, and running with such an intensity of purpose that he did not
seem to see the horsemen he approached. He ran with his nose up,
following, it was plain, neither scent nor quarry. As he drew nearer the
little man felt for his sword. "He's mad," said the gaunt rider.

"Shout!" said the little man, and shouted.

The dog came on. Then when the little man's blade was already out, it
swerved aside and went panting by them and passed. The eyes of the little
man followed its flight. "There was no foam," he said. For a space the man
with the silver-studded bridle stared up the valley. "Oh, come on!" he
cried at last. "What does it matter?" and jerked his horse into movement
again.

The little man left the insoluble mystery of a dog that fled from nothing
but the wind, and lapsed into profound musings on human character. "Come
on!" he whispered to himself. "Why should it be given to one man to say
'Come on!' with that stupendous violence of effect? Always, all his life,
the man with the silver bridle has been saying that. If _I_ said
it - !" thought the little man. But people marvelled when the master was
disobeyed even in the wildest things. This half-caste girl seemed to him,
seemed to every one, mad - blasphemous almost. The little man, by way of
comparison, reflected on the gaunt rider with the scarred lip, as stalwart
as his master, as brave and, indeed, perhaps braver, and yet for him there
was obedience, nothing but to give obedience duly and stoutly...

Certain sensations of the hands and knees called the little man back to
more immediate things. He became aware of something. He rode up beside his
gaunt fellow. "Do you notice the horses?" he said in an undertone.

The gaunt face looked interrogation.

"They don't like this wind," said the little man, and dropped behind as
the man with the silver bridle turned upon him.

"It's all right," said the gaunt-faced man.

They rode on again for a space in silence. The foremost two rode downcast
upon the trail, the hindmost man watched the haze that crept down the
vastness of the valley, nearer and nearer, and noted how the wind grew in
strength moment by moment. Far away on the left he saw a line of dark
bulks - wild hog, perhaps, galloping down the valley, but of that he said
nothing, nor did he remark again upon the uneasiness of the horses.

And then he saw first one and then a second great white ball, a great
shining white ball like a gigantic head of thistledown, that drove before
the wind athwart the path. These balls soared high in the air, and dropped
and rose again and caught for a moment, and hurried on and passed, but at
the sight of them the restlessness of the horses increased.

Then presently he saw that more of these drifting globes - and then soon
very many more - were hurrying towards him down the valley.

They became aware of a squealing. Athwart the path a huge boar rushed,
turning his head but for one instant to glance at them, and then hurling
on down the valley again. And at that all three stopped and sat in their
saddles, staring into the thickening haze that was coming upon them.

"If it were not for this thistle-down - " began the leader.

But now a big globe came drifting past within a score of yards of them. It
was really not an even sphere at all, but a vast, soft, ragged, filmy
thing, a sheet gathered by the corners, an aerial jelly-fish, as it were,
but rolling over and over as it advanced, and trailing long cobwebby
threads and streamers that floated in its wake.

"It isn't thistle-down," said the little man.

"I don't like the stuff," said the gaunt man.

And they looked at one another.

"Curse it!" cried the leader. "The air's full of lit up there. If it keeps
on at this pace long, it will stop us altogether."

An instinctive feeling, such as lines out a herd of deer at the approach
of some ambiguous thing, prompted them to turn their horses to the wind,
ride forward for a few paces, and stare at that advancing multitude of
floating masses. They came on before the wind with a sort of smooth
swiftness, rising and falling noiselessly, sinking to earth, rebounding
high, soaring - all with a perfect unanimity, with a still, deliberate
assurance.

Right and left of the horsemen the pioneers of this strange army passed.
At one that rolled along the ground, breaking shapelessly and trailing out
reluctantly into long grappling ribbons and bands, all three horses began
to shy and dance. The master was seized with a sudden, unreasonable
impatience. He cursed the drifting globes roundly. "Get on!" he cried;
"get on! What do these things matter? How _can_ they matter? Back to
the trail!" He fell swearing at his horse and sawed the bit across its
mouth.

He shouted aloud with rage. "I will follow that trail, I tell you," he
cried. "Where is the trail?"

He gripped the bridle of his prancing horse and searched amidst the grass.
A long and clinging thread fell across his face, a grey streamer dropped
about his bridle arm, some big, active thing with many legs ran down the
back of his head. He looked up to discover one of those grey masses
anchored as it were above him by these things and flapping out ends as a
sail flaps when a boat comes about - but noiselessly.

He had an impression of many eyes, of a dense crew of squat bodies, of
long, many-jointed limbs hauling at their mooring ropes to bring the thing
down upon him. For a space he stared up, reining in his prancing horse
with the instinct born of years of horsemanship. Then the flat of a sword
smote his back, and a blade flashed overhead and cut the drifting balloon
of spider-web free, and the whole mass lifted softly and drove clear and
away.

"Spiders!" cried the voice of the gaunt man. "The things are full of big
spiders! Look, my lord!"

The man with the silver bridle still followed the mass that drove away.

"Look, my lord!"

The master found himself staring down at a red smashed thing on the ground
that, in spite of partial obliteration, could still wriggle unavailing
legs. Then, when the gaunt man pointed to another mass that bore down upon
them, he drew his sword hastily. Up the valley now it was like a fog bank
torn to rags. He tried to grasp the situation.

"Ride for it!" the little man was shouting. "Ride for it down the valley."

What happened then was like the confusion of a battle. The man with the
silver bridle saw the little man go past him, slashing furiously at
imaginary cobwebs, saw him cannon into the horse of the gaunt man and hurl
it and its rider to earth. His own horse went a dozen paces before he
could rein it in. Then he looked up to avoid imaginary dangers, and then
back again to see a horse rolling on the ground, the gaunt man standing
and slashing over it at a rent and fluttering mass of grey that streamed
and wrapped about them both. And thick and fast as thistle-down on waste
land on a windy day in July the cobweb masses were coming on.

The little man had dismounted, but he dared not release his horse. He was
endeavouring to lug the struggling brute back with the strength of one
arm, while with the other he slashed aimlessly. The tentacles of a second
grey mass had entangled themselves with the struggle, and this second grey
mass came to its moorings, and slowly sank.

The master set his teeth, gripped his bridle, lowered his head, and
spurred his horse forward. The horse on the ground rolled over, there was
blood and moving shapes upon the flanks, and the gaunt man suddenly
leaving it, ran forward towards his master, perhaps ten paces. His legs
were swathed and encumbered with grey; he made ineffectual movements with
his sword. Grey streamers waved from him; there was a thin veil of grey
across his face. With his left hand he beat at something on his body, and
suddenly he stumbled and fell. He struggled to rise, and fell again, and
suddenly, horribly, began to howl, "Oh - ohoo, ohooh!"

The master could see the great spiders upon him, and others upon the
ground.

As he strove to force his horse nearer to this gesticulating, screaming
grey object that struggled up and down, there came a clatter of hoofs, and
the little man, in act of mounting, swordless, balanced on his belly
athwart the white horse, and clutching its mane, whirled past. And again a
clinging thread of grey gossamer swept across the master's face. All about
him, and over him, it seemed this drifting, noiseless cobweb circled and
drew nearer him...

To the day of his death he never knew just how the event of that moment
happened. Did he, indeed, turn his horse, or did it really of its own
accord stampede after its fellow? Suffice it that in another second he was
galloping full tilt down the valley with his sword whirling furiously
overhead. And all about him on the quickening breeze, the spiders'
air-ships, their air bundles and air sheets, seemed to him to hurry in a
conscious pursuit.

Clatter, clatter, thud, thud, - the man with the silver bridle rode,
heedless of his direction, with his fearful face looking up now right, now
left, and his sword arm ready to slash. And a few hundred yards ahead of
him, with a tail of torn cobweb trailing behind him, rode the little man
on the white horse, still but imperfectly in the saddle. The reeds bent
before them, the wind blew fresh and strong, over his shoulder the master
could see the webs hurrying to overtake...

He was so intent to escape the spiders' webs that only as his horse
gathered together for a leap did he realise the ravine ahead. And then he
realised it only to misunderstand and interfere. He was leaning forward on
his horse's neck and sat up and back all too late.

But if in his excitement he had failed to leap, at any rate he had not
forgotten how to fall. He was horseman again in mid-air. He came off clear
with a mere bruise upon his shoulder, and his horse rolled, kicking
spasmodic legs, and lay still. But the master's sword drove its point into
the hard soil, and snapped clean across, as though Chance refused him any
longer as her Knight, and the splintered end missed his face by an inch or
so.

He was on his feet in a moment, breathlessly scanning the on-rushing
spider-webs. For a moment he was minded to run, and then thought of the
ravine, and turned back. He ran aside once to dodge one drifting terror,
and then he was swiftly clambering down the precipitous sides, and out of
the touch of the gale.

There, under the lee of the dry torrent's steeper banks, he might crouch



Online LibraryH.G. WellsThe Country of the Blind, and Other Stories → online text (page 28 of 37)