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The Iron Men From The Blue Star






Part of: Other World Life
From: Pharaoh's Broker

Returning from Long Breath, I could not but notice the entire subsidence
of the terror, which had previously been so marked, and the general
signs of rejoicing which were now taking its place. It was easy to see
that I was an object of absorbing interest and busy comment. No one
pointed the finger at me, for that rude gesture was as unknown as it was
unnecessary. The mere turning of a great pair of eyes quickly in my
direction was an indication, significant enough, that I was being
denoted.

I now understood the more composed behaviour of the women. They were
accustomed to the idea of being taken in war, and never suffered
slaughter or hardship thereby, but merely a change of masters. As they
now left the Park they eyed me curiously, as if wondering from what sort
of new master they had escaped. I imagined I could detect some signs of
disappointment among them, at being cheated out of a trip to a new star
or being dismissed from the service of a god. Occasionally one of them
would incline her head gently to the right to meet her rising hand, in a
dignified salutation. I approached one of the fairest of these and
extended my hand. She seemed rather surprised, but calmly placed an iron
coin in my palm! Evidently I must make haste to learn the Kemish
salutation, or I would pass for a common beggar! My hand certainly did
look hard and brown, compared with her perfectly white and transparent
skin, through which the blood suffused the beautiful pink flush of life.
But even if a hotter sun had scorched and tanned my hand, it did not
look as dark and tough as the coin, although the soldiers had spread the
report that our flesh was of iron.

The chief business activity in the city seemed to be the transporting
from the surrounding country of an endless number of fibrous bags filled
with the bread-grain. I saw some of these bags open in the shops, and
the grain was shaped like wheat, but as large and less solid than a
coffee berry. Trains of asses bearing these bags were seen in every
street and entering by every gate. Each train of fifteen or twenty asses
was driven by a sandalled Martian, wearing the spread bird-wing which
seemed to denote the Pharaoh's service. The animals had the lazy,
sluggish, plodding habits which I expected, and in these respects their
driver differed very little from them. He gave an occasional long hiss,
followed by a jerky grunt, which sounded like "sh-h-h-h, kuhnk!" and
was evidently intended to hurry the animals, but it served them quite as
well as a lullaby. These drivers, who doubtless had just been hearing
stories of me, were a little surprised at coming upon me so soon, but
looked me over deliberately, as if calculating how much iron money I
would make, if there were no waste in the coinage!

But I hastened back to the doctor at the Palace, being obliged to leap
the courtyard wall again, for I was not acquainted with the signal to
command the Terror-birds. He expected no other report of the projectile
than the one I brought.

"The only hope is that the meddling Martian may have turned in but one
battery," he said. "In time this will exhaust itself, and the projectile
will tumble back upon Mars. If it should strike in the water, it may not
be shattered, but of course it might be submerged. The chances that we
will ever see it again are extremely remote. If it should be discovered
anywhere on the planet, it would probably be coined up into money, and
the fortune of the Pharaoh would hardly buy us iron enough to make
another. Well, the unexpected always happens. It was a fatal mistake
ever to have left it."

"If it is gone for good," I answered, "let us hope that this planet may
suit us better than the Earth, anyhow. We are certain of an easy
existence here at least. One shield will coin into money enough to
supply our wants a long time. If we had not been so dreadfully secretive
on Earth, perhaps some one, infringing our ideas, might have built
another projectile and sent a relief expedition!"

Preparations for the banquet were rapidly being made about the Palace by
men servants. We saw no female servants, and we learned afterward that
they did no menial work, except the serving of the meals, which was
rather an artistic duty.

We were conducted to two large ante-chambers, adjoining the banquet
room, where we deposited our armament and proceeded to make ourselves at
home as well as we could. The rooms were gloomy and poorly lighted, but
a great number of servants were busy waiting upon us, and one presently
brought in four portable gas-burners, placing them in a circle about my
head as I reclined on a large pillow of soft down, laid on the floor.
These burners thus furnished both heat and light, and nearly all the
rooms were thus lighted and heated throughout the day. They had windows
and a very thick, coarse, translucent but not transparent glass in them.
But as the sunlight was never strong, rooms were rarely ever light
enough for comfort without the flames of gas.

This was my first acquaintance with Martian gases, which I soon found to
be very numerous and various in use. On the other hand, very few liquids
existed. The atmospheric pressure was so low that what might have
existed normally as liquids on Earth, took the form of heavy gases here.
In every case they were heavier than the air, so that they remained in
vessels just as a liquid would have done. The four lamps were made of
reeds and shaped like the letter U. The right-hand side of the U was a
large vertical reed, connecting neatly at the bottom with a very much
smaller reed forming the other prong and terminating at the top in a tip
of baked earth, turned downward, so that it would discharge the gas away
from the lamp. A light stone weight was fitted to slide neatly down the
large vertical tube in which the gas was stored, and thus force the gas
up to the burner in the smaller tube. If a brighter light was desired, a
heavier weight was put on, and to extinguish the light it was only
necessary to lift the weight, which cut off the supply from the burner.

While lying on the downy floor-cushion, I was strangely annoyed by the
faint and distant howling of a dog. It seemed to come from the banquet
room adjoining mine, or from the doctor's room on the other side. I
called in the doctor, who said he heard nothing and had seen no dogs on
Mars. He tried to make me believe it was a fancy of mine. But presently
when a servant entered, he seemed to hear it instantly, for he turned
quickly about and left, but it was fully half an hour later before the
plaintive howling ceased.

"These Kemish people have better ears than we have," I remarked to the
doctor.

"Yes, both their ears and eyes are much better suited to the conditions
of fainter light, and higher, thinner sounds. There may be music at the
banquet to-night which we cannot hear at all in some of its notes."

"If there are no foods whose delicate flavours we fail to taste, I shall
be able to get along quite well. I am extremely hungry, and quite ready
for a change of fare." We had only eaten a hasty lunch when we had
re-entered the projectile at Long Breath to await the return of the
soldier.

Zaphnath himself came to conduct us to the banquet room, and we were
much surprised at its dark and gloomy character. The entire vast
enclosure had but twenty-one flickering fire-brands, suspended overhead
and in front of us, to furnish light. There were no tables or chairs, no
flowers or decorations, no sign of anything to eat. Other guests were
moving about through the semi-darkness to their places, seemingly
without inconvenience. I was whispering to the doctor that I would need
eyes of much greater candle power to enjoy the function, when we arrived
at our places. A double row of comfortable cushions ran along the edge
of our floor, where it seemed to sink to a lower terrace, whence we
could hear the indistinct hum of women's voices. Zaphnath took his seat
on a raised cushion in the middle of the row, and motioned me to the
cushion on his right and the doctor to his left. Eighteen other guests
now reclined upon their cushions to left and right, so that we were all
arranged in a direct line, facing the lower terrace whence came the
feminine buzz. Directly opposite each of us was an empty cushion, but no
table.

I was wondering at it all when the fire-brand farthest from me suddenly
exploded a great flaming ball of fire, and we all sprang to our feet.
From the terrace below came a grand burst of reed music, a swelling
chorus of women's voices, and then each fire-brand in quick succession
exploded a burst of flame, which floated down toward the dancing women,
but expired above their heads. I soon saw that these white fire-balls,
which continued in quick succession throughout the banquet, and afforded
us a glorious if a somewhat appalling light, were caused by the
successive discharges of small volumes of heavy gas from twenty-one
reed-tanks in the comb of the roof, one above each of the fire-brands.
When the discharged gas had floated down to the fire-brand beneath it,
there was a quick, bright explosion, and the flame sank menacingly
toward the women below.

The burst of music, the chorus of huzzahs, and the flashing forth of
light, proved to be a welcome to the Pharaoh, who was standing proudly
on his great throne opposite us, across the terrace and somewhat higher,
whence he could look down upon the dancers and singers. He wore a crown
of thin iron, surmounted by a golden asp. His elaborately curled wig did
not conceal his ears, from which large golden pendants hung almost to
his shoulders. His own beard was waxed and curled, and trimmed to the
shape of a beaver's tail. His dress is best described by calling it a
feather velvet, edged with flaring wing and tail plumes of iridescent
colours. In this feather cloth there was none of the rough, gaudy show
of the savage, but a discriminating, tasteful blending of colours and
harmony of design, imitated from the beauty of the bird itself.

Grouped about him on the approaches to his throne were one-and-twenty of
his favourite women, beautifully dressed in feather textures, with the
curved neck and head of a bird surmounting their brows. But their
costume was scant and simple compared with that of the dancing girls
below us. They wore a wonderful head-dress, composed of the entire body
of a small peacock. The head and neck were arched over the forehead, the
back fitted tightly, like a hat over their head, the drooping wings
covered their ears, while the fully spread tail arched above their head
in its wonderful opalescence. Much of the snowy whiteness of their backs
and breasts was bare, and a downy feather ribbon circled the necks,
wrists, and ankles. A two-headed iron serpent with golden eyes clasped
the upper arm and gartered the knee, but no jewels of any kind were to
be seen. All the dancers carried long decorated reeds, which they
flourished wondrously, and with which occasionally they executed the
most surprising leaps. While there was a stateliness about their
movements, there were also the most startling acrobatic surprises, made
possible by the feeble gravity.

The singing women, or what might be called the chorus, were in twelve
sets, each group clad in a different colour or design of feather-silk.
Their head-dress, while composed of the entire body of a bird of
plumage, lacked the flamboyant tail of the peacock. The music was weird
and whimsical, as there were neither stringed nor brass instruments. It
was made wholly by women playing upon a vast variety of drums and reeds.
There were all sizes of whistling reeds or flutes; several of these of
different lengths were grouped into one instrument like the pipes of
Pan; a series of long hollow reeds, when rapidly struck, gave forth a
marvellous cadence; while groups of small drums, of different size and
tensity, gave curious tones. The whole effect was weirdly eloquent,
rather than racy or exciting.

When the burst of welcome was ended, Zaphnath stretched forth his hand
and exclaimed, first to us in Hebrew, and then in Kemish,--

"O Pharaoh, whose power and wisdom from all the Pharaohs have descended,
behold, I bring unto thee these two iron men from the Blue Star, who,
though excelling in the arts of war, are yet pleased to come out of the
ruddy heavens to practise peace amongst us!"

And thus did Zaphnath translate the Pharaoh's response to us:--

"Unto Ptah, the Centre of Things, to whom the myriad stars of the
heavens are but ministering slaves, I, Pharaoh of Kem, do give you
welcome. Whatever pleaseth you in the largeness of this rich land, or in
the matchless beauty of our women, shall be unto you as if ye had owned
it always."

Whereupon the other guests turned toward us with the right hand upon the
cheek, and we awkwardly attempted the same salutation. Then a group of
the singing women, twenty-one in number, tripping to the weird music,
came up the steps which led to our floor, carrying covered dishes. At
the top they turned and saluted the Pharaoh, and then took their places,
one upon each of the cushions opposite us. Before uncovering the dishes
they took me a little by surprise, by bending forward and pressing their
warm, pink cheek against the right cheek of the guest they were about to
serve. My maiden unconsciously shivered a little, for my cheek must have
felt cold, even though my surprised blushes did their best to warm it.
Her dish, when opened, contained nothing but flowers, waxy white, but
emitting a delicately sweet perfume. She held them toward my face, and
presently breathed gently across them, as if to waft their perfume to
me. Then scattering them about my cushion, she pressed her left cheek
to mine, arose and tripped down the steps again. There was a modest
self-possession about her which enchanted me, and I hoped she would soon
return bringing something more substantial.

But another group of maidens, differently clothed, had already begun to
mount towards us with earthen goblets and reed-pitchers, which looked as
if they might contain wine. Dropping on her knees on the cushion before
me, this maiden saluted me as the other had done. Then sitting
gracefully before me, she tipped her reed pitcher toward the goblet, and
poured out apparently nothing! But, watching the others, I saw them
carry the goblet to their lips and draw a deep breath from it, while
tipping it as one might a glass of wine. I did the same, and inhaled a
deep draught of stimulating, wine-flavoured gas, which, when I exhaled
it through the nostrils, proved to be deliciously perfumed.

"I have heard of some poets who could dine upon the fragrance of flowers
and sup the sweetness of a woman's kiss, but I am hungry for grosser
things," I whispered to the doctor.

"There are ten other groups of these serving maidens to come up to us,"
he replied. "They will certainly bring us something more tangible before
it is over. Meantime, while we are in Kem, let us imitate the Kemish;"
and I must say he was succeeding remarkably well.

The next maiden who tripped up toward me was wonderfully beautiful and
most becomingly dressed. I was a little disappointed that, upon taking
her place on the cushion in front of me, she omitted the salutation the
others had given. However, she carried a small flask in her right hand,
which she placed near my mouth. Then opening the top of it slightly, it
jetted forth a deliciously perfumed fine spray, which moistened my lips.
Waiting just a moment for me to enjoy the perfume, she then pressed her
pretty cheeks in turn against my lips, until they were soft and dry.
This was the nearest approach to a kiss which I saw among these people,
and I learned it was given always just before eating solid food. The
plate she carried to me contained small morsels of fish, served upon
neat little wheaten cakes. There was no knife, fork, chopstick, or
anything of that kind, but each little cake was lifted with its morsel
of fish, and they were together just a delicate mouthful. This maiden
quite took my fancy, and I watched her evolutions and listened for her
voice in the chorus during the rest of the banquet, for she had no more
serving to do.

After this course Zaphnath arose, and waving to the music and singing to
cease, he thus addressed the Pharaoh:--

"It doth appear, O Pharaoh, that these visitors of ours come from a
strange, small world, where, though much is done, but little is enjoyed.
At thy bidding I have offered unto them all the luxuries of Kem, such
as our people strive all their lives for, and dying still desire; but
they wish no gifts or presents. Like slaves they only wish to work, but
at some noble, fitting occupation. This younger man, whose wondrous
learning hath taught him to speak even the tongues of other worlds, hath
been a great handler of grain upon his proper star, and for him the
fitting occupation is not far to seek. Thou knowest how the gathering of
thy bounteous harvests hath distracted my own attention from weightier
matters; wherefore, O Pharaoh, I do entreat thee to put into his charge
the labour of gathering, storing, and distributing all thy harvests; and
as a fitting compensation, let him have one measure of grain for every
twenty that he shall gather for thee."

Nothing could have suited my wishes and abilities better, and my pay on
Earth had been only one measure in five hundred. The Pharaoh's reply was
thus translated to us,--

"The gods put into thy mouth, O Zaphnath, only the ripeness of their
wisdom, and Pharaoh granteth thy requests ere they are uttered. But what
desireth the wise man?"

To this I made answer for the doctor,--

"When thou knowest his wondrous wisdom touching many things, O Pharaoh,
thou mayest think fit to give him a place among thy wise men, where they
may learn from him and he from them. Will it please thee to send a
slave for the Larger Eye and have it placed by yonder window, and he
will presently show unto thee many of the wonders of the starry heavens
that are hidden beyond the reach of man's unaided vision."

While two slaves were despatched in charge of a soldier to bring the
telescope, we were served with a highly-sparkling, gas-charged wine,
which further whetted my appetite. Then came another maiden with a small
roast bird, neatly and delicately carved, and each tempting piece was
laid upon a small lozenge of bread. I never ate anything with more
relish.

There was an excited buzz among the women, and the Pharaoh himself was
visibly affected at the sight of the telescope, whose burnished brass
was evidently mistaken for gold. The doctor mounted it upon the backs of
slaves near a high window, whence there was a good view of the heavens,
and signalled to me to explain its use.

"O Zaphnath, wilt thou make known unto the Pharaoh, and these, his
guests, that the wondrous value of this instrument lieth not in its
bright and glistening appearance, but in the farther reach and truer
vision of the heavenly bodies which it affordeth us. With this we
ascertain all and far more than yon monstrous Gnomons tell thee; we
learn the periods of the day, the seasons of the year, and vastly more
than our common tongue hath words to tell thee of. Tell me, what
callest thou yon risen orb, which hasteneth a rapid backward journey
through the heavens?" I asked, indicating the full disc of Phobos.

"That is the Perverse Daughter, sole disobedient Child of Night, whose
stubborn, contrary ways are justly punished by her mother. For she must
draw a veil across her brilliant face for a brief period during every
hasty trip she makes."

"Behold her, then, just entering upon her punishment!" I exclaimed, for
the regular eclipse was just beginning. "Look! and tell us all thou
seest."

"I see a glorious orb, far larger than the Day-Giver and very near to
Ptah! But it is the Perverse Daughter, grown larger and come nearer, for
she alone knoweth how to draw the veil of night across her face like
that. Now she hath fully hidden! It is most wonderful, O Pharaoh!"

"Be not deceived by mere appearance, O Zaphnath," replied the Pharaoh.
"All that thou seest may be contained within the thing thou gazest into.
'Tis true, the Perverse Daughter hath drawn her veil, but be thou sure
thou seest what is beyond and not merely what is within."

As soon as this was translated to us, the doctor focussed the telescope
upon the Gnomons, which were just visible over the edge of the plateau,
and I said,--

"Look now again, and behold all the familiar features of the landscape,
the plateau yonder and the ponderous Gnomons, which could never be
contained within this little enclosure."

"'Tis all most true, O Pharaoh, and with this little instrument thy
reign may be more glorious, and come to greater wisdom, than any of that
long line of Pharaohs, whose toiling slaves have built the towering
Gnomons. Let this grey-beard be made chief of all thy wise men; let the
others teach him our language and make him acquainted with all our
monuments and records; also command them to record most faithfully all
the wonders which he is able to reveal. Mayhap he may be able to write
thy name among the stars of night, to shine for ever, instead of upon
the crumbling stone which telleth of thy ancestors!"

"O men of Kem," replied the Pharaoh, addressing the other guests, "hear
ye the wisdom of Zaphnath, which cometh with the swift wings of birds,
while thy halting counsel stumbleth slowly upon the lazy legs of asses!
What Zaphnath asketh hath already been decreed touching these two men
from the Blue Star, provided only that they live peaceably among us
obedient to our laws."

We assured him of our obedience and our best efforts to discharge our
new duties, whereupon the feast continued. Courses of small birds' eggs
and of fruits and confections were each served by a separate group of
maidens. When the feast was finally completed, I turned to Zaphnath with
my cigars and said,--

"In our travelling house I brought with me many such things as these and
others of a smaller, milder form, which might delight the women; but now
that the house is gone, I have but three, one of which wilt thou send to
the Pharaoh, one keep for thyself, and the other I will smoke to show
you the manner of it. There is naught to fear about them; your taste for
heavy vapours will have prepared you to enjoy the warmth and fragrance
of this peculiar weed."

A servant came to carry the one to the Pharaoh, and I struck a match
upon the stone floor and held the cigar designed for Zaphnath in the
flame. Then I touched the flame to my own, and puffing gently, I asked
Zaphnath to do the same. When I saw that his custom of inhaling gases
led him to breathe in the smoke, I puffed very slowly and gently, until
he should become accustomed to it. When Pharaoh saw that it did no harm
to Zaphnath, he lighted his own and inhaled the smoke in long draughts
with evident gusto.

"How sayest thou, O Zaphnath," he said at last. "Is not this warm vapour
most stimulating? It is a treat worth all the rest of the banquet.
Continual feasting hath made the luxuries of Kem to pall upon me, but
this hath novelty and comfort in it. If, indeed, there were many of
these in thy travelling house, my slaves shall search all the width and
breadth of Ptah, until it be found."

The music now burst forth again in new volume, and the singing girls
went through a new evolution, which broke up their groups and formed
twelve new ones, containing one girl from each of the previous sets.
Then the entire number began ascending the steps together, and I noted
that those approaching me were the twelve maidens who had served me
during the banquet. They came and circled around me, and presently
stopped with their hands upon their cheeks in salute. The other groups
did the same to the guests they had served, and each guest selected a
maiden by saluting her upon the cheek, whereupon she left her circle and
took her position upon the cushion opposite him. Zaphnath, seeing that
we did not understand this ceremony, explained it to me.

"It is an ancient custom with the Pharaoh to present each of his guests
with a living reminder of the occasion and his hospitality. Wherefore he
desireth thee to choose which of the twelve serving maidens hath pleased
thee best, and he will give her to thee, to be always thy maidservant."

I translated this to the doctor, and watched him curiously, with an
inquiring twinkle in my eye.

"Let us accept them, and bestow their liberty upon them," he said.

I immediately chose the third maiden, who had pressed her pink cheeks to
my lips, and when she came to sit opposite to me upon the cushion, I
spoke to her through Zaphnath,--

"Thy ways have pleased me, but upon my star we do not think it proper
to own any slaves. When we know well-favoured and graceful women, such
as thou art, we prefer to be their slaves, rather than they ours. If I
could take thee with me to the Earth, the laws there would set thee free
to do whatever pleased thee best. Wishest thou that I make thee free
here?"

She was evidently surprised when Zaphnath put this question to her. She
replied in a sincere and pleading tone, but her words astonished me,--

"Whatever the dark Man of Ice wisheth, I will do. I know not why he hath
asked what I desire. He speaketh of freedom, but I beseech him not to
send me back to that! I was born an unhappy and masterless maiden, and
many years I struggled and laboured for a miserable existence. I drove
asses, gleaned in the fields, and did the menial work of men. But I felt
I was fit for better, nobler things. At last, I heard that the armies of
the Pharaoh were coming to my land, and I took heed of my appearance,
put on my neatest feather clothing, and went to throw myself before the
soldiers. They were pleased with me, and brought me to this city, where
fortune favoured me, and Pharaoh, looking over all the women whom the
soldiers brought from the wars, chose me, with many others, to join his
household. And here in the Palace for a few years I have been happy and
well cared for. I pray thee do not turn me out again; do not degrade me
to the labour and misery of freedom. Even the beasts have masters! They
are housed, and fed, and cared for; why should I then be cast out and
left to drudge or beg?"

"Doth she mean this?" I exclaimed. "What then is the chief aim of women
in Kem? What is the highest state to which they may aspire?"

"'Tis a strange, simple question!" he answered. "There is no greater
blessing for a woman than to belong to the household of the Pharaoh.
Here they are delighted with constant music and dancing; their beauty is
cultivated and heightened by rich and tasteful clothing; and their
charms and graces may win for them a selection as one of the
one-and-twenty favourites of the Pharaoh. What they fear most is being
chosen and carried away by guests whose palaces and ways of life are
less luxurious than the Pharaoh's."

"Why then, as we have no palaces and wish no slaves, it were best to
return these maidens to the Pharaoh if they will be happier and better
cared for here than anywhere else in all the land of Kem," I said to
Zaphnath.

"This age is not ripe for the grand idea of freedom which dominates our
own," remarked the doctor, as we returned the grateful maidens to the
constant delights of an ornate and sensuous slavery.





Next: Parallel Planetary Life

Previous: Zaphnath Ruler Of The Kemi



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