Informational Site NetworkInformational Site Network
Privacy
 
   Home - Science Fiction Stories - Western Stories


The Strange Bravery Of Miss Blank






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

Telescope, rifles, and shields were tumbled into the projectile
pell-mell, and without stopping to close the port-hole, we steered
towards the city as we mounted rapidly. When the soldiers, weary of
running, saw us start, they were stricken with a new fear, and made all
possible haste for shelter. When they perceived that we were rising into
the red haze, they took a little courage, but still hastened.

"Perhaps they think we are mounting to the sky for more thunder and
lightning," I suggested. "Little do they know the destruction we could
do them with the handful of ammunition we have, if we really meant war
as much as they at first desired it and now fear it!"

By this time we were almost above the thickest crowd of the fleeing
army, while the most energetic runners and the Terror-bird that had
turned back had reached the heart of the city; and we could see the
alarm spreading like wild-fire to all its inhabitants. I was busy
loading the rifles with the cartridges which the doctor had robbed of
their bullets for the pickle-bottle experiment soon after our start.

"We will execute a little coup, to show them the difficulties of
retreat when the enemy is armed with gravity projectiles," said the
doctor. "Do you see that great gate of the city they are all making for?
We will drop down there, just in front of them, and prevent their
entrance. It will be better to keep the whole army outside the walls, if
possible, for its absence and disorganization will make the rulers all
the more tractable when we are ready to drop down into their city and
make peace with them on our own terms."

"I must say you are a good general, Doctor!" I exclaimed. "You plan the
campaign, and I will do the fighting."

The blank dismay of the soldiers when they saw us descending again, and
their abject desperation when they perceived that we should land in
front of them and cut off their entrance to the city, was pitiful to
see.

"Doctor, do you remember the grand display and the proud strength with
which these soldiers marched forth? Look at the difference now!"

"Oh, war! war!" he exclaimed. "The glory of its beginning! The terror of
its prosecution! The misery of its end! Would that it could always be
carried on by terrorizing the mind instead of by slaying the body!"

As we were about to come to land in front of the straggling multitude of
soldiers, I fired a dozen blank cartridges as rapidly as I could work
the rifle. This was at very near range, and although the explosions
sounded weak to me, the excessive flaming of the powder added a new
terror. The disorganized army stopped in dread; the stragglers pushing
up from behind, and the frightened turning of those in front, crushed
the multitude together and increased the confusion. Throngs of people,
whose curiosity was still stronger than their fear, were coming out from
the city. As they saw us float down and land, and then heard the firing,
they turned and rushed within the gates again, ready to believe far
worse stories than they had yet heard.

"We must scatter this rabble army and put it wholly to rout," insisted
the doctor. "I will swing amongst them and over their heads, while you
burn powder for them. If they won't scatter, use your revolver and wound
one or two of them."

"No, I will not harm another man," I answered. "They are too weak and
defenceless a foe, and are no match for us. Hereafter I will fight only
with the birds."

We rose and sailed slantingly toward them, but they had already started
to disperse. Those who had jumping-staves disentangled themselves from
the crowd and scattered into the bushy wastes. I continued firing until
my blank cartridges were gone, and then we landed just outside the
entrance and emerged from the projectile to examine the gates and see if
we could close and fasten them.

Within the wall those who had gained entrance during our last movements
were rapidly retreating toward the centre of the city, warning all whom
they passed. One single stately figure showed no fear, and paid no heed
to the exclamations of the runners. The ampler dress and flowing flaxen
hair indicated that it was a woman, and to our surprise, though she was
well clothed, she seemed to be demanding alms of every one as she
approached us. No one gave her anything, and occasionally a runner
seized her arm and tried to persuade her to return. But she caught none
of their excitement, and composedly pursued her course.

"Egad! This beautiful girl is braver than the whole Martian army!" I
exclaimed in amazement, as she calmly approached where I was standing by
the gate and extended her fair, plump hand. If she was asking alms, I
had nothing to give her; but here, at least, was one pacific, composed,
and reasonable person. Perhaps it was the queen, or a diplomatic envoy
of the ruler!

"Now is the time to demonstrate our friendliness," I exclaimed, and
reaching forth my hand I grasped hers in a warm clasp of welcome.

She looked up at me blankly. Her beautiful face carried no expression of
satisfaction or surprise. Her transparent complexion was neither paled
by fear nor flushed by pleasure. Her great dreamy eyes, of a deep liquid
blue, wandered unfixedly in their languid gaze. Still holding her soft
hand, which was far warmer than my own, I opened her fingers with my
other hand and pointed at her pink extended palm as if to inquire what
she wished. I watched her closely, but she made no sign, said nothing,
looked nothing.

"Since I do not know you, I can think of no more fitting name to call
you by than Miss Blank," I said, more to express my thought in
articulate sounds than anything else, for I had no idea she would
understand me. From her expression I could not judge whether she had
even heard me, to say nothing of comprehending. She was looking beyond
me, through the gate, as if searching others from whom she might ask
alms. Seeing none, she wheeled slowly about to return. Unwillingly I
released her hand, and stood unspeakably puzzled by the whole matter.
She was commanding in appearance, being taller than I by a few inches,
not slim, but well proportioned. She had the stately serenity of a
dreaming queen, but the blank, unresponsive soul of one who dwelt within
herself; and though she saw, she did not realize the existence or
meaning of anything outside.

"Doctor, will all your learning solve this riddle for me!" I exclaimed.
"Can all the Martian women be like this? She is beautiful of body and
strangely warm and winning to the touch, but as cold of heart as the
drifting snow that suffocates a poor lost lamb. She has had a strange
influence over me; a puzzling, baffling attraction. A suggestion of
something delicate and subtlely charming, which, when one seeks to seize
and to define, retires icily behind the drawn curtain of her soul."

"I hope you won't play the lost lamb to her snowdrift!" he sneered, in a
way that I resented. "One would think she had hypnotized you on the
spot! And she must be in a trance herself, for she had not sense enough
to fear us."

"Those who have the most sense fear us the least!" I retorted.

"But fear is our sharp weapon now," he answered; "and some of the
stragglers, looking back, saw you stand there holding her hand in a
manner far from warlike. They will report this to the rulers unless we
forestall them. Come, fasten the gates tightly upon the inside to keep
the soldiers out, and I will sail over the wall to pick you up."

"Doctor, we make our peace at once, and fight no more with the brothers
of this girl," I said with decision.

The massive gates were of hewn stone, turning in sockets at their outer
corners above and below. They swung as easily as if hung upon hinges,
and when closed a slab of stone came down to bar them. I made them
fast, and then called out to the doctor,--

"Don't come for me. I have found a jumping-staff, and I think I can leap
to the top of the wall."

It was a sheer fifteen feet of solid masonry, but my chief delight since
landing on Martian soil was the inordinate springiness of my leg muscles
against the feeble gravity. I ran and sprang lustily with the aid of the
cross-bow, and I remember the doctor's surprised look when he saw me
clear the entire wall without touching the top and land safely with a
very mild jolt on his side.

A short oblique ascent of the projectile brought us over the city, and
revealed to us the condition of desperate panic into which the wild
reports of the soldiers and the bird-rider had thrown the frantic
populace. The soldiers still within the walls could not restrain the
people, or did not try. If there was any government, it lacked a head or
could not command attention. The stubborn instinct of self-preservation
was king. Distracted throngs surged out at one gate, to separate and
waver and hesitate, and finally to fight for a speedy entrance at
another. On one side soldiers were apparently ordering people down from
the wall, while on another the excited populace was hauling sentinel
soldiers from the same elevation, lest our attention should be
attracted. Within, strong men were weeping and wailing; without, nervous
men were haranguing the vacillating multitude; but more were stolidly
pushing with the rabble or being hustled by it.

Only one sign of order and forethought was apparent. Evidently for
better safety and for an easier defence, the women and children had been
taken to a central park or pleasure ground, and left there with a small
guard of soldiers. The men to whom they belonged had apparently all gone
elsewhere.

"Doctor, we must put an end to this fear and frenzy at the earliest
possible moment. If we are not destroying those people, we are exciting
them to destroy each other, which is equally blameworthy. We must go
down at once, but we had best avoid the frantic men. The women seem far
more reposeful. Let us drop quietly into that open field in the park,
and I will make friendly signs to the women, pat the children on the
head, and give them all to understand that we mean no harm."

He evidently saw that we had quite overdone the scare, and was as much
impressed by the terrible picture below as I was. We turned down without
delay, and landed quietly behind a clump of trees. I took a tin of sweet
biscuits under my arm, and the doctor following me, with a generous
handful of his trinkets and tinsel toys, we left the projectile, and
rounding the grove of dwarfed trees we approached the romping children
first. I patted their flaxen curls, lightly pinched their cheeks, and
handed each of them a sweet biscuit. Then, while the doctor distributed
strange toys amongst them, I put on my most courtly ways and addressed
myself to the women. Their first impulses of fear had been somewhat
allayed by our attentions to the children, and I bowed profusely and
made bold to kiss the hands of a few of the youngest of them. Each of
these looked to see if I had left anything visible or harmful on her
hand, from which I judged the custom was wholly strange to them. The
others looked on askance and whispered excitedly among themselves.

One of the soldiers who had seen us approach, but offered no resistance,
had now started to run, as fast as his jumping-staff would carry him,
toward the palace. I knew at once that this meant some new development,
and I hoped it meant a report of our friendly actions and a truce all
around. But the doctor reminded me that we must be prepared for
surprises and treachery. Therefore we re-entered the projectile, and out
of the sight of all the Martians I re-loaded the rifles, and then we
waited a long time.

Our patience was finally rewarded, for we saw the soldier returning,
slowly leading a woman. In her left arm, which the soldier held, she
carried something white which wriggled occasionally. All this we
considered so favourable a development that we went out again, bowing to
the women about us, petting the children, and looking as peaceable and
amiable as the politest of Earth's people. But it may have passed for
imbecility, or worse, on Mars.

When I looked toward the soldier again, my heart began a queer thumping,
for he was leading no other than the woman who had met us at the gate,
and she was carrying our white rabbit, which we had released early that
morning a long way from this spot.

"By all that is wonderful!" I exclaimed to the doctor, "if we have not
fallen upon a country which is ruled by yon dumb queen, and she brings
to us as a peace offering the only thing that we have lost!"

"Since when have potentates learned to beg, and forgotten to command and
to exact?" he answered with half a sneer. "See, she still extends her
hand to every one she passes."

And as the soldier, trained to revere a beard, led the woman directly up
to the doctor, she stretched forth her pretty palm again; but if he had
presumed to take it I could have struck him! To my cordial grasp I added
a kiss this time, and then I raised my eyes slowly to her face, fearing
to see that blank look again. There was no look in her eyes; they did
not look, they only wandered!

The soldier, who still held her other arm, waved his cross-bow toward
the palace meaningly, and a hush fell upon the murmuring crowd. I
ignored him and spoke to her,--

"If thou art the queen, command me but by a look or sign, and I obey.
And if thou art not the queen, then they should make thee one. Dost thou
wish us to follow thee to yon palace?" said I; but the only mind that
understood scoffed at my rapturous declamation.

The woman merely drew her hand from my warm clasp and stretched it out
to the people, who crowded about and paid her no attention. Then the
soldier, as if suddenly remembering, took the rabbit from her arm and
handed it to me. She looked about at this, as if missing the snuggling
animal, and I stared hard at the meddling soldier to reprove him for
interfering with his queen, and gently restored the rabbit to her arm.

"The soldier wishes us to go to the palace," put in the doctor. "But we
must not go unarmed. He may be leading us into an ambush. Let us take
all of our arms and follow him."

Accordingly, we buckled on the swords, and took the rifles on our
shoulders. As we dragged out the heavy shields, the soldier pointed to a
group of donkeys laden with bags of something like grain. I waved
assent, and the muleteer unburdened one of them and loaded the shields
upon him.

"Why not take the telescope?" I suggested; "it is big and bright, and
perhaps they may fear it too. Or we may wish to show its wondrous use."
As I drew it out the crowd started back, but the soldier and the
muleteer gingerly loaded it upon another donkey. Then the soldier took
the woman's arm again, and pushed her extended palm around toward me, as
if I would be unwilling to go unless I had it. My right hand held my
rifle, but I was secretly glad that my left was free to clasp the
woman's hand. The doctor walked behind to watch the muleteer, and thus
we marched to the palace.





Next: Zaphnath Ruler Of The Kemi

Previous: The Armies Of Mars



Add to del.icio.us Add to Reddit Add to Digg Add to Del.icio.us Add to Google Add to Twitter Add to Stumble Upon
Add to Informational Site Network
Report
Privacy
SHAREADD TO EBOOK


Viewed 395