I stood below weeping bitterly --- stood, I say, because I could do nothing else: I had never been able to walk on all-fours like the others. I could not dart from tree to tree, from branch to branch, like the very smallest of my brothers and sisters.
In these few words I have described the loneliness and desolation of my childhood. I was alas! tailless and hairless! I could not even chatter!
I knew, none so well, what the family were always saying. But not even that mild-eyed, grey-haired, old maiden aunt of mine, who, when my mother cast me out to die, had brought me up by hand --- on almond-nuts --- not even she really understood a single word I said. As to my father, when I made my first appearance in this world, he gave my mother, the soundest thrashing she had ever had, poor creature; and since then I had, as a kind of family fiction, been carefully huddled away out of his sight. You may imagine what a life I led.
Our schoolroom was at the top of a peculiarly tall deodar-tree, and though I got up earlier in the morning than any of the rest; I was nearly always late for lessons. The road to school was so steep and knobby that I hated it. My eldest sister detested me more thoroughly, I am sure, than she did any of the others. She was our governess. She generally finished the morning's work by saying, "Now, children, we will swing by the tail for five minutes;" and the whole family swung around me shrieking with laughter, while I crouched and shivered, sad and silent, as the tree swayed to and fro.
I knew, of course, even then, that I was immeasurably better and cleverer than any of the rest. And just before sleeping, and just before really awaking, the consciousness of this superiority became a positive comfort. I would, I thought, confound them for their unkindness by-and-by. I would do great things for them all --- so great that they would be tempted to pluck out their own hairs and bite off each other's tails to be anything like me. And then I would say to them grandly, "You remember how you treated me, and you see how I have forgotten all that!" These were my dreams between sleeping and waking. But with the daylight my dreams abruptly vanished.
One morning, after I had been thinking and dreaming and scheming all night long, I got up with a fixed intent look in my eyes which, I heard them say afterwards, they had never seen there before. I crept away without breakfast. I gathered together as many long green tendrils as I could bind, and twisted them into a strong rope. While the family were busy at their lessons I walked straight up to the very highest point of a huge overhanging king cocoa-nut-tree, and there I fixed the two ends of my rope. I swung to and fro, higher and higher, until I was actually on a level with the schoolroom. I showed them what a boy without a tail was able to accomplish if he liked, and the whole family could not, for the life of them, help gibbering at me in admiration and astonishment. No one scolded me for being away without leave. At luncheon they talked of nothing else. After lunch I mounted my swing again to show how it was done. My baby brother, whose absence unluckily escaped me, had half-bitten through the ropes where they were fastened to the tree-top and there was a wild chorus of delight when I fell out fifty feet off and broke my arm.
When I recovered I kept my inventions and dreams to myself. But I could not altogether conceal the remarkable ease with which I was able to imitate the sweetest melodies of all the singing birds around us. I could not, it is true, speak one word of the family jargon, nor, to be candid, did I ever really try. But in the balmy summer nights, when the full moon was shining and quivering in a million broken stars on the black river, leaping down the falls just below our home, I would steal away for hours, and I would stand there, stock and still, repeating the songs of one bulbul after another. When I had silenced them all I would return home, maddened with their melodies, singing sweetly to myself as twenty full-throated bulbuls sing, and forgetful of all else in the world until I felt my mother slapping me soundly.
This, barring the slapping perhaps, went on for seventeen years, and I was then, if that be possible, more cordially detested than when I first, and most reluctantly, joined the family circle.
The crisis was at hand. The family used sometimes to spend a long summer holiday beside the pool below the falls. They would sit there on the overhanging branches, among the great orchids, violet and crimson, purple and pink, with their tails dangling in the water. Suddenly an unsuspecting but very succulent mussel would make a snatch at one of the tails, and, before he could open his pearly mouth again, he was jerked off the rocks, split asunder and swallowed with a smack of intense satisfaction.
"I have had two dozen," one would say. "I have had three dozen," cried another. And it was to me they always said this. I could sing like a bulbul, it is true; but I was tailless and could not catch mussels; and I had up to that time, so far as I can remember, never once smacked my lips.
I brooded over this injustice till another of my inspirations came to me. I stole down to the river by twilight. I shut my mouth with a snap and plunged in. It was neck or nothing. I found, as I thought, that I could swim like a fish. All the mussels in the river were now my own, and not the mussels only. In an incredibly short space of time I was able to catch any of the glittering little fishes that darted to and fro. I was ready now, and only awaited my chance.
The very next time the family talked of a day by the river I pretended to shirk it, so as to ensure being taken. "You greedy, sulky sneak," said my sister, "it is only because you are too stupid to catch mussels that you try to spoil our pleasure." I waited till they were sitting in a row with all their tails in the water. Then I jumped in. You ought to have seen their eyes. I ate every mussel that tried to get hold of a tail. I gobbled up a good-sized trout right under the very branch they sat upon, and when they shrieked for some of it I made the most awful faces I could think of. Nothing, I knew, upset the family so much as to imitate their own grimaces; and the faces I pulled were so horrible, that at last three of them tumbled into the water with a howl. They could not swim; not a bit of it. Two of them went down, down, down with a flop; and even now I am not sorry they never came up again. My eldest sister would have been drowned too, but for the unexpected and most unfortunate appearance of my mother on the scene. With one swoop of the tail she fished her darling out of the jaws of death. Then she turned to me and said quietly, "I shall send for your father at once."
Of course I knew what that meant. He was found sound asleep, comfortably curled up under a big toddy-tree, where he had latterly spent most of his time. And nothing, by the way, will ever now persuade me that he had not discovered the secret I thought I discovered many years afterwards --- that, the juice of the toddy-palm ferments after sunrise, and is then perhaps the most delicious drink in the world. I will, however, do him the credit of keeping his secret; to himself. He came down slowly, in a towering passion at having been disturbed by such a trifling occurrence as the drowning of two small children.
"You little nuisance." he said to me sternly --- for my mother, who was really to blame, had a sharpish tongue of her own --- "how dare you disturb my repose!"
I shook my head, and said as plainly as if I could speak that I had done nothing of the kind.
"You have done nothing else," he cried, "since you first came into the world. I never look at you without a shudder. A tailless, hairless, miserable brat, you have covered me with shame among our neighbours; and yet, forsooth, you are far too fine to go our ways. You can twitter like a bulbul and hoot like an owl, and you have no time to learn our simple language. You make use of your thumbs in a way that is peculiarly exasperating to us all, and you twirl them about on every conceivable occasion. Have you ever in your life done anything for the family credit or the family larder! Last winter when the boys came scampering back nightly with their pouches filled from the neighbours' stores, you went strutting about at home on your hind- legs, as if your fore-legs were far too precious for daily use. You spend hours, your mother tells me, admiring your personal deformities in the very pool in which two of your brothers now lie drowned by your machinations. You made faces at them, she says, until life was perfectly intolerable; and, judging by the turn you always give me at your best, I am sure I do not wonder at it. I can bear a good deal myself. But I will not sit still and see my family decimated. You must leave us, my boy. There is a great, rich world beyond our narrow limits, waiting apparently for you to conquer it. Perhaps you may succeed, perhaps not." Here my father sneezed, and his voice faltered strangely; "You surely see that your absence is desirable. In calmer moments --- especially as there will be no one there to contradict you --- you will, I am convinced, be the first to acknowledge that the greatest happiness of the greatest number necessitates your immediate departure. Now go!"
My eyes filled with tears. I was very nearly making a fool of myself. These were the first kind words I had heard since my poor aunt's death. They were rudely interrupted by a well- directed shower of cocoa-nuts. I was utterly disconcerted and very much bruised. For the first and the last time but one in my life I turned and ran.
I knew, not only from a fierce burning sense of my little world's injustice, but from the abruptness of the rugged descent, that I could not possibly return. My feet were torn and bleeding. I was sorely bruised. Every muscle in my body was strained and every bone ached. I had, as I lay still, a horrible suspicion that I could not even go forward. The black river slipped by, almost unseen, but terribly eloquent, so it seemed to me, with the eloquence of mockery: "No past and no future; no future and no past!" such was my lullaby. And then I think I must have fallen into a kind of death-like swoon.
The very next thing I remember after the river's cruel refrain was the chill breath of dawn beating on my burning brow. The sky, as I opened my eyes, was all pearl and opal. The morning sun was peeping shyly over the farther bank into the broad breast of the cool, blue river down below. The birds from a thousand boughs were singing with a thrilling sweetness I had never heard before. The air, as I breathed it, was full of perfumes, fresh and piquant, quaint and barbarous, that told of dew-wet flowers, all gorgeous and unknown. I started as if new blood were coursing through my veins. I yawned, and, stretching out my arms, I struck with both my hands a heavy bough overhead. In an instant the ground was thick with custard-apples. The rich cream-coloured pulp was bursting through the rugged seams of their green jackets. I picked one up mechanically, as boys will, to pitch it into the water below. But the smell was so luscious that I put it to my lips instead. And then, in the midst of this silence, solemn and supreme, I shouted a very song of triumph. Why, forsooth, should I care for the past with these groves of custard-apple trees around me! I ate the first fruit very slowly, as if some mystery were at stake. Then I ate another, and another, and another. I might have thought that I had gorged myself; but that when I could eat no more my misery seemed to vanish as if by magic. Never will that morning be forgotten. But so it has been indeed throughout the course of a long and checkered life. My most eventful moments are remembered by me now in connection with some striking perfume, some sudden burst of low and unexpected music, some strange taste or some peculiar colour.
I had breakfasted heartily, and after lying on the thick, soft turf for a while, basking in the sun, arose, not without an effort, and plunged into the cool, translucent river for a good five minutes. Then shaking off the silvery drops, I started again upon my downward journey as if the whole of this new, luxuriant world were all my own.
And so in truth it was, though I could scarcely realise my supremacy at once. I had left the secluded hills of my childhood, and the rocks that hemmed them in, and their thundering waterfalls; behind, I stood there, solitary as no one ever had been, at the mercy of the present and the future, unarmed and innocent and naked. But in front, on both banks of the broad lazy river, far further than my eager eyes could see, lay a dense, interminable forest. Palms and pines; deodars and cedars fought for existence and breathing space with the mango and pomegranate trees, the aloes and acacias, the rhododendrons and tree-ferns. These struck my fancy first with their extraordinary exuberance. But the undergrowth was in reality still more perplexing as I forced my way through the stems of the tall, rank grass, turning aside only where the cactus, beneath all its delicate and fragile flowers, had thrown up an impenetrable barrier. Just above me, as I walked, hung purple figs, and clusters of white grapes, and, oranges and huge lemons, green and golden. Every now and again, when the wind stirred, a pommelo, large as my head at least, fell heavily at my feet. And amidst their broad, bright, upright leaves little bunches of plantains, yellow, green, and red. Here and there clumps of huge bamboos thrust aside the rest to force their own way towards heaven, and grasslike, bright and light and graceful as they were, still dwarfed the tallest of the forest giants. On the spreading branches over head doves bigger than turkeys cooed out their love-tales in the deepest of melodious basses. Butterflies with fan-like wings floated lazily round flowers and blossoms as brilliant and as many-coloured as themselves. Elephants, thrice as large as they are now, with tusks like sickles and bristling manes from head to tail, went roaring and crashing through the forest. Shapeless beasts, almost as monstrous, sat like tripods on their hind-quarters and ponderous tails, tearing down the tall trees by the roots to feed upon the succulent shoots and sweet leaves of the higher branches. And when some great tree fell to the ground with a crash that thundered and reverberated along, the hippopotamus lifted his lazy head out of the pool, the crocodile slunk from the mud, and creatures, half bats, half lizards, awoke for a moment, and bore their wailing brooding on from one tree to another. Herds of startled horses went whinnying by. Four-horned stags, the size of elephants, browsing on the young shoots of the sugar-cane, stopped for an instant to listen, and then looked wistfully upwards at the asparagus plants towering far above them. Lizards, thirty or forty feet long, lying coiled up in the rare sunny places of this dense, overgrown, green forest, half uncurled; and. the roar of the dying tiger in the grasp of some gigantic python was suddenly louder than the slow crunching of his ribs. Of this vast forest, of this intense and monstrous vitality, I, the outcast and the fugitive of twelve hours ago, was lord and master.
I shall never forget the exciting pleasures of this first day's experience. I felt that I was gradually losing the nervousness with which I had started, and the further I walked the more erect became my bearing, the more assured my steps. The huge beasts which crossed the tangled pathways fled hastily as their eyes met mine. And when, out of the fulness of my heart, I raised my voice in song, I cleared all the forest before me of its terrible but timorous denizens. Now and again a surly bull-frog would stupidly jostle me as I passed by, or an inquisitive squirrel run out to give me greeting. At first these little attentions were not unacceptable. But when they had palled, I was glad to find that a bunch of prickly cactus was an admirable instrument for the expression of satiety. It was, however, so singularly disagreeable to handle, that at last I looked around me for something easier. I saw a stout straight bough on one of the trees. Seizing it with both my hands I tore it off, and fell backwards into a heap of sharp, broken flints. These nasty things cut me so severely that I was happily prompted to try if they would not cut something tougher. With one of them I trimmed my bough. I gave it, in the first place, a point, quite sharp enough to free me from the attentions of inquisitive squirrels and surly bull-frogs.
Then, as time hung a trifle heavily on my hands, I whittled away with one of the sharpest flints as I walked. I was probably more strongly possessed then than I am now with the spirit of imitation. At any rate, before my day's journey was over I had covered a good part of my staff with life-like carvings of the various beasts that passed me by. It was a useful weapon, the first thing I ever called my own. Sometimes I think I should have kept it in memory of that most eventful day. But I did nothing of the kind. I threw it away directly I got a better one.
At night with grass and leaves and moss I made a cosy nest in the fork of a big tree. But before my bed was fairly finished I fell fast asleep, and I slept as you only can sleep when you are thoroughly tired out and most completely self- satisfied. The murmuring river told a different story now, and I slumbered through a strange panorama of fantastic and triumphant dreams.
I got up very early. There was so much to see and so much to taste! But before long I knew the flavour of every fruit that grew, and the peculiar taste of all the beautiful eggs with which the bushes and the rank grass were teeming. The fish in the river, too, became day by day more plentiful, more varied, and more toothsome. I had quite lost all sense of timidity or shyness. But the great beasts, though they feared me, still showed no sign of friendliness. I had won all I used to long for, supremacy, and peace from wrong and jealousy and opposition. But by degrees I felt, an increasing and unconquerable sense of loneliness, and an utter distaste for' my very unsympathetic surroundings. In the nights I sometimes almost yearned for the rocks and the green valley and the rushing river of long ago. But when each morning came, impelled as if by fate, I stormed on ever ahead. One day, how well I remember it, the river ended abruptly in a bed of golden sand, and a low resonant roar, as if all the world were whispering elsewhere, burst upon my ears. Before me, in almost unruffled beauty, lay the boundless sea, blue as the blue sky above, but deeper, tinged to the further edge with the glowing colours of the morning sun, while, laughing and splashing and. sparkling just beneath my feet, its white spray glistened like rainbows. Infinity itself seemed to be lying before me bare and beautiful. I had never in my many months' journeyings across anything so exquisitely lovely. For a moment, as I gazed, my heart almost stopped --- but for a moment only. Behind me on the sands I heard a hasty, hurrying tread, a sound, a rustle --- I could tell no more. Without a thought of what would follow, I turned away from the fascinating splendour of this strange and sunlit ocean.
Rushing towards me, as if borne on the wings of the wind, I saw another and a lovely me. I ran forward madly, throwing up my arms and crying --- the blue sea and the yellow sands alone knew what I cried --- but crying out, as I remember, in one moment of time all the longing and significance of my life. The beautiful apparition, nearer and now nearer, stopped dead in front of me at last, with clasped hands and tearlit eyes, and in a voice, the lowest and sweetest ever heard, murmured softly --- "It speaks!"
I could distinctly hear my heart throb when she stopped speaking, but I answered quickly --- "I am sure I don't know, and I don't know what you mean. But how beautiful you are! How like me, and how unlike; how graceful and how soft! I seem to have known you all my life, and to have seen you nightly in all my dreams. Your eyes are pure and blue. Your lips, when you smile, as you did for a little while at first, are far redder than the sweetest roses. I never saw anything like the way your colour comes and goes. And why are you so fair, and why is your hair so long and golden, and why are your hands so white and tiny?" And quite unconsciously I tried to take one of her hands in mine.
She drew herself up, and her blue eyes had a strange, reproachful look. "I am certain," she said very slowly, "that it is not right of you to speak like that. And you really talk so quickly that I cannot follow half of what you say."
"You would talk quickly too," I retorted, "if you were talking for the first time in your life."
"So I am," she said, quietly. "But surely that is no reason for saying silly things. Instead of teasing me in that way, you should have answered my question and told me your name."
"How could I," I pleaded, "when I did not even know what you meant? I have never heard of such a thing as a name."
"Well," she said, smiling once more, "you must really be more stupid than you look. Yes," she added, half hesitating for a moment, with her blue eyes peeping timidly, and yet very earnestly, from beneath their long silken lashes. Then suddenly making up her mind, "Yes! I shall call you Zit" (I was too much astonished to ask why), "and you shall call me Xoe."
"Xoe, Xoe, Xoe! It is soft and beautiful, and very like you. But who gave you that name?" I asked, profoundly perplexed. "I gave it to myself, Zit, long ago, and if you want things here you will have to give them to yourself I can tell; and it is about time you began. Why don't you give yourself some clothes like mine! You would feel much more comfortable, and you would really look ever so much nicer. And you might give yourself a horse too, instead of trudging about the world with a big stick."
Xoe was not speaking at all crossly now, but she made me feel intensely foolish. I had nothing to say in reply. I had been watching her eyes and her lips so eagerly that I had never noticed that she was sitting all this time upon the back of a beautiful white horse, and that she was robed almost from head to foot in some soft, whitey-yellowy, fleecy stuff. Both her round arms were bare, and one shoulder quite free. She had a broad girdle of plaited golden grass about her waist, and bunches of great yellow lilies on her breast and in her hair. I always think of Xoe as I saw her then, lithesome, free, and beautiful, in this flowing, clinging garment, with one little hand caressing and restraining her fiery steed, with her drooping eyes and faint smile and fleeting blushes.
"It is rude," she said, breaking a pause that was fast becoming awkward --- "it is rude for people to stare like that; and it is not very pleasant of you, Zit, to be sulky and silent so soon."
"I cannot help it. Everything is so queer and new and strange. But tell me one thing," I said, touching her robe, "is this really your own skin?"
"You silly boy," she answered, "of course it is not."
"Oh, I am so glad!" I cried. "It is very nice and very soft and very pretty and all that, but it does not look nearly so nice and soft and pretty as your arms and shoulders do."
"Stop, please stop," she said. "It is wrong, I know it must be wrong, to talk like that. But perhaps it is my own fault for keeping you here so long, forgetting how hungry and tired you must be. It is quite time to see about dinner. Come on, Zit" --- and she gave my arm a gentle touch that sent the blood flying through my veins --- "you can hold on to his mane as I ride, and we will chat as we go."
We walked on like this for half an hour or so. I told her something of my story; she told me something of hers. She was younger than I, but had travelled further and longer. In most things her story was much the same as mine. In some it was very different; but; her secrets, when I came to learn them later on, I solemnly pledged myself never to divulge. She had, however, wandered down from her hills on the banks of the other river, which fell into mine at the Watersmeet, three or four days' journey from this. The beasts seem to have been friendlier to her than they ever had been to me. She had, at all events, a womanly way of saying, "Oh, there's nothing in that" --- and this, I am glad to say, she has retained --- which made what looked the most extraordinary things in the world seem the most natural.
As to her horse, whose obedience to her slightest wishes had, I own, startled me at first, nothing could be easier than her explanation. He had run up to her one day, as a herd of wild horses went careering by. She happened to be eating an apple at the time. He put his head softly into her hand, asking for some, and in this way she made a pet of him, and he followed her wherever she went. One day when she was walking, just as I was then, with her arm holding on to his mane, she stumbled and sprained her ankle. Next morning the horse stopped exactly beneath the mossy rock she had slept on, and stood there, good beast, preventing her descent altogether. So she jumped lightly upon him, trying to slip by. But he started off suddenly, neighing with delight, and so it was she learned to ride. At first he did not always know which way she wanted him to go, and this was awkward. So she made him a silken bridle with a bit of hard wood, and later on she gave him a deerskin as a saddle-cloth.
Her dress, wonderful as I thought it, was a simpler matter still. It was all made out of the great cocoons of tussar silk I had often noticed clinging to the mulberry-trees in the valley. She had hidden herself for days to watch the big spiders make their webs, until she had learned their secret.
Everything was so readily explained, that by the time she finished speaking I thought I could never believe in the supernatural again. But this only shows what an utter simpleton I was. I had kept on looking back at her as we walked. I could not help it, not even in the roughest part of a narrow gorge or pass almost blocked up with rocky boulders; and when she pulled her horse up on his haunches, we were on the very point of falling, as I thought, into a heap of living lightning. She was laughing gaily now, and I certainly was most wofully disconcerted.
"Here, hold my horse!" she cried, jumping lightly off, and leaving me in full charge of a prancing steed, curveting madly around a heap of living lightning, which might go off into a thunderclap at any moment. I held on with all my might. I only just managed to restrain him. She stood watching for a minute or so with a soft little silvery laugh. Then taking the reins lightly from me, she gave him a pat or two on the neck, and he was as quiet as a lamb.
"That's not lightning," said Xoe, "and I rode straight up to see how you would stand it. It is fire, Zit. Anybody can make it, if they know how, with two old pieces of dry stick. It is by far the most wonderful thing in the world though. It has changed my life completely. It turns night into day, and frightens all those horrible big beasts off when I sleep. When I am wet or cold it warms me through, and it is always a companion. But wait till dinnertime, and you will see how much nicer everything tastes when it has passed through the fire and been cooked."
"What a wonderfully clever creature you are, Xoe!" I cried enthusiastically; "and what a lot of extraordinary new things you have found out!"
"Well, you certainly don't seem to know much, Zit. But you must never pay compliments, please. Good heavens!" she cried, "I knew the boy would burn his fingers if he could. Put it, down directly, sir, and help me to get dinner ready. There is nothing in the larder just now, for I was altering my gown all yesterday. But you might pick half-a- dozen breadfruit from the tree over there, and I will put them down to bake as a beginning."
I did of course as I was bidden, and while I was engaged in this easy fashion I looked about me. Xoe had chosen a most delightful and picturesque little eyrie for her home. Right across the top of the graceful palm-trees the blue sea died away in the distance, but we were far above the stifling atmosphere of the dense forest. Below us the river flowed very slowly, knowing the end was near --- winding in and about a steep precipice of black rocks. I carried the bread-fruit to Xoe, and got a pleasant little scolding for having been so long in gathering them.
"It was silly of me to waste, all my time yesterday. Do you think," she asked, dubiously --- "do you think, Zit, you could tickle a trout? When I want fish I go down to the river. I put my arm and hand in. If a trout happens to be lying under a stone I touch him gently with my fingers. He generally seems to like it, and then I catch him and eat him. Horrible, isn't it?" she continued, with the prettiest shiver imaginable.
"I will try," I replied. I ran off to the pile of black rocks I had noticed before. The river lay sixty or seventy feet below. Flashing through the deep black pool I saw the very fish we wanted. With both hands meeting in front to cleave the way, I jumped off: I caught the fish. I was some little time climbing the steep rock again. When I got there I found Xoe to my astonishment leaning over and weeping, as if her heart were broken.
"I thought you would be pleased," I began ---
"Oh, you horrible, wretched creature," she cried, "to jump off like that! I had only just found you, and I thought I had found you for always. I will never forgive you, never; and now, now you are laughing. And I was certain you had killed yourself, because I had been proud and cruel, and told you I did not like to be praised. No one had ever praised me before; and you knew that; and you knew that I quite hated you for stopping short when I told you to. But what did you care? You were paying me off for the lightning, I suppose. How mean that was, when I was thinking how brave you really were to touch the fire, when I could not go near it without shuddering for weeks after I had found out how to make it! And when you were glowering at me like anything I was admiring the carvings on your stick all the time. I thought much more of you than you ever thought of me, and this is the return you make!"
Here Xoe broke into a fresh paroxysm of sobs, and though she waved me off imperiously, I lifted her tenderly in my arms, and bore her away from the cliff altogether, and did everything I could think of to quiet her. She stopped scolding suddenly, her eyes full of tears.
"It was very brave of you, Zit," she said, still half gasping for breath; "and how tremendously strong you must be! You said I was clever. But you can do things I cannot even dare to look at. Oh, what a beautiful trout! It will be splendid to have some one to kill things for me. I hate killing things myself. One has to do it," she added, "but I am sure it is not right."
By this time Xoe was quite herself again, and I ventured to speak.
"You are always saying, Xoe, this is right and that is wrong. What is right and what is wrong?"
"It is very hard to tell," she answered, thoughtfully, "and I think I must keep that department in my own hands. But here is our trout on the grass. Let us cook it."
To my astonishment she told me to dig a grave for the trout to begin with. Aided by a long slip of broken slate, I did this rather more expeditiously than she expected; but still I found her share of the work all ready, in the shape of a dozen red- hot stones from the fire. She bade me put six hot stones at the bottom of the hole I had dug, and then a thick layer of sweet- scented leaves. Upon this I laid the trout; then, grumbling a little about all this unnecessary trouble for a fish that looked very good as it was, I placed another thick layer of fragrant leaves and the other six red-hot stones on the top, and I put as much of the earth in again as I could. I was stamping away most vigorously, when she stopped me.
"We are all right for the fish," she said. "I can look after that now; and I will arrange the dessert and the flowers. But you are so big and look so hungry, you must have something more substantial. Please do not glare at me, Zit, as if I were a cormorant or a dreadful epicure. Had I not met you to-day, I should have supped off toasted plantains. But I want to show you I am a little bit sorry, and that I am a very good cook. You see that herd of deer over there?" she continued. "They are browsing close to a deep pitfall I discovered by the oddest chance in the world. I call it my larder. I always keep it covered in with grass and bamboos. When I want meat I drive the poor deer in that direction. They tread on the top and fall in. It is horrible I know, and I will never do it again now that you are here; and all the time you are down there I will look the other way. For goodness' sake do not tumble in yourself, and please don't bring any of the dead deer up here. That would spoil everything. But just bring me the big bone of one hind-leg --- nothing more. And while you are doing that, you might as well go down to the river and fill the watergourd."
I crept down till I was so close I could almost have touched any one of the herd with my stick. Then I made all the noise I could. The deer ran straight for the pitfall. Half-a-dozen fell in. It was a singularly steep and narrow cavity. I climbed to the bottom with some difficulty, and found the deer all dead. By hook or by crook, I came away with a legbone in one hand. Then before I filled the gourd I had a short swim in the river.
"Here is your bone," I said, when I returned, wondering what she would do with it. Xoe stuck it into the fire without a word. Then handing me some plantain leaves for platters and a couple of cocoa-nuts for tumblers, she made me a coquettish courtesy, and said, "Dinner is ready, if you please."
As an experiment, this little dinner was infinitely superior to my first taste of custard-apples. The trout was done to a turn. The steaming bread-fruit was simply delicious; and when I had smashed the bone with a big stone it was full of marrow, so soft and pleasant and luscious that I quite forgot the trout. Then there were broiled mushrooms and roast chestnuts and great pyramids of figs and peaches and grapes. I had never felt --- and I had been pretty severely tried of late --- so many new sensations as in that single hour. But I thought very little of them then, for I was watching Xoe's delight all the time. Her eyes sparkled with fun, and she never scolded me once. She was looking to see what I thought of this and that, and kept heaping choice morsels upon my plantain leaf. Until this afternoon, I had always gulped my food down without a second thought. Now, just for the pleasure of listening and looking, I spun dinner out as much as possible.
We lay on the grass a long time over dessert. The sun went slowly down. The sky grew black, and the stars came out; and then it was I saw the real beauty of the fire. The day would never again die away when the sun had gone, the night no more be weird and lonely. The flaming fire gave everything a new form, a new loveliness, lighting up the trees with a fantastic glamour, and playing in aureoles round Xoe's golden locks and glowing cheeks, until she looked so supernaturally beautiful that I almost expected to see her vanish in the mysterious gloom behind the trees, or to hear her low rippling laughter fade away in echoes, far, far beyond the murmurs of the distant sea!
That first night was a dream, and all nature seemed to dream with us. The stars were brighter than they had ever been before. The fireflies gave a brilliant, flickering outline to the distant bushes in the undergrowth around us. The river went laughing and rippling over the stones below. The forest was full of musical and sympathetic whisperings, as if the huge beasts, that had so often made night hideous, were all intent to hear what the wind, rustling and soughing and sighing among the slender palm- trees, told of her and me. Even the little birds in their nests chirped timidly out at the night's extraordinary beauty.
We talked without restraint now. In some most marvellous way a past, that had never really existed appeared to come back again. I tried to say that her presence had already become absolutely essential to my life, and that I could scarcely imagine it had not always been so. I think she told me --- but what did I not think she told me, as I looked into her eyes, always blue and beautiful, but changing somehow with every shadow and flicker from the fire? Then, by that fitful blaze, I suddenly seemed to read her thoughts, and she, I felt, read mine. I scarcely knew what she was saying, but I did know that every word she murmured was a poem, and found an echo in my heart.
At last she rose reluctantly. "This has been a wonderful day, Zit," she said, putting one of her tiny hands in mine. "We must think of it sometimes when we want to fight again. You will sleep here by the light of the fire. In the morning you will see me again. Good night!"
Xoe vanished as quickly as she had dawned upon me first. I was dazed by her disappearance. "She will never come back," I cried, "and I shall now know all my life long what real loneliness means." I turned from the fire, and everything was black despair. But her horse thrust his head lovingly into my hand, as a proof that all was real. I threw myself down beside him, and soon began to dream of Xoe, and to wonder in my dreams why she had called me Zit at once.
My first clothes filled me with pride and admiration, and I spent, I am ashamed to say, an unconscionable time leaning over the quietest corner of the pool, so as to have a good look at the general effect. Something of the same feeling comes back to me even now, whenever I put on a new coat. It gives me a buoyant air and a strut which, though not natural, are, I feel, vastly becoming. I walked back very slowly over the rocks down which I had so hastily climbed, for, though I wished it, my dignity did not permit me to run. I was rather frightened too. I had been, it seemed to me, ages away, and I feared poor Xoe might be thinking I had disappeared for ever. I was soon reassured on this point. There she was, cooking something at her everlasting fire.
She turned suddenly, and went off into shrieks of inextinguishable laughter.
"That is really nice of you," she said, trying to stop laughing, "and it suits you exactly. Please don't think me rude. I can't help it" --- and here she fairly broke down `--- "but it does so remind me of the fright I made of myself two days after I ran away, I wonder if you went down to the river too and looked into it, and how long you stopped there?"
My conscience pricked me here, and I cried out rather bitterly, "You are really too bad, Xoe! . . ."
Her voice changed at once. "I am not bad," she answered. "I don't know how to explain it, but a girl never says what she thinks. If you want to get on with me you must not believe a word I say, and when I cry or laugh you must not believe that me either. There! It is horrible, but ever since yesterday morning I have felt it to be true. I don't know why I should warn you like this --- perhaps because I feel it is good of you and kind of you to take such a world of trouble to do what you think I wish, and really you would not look nice in tussar silk."
This mollified me of course, and as we sat over breakfast I said --- "I hope you did not think I had gone for ever, Xoe; I was afraid you would be frightened."
"Oh dear, no!" she replied, with half a pout. "I saw your stick directly I came out. I knew you would never leave that; and then --- I was here, too. We have a long day before us," she continued; "what do you generally do?"
"I eat a good deal," I answered, "I sleep a good deal, and I carve my stick, and when I am sick of one place I walk on to another. I am quite ready to start whenever you are."
"Wait till you have got a house of your own," said Xoe, "and you won't be quite so ready to run away from it. I will first show you round my little place, and if you don't wish to stop here for good and all I pity you. Then, if you like, we will try and catch a horse for you, and perhaps before you have learnt how to ride him properly the day will be done."
Xoe led me first to her bower, a most quaint and charming little residence only thirty or forty paces off, and constructed certainly with a minimum of trouble. She had simply utilised the ground-floor of a spreading banian-tree. This eccentric tree, when it is tired of growing up grows down. It spreads an enormous shelter to begin with, and then to support all this sends down shoots which soon take root in the earth, and rapidly develop into trunks and pillars. She had filled the overhanging branches in with layers of dried palm-leaves, until the roof was simply perfect. The outer walls were made of palm- mats too, and with palm-leaves also the rooms were divided one from the other. Between two gnarled and twisted pillars we entered the porch, and here her bits and bridles were hanging. The floor was covered with a couple of magnificent tiger-skins, with their claws on.
"Did you really kill those awful brutes?" I asked breathlessly, as we went in, rather mortified and hurt, and perhaps a trifle frightened to find Xoe so much cleverer and braver than I was.
"Certainly not!" she replied, laughing. "They tumbled into my larder after the deer, and their skins were just what I wanted for the porch. But come into my drawing- room, do, and say frankly what you think of that." She pushed a hanging mat away and we entered a large room full of light and flowers and air, for on one side, looking over a magnificent view of river, forest, and sea, the outer wall was rolled up to the roof. The room was very prettily decorated with flowers in all manner of fantastic gourds, and with bright shells, and startling feathers and big bunches of many-coloured grass.
"Aha!" she cried, only because after I had looked at the room I looked at her. "I see you have found me out. It's no use being a hypocrite. I was up before you. I watched you start. I saw what you were after, and then I made my room as pretty as I could. One doesn't have a visitor every day you know, and I don't suppose I shall ever have another. Here I sleep," she added, pushing aside, but for a moment only, a curtain which screened off a little apartment as fresh and pure and dainty as herself; "here I sleep. And here," she added, running on, "I keep my cooking things, and all my gourds and cocoa- nuts." By this time we were at the back of her bower, and I tried to follow her out into the open.
"The only puzzle," she went on, turning abruptly round, "is what to do with you! You can sleep where you did last night for a time. But you can't go on like that, and unluckily there is not another banian-tree up here." This unexpected question was a poser; and though I was holding the pantry curtain up all the while, we stood some time discussing it.
"The best thing," said Xoe at last, "will be to build you a hut exactly where you slept last night."
"The very thing!" I cried. "We will build two huts, and then we shall be able to talk across to each other all night long."
"Thank you, no!" Xoe answered quickly. "From what I see of you and know of myself, I think we shall talk quite enough in the daytime. And if I build you a hut, you stupid boy, I don't want you to live on the roof of it, as we used to do in the old days. Nothing, do you know, Zit, really astonished me more when I began to act for myself than to find out that the inside of a hut was very much snugger than the outside. But we can leave that for the moment, and do come along if you want to catch a horse to-day. I really cannot stand here listening to you all the morning."
Considering that my right arm ached fearfully with holding the pantry curtain over her pretty head, and that I had not been able to get in half-a-dozen words since breakfast, I might well have felt a little hurt. But I did not. I was too much interested in Xoe and her plans.
She called her horse up; gave him a couple of plantains; told me to watch how she put on his saddle-cloth and bridle; gave me a bundle to carry, and off we started. There was a spirit of freedom and camaraderie between us now quite different from the restraint of yesterday morning. After talking of half a hundred other things I ventured to point this out to Xoe, and asked her if it were right, or if it were wrong.
"Oh," she said, "it's right enough. It must have been the other feeling that was wrong. Do you know, I felt quite frightened at you yesterday, and was mostly absurdly nervous for a long time after you came up."
"Really, that is odd!" I answered. "I had precisely the same feeling. I saw directly that you noticed I had it. But I never guessed you thought like me."
"That's only because you know nothing of a girl's feelings, Zit, and I am afraid I really am deeper than you are. I never felt like that before. I can hardly believe it of myself now, but --- I think I was shy. Stop!" she cried, "that is what we are looking for," and he pointed to innumerable hoofmarks on the beaten grass. "I can hear them," she continued, "on the other side of the wood. Help me off; follow me with my horse."
We stole forward in silence. Suddenly Xoe put a finger to her lips, and whispered, "Look there! But keep very still. If they should come our way, we are lost." Through the leaves I saw a vast herd of horses, hundreds, perhaps thousands, in number. Right in the centre stood their leader, a fiery chestnut with black points. The horses and mares of his bodyguard looked at him from time to time as they browsed for signals and instructions. The scouts on the herd's outer edge had already scented something amiss, but the colts and fillies went careering madly round in circles wherever there was room for a gallop.
Xoe opened my bundle, took her horse from me, gave him a little cut with her whip, and telling me to remain where I was till she called, stole after him. For a moment the horses all turned their heads towards their new comrade, pricking up their delicate ears and standing motionless. But when Xoe appeared they wheeled round as if to word of command, threw their heels into the air, and with the sound of a rushing hurricane, disappeared as if by magic. The green glade was deserted but for Xoe's own horse and another, who stood fascinated and trembling beside him. Xoe advanced quietly with a bunch of red plantains in her hand. Half she gave to her own horse. This reassured the timid stranger, who soon pressed forward for the rest. As he ate Xoe pursed up her sweet little lips and blew gently into his nostrils. I hated the beast at the time, but it had a marvellous effect. Patting his neck and fondling his ears, she put the bit she carried into his mouth, and called to me to bring the saddle-cloth. She patted him again, and fed him as I fastened it on.
"There!" she cried, "jump on and I'll follow. Give him his head at first." What a madcap race that was, over rocks and boulders, through the thick brushwood, just grazing the huge tree-trunks, and under the heavy branches! I pulled with all my strength, but I could not manage to let Xoe overtake me till we were a long way out on the sands.
"That's not the way to treat a horse," she cried breathlessly as she came up. "Don't beat him with that horrible stick of yours --- never beat him; only let him know that you could beat him if you like, and won't. But he is quiet now, and you have really not done badly."
He was tired enough, and so was I. But my blood was tingling with triumph. At last I had found a creature to obey me, to do what I willed and turn as I wanted! And then the exhilaration of the rapid motion, and the cool freshness of the salt sea-breezes! We rode on, just where the tiny waves broke over the sand.
"Look!" she said at last, as we suddenly rounded the point. And beyond the point, away out at sea, lay innumerable islands, some wooded to the water's edge, with bays of glistening pebbles and sparkling little waterfalls leaping into the sea; some green; some blue, some purple in the transparent noon-day sun.
"They are other worlds," said Xoe, with a sigh. "We can never reach them, but we shall see them always. They are loveliest at sunset, when they are lighted up with gold and crimson." Slowly and reluctantly we turned our horses' heads and cantered home; and whenever I looked at Xoe, which was just as often as I could do so undetected, I thought a day with her was worth all the unknown worlds together, and all their gold and purple. Her cheeks had a rich glow, the light in her blue eyes was at once deep and tender and merry; and as she swayed with every motion of her horse, I noticed, as I had not noticed yet, how admirably her light robe set off the graceful curves of her beautiful body.
I was as tired as I could be that evening, but exhilarated beyond all measure. We dined very quietly. But after dinner my thoughts came too quick for words. I had a burning desire to sing.
"Xoe," I said at last, when we were both of us rather weary of praising my new horse and of talking over the day's adventures --- "Xoe, I told you how I learned to sing. Don't you ever sing, and won't you sing now? Please do!"
"I have a little cold," she answered, "or I would."
I pressed her hard, and said rude things about her cold. At last she gave way so far as to promise to try after I had sung something first.
I began to sing, as I had always sung hitherto, by imitating the bulbul. But suddenly a new confidence came to me. I put my real thoughts into real words. I sang the utter misery and loneliness of my purposeless past, the joy I ha in meeting her, the triumphant thoughts that had filled me as we tore on together through the forest and across the sands. And then I tried to sing her beauty and her praises, and to ten her she had given everything new meanings to me now.
In the firelight I watched Xoe. With one hand she unconsciously beat time. Her face was half turned from me, but I could see that her cheeks were rosy red. Suddenly she lifted her eyes reproachfully to mine, and put her fingers to her ears.
"Stop!" she cried. "You must stop! Can't you see that I cannot hear you now? What must you think of me for allowing you to sing the very things I had told you: not to say? They seemed so different when you sang them, and I was only listening to the music, when I found out all at once that you were singing of me, sir."
"Xoe," I said --- and I said it with all my soul --- "I do try to obey you. I never say half the things I want to say. I only look at you when I know you are looking the other way. But somehow when I sing I can control my thoughts no longer. I never gave way like this before. Of course I was wrong. I always am wrong. But after all, Xoe, you made a promise; and though I don't know much, I know it is not right to break promises. Please sing. Unless you do, I am afraid I shall be mean enough to remind you that only last night you told me I was a goose to stop when you bade me. And then people who say they have colds when they haven't should not be always talking about right and wrong."
Xoe was cross after this, and so, I own, was I. Evidently there was no pleasing her. I turned away petulantly, and she did the same. For quite five minutes neither of us spoke.
Then clear and soft and full her voice rose on the evening air. It was not an echo of my own song as it seemed at first. But it was the translation of my own dreams and fancies, the key to all the beauty of all the world. I learned, as I listened, the secret mystery of the rustling trees, the flowing river, the surging sea. Higher and higher her voice soared and sobbed in ecstasies of melody almost painful in their intensity. Not a thought, not a guess, not a longing that had come to me in the moonless midnights, or when the starlight was most splendid, or when at sunset or sunrise the sky glowed in unspeakable glory, but were clear and easy to me now.
She stopped suddenly. We were both too deeply moved to speak. Her rosy cheeks were very pale now. And when she bowed in token of farewell, I noticed that her eyes, like mine, were filled with tears.
My hut, when I had left it in the morning, with its four square walls of mats and bamboos, was bare and empty. Now it was filled with all the little knickknacks from her own house, which, as I happened to know, Xoe prized most dearly. I was inexpressibly moved. I took her little hand eagerly in mine, and kissed it gratefully. She broke from me, crying, "Oh, that's so like a man! Now you have spoilt everything!" And she would not speak a single word to me that evening.
It was just the same in our rides through the forest and over the sands. We made up our minds to know every yard of the country round about for twenty or thirty miles. When there was no pressing work to be done --- and often there was much --- we started off at sunrise, taking the day's food with us. We halted where we chose, and gave our horses and ourselves rest for hours together; and travelling in this delightfully deliberate way we often came across the most marvellous things. But I had, I confess, no eyes just then for anything but Xoe. The more she teased, the more her beauty seemed to grow upon me. Her slightest gestures were full of pleasant surprises. Her voice had every day new tones, each eloquent with some meaning of its own. There was a depth of tenderness in her beautiful eyes I could never wholly fathom. I envied the flowers in her hair and on her breast, but mostly I envied her horse as she patted him, and called him by a thousand gentle names. My horse was as docile as hers now, and our two horses went close together with the same stride.
Often, as we rode, we discussed our past life and our future, and sometimes I might say what I pleased for hours together, and Xoe would only check me --- so I half thought --- to make me talk on. Then, when I laid my hand upon her horse's mane, or on her saddlecloth, she would let me take one of her little hands half-unconsciously in mine. At other times, when I spoke of her of her of whom I was always thinking --- she would throw her head back petulantly, and gallop on. "Surely," I used to say to myself, "she never guesses how cruelly she torments me, how inexpressibly dear her presence is, how the stolen glances from her eyes, the timid touches of her hand, and every word she says, thrill through and through me, and fill all my being with music!"
But most I loved the moonlit evenings when, returning on our weary horses, we rode together slowly side by side under the great trees of the forest, and over the weird, fantastic shadows they cast before us on the ground. We had learned on nights like this to sing together, songs of meetings and longings and regrets, of bitter things and sweet; and then if I stooped, as now and then I dared, to touch her hand with my lips, I used to dream that her hand, as I kissed it, gave me of its own accord, not hers, a secret, shy caress. One night I whispered what I was dreaming, and to me she gave a little scornful laugh for my pains, and to her poor, innocent horse such a sharp cut with her whip as I rendered further questioning unavailing.
The morning after that, Xoe, though she looked pale and languid, and had heavy black rings under her beautiful blue eyes, was very hard and cold. "It was extraordinarily dark last night," she began, directly I came up. "I don't think the wind and the leaves ever made such a noise before. I could not quite hear what you were saying, and I am sure I didn't want to. "No," she added, stopping me suddenly. "Pray don't make matters worse by explaining them. It was very dark and very noisy. I could not hear, and I couldn't see. That was all!"
So we sat down to a bad breakfast, the worst sign of her displeasure. But I never thought of grumbling, and in spite of a wretched headache, and a total want of appetite, I ate just twice as much as usual.
"Xoe," I said, as she was clearing away the things, "it is a beautiful day for a ride. There will be a lovely moon and no wind tonight."
"I daresay," she answered, savagely; "you may go and enjoy them by yourself then. I am going to make pots."
This was one of the penalties of my ingenuity, for lately it had been my duty to make all the new discoveries; and pots were the last things out. A hedgehog, if you cook it properly, is almost better than a sucking-pig. But like the cactus plants, with which I had once tried to drive the frogs and squirrels away, a hedgehog is not pleasant in the handling. I used to cover my hedgehogs thickly with wet earth, and then bake them in the fire; and a few evenings back, the earth from the river, which I had plastered over one of these savoury little beasts, came out of the fire as hard as stone and quite red. I took the hint, and by the time Xoe was up next morning I had two great red pipkins ready for her criticism. I had covered two gourds with a coating of the same clay from the river, that was all; and when the gourds were burnt away in the fire the crust remained, and then Xoe was delighted. Now, however, she was very disdainful; and I could have kissed the hem of her garment and bow gladly! --- when at last she reprieved me from that long lonely ride, and allowed me to stay where I was to help her to make pots.
We got interested in our work, which is always a good thing in itself. Xoe suggested one or two improvements, such as mixing sand and chopped grass with the clay; and when she found that the pots could really hold water --- in which essential point I am sorry to say the first batch failed --- I saw that she had half forgiven me.
"There!" she cried at last, when for the first time a boiled dinner was steaming on our grassy table," it is far better to be industrious sometimes. It is right to be industrious, and I am quite letting you forget what right and wrong are."
This is only one of innumerable examples. Our rides were never really abandoned. But sometimes, from one caprice or another, Xoe kept me busy for days together inventing something new. Her sarcasm sharpened my faculties considerably, and it is to this period of ferment and unrest that the world owes many of its most useful implements.
Now that I was decently clad, it was a nuisance to have to jump into the river every time we happened to want a fish; and I found that a little splint of bone tied round the middle to a tendril, and covered with a lump of fish or flesh; saved me an infinity of trouble. I laid my lines at night, and in the morning there was always plenty of fish on the hooks. Nothing, of course, was easier than to develop my sharp piece of flint into a formidable flint hatchet. All I needed was a branch of tough wood and a big flake of flint, and there were plenty of both to be had. Then with tendons or slips of skin I bound each flint-head securely in the cleft of its handle. This was my earliest effort. But my armoury of adzes and tomahawks soon grew to be one of Xoe's pet jokes against me. The flint-headed spear sprang naturally from the hatchet. Then came the javelin, in hurling which I became marvellously expert; and finally the arrow. To the last I devoted a prodigious amount of time and patience, and perhaps, I may add, ingenuity. I could not hang on a young tree or bend a twig without noticing their elasticity. But the arrow gave me more trouble than the bow. I could send it with great force from the very first, but it was long before my arrows went true to their aim.
From sunrise to sunset I hammered and plodded away, and work was, after all, a wonderful solace when I was half maddened by Xoe's inexplicable conduct. I used to grudge the long nights idly wasted as I tossed on my sleepless couch, wondering what Xoe meant by this or that, and framing speeches of remonstrance which I knew I should never deliver. But even here I was victorious. I found a perfect natural lamp, a discovery which Xoe herself agreed was almost as important as her famous fire. I had knocked over some stormy petrel one afternoon. On trying to cook them they blazed up and burnt away. They were all oil together. I had only to draw a thread of cotton fibre through one of them, leaving the wick projecting at the beak and I had a magnificent animal candle, which gave a splendid light until the last greasy morsel of the bird was consumed.
So by day and by night I tried to find solace in labour. But often and often I rebelled, and then Xoe would give a strange little laugh, with a ringing, mocking melody about it I had never heard before, and am quite sure I have never heard since.
"You think it's a fine day," she would say. "There will be a lovely moon and no wind. That's what you think, isn't it? I think it's a splendid day for' pots.' So please finish' off your stone hatchet" (1 had got from flint to stone now), "and then you can go and practise with that wonderful bow and arrow of yours, and I will sit sewing here and watch you." This was a regular formula when I invented anything new; but really, I had enjoyed the old days far more, when the sands, and the forest, and the sunshine, and the moonlight were quite enough for us both. One morning, when I was trying to put this theory into words, Xoe said "pots," and I rushed a way in a pet, and stayed away deliberately, but very wretched, till nine o'clock at night.
Xoe, however, got the better of me even here. Not a morsel of food had she tasted since I had left; and dinner had been kept back. I sat down to it, but could not eat out of sheer indignation. "Xoe!" I cried at last, throwing my plantain-leaf plate into the fire, "we must have it out, once for all. What does it mean?"
"It means," she answered hotly, "that I will not be mastered. I like you very well and all that, but I will be no man's slave, and your whims and fancies are simply unbearable."
"Mastered!" I cried aghast; "my whims and fancies unbearable! You will be no man's slave!
Whose slave and minion am I, then? Whose whims and fancies are as life and death to me? Xoe! think of me sometimes as well as of yourself!"
"That's so like you," she answered --- "so like a man! You judge everything from a man's standpoint. Your insufferable temper is simply breaking my heart, and sometimes I wish I had never seen you. There!"
"You won't see me much longer!" I retorted fiercely. And my words were very nearly coming true.
Next morning I went away in a huff to vent my rage upon a horrible, big, black bear that had for long served as a target for my arrows. He always had a sort of sardonic grin, whether I missed him or touched him; and as I mostly practised when I was in a bad temper, I very naturally came to regard him as an ally of Xoe's unkindness. To-day I swore should see the last of one of us. With my heaviest and newest hatchet in my hand I walked boldly up to him in the glen. He was so completely astounded at this new method of attack that he scarcely tried to resist. Wielding my axe with both my hands, I thundered away at his enormous head and hairy neck. In another moment I should have killed him, when, as luck would have it, the handle of my axe broke off. The bear was on his hind-legs in an instant, and as we wrestled to and fro, I could feel my strength failing gradually. It was soon all I could do to keep his huge jaws off me, and as I clutched at his throat, his hot breath came to me in frantic pants and roars. Under this terrible pressure, tighter and now tighter, my ribs seemed to be giving way. There was a red mist before my eyes: my breath was exhausted. With my last sigh I cried "Xoe!" and then all was over.
When I opened my eyes again there was Xoe on one side of me, holding my head on her lap, and on the other side the big black bear stone-dead.
"Who killed him?" I asked, still bewildered, trying to rise to my feet.
"Be quiet, Zit!" said Xoe, very softly. "I killed him, dear. I could not help it. I thought he had killed you. Don't be cross to me now, I will never be cross to you again. Oh, Zit! you have punished me terribly. I thought you were dead. I was too sorry to cry;" and then she gave me a little gentle pat on the cheek nearest her, and burst into a passionate flood of tears. "Don't stop me, Zit; please don't stop me," she whispered, as I tried to kiss her tears off." They are doing me a world of good. For half an hour I thought you were dead, dear." This was the first time I ever dared to kiss her really. But she was far too frightened to mind it.
"Poor thing!" she went on; "how pale you looked! I saw nothing but you, and I pushed your big spear right through that horrible beast. He fell away, and I have been sitting here with your head in my lap ever since. What a dreadful world it is! and all, I know, on my account. But I couldn't help it; and I can't help it, Zit. Do say I was right, and that I could not help it!
I do not know what I said. But I know what I felt Xoe was to me at that moment. She assisted me up the hill; and her assistance was so pleasant just then, that I was, if I remember rightly, a trifle feebler than was really necessary. We sat in her drawingroom all the afternoon; and though in an hour I was as strong as ever, I was even allowed to dine there.
"It is just like our first night," said Xoe, as I lingered in the porch, saying good-bye to her. "Do you remember what I said then? --- This has been a wonderful day, Zit; we must think of it sometimes when we want to fight again.'"
"Xoe, I remember every word you ever said!" I cried, tearing myself away with a wrench.
It was an awful night outside. The black clouds had been drifting up all through the evening. The air was heavy and sultry, and everything, now she had disappeared, was unspeakably sad. Suddenly, far over the hills behind, I heard the sullen roar of thunder. Near and nearer came the gathering storm, and soon the lightning broke out in quaint, zigzag fashion, darting in fierce forks through the sky, and playing round the tops of the palm- trees close about us. One flash that almost blinded me, seemed to run along my hut, and down its nearest side. But when I could look up again, the hut was still there. I scarcely know what prompted me, but I seized a huge torch from the smouldering fire, and flung it on the roof.
The hut flared up for a moment right into the sky, and was then a heap of soot and ashes. But before the blaze had quite died away Xoe was there, clutching me by the arm.
"What is it" Zit?" she cried; "I am so terribly frightened! And where is your hut?"
"It is burnt up!" I answered. "Look at the lightning! Isn't it terrible?"
But before I had finished speaking the heavens' opened, and the rain came down like a waterspout.
"It is all my fault, I know," whispered Xoe, as she clung to me in terror. "It is my fault, not yours. I can see nothing when it lightens, but that big, black beast. But I am so cold and so wet, we must find shelter somewhere."
Next morning after breakfast I said to Xoe, "Xoe, why did you call me 'Zit' directly you saw me first?"
"I am sure I don't know," she answered. "But; stop. I can't tell fibs to-day. If I must answer you, I will. But I won't answer any of your questions till you promise to answer one of mine."
"I promise," I said. "Why did you call me 'Zit'?"
"Why? Because ever since I remember anything I remember Zit. He was to be my husband, you know, when I grew to be a great, big girl, and to be very good to me and very kind to me. That's why I called you Zit, Zit, dear. You might have guessed it long ago. But I don't suppose you can even guess what I am going to ask you now."
"How can I?" I cried.
"Who burnt your hut down?" said Zoe, very seriously. "You or the lightning?"
"I did!" I said; and I was most wofully disconcerted at being found out.
"Oh, you bad, bad boy!" she sobbed, throwing both her arms round my neck.
But we were little more than children at the best, and without a thought of a darker future, we made the most of this happy holiday. We pelted each other with roses until either she or I begged for mercy. We ran wonderful races on the sands, and yet were never able to determine whether her horse or mine were the fleeter. Xoe, too, became a great archer in these days; and, except perhaps when on horseback, she never looked lovelier than when she was drawing her bow. If I could beat her when I chose, what did it matter? She had to make the victor's wreath of laurel, and here she was far cleverer than ever I was at archery. It was much the same, too, at hide-and-seek. I had generally to implore her to come out of her ingenious hiding-places, though she found me quick enough, and it was always I who had to pay the forfeit.
The forest was full of the most charming, little, bosky bowers where, when tired of walking and riding and playing, we used to sit for hours together, quite sheltered from the sun, and talking softly, or thinking, or watching the beautiful curve the blue river made down below among the thick masses of dark-green trees. It was enough to count the stately swans gliding slowly up and down, to see the salmon leaping over the falls, to wonder if the water-fowl would ever come up again after their long deep dives. Life had suddenly grown deliciously lazy and tranquil; and as weeks slipped into months, that past when I had wandered aimlessly about, heartsore, desolate, and wretched, became an impossible nightmare. Every moonlit night re-echoed with our songs of loving content, as we wandered hand in hand thought the woods --- never so mysterious and never quite so fragrant as in the early evening hours --- or on the sands, close to where the long waves broke gently in floods and flashes of phosphorescent light. Our hearts were often too full for speech, and speech, indeed, was scarcely needed, for day by day our thoughts seemed somehow or other to move more closely in unison. When I spoke, Xoe used to cry out, "Stop, Zit! I was just going to say that;" and I was always accusing her of stealing my very best jests before they were uttered.
We used at this time to have the most curious little arguments; and though I hate arguments, there was always a new idea, or, at all events, a novel line of thought, in what Xoe said. I especially recollect one very sultry afternoon, and I remember it so well, that the heavy languid perfume of the champak buds above us comes back to me even now, and again I seem to see the mist slowly rising from the river down below, till the sharp shadows of the rocks and trees were dim and faint. And again, close by, I seem to watch the wings of a singularly beautiful purple butterfly floating lazily, as if half sleeping, from one of the white waxen champak flowers to another; I was lying in the shade at Xoe's feet, far too content to speak, and I was looking up, whenever she gave me the chance, into the heaven of her soft blue eyes.
"I often wonder, Zit," she said, suddenly, "why it has not always been like this. Do you remember that even on the very first night we spent together you said you could scarcely imagine it had not always been so? I thought a great deal about those words of yours, then and afterwards, for the very same idea was passing through my mind, though of course I could not talk about it at the time. But what ever did you think of before you thought of me, sir? and what did I myself think of before I met you? Either you or I might twenty times a-day have taken a different road from the road we really followed. Yet now we seem to have known each other almost ever since I remember anything. Really, it is a very few months since I came across you on the shore. But my whole life seems but into two halves, and that last half, only a few months long, is far longer than all the years before."
"There is nothing in that," I answered, without a moment's hesitation. "Nothing in the world could have prevented us from meeting, dear. Both you and I might have strayed off, as you say, twenty times a-day on the wrong track. But we were meant to come together at last. Love is far stronger than Chance. And now I know why my restless spirit drove me irresistibly forward from sunrise to sunset."
"It is nice of you to say that," she said, stooping for a moment to look very earnestly into my eyes, and then suddenly throwing back her long hair, which had fallen like a golden glory across my face. "It is nice of you to say that, Zit, and I am sure you are right. Nothing could have kept us asunder, just as nothing can ever part us. But still sometimes I wonder why it has not always been like this, and why you and I have had all these long, cold, lonely years!"
I have a whole book of Xoe's sayings at this time. But they are written on my heart, and meant for none but me.
"Right and wrong!" cried Xoe one day, as purely out of too much happiness I tried to get up a little dispute. "You are my right and wrong, Zit. You must be, dear, for there is no one else."
So we mounted our horses, and galloped off to watch the sun set over those unknown worlds beyond the point. These gold and purple islands seemed to have a strange and increasing fascination for Xoe, and one day, to my utter astonishment, she burst into tears because I could not, or as she said would not, take her to them.
"I daresay I could swim to the nearest of the islands if I practised, Xoe," I said, "and then I could swim on to the others, and be able to tell you all about them by- and-by."
"How selfish of you; Zit! No! I don't mean selfish, dear," she cried, noticing my look of distress; "I haven't used the word for months now, and I never thought it suited you at all. Surely you know I could never swim there, and if you are right I shall never be able to swim a single stroke. But I am certain I can never allow you to go alone. Don't let us think any more about these stupid islands."
It was easy to say this, but, hide it as she might, I know Xoe thought of nothing else, though I did all I could to divert her attention. I had amused her and myself by covering my different sticks with carvings of her face and her figure. I was never anything like satisfied; but she used to vow they were beautiful and flattering. It was just at this time that I learnt how to draw. I had been out hunting, and was coming back laden with spoil. I heard Xoe's clear, ringing voice of welcome, and, looking up, I saw her waving a fleecy scarf, that fluttered out lazily and lightly in the wind. But Xoe was poised as lightly and gracefully as ever her scarf was.
She stood just in front of a huge, smooth, white marble rock, and on the surface of the white rock to my great joy I saw her figure repeated, line for line and curve for curve, in a black silhouette. It was only her shadow, of course, but a most lifelike resemblance of her for all that.
"Don't move! don't stir, dear!" I shouted. "Please stay exactly where you are. I will tell you why when I come." I ran to the fire. I collected a bundle of half- burnt sticks. Xoe and the shadow were precisely in the same position when I returned as when I left them.
"Please don't turn till I tell you to," I said. And then I sketched her profile. It was my first picture, an airy, light, little sketch, and almost my happiest. Xoe was as pleased as I was; and for some days after this, whenever I saw she was thinking of those wretched islands I used to say, "Come and be taken, Xoe. What will you wear?" --- for she had a wonderful wardrobe now, and had grown quite a coquette; "how soon will you be ready? and how shall I draw you?" And in a short time all the rocks about were covered with Xoe. But before long this ingenuous amusement interested me a great deal more than it did Xoe, so intent was she on reaching her islands, and so sad and wistful did she sometimes look.
I was helpless, or thought so. But I swam a great deal every day, so as to be able if necessary to reach the islands at last. One sunny morning I charged right into a tree-trunk as it came floating down the river. I was a little stunned, and seizing hold of it I jumped on. I found that I could direct it pretty much as I wanted with my hands and feet, and still more successfully with one of the branches I tore off. And though it was absurd to think that Xoe could ever reach her wonderful islands on a clumsy thing like this, the log gave me a wrinkle which I proceeded to carry into execution with a secrecy that cost her many tears, and exercised my own self-denial considerably.
"You are always leaving me for that horrible river!" Xoe would cry. "If you want fish, why don't you fish properly with your hooks and lines? and, then, you know I hate fish now."
But with one subterfuge or another I persevered. Whenever Xoe was lazy, I contrived to steal a morning for my new inventions.
I chose a quiet, well-wooded little bend of the river, where I could not be overlooked, and where the largest trees grew close down to the water's brink. In the first place I cut a tree down, shaped it so as to adapt it to the water, and sharpened it at either end. This was as much better than the old tree-trunk as my new, broad, flat paddle was better than the rough branch I had tried to row with. But still, when I mounted my log it sank so deep that I knew Xoe would never be dry upon it. Then I made what I thought a great advance. I tied half-a-dozen trees together, and when they floated side by side I had a raft on which Xoe might be as comfortable as at home. But, to my horror, I could neither steer my raft nor paddle it. I was turning away in despair when I noticed that, though the trunks were all the same size, one of them floated much higher than the others. This was a mystery that must be solved. I attacked it with my axe, and with the aid of some big wedges I soon split the tree into two. It was hollow for a long way down the centre. I launched the two halves. They floated buoyantly. I had found what I wanted. I went home so happy that, without giving me a word of rebuke, and indeed without knowing why, Xoe was all that evening as happy as I was.
Next morning I began to construct my first boat, a sorry little thing I thought it afterwards, and only meant for two; but it sorely taxed my ingenuity and used up nearly all my hatchets. Fortunately I remembered that fire burns wood; and what with my hatchets and Xoe's fire, I had completely hollowed a large log out in a, fortnight, and given it quite an elegant shape externally. But Xoe was so cross now at my repeated disappearances, and had such a strange, injured way of looking at me when she thought I did not observe her, that I had to wait another week before I could launch it. My boat floated beautifully. I could turn it about and direct it almost as easily as we guided our horses. There was a seat for Xoe, and a seat for me. Now we could go to the islands when we pleased. I turned to row ashore, and there was Xoe at the landing-place, clutching an overhanging date-palm with one arm, and watching me intently. She clapped her hands merrily as I came in.
"Now we can go to our islands," she cried. "O Zit! how good and thoughtful you are, and I am sure I don't deserve it! I have been horrid lately, and so lonely when you were away, and, O Zit! can you believe it? so jealous! I have been fighting against my wretched thoughts for weeks past, but today I could bear them no longer. I dogged you down, step by step, to see what you were doing. Look here, Zit!" she continued, showing me one of my hatchets concealed within the broad folds of her scarf, "I am almost sure that I should have killed her if you had found anyone else. How you must despise me! Sometimes I wonder how you bear with me at all. But I will never be bad again, never. I will always believe you, and always do what you tell me." Xoe was still half-laughing and half crying as I helped her into the boat. "Now for the islands," she said, as I pushed out into the stream.
"Oh no, Xoe!" I replied. "I must try the boat first in the open sea. We are only going out on the river for a few minutes just to please you. For I really don't know if it will answer in the sea, or whether we could reach our islands in it or not, or even be able to come back again."
"It is I who want to go to the islands, not you, Zit," she said, pouting. "You know you don't care two straws about them. And do you really think I am going to let you start alone? Pray, sir, what should I do if you never came back?"
"I could always swim back if anything happened," I answered, "and you couldn't. Remember your promise, Xoe, dear, and please throw that clumsy hatchet overboard. It is luncheon-time now, and we had better go back at once."
I spoke with as much severity as I could command. Xoe yielded with the best possible grace in the world. That was one of her strong points. But by the time she had made all her conditions, I felt myself a regular tyrant. She was to ride as near the sea as she could all the way to the point. I was to keep on signalling by a number of clever little contrivances to show how I was getting on. Above all things, I was not to land until she could come with me.
There was an ebb-tide after luncheon, so I ran down for my boat, and directly I turned the great sand-bank at the mouth of the river, I saw Xoe waiting for me on her white horse. We had a pleasant little talk in shouts and signals. My boat went splendidly, and did not ship a drop of water. The last ebb of the tide was with me, and as I knew it would soon turn, I ran ashore at the point.
"Can't you do it?" cried Xoe anxiously, as I came in. "Oh, what a pity! what a pity!"
"Oh, I can do it!" I shouted back. "It is far easier than I thought. The boat goes beautifully. I am afraid of nothing now, so you can come with me, dear, and be the first to set foot on those wonderful islands of yours."
I paddled away manful1y, but even Xoe's light weight made a difference.
"O Great Inventor!" she said, laughing, holding her tiny hands up in reproof; "next time you invent a boat, or anything else for that matter, ask me to help you. You have been watching the swans sailing by on the river with their big white feathers ruffled out to catch the wind all these weeks, and never noticed what you need now. Put your paddle away. I will take you in. Hold this," she said, giving me one end of her pointed scarf, and spreading the other two corners out, one in each of her outstretched hands. The breeze caught it at once, and away we scudded before the wind at a pace that put my poor paddle to shame.
"You see the use of it now, sir," laughed Xoe triumphantly.
"You would have your mystery. You almost teased my life out. What is the consequence? I am the captain and you are the mate."
So we bounded on in the most deliciously easy motion over the little billows, until both Xoe and I agreed that the ripple they made as we passed over was the most soothing sound ever heard. Our boat seemed to be a living thing. Out at sea here, with the cool salt breeze blowing freely, the sun lost all its fierce heat, and every wave, laughing and sparkling in the sunshine, told of the cold, green depths below. We could still see our banian-tree on the hill and Xoe's white horse at the point. But they each grew smaller and smaller.
Our island as we approached it was extraordinarily beautiful, and quite unlike anything either of us had ever seen before. It was about a mile and a half round, and, with the exception of one rocky peak, completely covered with rich, firm, soft turf, and trees, whose broad branches all stretched wistfully in the direction of the mainland. I steered a little on the sly with my paddle, so as to be able to run exactly where I was bidden, into a little cove, half-rock, half-sand, under the shelter of a frowning hill.
Xoe was quite excited as I helped her out of the boat. Directly she touched the shore with her feet, she gave a cry of triumph. I followed quickly, so as to assist her over the wave- worn rocks that guarded a stretch of fine white sand, covered at low tide, as it was now, with the most beautiful and fantastic anemones. She stopped to touch them, and to marvel at the coy way they drew themselves back when they were touched; and then, almost before we knew it, we stood beneath an enormous arch, composed entirely of stately pillars and columns of a beautiful, sombre stone-colour, grouped together in perfect masses, at once solid and light: The feeling this arch gave us both, as we stood beneath it, was a feeling of expectancy and awe. Xoe was the first to break the silence.
"What does it remind you of, Zit" she asked, taking my hand, so as to give us both confidence.
"It reminds me most vividly of something; perhaps of the palm-forest at noonday," I answered; "but I really cannot tell what."
"I can," said Xoe. "It is only the music of your songs, Zit, and perhaps of some of mine, put into another form. Nothing is wrong here, nothing out of place. All the columns are lovely in themselves, and when they are massed together they are harmoniously perfect. They are only broken or twisted just where they should be. It is a lovely arch. O Zit! What a beautiful world we live in, and how small even you seem here!"
I put Xoe's hand to my lips, and then led her on. The large and lofty hall we entered was, like the archway, all made of pilasters and columns. The sunlight streamed before us, covering everything with a dazzling brightness, till the walls and all the roof glowed again in infinite varieties of gold and red and green. Long afterwards, when I became acquainted with the properties of precious stones and crystals, I used to think that these stalactites, for they were really nothing else, must have shone on that glorious afternoon like diamonds and rubies and emeralds and sapphires.
There were many little chambers off the great hall, all exact miniatures of it, and each with its little arch of tiny columns. These we explored carefully until we were tired. At one time the stormy sea must have swept through them all, for nothing but an irresistible power like the raging ocean could have been the patient architect of anything so everlastingly perfect. This was evident enough. But it must have been countless ages since, for the floor was now carpeted with dry sparkling sand, and the very oystershells washed in by the tide had disappeared in these cycles of untold time, leaving nothing but their pearls behind them.
With these glistening pearls the sand was thickly strewn. Xoe had noticed them at once, and before going she tried how they looked in her hair.
"They must be almost more beautiful than the flowers," she said, turning appealingly to me.
"They are much more beautiful now," I answered, "and I don't think they will ever fade. They are almost as pure and white as your neck, dear. They would look lovely there. Try them against your neck for a minute, Xoe. Then you can see them, too."
"You dear old Zit!" she retorted, laughing. "There! what do you think of them. I should never care how I looked, if it wasn't for you. But you know I promised to obey you always. So pick out a handful or two of the very finest, and we will carry them with us as a reminder of our island voyage." The wind had died away completely by the time we reached our boat, and as Xoe was dead-tired, this was perhaps as well. But we had a strong tide with us, and I had not the least difficulty in making the point. I lifted Xoe gently on to her horse, and led him home through the gloaming. The good, patient beast, in spite of his long wait and his high spirits, understood directly that his mistress was tired, and ambled on most sedately. So I let his bridle go, and drawing close to Xoe supported her as I walked.
"Oh, I am so tired, Zit!" she said; "but very, very happy, and this is very pleasant. It reminds me so of that first ride, when we were each afraid of the other, and of all those rides in the moonlight when you would kiss my hand."
"I thought you never knew that," I cried.
"Oh, I was horribly proud in those days," Xoe answered very softly; "and then a girl never can tell all she knows, Zit. But this is much nicer. I can think of nothing happier than the life we are leading now. You are all the world to me, and when I feel your great strong arm tight round me, I know that I am everything to you. You have had your mystery, sir, and I have mine. But I am sure that mysteries are wrong. We must have no more secrets, and I will never be cross again."
It was late when we reached home. But we loitered a long time over supper. And after supper, while Xoe was half dozing, I contrived to thread a string of great pearls together as a necklace. Xoe put them on with a smile, and in the firelight they gleamed and glistened more beautifully than ever.
Early next morning, Xoe, who was still very pale and tired, said there was nothing in the house to eat, and sent me out hunting at once. The deer had grown so wise and wary now that it was weeks since any of them had fallen into our larder-trap, and indeed an unaccountable and most disagreeable change had come over all the forest beasts of late. But I was in high spirits, and consequently had an unusually lucky day. I rode back with all the spoil I could carry.
"Xoe!" I shouted, as I always did, in coming through the pass; and for the first time there was no answer. I remembered how tired she had looked, and, possessed by a dreadful foreboding of something amiss, I galloped on. I threw myself off my horse. I lifted the mat that hung over our doorway. I heard a feeble little cry which, though it went straight to my heart, was certainly not Xoe's.
"Xoe! Xoe!" I called.
"Hush, Zit! dear old Zit!" I heard her answer. "I thought you would never come, and I have so longed for you! Look, Zit, here is my mystery!" I looked at Xoe, and in her eyes I saw the most ineffable joy and tenderness. I stooped and kissed her.
"Not me, Zit!" she whispered, with her white arm round my neck for a moment. "Kiss him, but very, very softly!" Nestling beside her on the couch lay a tiny, helpless, little image of myself.
"O Zit!" said Xoe, as I bent over them both, "he is so like you, dear, and I was so dreadfully afraid he would have wings!"
Baby certainly seemed far happier as he was, lying on his back on a soft grass mat, in a warm, shady corner, cooing away to his heart's content. He threw up his little fists and his pretty little pink toes as we bent over him.
"I wonder if he sees us, Xoe?" I asked, "or if he hears us?" and I began to boo away very gently. But he had no ears or eyes for me.
"He can see me," replied Xoe exultantly, snatching him up in her arms; "and he can always hear me. Can't you, baby?" And there was no doubt whatever that Xoe was right. "He hears you, too. But as he doesn't know what you mean yet, he attaches no importance to anything you say. It is the same with all the outside sounds from the forest, and the sea, and the beasts." (Anyone but Xoe and her baby were outsiders now, it seemed.) "They have no meaning for him yet, dear little fellow. But when he looks at me, or laughs or cries, it is different. And when I look at him and try to talk his language it is different too. We understand each other."
Xoe looked wonderfully pretty with her baby in her arms. Her cheeks hid a new colour, quite different from that of our courting days, but quite as beautiful; and her eyes, like all her words now, were full of soft and gentle meanings. I could not, if I wished it, deny the truth of what she said, so I adroitly attacked her in another direction.
"Cold water is all very well," I exclaimed; "but I do wish, Xoe, you would not always be douching him with cold water. I shouldn't like it myself night and morning, and it can't be good for a baby." Xoe gave a merry little chuckle at this, and when baby and she had stared defiantly at me for a while, she condescended to reply.
"My dear Zit," she said, "you know a good deal about boats, and bows and arrows, and pots, and all that; you know a little about horses; but I flatter myself I do know something about babies!" "I don't know why you should, Xoe," I cried, "and I don't know where you learnt it!" And then, before she could retort, I beat a hasty retreat to get dinner ready.
I was the hunter and the cook and the general servant now, and everything but head-nurse, and as this was the first time Xoe was going to dine in her old place by the fire, a very pretty little repast I had prepared.
Baby lay between us, for I really would not allow him to be altogether monopolised, and said so plainly. But Xoe knew as well as I did that our disputes now were all a make-belief. We never really differed. Apart from baby, she was ruled by what. I said, and with regard to baby I had the most implicit confidence in his mother.
Xoe hushed him to sleep on her knee, and as soon as dinner was over and I drew closer up, I was graciously allowed to watch him. Then, the first time for a month, we had a long after- dinner talk, just as in the old days, and when she laid her head on my shoulder I had many questions to ask.
"Why did you think he would have wings?" I began.
"Nothing could be more natural," answered Xoe, promptly. "Our boy, to begin with, must be quite different from us."
"I don't see that at all, Xoe," I interrupted; "please be logical."
"So I am, Zit, and you may be just as jealous as you like. I don't know much about logic, but I can believe my eyes. He is much better than either of us. You have only to look at him as he sleeps to tell that. But if you want logic you shall have it. We were a great deal better than the others, and as we could walk I thought he would very likely fly. But I am not a bit disappointed, Zit. He is just as perfect as he can be. And it really would be a dreadful trial for us when he grows bigger to see him nod his pretty little head pleasantly every morning before he flew off, leaving us to plod away after, wondering when he would have a fall."
"Your logic is not at all bad," I answered; "but still you see baby hasn't got wings."
"I don't care for that," said Xoe; "you said my logic was not bad."
"No more it is, dear," replied I, patting his cheek very gently, "and I am glad the wings are not there. That would have been a trial, indeed. But what strange fancies you have, Xoe! I should never have thought of this."
"You, Zit! you never think of anything."
"I do, Xoe. I have been wondering all day long what we ought to call him. You should know. You found a name for me quick enough."
"I don't think it is quite fair to put it in that way, dear," she said. "I liked you from the first, and I don't care who knows it. But that was very different. I knew my Zit would come some day or other. I expected you, sir. I was prepared for you. But dear baby was so thoroughly unexpected. . . "
I gave Xoe a very sceptical look just then. She cut her speech short, and ended her argument, as she generally does when she is getting the worst of it, by saying, "Don't tease!" I tried to please her. I changed the subject completely. But that was never the way to get round Xoe. She would talk of nothing else; and finally I learnt she had already determined to call baby "Zit."
We used to fight over this night by night for the next few months, and I was never perhaps happier in illustration than when I foreshadowed the confusion that would inevitably ensue. But baby had a stronger will than either of us. He called himself Pip the moment he could talk; and as he has stuck to that name manfully ever since, I may as well call him Pip from the first.
"There is only one thing that frightens me, Zit," said Xoe, when we had tucked baby snugly into his cradle, but I can think of nothing else. When baby was born, I knew for certain that you and I must die. Before that I used to think that, as we were both so different from all the others, we might differ from them here, and that there would be no more death in the world. Now your horrid logic has given me all manner of dreadful thoughts. But how should I live without you, Zit? or how could you live without me? or how would baby live without either of us?"
Xoe's questions were sometimes terribly perplexing. Baby's arrival had never struck me as a melancholy foreshadowing of our own departure. I did not quite know what to answer. So I kissed her tears away, and then, stealing her own words, said, "Don't tease!"
This was a fairly good reply at the time. But whenever I was away from home, or when either of them was ill, or even when I felt unusually dull and stupid, I used to ponder over Xoe's problem.
Fortunately, perhaps, I had not much leisure for melancholy reflections just then. For months past, I had noticed a significant change in the demeanour of all the forest beasts. This became daily more pronounced. The deer, as I have said, would not be driven into the pitfall. The hideous, shapeless monsters that infested the dark places in the woods no longer slunk uneasily aside when I gave my cry of warning. And one day, when I was enjoying very quietly a little inoffensive pig-sticking, a herd of infuriated boars actually charged at me in a body. I fought for dear life, and had to spear five of them before I escaped from their terrible tushes. I said nothing to Xoe, of course, and in itself this one fight would scarcely have been worth notice. But the plot was obviously preconcerted. I was soon convinced beyond all doubt that there was a general conspiracy on foot, and had very good reason to believe that those wretched beings from whom we came were at the bottom of it. Our perfect happiness, since little Pip's arrival, had been too much for them; and judging by the roaring and bellowing, the hissing and snarling, that went on in the forest, the most preposterous and exaggerated accounts were evidently being circulated about my innocent exploits in the hunting-field.
The forest soon became absolutely crowded with living things. Reinforcements poured in from all sides; and though a certain amount of indecision was still visible, I thought it was quite impossible to prevent Xoe and Pip noticing the ceaseless tread of these terrible battalions by day and their horrible sounds by night.
Never was I more mistaken. Xoe and her baby were so completely wrapped up in each other that nothing short of an earthquake would give them any uneasiness. Every day she made more discoveries out of Pip, small as he was, than I had managed to make out of the rich, broad world before me.
One afternoon when I was leaning over a rock that commanded the valley, planning a complete system of fortifications, Xoe rushed up to me, and in a low, breathless voice cried, "It has come!"
"What has come?" I shouted, springing wildly to my feet, and seizing a hatchet in either hand.
"Baby's first tooth," said Xoe. "O Zit! are you not sorry now for saying he was getting as cross as you are, and that he really should not be allowed to cry all night long?"
"Of course I am sorry, Xoe," I answered; "and baby at all events does not think badly of me.
But are you sure you are right? I can't see it."
"See it, who asked you to see it?" she retorted. "Perhaps you can't feel it?"
And I am shocked to say I really could not. But I had learned to trust Xoe in these matters, so I only kissed Pip and said, "Now that he has got his tooth, Xoe, I suppose I had better go and kill a buffalo or a hog or two for his dinner." Xoe turned upon me more savagely than she had ever done in her life.
"Don't, Zit!" she cried, "don't teach the boy to despise you. You can't see his tooth! you can't feel his tooth! Well, perhaps you can't see his lower jaw either. It is not half so pronounced as yours! There! At all events," added Xoe, frankly, "I almost hate you for making me say things like this."
Pip, who always knew far more than we thought, set up a timely howl just then, and in bringing him round we reconciled each other. But Xoe, I am sure, never quite forgave herself for the way she treated me at that moment.
This was one of the events that distracted me from anxious thoughts, and without them I scarcely know what would have become of me. I grew so nervous that I almost slept with one eye open. I spent my mornings and evenings reconnoitring. But in the lazy afternoons I had my reward, when I thought of nothing but Xoe and her baby. I only mention all this, however, to show how I was able to spend the greater part of my time in blocking up the pass. With a few stout young trees as levers I piled stone upon stone, rock upon rock, trunk upon trunk, so that we were not only completely fortified on this side, but were furnished with an almost inexhaustible supply of ponderous missiles. Xoe surprised me at my work one bright and very sunny afternoon. She had strolled down lazily with baby in her arms, singing softly as she came. She found me, as it happened, just as I was straining every muscle to upset a big rock from which we had often watched the sun sink into the sea over our islands.
"More mysteries, Zit?" she said quietly. "Why can't you tell me everything?"
Then she stopped short. There was no time to tell her everything when the whole forest re-echoed with the most hideous sounds, and when every other tree concealed the outline of some monstrous form.
Xoe, as she always does in times of emergency, saw something of what had happened. "Poor old Zit!" she said, "you look awfully tired. I had no right to scold you. I would not frighten baby for worlds, and you knew that if you frightened me you frightened baby. You are always thoughtful. But what shall we do now, and how can I help you?"
"Put baby on the grass, dear," I answered, knowing that hard work was the best thing possible for her at the moment. "Then help me to push this rock into its place. It will be the keystone of the whole position. When that is fixed, we shall be perfectly safe for a while."
"There!" cried Xoe, when our task was done, "we are perfectly safe. You said so yourself, Zit; and now that we are safe, I think you really might have asked what brought baby and me down here so unexpectedly,"
"You are never unexpected," I replied. "I was sick of struggling alone. You came just when you were needed."
"Of course," cried Xoe, triumphantly. "But why did we come? Because baby speaks." I turned round to baby, who had been lying neglected on the grass all this time. He threw his little arms out towards me, and, in support of his mother's assertion, said" Papa" as clearly and distinctly as I could have said it myself if I had happened to try.
"You are a perfect tyrant, Xoe," I exclaimed, crying papa to baby, and being answered as often as ever I did so; "why has this been hidden from me all these months?"
"Nothing has been hidden," said Xoe, half laughing and half crying. "When you went away this morning, looking vexed and very cross, and without a word for either of us, baby pointed straight at you and said papa, and he has been saying it almost ever since."
"Why didn't you bring him down at once, Xoe?" I asked; "and what else has he been saying?"
"He was not very distinct at first," she answered. "He called you papa and then he called himself papa, and when I called him Zit he insisted on a compromise, and called himself Pip."
I could not quite understand the compromise, but Pip did, and very proud he was of his new accomplishment. He kept on addressing himself as Pip in a most engaging manner nearly all the way up the hill, though every now and then he patted my cheeks and called me papa.
I was still terribly anxious, but I made the most of Pip's extraordinary talents.
"I wonder he didn't sing, Xoe, before he could talk," I said; "you thought he would fly before he could walk."
"Can't he sing?" asked Xoe, scornfully. "Why, he has done nothing else since he came. But what do you care about singing? Since I began to sing to Pip you have never once asked me to sing to you."
So Xoe and I sang again as in the old days, just as if there were no worries and troubles in the world.
But for all that we spent a terrible evening. The shrieks and roars from the forest grew louder and fiercer. The air was filled with clouds of villanous insects. The ground was covered with creeping things innumerable. I piled all the arms I had in a great heap close beside us, and we sat hand in hand beside the fire till midnight. Then I persuaded Xoe to let me go down to the pass.
Before starting, however, we both stood watching baby for a while. He was sleeping very pleasantly. He smiled as we looked at him, and as he smiled we knew that happy, peaceful dreams of mysteries about which neither of us knew anything were passing through his mind. I stooped and kissed him softly. I kissed Xoe too. Then I went.
I found, as I had feared, that the fortifications were being rapidly destroyed. I used my lever as I had planned, and every ponderous rock that went crashing through the pass brought back an answering echo of pain. For a moment the horde below were disconcerted --- and then with a cry that began in defiance and ended in despair, they turned and fled.
I returned home joyfully. I told Xoe my good news. She pretended to be just as satisfied as I tried to look. Then somehow or other I dozed off. Suddenly I heard Xoe shriek out. I leapt to my feet. I saw her smite a ghastly, black shadow with a burning brand plucked from the fire. It disappeared into the outer darkness with a yell of intense agony, and then I saw Xoe snatch baby up from the grass and cover him with kisses.
"He dropped from a tree. He tried to steal baby!" she cried; "I can stay here no longer. Don't be frightened, Zit," she added gently. "Baby is cooing and crowing again. Nothing frightens him. But go we must."
"Why should we go?" I said.
"Why not keep them at bay, and drive them back terror-stricken and dismayed. If we do go they will destroy all your things, Xoe, and then, where shall we go to?"
"To our island, of course," said Xoe, pressing Pip to her breast. "What do I care for the things when baby's life is at stake! Come and find the boat!"
From the sound of the falling rocks I knew that the enemy had returned, and that my fortress was being rapidly demolished. It was too late to hesitate now. I took baby in one arm, and with the other I helped Xoe down the steep path that led directly to the river and the sea.
We spent the most painful half-hour in our lives in clambering over the stones. Now and then the terrific sounds behind us compelled us to look back, and through the gloomy night we saw the remains of our fire being hurled about hither and thither by invisible hands. This diversion in all probability saved our lives. We leapt into our boat and pushed wildly off from that accursed shore. Just as we did so the heavy clouds rolled away from the moon, revealing a perfect panorama of horrors.
The shore was lined with hideous monstrous forms right down to the water's edge. But they could not pass beyond it. We were safe now, and, under the spell of some dreadful fascination, I turned to watch the terrible drama being played out before us.
The Beasts had dared to declare war against Man, and were now venting their disappointed fury on each other; I could see in the distance the hatchets and spears I had so prized wielded madly and fiercely by scores of bony hands. I could hear the cries of the great beasts, as with bleeding flanks they learned for the first time what real pain was. Unsightly forms I knew of old leapt in and out of the seething crowd with such prodigious rapidity that they seemed wellnigh innumerable. Then with maddening roars each beast turned on the monstrous creature nearest, and began a combat of life and death.
Here Xoe touched me gently on the shoulder. "It is an awful punishment, Zit," she said. "But we must not wait to see it out. What should we do if baby caught cold! Row on!"
Inspired by these cheerful sounds, I went outside to look once more at the mainland. It was still covered by a thick mist; but, as the rising sun left the mist beneath, I felt that a new life had dawned upon me too. What were my wrecked homestead and all my shattered inventions to me now, so long as my wife and child were safe! Henceforth, as far as I could will it, all my interests, like my joys, must be wrapped up in them. It was, indeed, in that early stroll along the island beach that a most extraordinary change in me really took place, and that to all intents and purposes I became a husbandman instead of a wanderer, a herdsman instead of a hunter. I was dreamfully wondering how the change would eventually be worked out, when Xoe called to me from the cave to ask what I thought about breakfast.
"I should like it above all things," I answered. "You light a fire, Xoe, and long before you are ready I shall have plenty for you to cook." Nor was my confidence misplaced. I had not gone ten yards when I stumbled across an enormous turtle. I picked myself up with an apology, but the ungrateful brute threw up such a shower of sand with her flappers that she was well over the water's edge before I could clear my eyes. However, I had fallen into a nest of turtle's eggs to begin with; and as I chased the turtle into the sea, I contrived to catch a couple of big black lobsters. I laid the lobsters beside the eggs, and then went a little way inland, where I discovered plenty of ripe dates and pomegranates. There were, I knew, two or three earthen pots in the boat; and, considering our circumstances, we breakfasted sumptuously. Baby, out of pure good- nature, nothing more, took the liveliest interest in the proceedings, clapping his little hands manfully; and he was not half so disconcerted as we were, when the black lobsters turned scarlet in the pot.
Watching Xoe narrowly, I could see that in spite of the entertainment Pip gave us, she was still very dull at heart. She could never keep a secret long, and soon she told me what was the matter.
"I will never set foot on that miserable shore again, never!" she cried; "and no more shall Pip. My mind is quite made up, Zit; nothing can shake it. Once for all, come what may, we must break with our past, if not for our own sakes, for baby's. Those horrible, mean creatures are jealous of him and his beauty and the joy we have in him. What are they to us or we to them? We will go on from island to island through the world, till even the very memory of them shall be left so far behind that baby will never hear the faintest echo or it. Somewhere, Zit, we shall find a pleasant resting-place, where the past is all unknown, and where the beasts shall be as friendly and as gentle as they were at first; and there we will found our home."
There was much in what Xoe said. Indeed I had, or rather perhaps now thought I had, turned it over in my mind during my morning stroll. I said nothing or this. I only told her then, as I tell her still, that in all grave matters her thoughts and mine are the same. We agreed that Pip must never know anything or the misery and degradation of our past; but that, as we were perfectly safe, we would halt here for a while and go on when we chose. Then, after a little fight, Xoe agreed that I should reconnoitre our old home when I could, so for to look after the horses and save what I was able from the wreck. After settling our future plans, we spent a very happy day, all the happier because it was one long picnic, in which we had to invent everything afresh.
While Xoe and Pip were having their regular siesta, I cut down the shattered trunk of a curious old tree, the big hollows in which were almost filled with honeycombs. The bees buzzed about me in swarms till I was nearly blinded. But, like the beasts at first, they were too much astonished to resent anything I did; and, indeed, it was not till years afterwards that I learnt to my cost how bees could sting. The fragrance of the honey, which had attracted my attention originally, was quite justified by its taste.
I bore it off in triumph to the cave. I stole in quietly, so as not to disturb the siesta. But the siesta was a noisy one. There was Xoe, half hidden in her long yellow hair, her cheeks flushed with romping, her eyes sparkling with fun, crouching down at the further end of the hall; and in the middle Pip, on his hands and his sturdy little brown legs, was taking his afternoon lesson in crawling, or whatever one might term the vigorous method in which, by a series of little leaps and bounds and much laughing and shouting, he contrived to cover the ground. He had just started for Xoe when I came in. But he turned at once and crept lustily towards me, in spite of all her enticements, I broke off a tiny bit of honeycomb, and Pip gave a shout of decided approbation when he tasted it.
"You are a cheat!" cried Xoe, pretending to be vexed, though in reality there was nothing she liked better than being cut out here by me. "You are a cheat, sir, and, good gracious! what are you tempting the poor innocent child to eat?" Then, in the very middle of her scolding, she too gave a cry of delight.
I was walking slowly before him, holding a great piece of honeycomb in front of me, and so anxious was Pip to get possession of it that he forgot all his terrors, balanced himself on his little feet for a moment, and then toddled bravely after me as I retreated.
"Don't touch him, Zit!" cried Xoe, clapping her hands. "Let him fall if he must; it will only give him confidence, and he will pick himself up again. Make him run after you right down the hall."
After one or two preliminary tumbles, Pip actually accomplished this tremendous feat. We were both astonished.
"Well, you are wonderful creatures," said Xoe, patting his head and mine impartially as we reached her. "I never gave you credit for so much sense, Zit. Here have I been slaving away for weeks together, trying to teach him to walk, and without thinking twice about it you discover the way and rob me of all the glory. O Zit! Zit! I shall never hear the last of this. Give me a bit of that yellow stuff!"
Pip toddled after her, just as prettily as he had done after me. Xoe was quite satisfied.
"Isn't he manly?" she cried.
"Look how he puts his feet down and holds his hands out! Were you ever so proud of him before, Zit?"
But Pip, judging by the way he crowed and shouted, was just as proud of himself as ever I or even his mother could be. To keep up old traditions, we took our dinner in the open. The afternoon was very still and warm. The blue sea ran merrily up the glittering floor of the little cove, and the waves as they died away on the white sand at our feet, laughed and sparkled in the sunshine, one solitary bird on a tree somewhere far behind us trilled a passionate appeal to a mate who never answered.
"How peaceful the world is, how beautiful, and what a contrast to last night!" said Xoe, breaking a long spell of silence and laying baby on my knee, as she only did when she was perfectly content.
"Do you know why the world is beautiful?" I answered. "You make it beautiful, Xoe, you and Pip, and your great love for me. The place itself is nothing. A few hours ago, when I carried you over the sands, you thought that our happy days were over."
"That is true," said Xoe, slowly; "and yet it seems hardly possible. Fancy baby walking today, of all the days in the year, and fancy this being the very happiest day in the whole of my life since I met you first, Zit!"
It was not often Xoe talked like this, and I began to feel quite sorry for the singing-bird behind us, whose mate could not hear what she was singing.
"What is your ideal of happiness?" asked Xoe, after another long pause, during which she had recovered possession of Pip, "A little wife, and a little child, and a little work," I replied promptly, "and life in the open air beside the sea."
"Why, you dear, simple old creature," said Xoe! "you have got all that! Oh, I see! you are laying a little trap for me. Well, I was never happier than I am now; I own it. But first thoughts are good thoughts. We will be happy here for a little. Then we will go and be happy somewhere else. Look at baby yawning, Zit! That is because he can't talk properly, and he can't forget that we were an up the whole of last night. It is delicious here in the twilight, but I really think we ought to go to bed early."
We had a long lazy night's rest, but with the first grey streak of dawn we had another little fight. I wanted to run ashore before breakfast. Xoe wanted me to put off the trip for a day or two; and I knew what that meant. But as we had left all our property behind us, I stood firm, and Xoe and Pip had to content themselves with waving their hands from the great archway until their white figures disappeared in the distance.
There was not the least cause for alarm. The shore was thickly strewn with noisome carcasses, but not a sound was heard save from the flapping wings of the hideous vultures.
I paddled straight up the river, and fastened my boat beneath the clump of trees, of one of which it had been built. There were the same horrible traces of carnage round our banian- tree. Our homestead had been trampled and dashed to pieces. But the storeroom had scarcely been touched, and while I was selecting what we needed for immediate use, I heard both the horses whinnying joyfully, not far off. They were delighted to see me again.
To my astonishment they were not alone, but most affectionately watched and guarded by a creature something like one of those jackals, who had so often made night hideous. He was, however, much hairier; and when he thrust his cold nose into my hand and looked up, I could see his wistful eyes were very mild and gentle, and that, in spite of his rugged coat and gaunt limbs, he had an expression of extraordinary sagacity and benevolence. We became warm friends at once, and henceforth he played an important part in my family life. Without his assistance, indeed, I should never have become a true husbandman, and the flocks and herds which now constitute our fortune would still have been a prey to the wild beasts of the forest. Xoe laughs at me when I tell her that for every leg of mutton and every cheese we eat, and every coat I wear, we have to thank our friend the dog. But it is true for all that. The animals in their way can exist happily enough without us. But without them we could never do more than exist.
In some way or other, which it was of course impossible to ascertain, this wise, rough, hairy brute had evidently saved the horses from the overwhelming attacks of the night before. Already they seemed almost as fond of him as of Xoe; but when I turned, he left them at once and followed me closely, wagging his tail. Nothing, however, could induce the horses to come up to the house. The evil surroundings were too much for them. Horses are, I think, more sensitive than even men here. I, at all events, had my work before me, and could not afford to be squeamish. I carried out everything we wanted to the horses by degrees. Then I fastened a mighty load on each, and vastly pleased they were to be of service.
We made our way down the pass without much difficulty. The huge rocks and tree-trunks with which I had filled it up, had been tossed hither and thither. Everything bore marks of wanton destruction. Even the marble rocks, on which I had sketched and cut so many images of Xoe, had been defaced and maltreated; and, as if to mock us, cruel hands had traced grotesque and brutal figures all around. In everything I recognised a ludicrous imitation of my own handiwork which was far from flattering, and it was easy to see that for a long time past we had been most carefully watched. I left the horses at the mouth of the river; and with my dog pioneering the way in front, never far ahead, I started for the boat. Then I took as large a load as I could safely carry. The dog leapt in on guard. I turned for a moment to the horses, who were looking at me very sadly with their big brown eyes. I patted and petted them for a little and pushed off. But this did not suit Xoe's horse at all.
He trotted into the sea. At first the broken water frightened him terribly, but he persevered till he had crossed the waves, and then he began to swim boldly after me. I did not know that horses could swim till then; but the distance to the island was so great that I was afraid to try the experiment without adventitious aid. So I came back and cut down a few young cork- trees, which I fastened round them both in the manner of floats, and then with the horses in tow I started again.
The tow-ropes were so long that my followers were easily able to get in advance of me, and for some time they actually dragged the boat along. But when they were tired I had good reason to thank my forethought in having provided them with floats. Before I reached the little cove I was nearly dead with fatigue.
Xoe and Pip were still looking out from their archway. But, so far from having been there ever since I left, Xoe had such a number of adventures to relate that she would scarcely listen to mine. Of course they both went into ecstasies over the horses. Then the dog, who had been waiting for a good opportunity of an introduction, came up very humbly, and Xoe gave a loud shriek and rushed towards Pip.
"Zit!" she cried as she ran, "you have brought one of those horrible beasts over here. I will never forgive you, never! Help me to save Pip!"
But Pip had already got both his little arms round the dog's neck, and the dog was very gently licking his face.
"He is eating Pip!" exclaimed Xoe; "look there!" And she rushed at the dog, who, without disturbing Pip in the least, very gravely offered Xoe a paw. She touched it for a second, and then fell back abashed.
"Oh, what a wonderful child!" she said in a low voice. "He has tamed that awful monster already. Did you ever know anything like it, Zit? and do you think it will last? I really quite like the animal. What a gentle beast he is, and how wise, and what friends they are! Look at him! He is bringing Pip to me on his back!"
Xoe nevertheless recovered possession of Pip as quickly as possible. I lay down on one side of her, the dog on the other, and, completely reassured, she began an account of her day's experiences, the first day since she had met me, as she said, that had been spent without the benefit of my cheerful society. She had begun by making a large grass-plaited sail for my boat. Then she made a pearl necklace for Pip, who, when she was engrossed in her work, took the opportunity of walking boldly out of doors. Xoe, of course, thought he had fallen over the rocks and been swept away by the sea. But Pip, who had an extraordinary sense of humour-- something, so I thought, like my own --- had only hidden his little body behind a huge cactus-leaf, and dried up all Xoe's tears by crying, "Peep ho!" They made friends again; and since then, after various little culinary experiments, they had been occupied in looking out for me, Pip with his jewel necklace on, and very proud of it.
After these thrilling tales, my own poor adventures were scarcely worth narrating. But the things I had brought with me were properly appreciated none the less.
We used to stop away for hours together, and somehow as I came to know Pip better I began to think that I had been quite wrong in the cruel thoughtless way I had treated all the animals. There is something very humanising in the frank society of a little child. I taught him almost all I knew, and marvellously quick he was at 1earning. In a few months he had mastered a language thoroughly. He had learned to walk, and swim, and ride, and climb, and shoot; to stop crying when crying was no use; to go to sleep when he was bidden; and to call the flowers, and beasts, and birds, and insects by their proper names. Finally, he knew as much about my poor inventions as I knew myself. Pip's education was an education for both of us. Looking back now, I can say with the most absolute certainty that I learned far more from that child than ever I taught him.
It had been one of Xoe's first thoughts when I met her that I would take the business of killing things off her hands, and little Pip's companionship somehow or other made me wish that I could now relegate this duty to some one else. I had constructed a fish-pond, and a turtle-pond, and an oyster-bed. Sometimes I had to do a little hunting for the larder. That could not be helped. But Pip was so fond of all living things who would let themselves be petted, that my old sporting instincts almost died away. Nothing pleased us so much as when our forays to the mainland enabled us to bring back a couple of long-horned goats and their kids, some sheep and their lambs, a large-eyed gazelle, or a basketful of white rabbits or furry-legged fowls. And here I am bound to say the dog was most wonderfully useful. In a short time the island was peopled with animals, who day by day became more grateful for Pip's kindness. Soon we had as much milk and as many eggs as we wanted, and wherever we went the friendly beasts came bounding towards us to be fed, or only petted, and all day long their voices sounded as blithe and clear and musical as the voices of the singing-birds with which all the trees now abounded.
Xoe was inexpressibly delighted with the change, and she would have it that Pip's plan was far more successful than mine. If I argued the question, she pointed quietly to the dog, who never left Pip for a moment, and growled even at us if we talked too loudly when his little master was sleeping. She delighted in our afternoon rides through our picturesque dominion, of which Pip was now the lord and master, with Xoe and myself and the dog for his humble administrators. I used to lead the way, with Pip sitting in front of me trying to coax my horse, now very fat and very lazy, out of his usual amble. Xoe followed after, intent on losing none of Pip's ingenious remarks. She was singularly quick at finding out his witty sayings; and when she repeated them to me from behind us, I often wondered at my own stupidity in not having detected them at first. When she and Pip happened to laugh together, the dog, used to trot eagerly from one to the other with a most expressive and encouraging bark.
But, between ourselves, I think Pip and I enjoyed our early morning walks almost as much as the rides. At this time Xoe was busy with household duties, and we, as useless creatures, were free to do what we pleased. So we would start off hand in hand for a sandy pool we knew under a clump of overhanging trees. As Pip trotted beside me he would prattle away of all the great things he was going to do by-and-by --- just as I had talked, but to myself, alas! in times long gone. Then as he warmed up he would run off on that side or this, mowing down the tall plants with his little cane, and performing prodigies of valour on every big dandelion within reach. When we came to the blue sea he always made a pretence of running away, until I caught him and flung him in, to dive after him as he sank. In this way Pip soon learned to swim. And wonderfully pretty and chubby he looked, lying on his back in the cool fresh sea, laughing with delight, and splashing the white ripples at me or at the dog with his little hands and feet. Then we ran races home again, and Xoe was always on the look- out to cover the victor with kisses, and the victor, as it happened, was always Pip.
"You are spoiling that child!" Xoe used to say regularly every day, with the same fond look of admiration in her eyes. "I thought I had you pretty well in hand, but, Zit, you are a perfect slave to him."
Pip always used to laugh out merrily at this, as if he knew, and I have no doubt he did, that I was not the only one who spoiled him. But Pip was a boy who could stand a good deal of spoiling before he was any the worse of it. Here, Xoe and I were quite in accord, and we often talked this over quietly, after we had tucked him up into his little white cot for his siesta.
He was dressed just like me now, and he had in miniature everything I owned myself. His tiny hatchets had a rack beside my own. His little leather sandals, when they lay beside mine in the cave at night, made my feet seem terribly clumsy and enormously big. He was a dead shot, too, with his little bow; and as his arrows were, of course, all blunt at the point, for fear he might prick his fingers, it was a favourite amusement of the kids and lambs about to come up and be shot at.
"This really won't do!" cried Xoe one afternoon, as, with Pip on my shoulder, I ran into the pretty little cave she kept as her own dressing-room, followed helter- skelter by half the colony of beasts and birds. "This won't do, Zit," she I continued, snatching Pip from me, and driving the whole tribe of his followers away with waving of hands and gentle imprecations, and a good deal of eager help from the dog.
"What won't do, Xoe?" I asked, in the most profound astonishment. "I never saw you looking prettier, or brighter, or happier, than you look now."
"That is exactly it," said Xoe, I trying to pucker up her dimpled cheeks into a woe-begone expression. "We are far too happy. Don't you remember that you agreed we should be happy here for a little, and then go away and be happy somewhere else. We are forgetting all that. I have never been near that wretched mainland since we left it, and I sit here and shiver all the time Pip is over there. We must think of his future, dear. We must see that he never suffers as we have suffered. We must be sure, beyond any possibility of doubt, that nothing of our past ever reaches him."
"I daresay you are right, Xoe," I answered. "But I really don't think Pip would ever care two straws about the lot of them. You ought to have seen him kill that cobra yesterday morning."
"I have no patience with you, Zit," said Xoe. "The boy is as brave as he can be. Nothing frightens him. I daresay he will talk like you when he is as old as you are. But you only talk like this because you are a man. You know nothing of the way in which those horrible creatures hate us.
It takes a happy woman with her little baby laughing and crowing in her arms to know that, and you were asleep when they were gibbering all around us in the trees that awful evening. I saw them though, with their bony fingers and their narrow foreheads, and with jealousy, envy, malice, and all unspeakable meannesses glinting out of their small eyes. They hate us because we love each other dearly, and because Pip is as beautiful as our love itself, and because we are happy with a happiness quite unfathomable to them. That is all. So long as they feel their degradation like this, and their miserable inferiority, we can never hope to change them, Zit. You must kill them off or leave them to snarl away among themselves. But why should you kill them off, poor wretches? Surely, you have killed enough. And from what you told me of the mainland when you went back to it, they are more noisome dead than alive. Look at Pip and think of them. Can we stretch too wide a gulf between the two?"
Xoe's face had become quite flushed and almost hard- set as she spoke, but her eyes were soft with tears when she looked towards Pip.
"You are a dear good creature!" I cried. "I had forgotten how you suffered. We will go when you like."
"Thank you," said Xoe. "It is best. But you are a dear good creature too, Zit, and much cleverer than I am. Anybody can be a mother, but it takes months of training to make a father, and I never thought you would get on with Pip as you do. Sometimes he seems far fonder of you than of me. I wish you could only see how he imitates you when you are away. How he struts about like you, and tries to make himself look big, and talks in a deep low voice. Sometimes I am so amused that I answer him as if he really were you, Zit, and then he always ends, as I daresay you would like to, by giving me a regular scolding. You are both of you a little bit conceited, dear, and I tell you what --- I am more conceited than either of you in having such a husband and such a son. If I want to go away, it is only because I feel that the great happiness we have here cannot possibly last."
So by degrees we built our boat, and building on a large scale was easy to me now, after all the boats I had made since we reached our island. So one gloomy morning we sailed away, our eyes full of tears for the friends we left behind, but our hearts beating bravely when we thought of the new home that was waiting for us somewhere beyond the gold and crimson glories of the sun that had sunk far across the sea the night before. As soon as the big sail was set, I silently took the tiller from Xoe. I let the boat go with the wind, and it bore us out to sea, straight away from our islands. But even the great sea itself was an illusion. It was only a broad gulf after all, hemmed in on either side by tall black mountains, and towers, and turrets, and columns of black rock, which, when the mid-day sun shone on them, changed to a singular bright rose-colour. This I took as a good omen. I turned the boat boldly down the gulf, and we sailed on until we lost all record of time.
* * * * *
It was rather odd, was it not, that my great-great- granddaughter should have taught me how to read and write. But here I am, nevertheless, finishing this brief record of our early days on a broad verandah overlooking a hill-girt lake that was never so peaceful, so sultry, so placid as it is just now.
Work is over for the day. From the long stretches of yellow corn-fields the husbandmen and their lazy cattle are coming slowly home. Beside the huge brick furnaces the hissing bronze is hardening into shape under the firm, wet sand, and white-robed girls, with great baskets of luscious fruit deftly poised upon their heads, are loitering to talk with the thirsty, grimy smelters. The carpenter's adze and the weaver's shuttle lie at last at rest, and all the idle gossips are laughing together under the peepul tree by the well. The children in the village round about have just escaped from school, and are dancing gaily down the street to the music of the panpipe and the lute. I had laid my reed-pen aside to watch them, when Pip suddenly burst in, burly, tanned, stalwart and very determined, and for long years the ruler of us all.
"Father!" he cried, "there has been another robbery in the village, and they all know the culprit as well as we do. They talked of expelling him last night. So long as you are with us our simple village life will last. But if we have ever to carry you away, father, to that dismal burning ghaut beside the lake, I shall be able to restrain them no longer Men will turn against men, like those beasts you told me of long since, and we are so much cleverer than the beasts that the battle will be cruel indeed, and will not soon be over."
"Hush, Pip!" said Xoe, who had come quietly upon us. "Don't say such dreadful things to your father. Can't you see that he is busy with his writing? You are always looking forward, Pip, and your father and I are always looking back. But you will never be half the man your father was if you let every petty squabble upset you so. You should think of us a little; and just now, when I want to speak seriously to your father, I wish you would give them a hint that their panpiping would sound sweeter and far softer from the other side of the lake."
Pip kissed his mother gently, and went out to do her bidding.
"Poor Pip!" said Xoe, when he had gone; "though he has not so much control over the others as you have, Zit, he has a wonderful control over himself. But I wish he would not talk about such dreadfully improbable things. How is the book getting on?" she continued. "I am far more afraid of that book of yours than of all Pip's forebodings."
"I won't write another word after to-night!" I cried firmly, rather glad of an excuse for the idleness that was fast growing upon me. "My poor old reed-pen is worn down to a stump. Let me finish off this scroll, Xoe, and I will never touch papyrus again. How still it is to-night! Listen to the sheep-bells on the hillside, and look at the sultry mist slowly covering the blue lake like a beautiful veil!"
But Xoe was still looking over my shoulder, giving my white hair a loving little pat, that always presages a scolding.
"You haven't said anything about our origin, Zit?" she asked, very anxiously. "You and I are proud, of course, of the way in which we have got on. But the children know nothing of our past, and why should we tell them?"
"Xoe," I retorted, "you made our great- great-granddaughter teach me how to read and write, and it would not be fair on the child if I put down anything in black and white that is not really true."
"True and false, my dear old Zit," said Xoe, promptly, "they are nothing more than my right and wrong of long ago. It all depends. The children are not like me. They take everything far more seriously. I know all your old stories by heart. I love them just as I love the trees in our garden, because I have watched them grow. But they believe everything as you tell it. They all believe every word of your famous bear-story. Why should we degrade them so terribly with the tale of our mean origin? They are what they are, thanks to us; let them thank us for evermore."
"I have written down everything, Xoe," I said, very tenderly kissing her hand, "because I owe everything to you, and I cannot for the life of me help saying so. Still, nobody but you can read my writing, so it does not really matter."
"That is true," said Xoe, dubiously; "and, of course, you always know best, Zit."
"I am glad you think so, at last, Xoe," I cried, intensely gratified; "but why have you never owned it before?"
"Because I am not quite sure of it now," answered Xoe. "And oh, I do wish you had never written that wretched book!"