The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Vi Part 105
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Thus started the Hooker Expedition, which discovered the Flying Ring and made the famous report to the Smithsonian Inst.i.tution after the disarmament of the nations. But could the nations have seen the expedition as it emerged from its boarding-house that September morning they would have rubbed their eyes.
With the utmost difficulty Prof. Bennie Hooker negotiated his bags and rod cases as far as Harvard Square, where, through the a.s.sistance of a friendly conductor with a sense of humour, he was enabled to board an electric surface car to the North Station.
Beyond the start up the River Moisie his imagination refused to carry him. But he had a faith that approximated certainty that over the Height of Land--just over the edge--he would find Pax and the Flying Ring. During all the period required for his experiments and preparations he had never once glanced at a newspaper or inquired as to the progress of the war that was rapidly exterminating the inhabitants of the globe. Thermic induction, atomic disintegration, the Lavender Ray, these were the Alpha, the Sigma, the Omega of his existence.
But meantime the war had gone on with all its concomitant horror, suffering, and loss of life, and the representatives of the nations a.s.sembled at Was.h.i.+ngton had been feverishly attempting to unite upon the terms of a universal treaty that should end militarism and war forever. And thereafter, also, although Professor Hooker was sublimely unconscious of the fact, the celebrated conclave, known as Conference No. 2, composed of the best-known scientific men from every laud, was sitting, perspiring, in the great lecture hall of the Smithsonian Inst.i.tution, its members shouting at one another in a dozen different languages, telling each other what they did and didn't know, and becoming more and more confused and entangled in an underbrush of contradictory facts and observations and irreconcilable theories until they were making no progress whatever--which was precisely what the astute and plausible Count von Koenitz, the German Amba.s.sador, had planned and intended.
[Footnote 3: Up to the date of the armistice.]
The Flying Ring did not again appear, and in spite of the uncontroverted testimony of Acting-Consul Quinn, Mohammed Ben Ali el Bad, and a thousand others who had actually seen the Lavender Ray, people began gradually, almost unconsciously, to a.s.sume that the destruction of the Atlas Mountains had been the work of an unsuspected volcano and that the presence of the Flying Ring had been a coincidence and not the cause of the disruption. So the incident pa.s.sed by and public attention refocussed itself upon the conflict on the plains of Chalons-sur-Marne. Only Bill Hood, Thornton, and a few others in the secret, together with the President, the Cabinet, and the members of Conference No. 1 and of Conference No. 2, truly apprehended the significance of what had occurred, and realized that either war or the human race must pa.s.s away forever. And no one at all, save only the German Amba.s.sador and the Imperial German Commissioners, suspected that one of the nations had conceived and was putting into execution a plan designed to result in the acquirement of the secret of how the earth could be rocked and in the capture of the discoverer. For the Sea Fox, bearing the German expeditionary force, had sailed from Amsterdam twelve days after the conference held at Mainz between Professor von Schwenitz and General von Helmuth, and having safely rounded the Orkneys was now already well on its course toward Labrador. Bennie Hooker, however, was ignorant of all these things. Like an immigrant with a tag on his arm, he sat on the train which bore him toward Quebec, his ticket stuck into the band on his hat, dreaming of a transformer that wouldn't--couldn't--melt at only six thousand degrees.
When Professor Hooker awoke in his room at the hotel in Quebec the morning after his arrival there, he ate a leisurely breakfast, and having smoked a pipe on the terrace, strolled down to the wharves along the river front. Here to his disgust he learned that the Labrador steamer, the Druro, would not sail until the following Thursday--a three days' wait. Apparently Labrador was a less-frequented locality than he had supposed. He mastered his impatience, however, and discovering a library presided over by a highly intelligent graduate of Edinburgh, he became so interested in various profound treatises on physics which he discovered that he almost missed his boat.
a.s.sisted by the head porter, and staggering under the weight of his new rod cases and other impedimenta, Bennie boarded the Druro on Thursday morning, engaged a stateroom, and purchased a ticket for Seven Islands, which is the nearest harbour to the mouth of the River Moisie. She was a large and comfortable river steamer of about eight hundred and fifty tons, and from her appearance belied the fact that she was the connecting link between civilization and the desolate and ice-clad wastes of the Far North, as in fact she was. The captain regarded Bennie with indifference, if not disrespect, grunted, and ascending to the pilot house blew the whistle. Quebec, with its teeming wharves and crowded s.h.i.+pping, overlooked by the cliffs that made Wolfe famous, slowly fell behind. Off their leeward bow the Isle of Orleans swung nearer and swept past, its neat homesteads inviting the weary traveller to pastoral repose. The river cleared. Low, farm-clad sh.o.r.es began to slip by. The few tourists and returning habitans settled themselves in the bow and made ready for their voyage.
There would have been much to interest the ordinary American traveller in this comparatively unfrequented corner of his native continent; but our salmon fisherman, having conveniently disposed of his baggage, immediately retired to his stateroom and, intent on saving time, proceeded, wholly oblivious of the Druro, to read pa.s.sionately several exceedingly uninviting looking books which he produced from his valise. The Druro, quite as oblivious to Professor Hooker, proceeded on her accustomed way, pa.s.sed by Tadousac, and made her first stop at the G.o.dbout. Bennie, finding the boat no longer in motion, reappeared on deck under the mistaken impression that they had reached the end of the voyage, for he was unfamiliar with the topography of the St. Lawrence, and in fact had very vague ideas as to distances and the time required to traverse them by rail or boat.
At the G.o.dbout the Druro dropped a habitan or two, a few boatloads of steel rods, crates of crockery and tobacco, and then thrust her bow out into the stream and steered down river, rounding at length the Pointe des Monts and winding in behind the Isles des Oeufs to the River Pentecoute, where she deposited some more habitans, including a priest in a black soutane, who somewhat incongruously was smoking a large cigar. Then, nosing through a fog bank and breaking out at last into sunlight again, she steamed across and put in past the Carousel, that picturesque and rocky headland, into Seven Islands Bay. Here she anch.o.r.ed, and, having discharged cargo, steamed out by the Grand Boule, where eighteen miles beyond the islands Bennie saw the pilot house of the old St. Olaf, of unhappy memory, just lifting above the water.
He had emerged from the retirement of his stateroom only on being asked by the steward for his ticket and learning that the Druro was nearing the end of her journey. For nearly two days he had been submerged in Soddy on The Interpretation of Radium. The Druro was running along a sandy, low-lying beach about half a mile offsh.o.r.e. They were nearing the mouth of a wide river. The volume of black fresh water from the Moisie rushed out into the St. Lawrence until it met the green sea water, causing a sharp demarcation of colour and a no less p.r.o.nounced conflict of natural forces. For, owing to the pressure of the tide against the solid ma.s.s of the fresh stream, acres of water unexpectedly boiled on all sides, throwing geysers of foam twenty feet or more into the air, and then subsided. Off the point the engine bell rang twice, and the Druro came to a pause.
Bennie, standing in the bow, in his sportsman's cap and waterproof, hugging his rod cases to his breast, watched while a heterogeneous fleet of canoes, skiffs, and sailboats came racing out from sh.o.r.e, for the steamer does not land here, but hangs in the offing and lighters its cargo ash.o.r.e. Leading the lot was a sort of whaleboat propelled by two oars on one side and one on the other, and in the sternsheets sat a rosy-cheeked, good-natured looking man with a smooth-shaven face who Bennie knew must be Malcolm Holliday.
"h.e.l.lo, Cap!" shouted Holliday. "Any pa.s.sengers?"
The captain from the pilot house waved contemptuously in Bennie's general direction.
"Howdy!" said Holliday. "What do you want? What can I do for you?"
"I thought I'd try a little salmon fis.h.i.+ng," shrieked Bennie back at him.
Holliday shook his head. "Sorry," he bellowed, "river's leased. Besides, the officers are here."
[Footnote 4: Along the St. Lawrence and the Labrador coast a salmon fisherman is always spoken of by natives and local residents as an "officer," the reason being that most of the sportsmen who visit these waters are English army officers. Hence salmon fishermen are universally termed "officers," and a habitan will describe the sportsmen who have rented a certain river as "les officiers de la Moisie" or "les officiers de la Romaine."]
"Oh!" answered Bennie ruefully. "I didn't know. I supposed I could fish anywhere."
"Well, you can't!" snapped Holliday, puzzled by the little man's curious appearance.
"I suppose I can go ash.o.r.e, can't I?" insisted Bennie somewhat indignantly. "I'll just take a camping trip then. I'd like to see the big salmon cache up at the forks if I can't do anything else."
Instantly Holliday scented something. "Another fellow after gold," he muttered to himself.
Just at that moment, the tide being at the ebb, a hundred acres of green water off the Druro's bow broke into whirling waves and jets of foam again. All about them, and a mile to seaward, these merry men danced by the score. Bennie thrilled at the beauty of it. The whaleboat containing Holliday was now right under the s.h.i.+p's bows.
"I want to look round anyhow," expostulated Bennie. "I've come all the way from Boston." He felt himself treated like a criminal, felt the suspicion in Holliday's eye.
The factor laughed. "In that case you certainly deserve sympathy." Then he hesitated. "Oh, well, come along," he said finally. "We'll see what we can do for you."
A rope ladder had been thrown over the side and one of the sailors now lowered Bennie's luggage into the boat. The professor followed, avoiding with difficulty stepping on his mackintosh as he climbed down the slippery rounds. Holliday grasped his hand and yanked him to a seat in the stern.
"Yes," he repeated, "if you've come all the way from Boston I guess we'll have to put you up for a few days anyway."
A crate of canned goods, a parcel of mail, and a huge bundle of newspapers were deposited in the bow. Holliday waved his hand. The Druro churned the water and swung out into midstream again. Bennie looked curiously after her. To the north lay a sandy sh.o.r.e dotted by a scraggy forest of dwarf spruce and birch. A few fis.h.i.+ng huts and a ma.s.s of wooden shanties fringed the forest. To the east, seaward, many miles down that great stretch of treacherous, sullen river waited a gray bank of fog. But overhead the air was crystalline with that sparkling, scratchy brilliance that is found only in northern climes. Nature seemed hard, relentless. With his feet entangled in rod cases Professor Hooker wondered for a moment what on earth he was there for, landing on this inhospitable coast. Then his eyes sought the genial face of Malcolm Holliday and hope sprang up anew. For there is that about this genial frontiersman that draws all men to him alike, be they Scotch or English, Canadian habitans or Montagnais, and he is the king of the coast, as his father was before him, or as was old Peter McKenzie, the head factor, who incidentally cast the best salmon fly ever thrown east of Montreal or south of Ungava. Bennie found comfort in Holliday's smile, and felt toward him as a child does toward its mother.
They neared sh.o.r.e and ran alongside a ramshackle pier, up the slippery poles of which Bennie was instructed to clamber. Then, dodging rotten boards and treacherous places, he gained the sand of the beach and stood at last on Labrador. A group of Montagnais picked up the professor's luggage and, headed by Holliday, they started for the latter's house. It was a strange and amusing landing of an expedition the results of which have revolutionized the life of the inhabitants of the entire globe. No such inconspicuous event has ever had so momentous a conclusion. And now when Malcolm Holliday makes his yearly trip home to Quebec, to report to the firm of Holliday Brothers, who own all the nets far east of Anticosti, he spends hours at the Club des Voyageurs, recounting in detail all the circ.u.mstances surrounding the arrival of Professor Hooker and how he took him for a gold hunter.
"Anyhow," he finishes, "I knew he wasn't a salmon fisherman in spite of his rods and cases, for he didn't know a Black Dose from a Thunder and Lightning or a Jock Scott, and he thought you could catch salmon with a worm!"
It was true wholly. Bennie did suppose one killed the king of game fish as he had caught minnows in his childhood, and his geologic researches in the Harvard Library had not taught him otherwise. Neither had his tailor.
"My dear fellow," said Holliday as they smoked their pipes on the narrow board piazza at the Post, "of course I'll help you all I can, but you've come at a bad season of the year all round. In the first place, you'll be eaten alive by black flies, gnats, and mosquitoes." He slapped vigorously as he spoke. "And you'll have the devil of a job getting canoe men. You see all the Montagnais are down here at the settlement 'making their ma.s.s.' Once a year they leave the hunting grounds up by the Divide and beyond and come down river to 'faire la messe'--it's a sacred duty with 'em. They're very religious, as you probably know--a fine lot, too, take 'em altogether, gentle, obedient, industrious, polite, cheerful, and fair to middling honest. They have a good deal of French blood--a bit diluted, but it's there."
"Can't I get a few to go along with me?" asked Bennie anxiously.
"That's a question," answered the factor meditatively. "You know how the birds--how caribou--migrate every year. Well, these Montagnais are just like them. They have a regular routine. Each man has a line of traps of his own, all the way up to the Height of Land. They all go up river in the autumn with their winter's supply of pork, flour, tea, powder, lead, axes, files, rosin to mend their canoes, and castoreum--made out of beaver glands, you know--to take away the smell of their hands from the baited traps. They go up in families, six or seven canoes together, and as each man reaches his own territory his canoe drops out of the procession and he makes a camp for his wife and babies. Then he spends the winter--six or seven months--in the woods following his line of traps. By and by the ice goes out and he begins to want some society. He hasn't seen a priest for ten months or so, and he's afraid of the loup-garou, for all I know. So he comes down river, takes his Newport season here at Moisie, and goes to ma.s.s and staves off the loup-garou. They're all here now. Maybe you can get a couple to go up river and maybe you can't."
Then observing Bennie's crestfallen expression, he added: "But we'll see. Perhaps you can get Marc St. Ange and Edouard Moreau, both good fellows. They've made their ma.s.s and they know the country from here to Ungava. There's Marc now--Venez ici, Marc St. Ange." A swarthy, lithe Montagnais was coming down the road, and Holliday addressed him rapidly in habitan French: "This gentleman wishes to go up river to the forks to see the big cache. Will you go with him?"
The Montagnais bowed to Professor Hooker and pondered the suggestion. Then he gesticulated toward the north and seemed to Bennie to be telling a long story.
Holliday laughed again. "Marc says he will go," he commented shortly. "But he says also that if the Great Father of the Marionettes is angry he will come back."
"What does he mean by that?" asked Bennie.
"Why, when the aurora borealis--Northern Lights--plays in the sky the Indians always say that the 'marionettes are dancing.' About four weeks ago we had some electrical disturbances up here and a kind of an earthquake. It scared these Indians silly. There was a tremendous display, almost like a volcano. It beat anything I ever saw, and I've been here fifteen years. The Indians said the Father of the Marionettes was angry because they didn't dance enough to suit him, and that he was making them dance. Then some of them caught a glimpse of a shooting star, or a comet, or something, and called it the Father of the Marionettes. They had quite a time--held ma.s.ses, and so on--and were really cut up. But the thing is over now, except for the regular, ordinary display."
"When can they be ready?" inquired Bennie eagerly.
"To-morrow morning," replied Holliday. "Marc will engage his uncle. They're all right. Now how about an outfit? But don't talk any more about salmon. I know what you're after--it's gold!"
The moon was still hanging low over the firs at four o'clock the next morning when three black and silent shadows emerged from the factor's house and made their way, cautiously and with difficulty, across the sand to where a canoe had been run into the riffles of the beach. Marc came first, carrying a sheet-iron stove with a collapsible funnel; then his Uncle Edouard, shouldering a bundle consisting of a tent and a couple of sacks of flour and pork; and lastly Professor Hooker with his mackintosh and rifle, entirely unaware of the fact that his careful guides had removed all the cartridges from his luggage lest he should shoot too many caribou and so spoil the winter's food supply. It was cold, almost frosty. In the black flood of the river the stars burned with a chill, wavering light. Bennie put on his mackintosh with a s.h.i.+ver. The two guides quietly piled the luggage in the centre of the canoe, arranged a seat for their pa.s.senger, picked up their paddles, shoved off, and took their places in bow and stern.
No lights gleamed in the windows of Moisie. The lap of the ripples against the birch side of the canoe, the gurgle of the water round the paddle blades, and the rush of the bow as, after it had paused on the withdraw, it leaped forward on the stroke, were the only sounds that broke the deathlike silence of the semi-arctic night. Bennie struck a match, and it flared red against the black water as he lit his pipe, but he felt a great stirring within his little breast, a great courage to dare, to do, for he was off, really off, on his great hunt, his search for the secret that would remake the world. With the current whispering against its sides the canoe swept in a wide circle to midstream. The moon was now partially obscured behind the treetops. To the east a faint glow made the horizon seem blacker than ever. Ahead the wide waste of the dark river seemed like an engulfing chasm. Drowsiness enwrapped Professor Hooker, a drowsiness intensified by the rythmic swinging of the paddles and the pile of bedding against which he reclined. He closed his eyes, content to be driven onward toward the region of his hopes, content almost to fall asleep.
"Hi!" suddenly whispered Marc St. Ange. "Voila! Le pere des marionettes!"
Bennie awoke with a start that almost upset the canoe. The blood rushed to his face and sang in his ears.
"Where?" he cried. "Where?"
"Au nord," answered Marc. "Mais il descend!"
Professor Hooker stared in the direction of Marc's uplifted paddle. Was he deceived? Was the wish father to the thought? Or did he really see at an immeasurable distance upon the horizon a quickly dying trail of orange-yellow light? He rubbed his eyes--his heart beating wildly under his sportsman's suiting. But the north was black beyond the coming dawn.
Old Edouard grunted.
"Vous etes fou!" he muttered to his nephew, and drove his paddle deep into the water.
Day broke with staccato emphasis. The sun swung up out of Europe and burned down upon the canoe with a heat so equatorial in quality that Bennie discarded both his mackintosh and his sporting jacket. All signs of human life had disappeared from the distant banks of the river and the bow of the canoe faced a gray-blue flood emerging from a wilderness of scrubby trees. A few gulls flopped their way coast-ward, and at rare intervals a salmon leaped and slashed the slow-moving surface into a boiling circle; but for the rest their surroundings were as set, as immobile, as the painted scenery of a stage, save where the current swept the scattered promontories of the sh.o.r.e. But they moved steadily north. So wearied was Bennie with the unaccustomed light and fresh air that by ten o'clock he felt the day must be over, although the sun had not yet reached the zenith. Unexpectedly Marc and Edouard turned the canoe quietly into a shallow, and beached her on a spit of white sand. In three minutes Edouard had a small fire snapping, and handed Bennie a cup of tea. How wonderful it seemed--a genuine elixir! And then he felt the stab of a mosquito, and putting up his hand found it blotched with blood. And the black flies came also. Soon the professor was tramping up and down, waving his handkerchief and clutching wildly at the air. Then they pushed off again.
The sun dropped westward as they turned bend after bend, disclosing ever the same view beyond. Shadows of rocks and trees began to jut across the eddies. A great heron, as big as an ostrich, or so he seemed, arose awkwardly and flapped off, trailing yards of legs behind him. Then Bennie put on first his jacket and then his mackintosh. He realized that his hands were numb. The sun was now only a foot or so above the sky line.
This time it was Marc who grunted and thrust the canoe toward the river's edge with a sideways push. It grounded on a belt of sand and they dragged it ash.o.r.e. Bennie, who had been looking forward to the night with vivid apprehension, now discovered to his great happiness that the chill was keeping away the black flies. Joyfully he a.s.sisted in gathering dry sticks, driving tent pegs, and picking reindeer moss for bedding. Then as darkness fell Edouard fried eggs and bacon, and with their boots off and their stockinged feet toasting to the blaze the three men ate as becomes men who have laboured fifteen hours in the open air. They drank tin cups of scalding tea, a pint at a time, and found it good; and they smoked their pipes with their backs propped against the tree trunks and found it heaven. Then as the stars came out and the woods behind them snapped with strange noises, Edouard took his pipe from his mouth.
"It's getting cold," said he. "The marionettes will dance to-night."
Bennie heard him as if across a great, yawning gulf. Even the firelight seemed hundreds of yards away. The little professor was "all in," and he sat with his chin dropped again to his chest, until he heard Marc exclaim: "Voila! Elles dansent!"
He raised his eyes. Just across the black, silent sweep of the river three giant prismatic searchlights were playing high toward the polestar, such searchlights as the G.o.ds might be using in some monstrous game. They wavered here and there, s.h.i.+fting and dodging, faded and sprang up again, till Bennie, dizzy, closed his eyes. The lights were still dancing in the north as he stumbled to his couch of moss.
"Toujour les marionettes!" whispered Marc gently, as he might to a child. "Bon soir, monsieur."
The tent was hot and dazzling white above his head when low voices, footsteps, and the clink of tin against iron aroused the professor from a profound coma. The guides had already loaded the canoe and were waiting for him. The sun was high. Apologetically he pulled on his boots, and stepping to the sand dashed the icy water into his face. His muscles groaned and rasped. His neck refused to respond to his desires with its accustomed elasticity. But he drank his tea and downed his scrambled eggs with an enthusiasm unknown in Cambridge, Ma.s.sachusetts. Marc gave him a hand into the canoe and they were off. The day had begun.
The river narrowed somewhat and the sh.o.r.es grew more rocky. At noon they lunched on another sand-spit. At sunset they saw a caribou. Night came. "Always the marionettes." Thus pa.s.sed nine days--like a dream to Bennie; and then came the first adventure.
It was about four o'clock on the afternoon of the tenth day of their trip up the Moisie when Marc suddenly stopped paddling and gazed intently sh.o.r.eward. After a moment he said something in a low tone to Edouard, and they turned the canoe and drove it rapidly toward a small cove half hidden by rocks. Bennie, straining his eyes, could see nothing at first, but when the canoe was but ten yards from sh.o.r.e he caught sight of the motionless figure of a man, lying on his face with his head nearly in the water. Marc turned him over gently, but the limbs fell limp, one leg at a grotesque angle to the knee. Bennie saw instantly that it was broken. The Indian's face was white and drawn, no doubt with pain.
"Il est mort!" said Marc slowly, crossing himself.
Edouard shrugged his shoulders and fetched a small flask of brandy from the professor's sack. Forcing open the jaws, he poured a few drops into the man's mouth. The Indian choked and opened his eyes. Edouard grunted.
"La jeunesse pense qu'elle sait tout!" he remarked scornfully.
Thus they found Nichicun, without whom Bennie might never have accomplished the object of his quest. It took three days to nurse the half-dead and altogether starved Montagnais back to life, but he received the tenderest care. Marc shot a young caribou and gave him the blood to drink, and made a ragout to put the flesh back on his bones. Meanwhile the professor slept long hours on the moss and took a much-needed rest; and by degrees they learned from Nichicun the story of his misfortune--the story that forms a part of the chronicle of the expedition, which can be read at the Smithsonian Inst.i.tution.
He was a Montagnais, he said, with a line of traps to the northeast of the Height of Land, and last winter he had had very bad luck indeed. There had been less and less in his traps and he had seen no caribou. So he had taken his wife, who was sick, and had gone over into the Nascopee country for food, and there his wife had died. He had made up his mind very late in the season to come down to Moisie and make his ma.s.s and get a new wife, and start a fresh line of traps in the autumn. All the other Montagnais had descended the river in their canoes long before, so he was alone. His provisions had given out and he saw no caribou. He began to think he would surely starve to death. And then one evening, on the point just above their present camp, he had seen a caribou and shot it, but he had been too weak to take good aim and had only broken its shoulder. It lay kicking among the boulders, pus.h.i.+ng itself along by its hind legs, and he had feared that it would escape. In his haste to reach it he had slipped on a wet rock and fallen and broken his leg. In spite of the pain he had crawled on, and then had taken place a wild, terrible fight for life between the dying man and the dying beast.
He could not remember all that had occurred--he had been kicked, gored, and bitten; but finally he had got a grip on its throat and slashed it with his knife. Then, lying there on the ground beside it, he drank its blood and cut off the raw flesh in strips for food. Finally one day he had crawled to the river for water and had fainted.
The professor and his guides made for the Indian a hut of rocks and bark, and threw a great pile of moss into the corner of it for him to lie on. They carved a splint for his leg and bound it up, and cut a huge heap of firewood for him, smoking caribou meat and hanging it up in the hut. Somebody would come up river and find him, or if not, the three men would pick him up on their return. For this was right and the law of the woods. But never a word of particular interest to Prof. Bennie Hooker did Nichicun speak until the night before their departure, although the reason and manner of his speaking were natural enough. It happened as follows: but first it should be said that the Nascopees are an ignorant and barbarous tribe, dirty and treacherous, upon whom the Montagnais look down with contempt and scorn. They do not even wear civilized clothes, and their ways are not the ways of les bons sauvages. They have no priests; they do not come to the coast; and the Montagnais will not mingle with them. Thus it bespoke the hunger of Nichicun that he was willing to go into their country.
As he sat round the fire with Marc and Edouard on that last night, Nichicun spoke his mind of the Nascopees, and Marc translated freely for Bennie's edification.
No, the injured Montagnais told them, the Nascopees were not nice; they were dirty. They ate decayed food and they never went to ma.s.s. Moreover, they were half-witted. While he was there they were all planning to migrate for the most absurd reason--what do you suppose? Magic! They claimed the end of the world was coming! Of course it was coming some time. But they said now, right away. But why? Because the marionettes were dancing so much. And they had seen the Father of the Marionettes floating in the sky and making thunder! Fools! But the strangest thing of all, they said they could hunt no longer, for they were afraid to cross something--an iron serpent that stung with fire if you touched it, and killed you! What foolishness! An iron serpent! But he had asked them and they had sworn on the holy cross that it was true.
Bennie listened with a chill creeping up his spine. But it would never do to hint what this disclosure meant to him. Between puffs of his pipe he asked casual, careless questions of Nichicun. These Nascopees, for instance, how far off might their land be? And where did they a.s.sert this extraordinary serpent of iron to be? Were there rivers in the Nascopee country? Did white men ever go there? All these things the wounded Montagnais told him. It appeared, moreover, that the Ra.s.sini River was near the Nascopee territory, and that it flowed into the Moisie only seven miles above the camp. All that night the marionettes danced in Bennie's brain.
Next morning they propped Nichicun on his bed of moss, laid a rifle and a box of matches beside him, and bade him farewell. At the mouth of the Ra.s.sini River Prof. Bennie Hooker held up his hand and announced that he was going to the Nascopee country. The canoe halted abruptly. Old Edouard declared that they had been engaged only to go to the big cache, and that their present trip was merely by way of a little excursion to see the river. They had no supplies for such a journey, no proper amount of ammunition. No, they would deposit the professor on the nearest sandbar if he wished, but they were going back.
Bennie arose unsteadily in the canoe and dug into his pocket, producing a roll of gold coin. Two hundred and fifty dollars he promised them if they would take him to the nearest tribe of Nascopees; five hundred if they could find the Iron Serpent.
"Bien!" exclaimed both Indians without a moment's hesitation, and the canoe plunged forward up the Ra.s.sini.
Once more a dreamlike succession of brilliant, frosty days; once more the star-studded sky in which always the marionettes danced. And then at last the great falls of the Ra.s.sini, beyond which no white man had gone. They hid the canoe in the bushes and placed beneath it the iron stove and half their supply of food. Then they plunged into the brush, eastward. Bennie had never known such grueling work and heartbreaking fatigue; and the clouds of flies pursued them venomously and with unrelenting persistence. At first they had to cut their way through acres of brush, and then the land rose and they saw before them miles of swamp and barren land dotted with dwarf trees and lichen-grown rocks. Here it was easier and they made better time; but the professor's legs ached and his rifle wore a red bruise on his shoulder. And then after five days of torment they came upon the Iron Rail. It ran in almost a direct line from northwest to southwest, with hardly a waver, straight over the barrens and through the forests of scrub, with a five-foot clearing upon either side. At intervals it was elevated to a height of eight or ten inches upon insulated iron braces. Both Marc and Edouard stared at in wonder, while Bennie made them a little speech.
It was, he said, a thing called a "monorail," made by a man who possessed strange secrets concerning the earth and the properties of matter. That man lived over the Height of Land toward Ungava. He was a good man and would not harm other good men. But he was a great magician--if you believed in magic. On the rail undoubtedly he ran something called a gyroscopic engine, and carried his stores and machinery into the wilderness. The Nascopees were not such fools after all, for here was the something they feared to cross--the iron serpent that bit and killed. Let them watch while he made it bite. He allowed his rifle to fall against the rail, and instantly a shower of blue sparks flashed from it as the current leaped into the earth.
Bennie counted out twenty-five golden eagles and handed them to Edouard. If they followed the rail to its source he would, he promised, on their return to civilization give them as much again. Without more ado the Indians lifted their packs and swung off to the northwest along the line of the rail. The stock of Prof. Bennie Hooker had risen in their estimation. On they ploughed across the barrens, through swamps, over the quaking muskeg, into the patches of scrub growth where the short branches slapped their faces, but always they kept in sight of the rail.
The extraordinary announcement, transmitted from various European news agencies, that an attempt had been made by the general commanding the First Artillery Division of the German Army of the Meuse to violate the armistice, had caused a profound sensation, particularly as the attempt to destroy Paris had been prevented only by the sudden appearance of the same mysterious Flying Ring that had shortly before caused the destruction of the Atlas Mountains and the flooding of the Sahara Desert by the Mediterranean Sea.
The advent of the Flying Ring on this second occasion had been noted by several hundred thousand persons, both soldiers and non-combatants. At about the hour of midnight, as if to observe whether the warring nations intended sincerely to live up to their agreement and bring about an actual cessation of hostilities, the Ring had appeared out of the north and, floating through the sky, had followed the lines of the belligerents from Brussels to Verdun and southward. The blinding yellow light that it had projected toward the earth had roused the soldiers sleeping in their intrenchments and caused great consternation all along the line of fortifications, as it was universally supposed that the director of its flight intended to annihilate the combined armies of France, England, Germany, and Belgium. But the Ring had sailed peacefully along, three thousand feet aloft, deluging the countryside with its dazzling light, sending its beams into the casemates of the huge fortresses of the Rhine and the outer line of the French fortifications, searching the redoubts and trenches, but doing no harm to the sleeping armies that lay beneath it; until at last the silence of the night had been broken by the thunder of "Thanatos," and in the twinkling of an eye the Lavender Ray had descended, to turn the village of Champaubert into the smoking crater of a dying volcano. The entire division of artillery had been annihilated, with the exception of a few stragglers, and of the Relay Gun naught remained but a distorted puddle of steel and iron.
Long before the news of the horrible retribution visited by the master of the Ring upon Treitschke, the major-general of artillery, and the inventor, Von Heckmann, had reached the United States, Bill Hood, sitting in the wireless receiving station of the Naval Observatory at Georgetown, had received through the ether a message from his mysterious correspondent in the north that sent him hurrying to the White House. Pax had called the Naval Observatory and had transmitted the following ultimatum, repeating it, as was his custom, three times: "To the President of the United States and to All Mankind: "I have put the nations to the test and found them wanting. The solemn treaty entered into by the amba.s.sadors of the belligerent nations at Was.h.i.+ngton has been violated. My attempt by harmless means to compel the cessation of hostilities and the abolition of war has failed. I cannot trust the nations of the earth. Their selfishness, their bloodthirstiness, and greed, will inevitably prevent their fulfilling their agreements with me or keeping the terms of their treaties with one another, which they regard, as they themselves declare, merely as 'sc.r.a.ps of paper.' The time has come for me to compel peace. I am the dictator of human destiny and my will is law. War shall cease. On the 10th day of September I shall s.h.i.+ft the axis of the earth until the North Pole shall be in the region of Stra.s.sburg and the South Pole in New Zealand. The habitable zone of the earth will be hereafter in South Africa, South and Central America, and regions now unfrequented by man. The nations must migrate and a new life in which war is unknown must begin upon the globe. This is my last message to the human race.
The conference of amba.s.sadors summoned by the President to the White House that afternoon exhibited a character in striking contrast with the first, at which Von Koenitz and the amba.s.sadors from France, Russia, and England had had their memorable disagreement. It was a serious, apprehensive, and subdued group of gentlemen that gathered round the great mahogany table in the Cabinet chamber to debate what course of action the nations should pursue to avert the impending calamity to mankind. For that Pax could s.h.i.+ft the axis of the earth, or blow the globe clean out of its...o...b..t into s.p.a.ce, if he chose to do so, no one doubted any longer.
And first it fell as the task of the amba.s.sador representing the Imperial German Commissioners to a.s.sure his distinguished colleagues that his nation disavowed and denied all responsibility for the conduct of General Treitschke in bombarding Paris after the hour set for the armistice. It was unjust and contrary to the dictates of reason, he argued, to hold the government of a nation comprising sixty-five millions of human beings and five millions of armed men accountable for the actions of a single individual. He spoke pa.s.sionately, eloquently, persuasively, and at the conclusion of his speech the amba.s.sadors present were forced to acknowledge that what he said was true, and to accept without reservation his plausible a.s.surances that the Imperial German Commissioners had no thought but to cooperate with the other governments in bringing about a lasting peace such as Pax demanded.
But the immediate question was, had not the time for this gone by? Was it not too late to convince the master of the Flying Ring that his orders would be obeyed? Could anything be done to avert the calamity he threatened to bring upon the earth--to prevent the conversion of Europe into a barren waste of ice fields? For Pax had announced that he had spoken for the last time and that the fate of Europe was sealed. All the amba.s.sadors agreed that a general European immigration was practically impossible; and as a last resort it was finally decided to transmit to Pax, through the Georgetown station, a wireless message signed by all the amba.s.sadors of the belligerent nations, solemnly agreeing within one week to disband their armies and to destroy all their munitions and implements of war. This message was delivered to Hood, with instructions for its immediate delivery. All that afternoon and evening the operator sat in the observatory, calling over and over again the three letters that marked mankind's only communication with the controller of its destiny: "PAX--PAX--PAX!".
But no answer came. For long, weary hours Hood waited, his ears glued to the receivers. An impenetrable silence surrounded the master of the Ring. Pax had spoken. He would say no more. Late that night Hood reluctantly returned to the White House and informed the President that he was unable to deliver the message of the nations.
And meantime Prof. Bennie Hooker, with Marc and Edouard, struggled across the wilderness of Labrador, following the Iron Rail that led to the hiding-place of the master of the world.
The terrible fate of the German expeditionary force is too well known to require comment. As has been already told, the Sea Fox had sailed from Amsterdam twelve days after the conference in the War Office at Mainz between General von Helmuth and Professor von Schwenitz. Once north of the Orkneys it had encountered fair weather, and it had reached Hamilton Inlet in ten days without mishap, and with the men and animals in the best of condition. At Rigolet the men had disembarked and loaded their howitzers, mules, and supplies upon the flat-bottomed barges brought with them for that purpose. Thirty French and Indian guides had been engaged, and five days later the expedition, towed by the powerful motor launches, had started up the river toward the chain of lakes lying northwest toward Ungava. Every one was in the best of spirits and everything moved with customary German precision like clockwork. Nothing had been forgotten, not even the pungent invention of a Berlin chemist to discourage mosquitoes. Without labour, without anxiety, the fourteen barges bored through the swift currents and at last reached a great lake that lay like a silver mirror for miles about them. The moon rose and turned the boats into weird shapes as they ploughed through the gray mists--a strange and terrible sight for the Nascopees lurking in the underbrush along the sh.o.r.e. And while the men smoked and sang "Die Wacht am Rhein," listening to the trill of the ripples against the bows, the foremost motorboat grounded.
The momentum of the barge immediately following could not be checked, and she in turn drove into what seemed to be a mud bank. At about the same instant the other barges struck bottom. Intense excitement and confusion prevailed among the members of the expedition, since they were almost out of sight of land and the draft of the motorboats was only nineteen inches. But no efforts could move the barges from where they were. All night long the propellers churned the gleaming water of the lake to foam, but without result. Each and every barge and boat was hard and fast aground, and when the gray daylight came stealing across the lake there was no lake to be seen, only a reeking marsh, covered for miles with a welter of green slime and decaying vegetable matter across which it would seem no human being or animal could flounder. As far as the eye could reach lay only a blackish ooze. And with the sun came millions of mosquitoes and flies, and drove the men and mules frantic with their stings.
Only one man, Ludwig Helmer, a gun driver from Potsdam, survived. Half mad with the flies and nearly naked, he found his way somehow across the quaking bog, after all his comrades had died of thirst, and reached a tribe of Nascopees, who took him to the coast. A great explosion, they told him, had torn the River Nascopee from its bed and diverted its course. The lakes that it fed had all dried up.
Blinded by perspiration, sweltering under the heavy burden of their outfit, goaded almost to frenzy by the black flies and mosquitoes, Hooker and Marc and Edouard staggered through the brush, following the monorail. They had already reached the summit of the Height of Land and where now working down the northern slope in the direction of Ungava. The land was barren beyond the imagination of the unimaginative Bennie. Small dwarfed trees struggled for a footing amid the lichen-covered outcroppings and sun-dried moss of the hollows. The slightest rise showed mile upon mile of great waste undulating interminably in every direction. The heat s.h.i.+mmering off the rocks was almost suffocating. At noon on September 10th they threw themselves into the shade of a narrow ledge, boiled some tea, and smoked their pipes, wildly fanning the air to drive away the swarms of insects that attacked them.
Hooker was half drunk from lack of sleep and water. Already once or twice he had caught himself wandering when talking to Marc and Edouard. The whole thing was like a horrible, disgusting nightmare. And then he suddenly became aware that the two Indians were staring intently through the clouds of mosquitoes over the tree tops to the eastward. Through the sweat that trickled into his eyes he tried to make out what they could see. But he could discern nothing except mosquitoes. And then he thought he saw a mosquito larger than all the others. He waved at it, but it remained where it was. A slight breeze momentarily wafted the swarm away, and he still saw the big mosquito hovering over the horizon. Then he heard Marc cry out: "Quelque chose vol en l'air!"
He rubbed the moisture out of his eyes and stared at the mosquito, which was growing bigger every minute. With the velocity of a projectile, this monstrous insect, or whatever it was, came sweeping up behind them from the Height of Land, soaring into the zenith in a great parabola, until with a s.h.i.+ver of excitement Bennie recognized that it was the Flying Ring.
"It's him," he chattered emphatically, if ungrammatically.
Marc and Edouard nodded.
"Oui, oui!" they cried in unison. "C'est celui que vous cherchez!"
"Il retourne chez lui," said Marc.
And then Bennie, without offering any explanation, found himself dancing up and down upon the rocks in the dizzying sun, waving his hat and shouting to the Father of the Marionettes. What he shouted he never knew. And Marc and Edouard both shouted, too. But the master of the Ring heard them not, or if he heard he paid them no attention. Nearer and nearer came the Ring, until Bennie could see the gleaming cylinder of its great steel circle. At a distance of about two miles it swept through the air over a low ridge, and settled toward the earth in the direction of Ungava.
The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Vi Part 105
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