Oceaxe sat down carelessly on the couch of mosses, and began eating the plums.
“You see, you had to kill him, Maskull,” she said, in a rather quizzical voice.
He came away from the corpse and regarded her — still red, and still breathing hard. “It’s no joking matter. You especially ought to keep quiet.”
“Because he was your husband.”
“You think I ought to show grief — when I feel none?”
“Don’t pretend, woman!”
Oceaxe smiled. “From your manner one would think you were accusing me of some crime.”
Maskull literally snorted at her words. “What, you live with filth — you live in the arms of a morbid monstrosity and then — ”
“Oh, now I grasp it,” she said, in a tone of perfect detachment.
“Well, Maskull,” she proceeded, after a pause, “and who gave you the right to rule my conduct? Am I not mistress of my own person?”
He looked at her with disgust, but said nothing. There was another long interval of silence.
“I never loved him,” said Oceaxe at last, looking at the ground.
“That makes it all the worse.”
“What does all this mean — what do you want?”
“Nothing from you — absolutely nothing — thank heaven!”
She gave a hard laugh. “You come here with your foreign preconceptions and expect us all to bow down to them.”
“Just because Crimtyphon’s sports are strange to you, you murder him — and you would like to murder me.”
“Sports! That diabolical cruelty.”
“Oh, you’re sentimental!” said Oceaxe contemptuously. “Why do you need to make such a fuss over that man? Life is life, all the world over, and one form is as good as another. He was only to be made a tree, like a million other trees. If they can endure the life, why can’t he?”
“And this is Ifdawn morality!”
Oceaxe began to grow angry. “It’s you who have peculiar ideas. You rave about the beauty of flowers and trees — you think them divine. But when it’s a question of taking on this divine, fresh, pure, enchanting loveliness yourself, in your own person, it immediately becomes a cruel and wicked degradation. Here we have a strange riddle, in my opinion.”
“Oceaxe, you’re a beautiful, heartless wild beast — nothing more. If you weren’t a woman — ”
“Well” — curling her lip — “let us hear what would happen if I weren’t a woman?”
Maskull bit his nails.
“It doesn’t matter. I can’t touch you — though there’s certainly not the difference of a hair between you and your boy-husband. For this you may thank my ‘foreign preconceptions.’ . . . Farewell!”
He turned to go. Oceaxe’s eyes slanted at him through their long lashes.
“Where are you off to, Maskull?”
“That’s a matter of no importance, for wherever I go it must be a change for the better. You walking whirlpools of crime!”
“Wait a minute. I only want to say this. Blodsombre is just starting, and you had better stay here till the afternoon. We can quickly put that body out of sight, and, as you seem to detest me so much, the place is big enough — we needn’t talk, or even see each other.”
“I don’t wish to breathe the same air.”
“Singular man!” She was sitting erect and motionless, like a beautiful statue. “And what of your wonderful interview with Surtur, and all the undone things which you set out to do?”
“You aren’t the one I shall speak to about that. But” — he eyed her meditatively — “while I’m still here you can tell me this. What’s the meaning of the expression on that corpse’s face?”
“Is that another crime, Maskull? All dead people look like that. Ought they not to?”
“I once heard it called ‘Crystalman’s face.’”
“Why not? We are all daughters and sons of Crystalman. It is doubtless the family resemblance.”
“It has also been told me that Surtur and Crystalman are one and the same.”
“You have wise and truthful acquaintances.”
“Then how could it have been Surtur whom I saw?” said Maskull, more to himself than to her. “That apparition was something quite different.”
She dropped her mocking manner and, sliding imperceptibly toward him, gently pulled his arm.
“You see — we have to talk. Sit down beside me, and ask me your questions. I’m not excessively smart, but I’ll try to be of assistance.”
Maskull permitted himself to be dragged down with soft violence. She bent toward him, as if confidentially, and contrived that her sweet, cool, feminine breath should fan his cheek.
“Aren’t you here to alter the evil to the good, Maskull? Then what does it matter who sent you?”
“What can you possibly know of good and evil?”
“Are you only instructing the initiated?”
“Who am I, to instruct anybody? However, you’re quite right. I wish to do what I can — not because I am qualified, but because I am here.”
Oceaxe’s voice dropped to a whisper. “You’re a giant, both in body and soul. What you want to do, you can do.”
“Is that your honest opinion, or are you flattering me for your own ends?”
She sighed. “Don’t you see how difficult you are making the conversation? Let’s talk about your work, not about ourselves.”
Maskull suddenly noticed a strange blue light glowing in the northern sky. It was from Alppain, but Alppain itself was behind the hills. While he was observing it, a peculiar wave of self-denial, of a disquieting nature, passed through him. He looked at Oceaxe, and it struck him for the first time that he was being unnecessarily brutal to her. He had forgotten that she was a woman, and defenceless.
“Won’t you stay?” she asked all of a sudden, quite openly and frankly.
“Yes, I think I’ll stay,” he replied slowly. “And another thing, Oceaxe — if I’ve misjudged your character, pray forgive me. I’m a hasty, passionate man.”
“There are enough easygoing men. Hard knocks are a good medicine for vicious hearts. And you didn’t misjudge my character, as far as you went — only, every woman has more than one character. Don’t you know that?”
During the pause that followed, a snapping of twigs was heard, and both looked around, startled. They saw a woman stepping slowly across the neck that separated them from the mainland.
“Tydomin,” muttered Oceaxe, in a vexed, frightened voice. She immediately moved away from Maskull and stood up.
The newcomer was of middle height, very slight and graceful. She was no longer quite young. Her face wore the composure of a woman who knows her way about the world. It was intensely pale, and under its quiescence there just was a glimpse of something strange and dangerous. It was curiously alluring, though not exactly beautiful. Her hair was clustering and boyish, reaching only to the neck. It was of a strange indigo colour. She was quaintly attired in a tunic and breeches, pieced together from the square, blue-green plates of some reptile. Her small, ivory-white breasts were exposed. Her sorb was black and sad — rather contemplative.
Without once glancing up at Oceaxe and Maskull, she quietly glided straight toward Crimtyphon’s corpse. When she arrived within a few feet of it, she stopped and looked down, with arms folded.
Oceaxe drew Maskull a little away, and whispered, “It’s Crimtyphon’s other wife, who lives under Disscourn. She’s a most dangerous woman. Be careful what you say. If she asks you to do anything, refuse it outright.”
“The poor soul looks harmless enough.”
“Yes, she does — but the poor soul is quite capable of swallowing up Krag himself. . . . Now, play the man.”
The murmur of their voices seemed to attract Tydomin’s notice, for she now slowly turned her eyes toward them.
“Who killed him?” she demanded.
Her voice was so soft, low, and refined, that Maskull hardly was able to catch the words. The sounds, however, lingered in his ears, and curiously enough seemed to grow stronger, instead of fainter.
Oceaxe whispered, “Don’t say a word, leave it all to me.” Then she swung her body around to face Tydomin squarely, and said aloud, “I killed him.”
Tydomin’s words by this time were ringing in Maskull’s head like an actual physical sound. There was no question of being able to ignore them; he had to make an open confession of his act, whatever the consequences might be. Quietly taking Oceaxe by the shoulder and putting her behind him, he said in a low, but perfectly distinct voice, “It was I that killed Crimtyphon.”
Oceaxe looked both haughty and frightened. “Maskull says that so as to shield me, as he thinks. I require no shield, Maskull. I killed him, Tydomin.”
“I believe you, Oceaxe. You did murder him. Not with your own strength, for you brought this man along for the purpose.”
Maskull took a couple of steps toward Tydomin. “It’s of little consequence who killed him, for he’s better dead than alive, in my opinion. Still, I did it. Oceaxe had no hand in the affair.”
Tydomin appeared not to hear him — she looked beyond him at Oceaxe musingly. “When you murdered him, didn’t it occur to you that I would come here, to find out?”
“I never once thought of you,” replied Oceaxe, with an angry laugh. “Do you really imagine that I carry your image with me wherever I go?”
“If someone were to murder your lover here, what would you do?”
“Lying hypocrite!” Oceaxe spat out. “You never were in love with Crimtyphon. You always hated me, and now you think it an excellent opportunity to make it good . . . now that Crimtyphon’s gone. . . . For we both know he would have made a footstool of you, if I had asked him. He worshiped me, but he laughed at you. He thought you ugly.”
Tydomin flashed a quick, gentle smile at Maskull. “Is it necessary for you to listen to all this?”
Without question, and feeling it the right thing to do, he walked away out of earshot.
Tydomin approached Oceaxe. “Perhaps because my beauty fades and I’m no longer young, I needed him all the more.”
Oceaxe gave a kind of snarl. “Well, he’s dead, and that’s the end of it. What are you going to do now, Tydomin?”
The other woman smiled faintly and rather pathetically. “There’s nothing left to do, except mourn the dead. You won’t grudge me that last office?”
“Do you want to stay here?” demanded Oceaxe suspiciously.
“Yes, Oceaxe dear, I wish to be alone.”
“Then what is to become of us?”
“I thought that you and your lover — what is his name?”
“I thought that perhaps you two would go to Disscourn, and spend Blodsombre at my home.”
Oceaxe called out aloud to Maskull, “Will you come with me now to Disscourn?”
“If you wish,” returned Maskull.
“Go first, Oceaxe. I must question your friend about Crimtyphon’s death. I won’t keep him.”
“Why don’t you question me, rather?” demanded Oceaxe, looking up sharply.
Tydomin gave the shadow of a smile. “We know each other too well.”
“Play no tricks!” said Oceaxe, and she turned to go.
“Surely you must be dreaming,” said Tydomin. “That’s the way — unless you want to walk over the cliffside.”
The path Oceaxe had chosen led across the isthmus. The direction which Tydomin proposed for her was over the edge of the precipice, into empty space.
“Shaping! I must be mad,” cried Oceaxe, with a laugh. And she obediently followed the other’s finger.
She walked straight on toward the edge of the abyss, twenty paces away. Maskull pulled his beard around, and wondered what she was doing. Tydomin remained standing with outstretched finger, watching her. Without hesitation, without slackening her step once, Oceaxe strolled on — and when she had reached the extreme end of the land she still took one more step.
Maskull saw her limbs wrench as she stumbled over the edge. Her body disappeared, and as it did so an awful shriek sounded.
Disillusionment had come to her an instant too late. He tore himself out of his stupor, rushed to the edge of the cliff, threw himself on the ground recklessly, and looked over. . . . Oceaxe had vanished.
He continued staring wildly down for several minutes, and then began to sob. Tydomin came up to him, and he got to his feet.
The blood kept rushing to his face and leaving it again. It was some time before he could speak at all. Then he brought out the words with difficulty. “You shall pay for this, Tydomin. But first I want to hear why you did it.”
“Hadn’t I cause?” she asked, standing with downcast eyes.
“Was it pure fiendishness?”
“It was for Crimtyphon’s sake.”
“She had nothing to do with that death. I told you so.”
“You are loyal to her, and I’m loyal to him.”
“Loyal? You’ve made a terrible blunder. She wasn’t my mistress. I killed Crimtyphon for quite another reason. She had absolutely no part in it.”
“Wasn’t she your lover?” asked Tydomin slowly.
“You’ve made a terrible mistake,” repeated Maskull. “I killed him because he was a wild beast. She was as innocent of his death as you are.”
Tydomin’s face took on a hard look. “So you are guilty of two deaths.”
There was a dreadful silence.
“Why couldn’t you believe me?” asked Maskull, who was pale and sweating painfully.
“Who gave you the right to kill him?” demanded Tydomin sternly.
He said nothing, and perhaps did not hear her question.
She sighed two or three times and began to stir restlessly. “Since you murdered him, you must help me bury him.”
“What’s to be done? This is a most fearful crime.”
“You art a most fearful man. Why did you come here, to do all this? What are we to you?”
“Unfortunately you are right.”
Another pause ensued.
“It’s no use standing here,” said Tydomin. “Nothing can be done. You must come with me.”
“Come with you? Where to?”
“To Disscourn. There’s a burning lake on the far side of it. He always wished to be cast there after death. We can do that after Blodsombre — in the meantime we must take him home.”
“You’re a callous, heartless woman. Why should he be buried when that poor girl must remain unburied?”
“You know that’s out of the question,” replied Tydomin quietly.
Maskull’s eyes roamed about agitatedly, apparently seeing nothing.
“We must do something,” she continued. “I shall go. You can’t wish to stay here alone?”
“No, I couldn’t stay here — and why should I want to? You want me to carry the corpse?”
“He can’t carry himself, and you murdered him. Perhaps it will ease your mind to carry it.”
“Ease my mind?” said Maskull, rather stupidly.
“There’s only one relief for remorse, and that’s voluntary pain.”
“And have you no remorse?” he asked, fixing her with a heavy eye.
“These crimes are yours, Maskull,” she said in a low but incisive voice.
They walked over to Crimtyphon’s body, and Maskull hoisted it on to his shoulders. It weighed heavier than he had thought. Tydomin did not offer to assist him to adjust the ghastly burden.
She crossed the isthmus, followed by Maskull. Their path lay through sunshine and shadow. Branchspell was blazing in a cloudless sky, the heat was insufferable — streams of sweat coursed down his face, and the corpse seemed to grow heavier and heavier. Tydomin always walked in front of him. His eyes were fastened in an unseeing stare on her white, womanish calves; he looked neither to right nor left. His features grew sullen. At the end of ten minutes he suddenly allowed his burden to slip off his shoulders on to the ground, where it lay sprawled every which way. He called out to Tydomin.
She quickly looked around.
“Come here. It has just occurred to me” — he laughed — “why should I be carrying this corpse — and why should I be following you at all? What surprises me is, why this has never struck me before.”
She at once came back to him. “I suppose you’re tired, Maskull. Let us sit down. Perhaps you have come a long way this morning?”
“Oh, it’s not tiredness, but a sudden gleam of sense. Do you know of any reason why I should be acting as your porter?” He laughed again, but nevertheless sat down on the ground beside her.
Tydomin neither looked at him nor answered. Her head was half bent, so as to face the northern sky, where the Alppain light was still glowing. Maskull followed her gaze, and also watched the glow for a moment or two in silence.
“Why don’t you speak?” he asked at last.
“What does that light suggest to you, Maskull?”
“I’m not speaking of that light.”
“Doesn’t it suggest anything at all?”
“Perhaps it doesn’t. What does it matter?”
Maskull grew sullen again. “Sacrifice of what? What do you mean?”
“Hasn’t it entered your head yet,” said Tydomin, looking straight in front of her, and speaking in her delicate, hard manner, “that this adventure of yours will scarcely come to an end until you have made some sort of sacrifice?”
He returned no answer, and she said nothing more. In a few minutes’ time Maskull got up of his own accord, and irreverently, and almost angrily, threw Crimtyphon’s corpse over his shoulder again.
“How far do we have to go?” he asked in a surly tone.
“An hour’s walk.”
“Still, this isn’t the sacrifice I mean,” said Tydomin quietly, as she went on in front.
Almost immediately they reached more difficult ground. They had to pass from peak to peak, as from island to island. In some cases they were able to stride or jump across, but in others they had to make use of rude bridges of fallen timber. It appeared to be a frequented path. Underneath were the black, impenetrable abysses — on the surface were the glaring sunshine, the gay, painted rocks, the chaotic tangle of strange plants. There were countless reptiles and insects. The latter were thicker built than those of Earth — consequently still more disgusting, and some of them were of enormous size. One monstrous insect, as large as a horse, stood right in the centre of their path without budging. It was armour-plated, had jaws like scimitars, and underneath its body was a forest of legs. Tydomin gave one malignant look at it, and sent it crashing into the gulf.
“What have I to offer, except my life?” Maskull suddenly broke out. “And what good is that? It won’t bring that poor girl back into the world.”
“Sacrifice is not for utility. It’s a penalty which we pay.”
“I know that.”
“The point is whether you can go on enjoying life, after what has happened.”
She waited for Maskull to come even with her.
“Perhaps you imagine I’m not man enough — you imagine that because I allowed poor Oceaxe to die for me — ”
“She did die for you,” said Tydomin, in a quiet, emphatic voice.
“That would be a second blunder of yours,” returned Maskull, just as firmly. “I was not in love with Oceaxe, and I’m not in love with life.”
“Your life is not required.”
“Then I don’t understand what you want, or what you are speaking about.”
“It’s not for me to ask a sacrifice from you, Maskull. That would be compliance on your part, but not sacrifice. You must wait until you feel there’s nothing else for you to do.”
“It’s all very mysterious.”
The conversation was abruptly cut short by a prolonged and frightful crashing, roaring sound, coming from a short distance ahead. It was accompanied by a violent oscillation of the ground on which they stood. They looked up, startled, just in time to witness the final disappearance of a huge mass of forest land, not two hundred yards in front of them. Several acres of trees, plants, rocks, and soil, with all its teeming animal life, vanished before their eyes, like a magic story. The new chasm was cut, as if by a knife. Beyond its farther edge the Alppain glow burned blue just over the horizon.
“Now we shall have to make a detour,” said Tydomin, halting.
Maskull caught hold of her with his third hand. “Listen to me, while I try to describe what I’m feeling. When I saw that landslip, everything I have heard about the last destruction of the world came into my mind. It seemed to me as if I were actually witnessing it, and that the world were really falling to pieces. Then, where the land was, we now have this empty, awful gulf — that’s to say, nothing — and it seems to me as if our life will come to the same condition, where there was something there will be nothing. But that terrible blue glare on the opposite side is exactly like the eye of fate. It accuses us, and demands what we have made of our life, which is no more. At the same time, it is grand and joyful. The joy consists in this — that it is in our power to give freely what will later on be taken from us by force.”
Tydomin watched him attentively. “Then your feeling is that your life is worthless, and you make a present of it to the first one who asks?”
“No, it goes beyond that. I feel that the only thing worth living for is to be so magnanimous that fate itself will be astonished at us. Understand me. It isn’t cynicism, or bitterness, or despair, but heroism. . . . It’s hard to explain.”
“Now you shall hear what sacrifice I offer you, Maskull. It’s a heavy one, but that’s what you seem to wish.”
“That is so. In my present mood it can’t be too heavy.”
“Then, if you are in earnest, resign your body to me. Now that Crimtyphon’s dead, I’m tired of being a woman.”
“I fail to comprehend.”
“Listen, then. I wish to start a new existence in your body. I wish to be a male. I see it isn’t worth while being a woman. I mean to dedicate my own body to Crimtyphon. I shall tie his body and mine together, and give them a common funeral in the burning lake. That’s the sacrifice I offer you. As I said, it’s a hard one.”
“So you do ask me to die. Though how you can make use of my body is difficult to understand.”
“No, I don’t ask you to die. You will go on living.”
“How is it possible without a body?”
Tydomin gazed at him earnestly. “There are many such beings, even in your world. There you call them spirits, apparitions, phantoms. They are in reality living wills, deprived of material bodies, always longing to act and enjoy, but quite unable to do so. Are you noble-minded enough to accept such a state, do you think?”
“If it’s possible, I accept it,” replied Maskull quietly. “Not in spite of its heaviness, but because of it. But how is it possible?”
“Undoubtedly there are very many things possible in our world of which you have no conception. Now let us wait till we get home. I don’t hold you to your word, for unless it’s a free sacrifice I will have nothing to do with it.”
“I am not a man who speaks lightly. If you can perform this miracle, you have my consent, once for all.”
“Then we’ll leave it like that for the present,” said Tydomin sadly.
They proceeded on their way. Owing to the subsidence, Tydomin seemed rather doubtful at first as to the right road, but by making a long divergence they eventually got around to the other side of the newly formed chasm. A little later on, in a narrow copse crowning a miniature, insulated peak, they fell in with a man. He was resting himself against a tree, and looked tired, overheated, and despondent. He was young. His beardless expression bore an expression of unusual sincerity, and in other respects he seemed a hardy, hardworking youth, of an intellectual type. His hair was thick, short, and flaxen. He possessed neither a sorb nor a third arm — so presumably he was not a native of Ifdawn. His forehead, however, was disfigured by what looked like a haphazard assortment of eyes, eight in number, of different sizes and shapes. They went in pairs, and whenever two were in use, it was indicated by a peculiar shining — the rest remained dull, until their turn came. In addition to the upper eyes he had the two lower ones, but they were vacant and lifeless. This extraordinary battery of eyes, alternatively alive and dead, gave the young man an appearance of almost alarming mental activity. He was wearing nothing but a sort of skin kilt. Maskull seemed somehow to recognise the face, though he had certainly never set eyes on it before.
Tydomin suggested to him to set down the corpse, and both sat down to rest in the shade.
“Question him, Maskull,” she said, rather carelessly, jerking her head toward the stranger.
Maskull sighed and asked aloud, from his seat on the ground, “What’s your name, and where do you come from?”
The man studied him for a few moments, first with one pair of eyes, then with another, then with a third. He next turned his attention to Tydomin, who occupied him a still longer time. He replied at last, in a dry, manly, nervous voice. “I am Digrung. I have arrived here from Matterplay.” His colour kept changing, and Maskull suddenly realised of whom he reminded him. It was of Joiwind.
“Perhaps you’re going to Poolingdred, Digrung?” he inquired, interested.
“As a matter of fact I am — if I can find my way out of this accursed country.”
“Possibly you are acquainted with Joiwind there?”
“She’s my sister. I’m on my way to see her now. Why, do you know her?”
“I met her yesterday.”
“What is your name, then?”
“I shall tell her I met you. This will be our first meeting for four years. Is she well, and happy?”
“Both, as far as I could judge. You know Panawe?”
“Her husband — yes. But where do you come from? I’ve seen nothing like you before.”
“From another world. Where is Matterplay?”
“It’s the first country one comes to beyond the Sinking Sea.”
“What is it like there — how do you amuse yourselves? The same old murders and sudden deaths?”
“Are you ill?” asked Digrung. “Who is this woman, why are you following at her heels like a slave? She looks insane to me. What’s that corpse — why are you dragging it around the country with you?”
Tydomin smiled. “I’ve already heard it said about Matterplay, that if one sows an answer there, a rich crop of questions immediately springs up. But why do you make this unprovoked attack on me, Digrung?”
“I don’t attack you, woman, but I know you. I see into you, and I see insanity. That wouldn’t matter, but I don’t like to see a man of intelligence like Maskull caught in your filthy meshes.”
“I suppose even you clever Matterplay people sometimes misjudge character. However, I don’t mind. Your opinion’s nothing to me, Digrung. You’d better answer his questions, Maskull. Not for his own sake — but your feminine friend is sure to be curious about your having been seen carrying a dead man.”
Maskull’s underlip shot out. “Tell your sister nothing, Digrung. Don’t mention my name at all. I don’t want her to know about this meeting of ours.”
“I don’t wish it — isn’t that enough?”
Digrung looked impassive.
“Thoughts and words,” he said, “which don’t correspond with the real events of the world are considered most shameful in Matterplay.”
“I’m not asking you to lie, only to keep silent.”
“To hide the truth is a special branch of lying. I can’t accede to your wish. I must tell Joiwind everything, as far as I know it.”
Maskull got up, and Tydomin followed his example.
She touched Digrung on the arm and gave him a strange look. “The dead man is my husband, and Maskull murdered him. Now you’ll understand why he wishes you to hold your tongue.”
“I guessed there was some foul play,” said Digrung. “It doesn’t matter — I can’t falsify facts. Joiwind must know.”
“You refuse to consider her feelings?” said Maskull, turning pale.
“Feelings which flourish on illusions, and sicken and die on realities, aren’t worth considering. But Joiwind’s are not of that kind.”
“If you decline to do what I ask, at least return home without seeing her; your sister will get very little pleasure out of the meeting when she hears your news.”
“What are these strange relations between you?” demanded Digrung, eying him with suddenly aroused suspicion.
Maskull stared back in a sort of bewilderment. “Good God! You don’t doubt your own sister. That pure angel!”
Tydomin caught hold of him delicately. “I don’t know Joiwind, but, whoever she is and whatever she’s like, I know this — she’s more fortunate in her friend than in her brother. Now, if you really value her happiness, Maskull, you will have to take some firm step or other.”
“I mean to. Digrung, I shall stop your journey.”
“If you intend a second murder, no doubt you are big enough.”
Maskull turned around to Tydomin and laughed. “I seem to be leaving a wake of corpses behind me on this journey.”
“Why a corpse? There’s no need to kill him.”
“Thanks for that!” said Digrung dryly. “All the same, some crime is about to burst. I feel it.”
“What must I do, then?” asked Maskull.
“It is not my business, and to tell the truth I am not very interested. . . . If I were in your place, Maskull, I would not hesitate long. Don’t you understand how to absorb these creatures, who set their feeble, obstinate wills against yours?”
“That is a worse crime,” said Maskull.
“Who knows? He will live, but he will tell no tales.”
Digrung laughed, but changed colour. “I was right then. The monster has sprung into the light of day.”
Maskull laid a hand on his shoulder. “You have the choice, and we are not joking. Do as I ask.”
“You have fallen low, Maskull. But you are walking in a dream, and I can’t talk to you. As for you, woman — sin must be like a pleasant bath to you. . . . ”
“There are strange ties between Maskull and myself; but you are a passer-by, a foreigner. I care nothing for you.”
“Nevertheless, I shall not be frightened out of my plans, which are legitimate and right.”
“Do as you please,” said Tydomin. “If you come to grief, your thoughts will hardly have corresponded with the real events of the world, which is what you boast about. It is no affair of mine.”
“I shall go on, and not back!” exclaimed Digrung, with angry emphasis.
Tydomin threw a swift, evil smile at Maskull. “Bear witness that I have tried to persuade this young man. Now you must come to a quick decision in your own mind as to which is of the greatest importance, Digrung’s happiness or Joiwind’s. Digrung won’t allow you to preserve them both.”
“It won’t take me long to decide. Digrung, I gave you a last chance to change your mind.”
“As long as it’s in my power I shall go on, and warn my sister against her criminal friends.”
Maskull again clutched at him, but this time with violence. Instructed in his actions by some new and horrible instinct, he pressed the young man tightly to his body with all three arms. A feeling of wild, sweet delight immediately passed through him. Then for the first time he comprehended the triumphant joys of “absorbing.” It satisfied the hunger of the will, exactly as food satisfies the hunger of the body. Digrung proved feeble — he made little opposition. His personality passed slowly and evenly into Maskull’s. The latter became strong and gorged. The victim gradually became paler and limper, until Maskull held a corpse in his arms. He dropped the body, and stood trembling. He had committed his second crime. He felt no immediate difference in his soul, but . . .
Tydomin shed a sad smile on him, like winter sunshine. He half expected her to speak, but she said nothing. Instead, she made a sign to him to pick up Crimtyphon’s corpse. As he obeyed, he wondered why Digrung’s dead face did not wear the frightful Crystalman mask.
“Why hasn’t he altered?” he muttered to himself.
Tydomin heard him. She kicked Digrung lightly with her little foot. “He isn’t dead — that’s why. The expression you mean is waiting for your death.”
“Then is that my real character?”
She laughed softly. “You came here to carve a strange world, and now it appears you are carved yourself. Oh, there’s no doubt about it, Maskull. You needn’t stand there gaping. You belong to Shaping, like the rest of us. You are not a king, or a god.”
“Since when have I belonged to him?”
“What does that matter? Perhaps since you first breathed the air of Tormance, or perhaps since five minutes ago.”
Without waiting for his response, she set off through the copse, and strode on to the next island. Maskull followed, physically distressed and looking very grave.
The journey continued for half an hour longer, without incident. The character of the scenery slowly changed. The mountaintops became loftier and more widely separated from one another. The gaps were filled with rolling, white clouds, which bathed the shores of the peaks like a mysterious sea. To pass from island to island was hard work, the intervening spaces were so wide — Tydomin, however, knew the way. The intense light, the violet-blue sky, the patches of vivid landscape, emerging from the white vapour-ocean, made a profound impression on Maskull’s mind. The glow of Alppain was hidden by the huge mass of Disscourn, which loomed up straight in front of them.
The green snow on the top of the gigantic pyramid had by now completely melted away. The black, gold, and crimson of its mighty cliffs stood out with terrific brilliance. They were directly beneath the bulk of the mountain, which was not a mile away. It did not appear dangerous to climb, but he was unaware on which side of it their destination lay.
It was split from top to bottom by numerous straight fissures. A few pale-green waterfalls descended here and there, like narrow, motionless threads. The face of the mountain was rugged and bare. It was strewn with detached boulders, and great, jagged rocks projected everywhere like iron teeth. Tydomin pointed to a small black hole near the base, which might be a cave. “That is where I live.”
“You live here alone?”
“It’s an odd choice for a woman — and you are not unbeautiful, either.”
“A woman’s life is over at twenty-five,” she replied, sighing. “And I am far older than that. Ten years ago it would have been I who lived yonder, and not Oceaxe. Then all this wouldn’t have happened.”
A quarter of an hour later they stood within the mouth of the cave. It was ten feet high, and its interior was impenetrably black.
“Put down the body in the entrance, out of the sun,” directed Tydomin. He did so.
She cast a keenly scrutinising glance at him. “Does your resolution still hold, Maskull?”
“Why shouldn’t it hold? My brains are not feathers.”
“Follow me, then.”
They both stepped into the cave. At that very moment a sickening crash, like heavy thunder just over their heads, set Maskull’s weakened heart thumping violently. An avalanche of boulders, stones, and dust, swept past the cave entrance from above. If their going in had been delayed by a single minute, they would have been killed.
Tydomin did not even look up. She took his hand in hers, and started walking with him into the darkness. The temperature became as cold as ice. At the first bend the light from the outer world disappeared, leaving them in absolute blackness. Maskull kept stumbling over the uneven ground, but she kept tight hold of him, and hurried him along.
The tunnel seemed of interminable length. Presently, however, the atmosphere changed — or such was his impression. He was somehow led to imagine that they had come to a larger chamber. Here Tydomin stopped, and then forced him down with quiet pressure. His groping hand encountered stone and, by feeling it all over, he discovered that it was a sort of stone slab, or couch, raised a foot or eighteen inches from the ground. She told him to lie down.
“Has the time come?” asked Maskull.
He lay there waiting in the darkness, ignorant of what was going to happen. He felt her hand clasping his. Without perceiving any gradation, he lost all consciousness of his body; he was no longer able to feel his limbs or internal organs. His mind remained active and alert. Nothing particular appeared to be taking place.
Then the chamber began to grow light, like very early morning. He could see nothing, but the retina of his eyes was affected. He fancied that he heard music, but while he was listening for it, it stopped. The light grew stronger, the air grew warmer; he heard the confused sound of distant voices.
Suddenly Tydomin gave his hand a powerful squeeze. He heard someone scream faintly, and then the light leaped up, and he saw everything clearly.
He was lying on a wooden couch, in a strangely decorated room, lighted by electricity. His hand was being squeezed, not by Tydomin, but by a man dressed in the garments of civilisation, with whose face he was certainly familiar, but under what circumstances he could not recall. Other people stood in the background — they too were vaguely known to him. He sat up and began to smile, without any especial reason; and then stood upright.
Everybody seemed to be watching him with anxiety and emotion — he wondered why. Yet he felt that they were all acquaintances. Two in particular he knew — the man at the farther end of the room, who paced restlessly backward and forward, his face transfigured by stern, holy grandeur; and that other big, bearded man — who was himself. Yes — he was looking at his own double. But it was just as if a crime-riddled man of middle age were suddenly confronted with his own photograph as an earnest, idealistic youth.
His other self spoke to him. He heard the sounds, but did not comprehend the sense. Then the door was abruptly flung open, and a short, brutish-looking individual leaped in. He began to behave in an extraordinary manner to everyone around him; and after that came straight up to him — Maskull. He spoke some words, but they were incomprehensible. A terrible expression came over the newcomer’s face, and he grasped his neck with a pair of hairy hands. Maskull felt his bones bending and breaking, excruciating pains passed through all the nerves of his body, and he experienced a sense of impending death. He cried out, and sank helplessly on the floor, in a heap. The chamber and the company vanished — the light went out.
Once more he found himself in the blackness of the cave. He was this time lying on the ground, but Tydomin was still with him, holding his hand. He was in horrible bodily agony, but this was only a setting for the despairing anguish that filled his mind.
Tydomin addressed him in tones of gentle reproach. “Why are you back so soon? I’ve not had time yet. You must return.”
He caught hold of her, and pulled himself up to his feet. She gave a low scream, as though in pain. “What does this mean — what are you doing, Maskull?”
“Krag — ” began Maskull, but the effort to produce his words choked him, so that he was obliged to stop.
“Krag — what of Krag? Tell me quickly what has happened. Free my arm.”
He gripped her arm tighter.
“Yes, I’ve seen Krag. I’m awake.”
“Oh! You are awake, awake.”
“And you must die,” said Maskull, in an awful voice.
“But why? What has happened? . . . ”
“You must die, and I must kill you. Because I am awake, and for no other reason. You blood-stained dancing mistress!”
Tydomin breathed hard for a little time. Then she seemed suddenly to regain her self-possession.
“You won’t offer me violence, surely, in this black cave?”
“No, the sun shall look on, for it is not a murder. But rest assured that you must die — you must expiate your fearful crimes.”
“You have already said so, and I see you have the power. You have escaped me. It is very curious. Well, then, Maskull, let us come outside. I am not afraid. But kill me courteously, for I have also been courteous to you. I make no other supplication.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57