The three men gathered in the street outside the house. The night was slightly frosty, but particularly clear, with an east wind blowing. The multitude of blazing stars caused the sky to appear like a vast scroll of hieroglyphic symbols. Maskull felt oddly excited; he had a sense that something extraordinary was about to happen “What brought you to this house tonight, Krag, and what made you do what you did? How are we understand that apparition?”
“That must have been Crystalman’s expression on face,” muttered Nightspore.
“We have discussed that, haven’t we, Maskull? Maskull is anxious to behold that rare fruit in its native wilds.”
Maskull looked at Krag carefully, trying to analyse his own feelings toward him. He was distinctly repelled by the man’s personality, yet side by side with this aversion a savage, living energy seemed to spring up in his heart that in some strange fashion was attributable to Krag.
“Why do you insist on this simile?” he asked.
“Because it is apropos. Nightspore’s quite right. That was Crystalman’s face, and we are going to Crystalman’s country.”
“And where is this mysterious country?”
“That’s a quaint name. But where is it?”
Krag grinned, showing his yellow teeth in the light of the street lamp.
“It is the residential suburb of Arcturus.”
“What is he talking about, Nightspore? . . . Do you mean the star of that name?” he went on, to Krag.
“Which you have in front of you at this very minute,” said Krag, pointing a thick finger toward the brightest star in the south-eastern sky. “There you see Arcturus, and Tormance is its one inhabited planet.”
Maskull looked at the heavy, gleaning star, and again at Krag. Then he pulled out a pipe, and began to fill it.
“You must have cultivated a new form of humour, Krag.”
“I am glad if I can amuse you, Maskull, if only for a few days.”
“I meant to ask you — how do you know my name?”
“It would be odd if I didn’t, seeing that I only came here on your account. As a matter of fact, Nightspore and I are old friends.”
Maskull paused with his suspended match. “You came here on my account?”
“Surely. On your account and Nightspore’s. We three are to be fellow travellers.”
Maskull now lit his pipe and puffed away coolly for a few moments.
“I’m sorry, Krag, but I must assume you are mad.”
Krag threw his head back, and gave a scraping laugh. “Am I mad, Nightspore?”
“Has Surtur gone to Tormance?” ejaculated Nightspore in a strangled voice, fixing his eyes on Krag’s face.
“Yes, and he requires that we follow him at once.”
Maskull’s heart began to beat strangely. It all sounded to him like a dream conversation.
“And since how long, Krag, have I been required to do things by a total stranger. . . . Besides, who is this individual?”
“Krag’s chief,” said Nightspore, turning his head away.
“The riddle is too elaborate for me. I give up.”
“You are looking for mysteries,” said Krag, “so naturally you are finding them. Try and simplify your ideas, my friend. The affair is plain and serious.”
Maskull stared hard at him and smoked rapidly.
“Where have you come from now?” demanded Nightspore suddenly.
“From the old observatory at Starkness. . . . Have you heard of the famous Starkness Observatory, Maskull?”
“No. Where is it?”
“On the north-east coast of Scotland. Curious discoveries are made there from time to time.”
“As, for example, how to make voyages to the stars. So this Surtur turns out to be an astronomer. And you too, presumably?”
Krag grinned again. “How long will it take you to wind up your affairs? When can you be ready to start?”
“You are too considerate,” said Maskull, laughing outright. “I was beginning to fear that I would be hauled away at once. . . . However, I have neither wife, land, nor profession, so there’s nothing to wait for. . . . What is the itinerary?”
“You are a fortunate man. A bold, daring heart, and no encumbrances.” Krag’s features became suddenly grave and rigid. “Don’t be a fool, and refuse a gift of luck. A gift declined is not offered a second time.”
“Krag,” replied Maskull simply, returning his pipe to his pocket. “I ask you to put yourself in my place. Even if were a man sick for adventures, how could I listen seriously to such an insane proposition as this? What do I know about you, or your past record? You may be a practical joker, or you may have come out of a madhouse — I know nothing about it. If you claim to be an exceptional man, and want my cooperation, you must offer me exceptional proofs.”
“And what proofs would you consider adequate, Maskull?”
As he spoke he gripped Maskull’s arm. A sharp, chilling pain immediately passed through the latter’s body and at the same moment his brain caught fire. A light burst in upon him like the rising of the sun. He asked himself for the first time if this fantastic conversation could by any chance refer to real things.
“Listen, Krag,” he said slowly, while peculiar images and conceptions started to travel in rich disorder through his mind. “You talk about a certain journey. Well, if that journey were a possible one, and I were given the chance of making it, I would be willing never to come back. For twenty-four hours on that Arcturian planet, I would give my life. That is my attitude toward that journey. . . . Now prove to me that you’re not talking nonsense. Produce your credentials.”
Krag stared at him all the time he was speaking, his face gradually resuming its jesting expression.
“Oh, you will get your twenty-four hours, and perhaps longer, but not much longer. You’re an audacious fellow, Maskull, but this trip will prove a little strenuous, even for you. . . . And so, like the unbelievers of old, you want a sign from heaven?”
Maskull frowned. “But the whole thing is ridiculous. Our brains are overexcited by what took place in there. Let us go home, and sleep it off.”
Krag detained him with one hand, while groping in his breast pocket with the other. He presently fished out what resembled a small folding lens. The diameter of the glass did not exceed two inches.
“First take a peep at Arcturus through this, Maskull. It may serve as a provisional sign. It’s the best I can do, unfortunately. I am not a travelling magician. . . . Be very careful not to drop it. It’s somewhat heavy.”
Maskull took the lens in his hand, struggled with it for a minute, and then looked at Krag in amazement. The little object weighed at least twenty pounds, though it was not much bigger than a crown piece.
“What stuff can this be, Krag?”
“Look through it, my good friend. That’s what I gave it to you for.”
Maskull held it up with difficulty, directed it toward the gleaming Arcturus, and snatched as long and as steady a glance at the star as the muscles of his arm would permit. What he saw was this. The star, which to the naked eye appeared as a single yellow point of light, now became clearly split into two bright but minute suns, the larger of which was still yellow, while its smaller companion was a beautiful blue. But this was not all. Apparently circulating around the yellow sun was a comparatively small and hardly distinguishable satellite, which seemed to shine, not by its own, but by reflected light. . . . Maskull lowered and raised his arm repeatedly. The same spectacle revealed itself again and again, but he was able to see nothing else. Then he passed back the lens to Krag, without a word, and stood chewing his underlip.
“You take a glimpse too,” scraped Krag, proffering the glass to Nightspore.
Nightspore turned his back and began to pace up an down. Krag laughed sardonically, and returned the lens to his pocket. “Well, Maskull, are you satisfied?”
“Arcturus, then, is a double sun. And is that third point the planet Tormance?”
“Our future home, Maskull.”
Maskull continued to ponder. “You inquire if I am satisfied. I don’t know, Krag. It’s miraculous, and that’s all I can say about it. . . . But I’m satisfied of one thing. There must be very wonderful astronomers at Starkness and if you invite me to your observatory I will surely come.”
“I do invite you. We set off from there.”
“And you, Nightspore?” demanded Maskull.
“The journey has to be made,” answered his friend in indistinct tones, “though I don’t see what will come of it.”
Krag shot a penetrating glance at him. “More remarkable adventures than this would need to be arranged before we could excite Nightspore.”
“Yet he is coming.”
“But not con amore. He is coming merely to bear you company.”
Maskull again sought the heavy, sombre star, gleaming in solitary might, in the south-eastern heavens, and, as he gazed, his heart swelled with grand and painful longings, for which, however, he was unable to account to his own intellect. He felt that his destiny was in some way bound up with this gigantic, far-distant sun. But still he did not dare to admit to himself Krag’s seriousness.
He heard his parting remarks in deep abstraction, and only after the lapse of several minutes, when, alone with Nightspore, did he realise that they referred to such mundane matters as travelling routes and times of trains.
“Does Krag travel north with us, Nightspore? I didn’t catch that.”
“No. We go on first, and he joins us at Starkness on the evening of the day after tomorrow.”
Maskull remained thoughtful. “What am I to think of that man?”
“For your information,” replied Nightspore wearily, “I have never known him to lie.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:11