In our concentration upon Ventnor none of us had given thought to the passing of time, nor where we were going. We stripped him to the waist, and while Ruth massaged head and neck, Drake’s strong fingers kneaded chest and abdomen. I had used to the utmost my somewhat limited medical knowledge.
We had found no mark nor burn upon him, not even upon his hands over which had run the licking flame. The slightly purplish, cyanotic tinge of his skin had given way to a clear pallor; the skin was itself disquietingly cold, the blood-pressure only slightly subnormal. The pulse was more rapid, stronger; the breathing faint but regular, and with no laboring. The pupils of his eyes were contracted almost to the point of invisibility.
I could get no nervous reactions whatever. I am familiar with the effects of electric shock and know what to do in such cases, but Ventnor’s symptoms, while similar in part, presented other features unknown to me and most puzzling. There was a passive automatism, a perplexing muscular rigidity which caused arms and legs, hands and head to remain, doll-like, in any position placed.
Several times during my labors I had been aware of Norhala gazing down upon us; but she made no effort to help, nor did she speak.
Now, my strained attention relaxing, I began to receive and note impressions from without. There was a different feeling in the air, a diminution of the magnetic tension; I smelled the blessed breath of trees and water.
The light about us was clear and pearly, about the intensity of the moon at full. Looking back along the way we had been traveling, I saw a half mile away vertical, knife-sharp edges of two facing cliffs, the gap between them a mile or more wide.
Through them we must have passed, for beyond them were the radiant mists of the pit of the city, and through this precipitous gateway filtered the enveloping luminosity. On each side of us uprose gradually converging and perpendicular scarps along whose base huddled a sparse foliage.
There came a low whistle of astonishment from Drake; I turned. We were slowly gliding toward something that looked like nothing so much as a huge and shimmering bubble of mingled sapphire and turquoise, swimming up from and two-thirds above and the balance still hidden within earth. It seemed to draw to itself the light, sending it back with gleamings of the gray-blue of the star sapphire, with pellucid azures and lazulis like clouded jades, with glistening peacock iridescences and tender, milky greens of tropic shallows.
Little turrets globular and topaz, yellow and pierced with tiny hexagonal openings clustered about it like baby bubbles just nestling down to rest.
Great trees shadowed it, unfamiliar trees among whose glossy leaves blossomed in wreaths flowers pink and white as apple-blossoms. From their graceful branches strange fruits, golden and scarlet and pear-shaped, hung pendulous.
It was an elfin palace; a goblin dwelling; such a bower as some mirthful, beauty-loving Jinn King of Jewels might have built from enchanted hoards for some well-beloved daughter of earth.
All of fifty feet in height was the blue globe, and up to a wide and ovaled entrance ran a broad and shining roadway. Along this the cubes swept and stopped.
“My house,” murmured Norhala.
The attraction that had held us to the surface of the blocks relaxed, angled through changed and assisting lines of force; the hosts of minute eyes sparkling quizzically, interestedly, at us, we gently slid Ventnor’s body; lifted down the pony.
“Enter,” sighed Norhala, and waved a welcoming hand.
“Tell her to wait a minute,” ordered Drake.
He slipped the bandage from off the pony’s head, threw off the saddlebags, and led it to the side of the roadway where thick, lush grass was growing, spangled with flowerets. There he hobbled it and rejoined us. Together we picked up Ventnor and passed slowly through the portal.
We stood in a shadowed chamber. The light that filled it was translucent, and oddly enough with little of the bluish quality I had expected. Crystalline it was; the shadows crystalline, too, rigid — like the facets of great crystals. And as my eyes accustomed themselves I saw that what I had thought shadows actually were none.
They were slices of semitransparent stone like pale moonstones, springing from the curving walls and the high dome, and bisecting and intersecting the chamber. They were pierced with oval doorways over which fell glimmering metallic curtains — silk of silver and gold.
I glimpsed a pile of this silken stuff near by, and as we laid our burden upon it Ruth caught my arm with a little frightened cry.
Through a curtained oval sidled a figure.
Black and tall, its long and gnarled arms swung apelike; its shoulders were distorted, one so much longer than the other that the hand upon that side hung far below the knee.
It walked with a curious, crablike motion. Upon its face were stamped countless wrinkles and its blackness seemed less that of pigmentation than the weathering of unbelievable years, the very stain of ancientness. And about neither face nor figure was there anything to show whether it was man or woman.
From the twisted shoulders a short and sleeveless red tunic fell. Incredibly old the creature was — and by its corded muscles, its sinewy tendons, as incredibly powerful. It raised within me a half sick revulsion, loathing. But the eyes were not ancient, no. Irisless, lashless, black and brilliant, they blazed out of the face’s carven web of wrinkles, intent upon Norhala and filled with a flame of worship.
It threw itself at her feet, prostrate, the inordinately long arms outstretched.
“Mistress!” it whined in a high and curiously unpleasant falsetto. “Great lady! Goddess!”
She stretched out a sandaled foot, touched one of the black taloned hands, and at the contact I saw a shiver of ecstasy run through the lank body. “Yuruk —” she began, and paused, regarding us.
“The goddess speaks! Yuruk hears! The goddess speaks!” It was a chant of adoration.
“Yuruk. Rise. Look upon the strangers.”
The creature — and now I knew what it was — writhed, twisted, and hideously apelike crouched upon its haunches, hands knuckling the floor.
By the amazement in the unwinking eyes it was plain that not till now had the eunuch taken cognizance of us. The amazement fled, was replaced with a black fire of malignancy, of hatred — jealousy.
“Augh!” he snarled; leaped to his feet; thrust an arm toward Ruth. She gave a little cry, cowered against Drake.
“None of that!” He struck down the clutching arm.
“Yuruk!” There was a hint of anger in the bell-toned voice. “Yuruk, these belong to me. No harm must come to them. Yuruk — beware!”
“The goddess commands. Yuruk obeys.” If fear quavered in the words, beneath was more than a trace of a sullenness, too, sinister enough.
“That’s a nice little playmate for her new playthings,” muttered Drake. “If that bird gets the least bit gay — I shoot him pronto.” He gave Ruth a reassuring hug. “Cheer up, Ruth. Don’t mind that thing. He’s something we can handle.”
Norhala waved a white hand; Yuruk sidled over to one of the curtained ovals and through it, reappearing almost instantly with a huge platter upon which were fruits, and a curdly white liquid in bowls of thick porcelain.
“Eat,” she said, as the gnarled black arms placed the platter at our feet.
“Hungry?” asked Drake. Ruth shook her head violently.
“I’m going out for the saddlebags,” said Drake. “We’ll use our own stuff — while it lasts. I’m taking no chances on what the Yuruk lad brings — with all due respect to Norhala’s good intentions.”
He started for the doorway; the eunuch blocked his way.
“We have with us food of our own, Norhala,” I explained. “He goes to get it.”
She nodded indifferently; clapped her hands. Yuruk shrank back, and out strode Drake.
“I am weary,” sighed Norhala. “The way was long. I will refresh myself —”
She stretched out a foot toward Yuruk. He knelt, unlaced the turquoise bands, drew off the sandals. Her hands sought her breast, dwelt for an instant there.
Down slipped her silken veils, clingingly, slowly, as though reluctant to unclasp her; whispering they fell from the high and tender breasts, the delicate rounded hips, and clustered about her feet in soft petalings as of some flower of pale amber foam. Out of the calyx of that flower arose the gleaming miracle of her body crowned with glowing glory of her cloudy hair.
Naked she was, yet clothed with an unearthly purity, the purity of the far-flung, serene stars, of the eternal snows upon some calm, high-flung peak, the tranquil, silver dawns of spring; protected by some spell of divinity which chilled and slew the flame of desire. A maiden Ishtar, a virginal Isis; a woman — yet with no more of woman’s lure than if she had been some exquisite and breathing statue of mingled ivory and milk of pearls.
So she stood, indifferent to us who gazed upon her, withdrawn, musing, as though she had forgotten us. And that serene indifference, with its entire absence of what we term sex consciousness, revealed to me once more how great was the abyss between us and her.
Slowly she raised her arms, wound the floating tresses into a coronal. I saw Drake enter with the saddlebags; saw them drop from hands relaxing under the shock of this amazing tableau; saw his eyes widen and fill with wonder and half-awed admiration.
Now Norhala stepped out of her fallen robes and moved toward the further wall, Yuruk following. He stooped, raised an ewer of silver and began gently to pour over her shoulders its contents. Again and again he bent and filled the vessel, dipping it into a shallow basin from which came the bubbling and chuckling of a little spring. And again I marveled at the marble smoothness and fineness of her skin on which the caressing water left tiny silvery globules, gemming it. The eunuch slithered to one side, drew from a quaint chest clothes of white floss; patted her dry with them; threw over her shoulders a silken robe of blue.
Back she floated to us; hovered over Ruth, crouching with her brother’s head upon her knees.
She made a motion as though to draw the girl to her; hesitated as Ruth’s face set in a passion of denial. A shadow of kindness drifted through the wide, mysterious eyes; a shadow of pity joined it as she looked curiously down on Ventnor.
“Bathe,” she murmured, and pointed to the pool. “And rest. No harm shall come to any of you here. And you —” A hand rested for a moment lightly on the girl’s curly head. “When you desire it — I will again give you — peace!”
She parted the curtains, and the eunuch still following, was hidden beyond them.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:11