As for the Rhamda, he frowned. Apparently his eager interest had been dashed with disappointment. But only slightly, as Watson could see; the man was of such culture and intellect as to have perfect control over his emotions. In his balance and poise he was very like Avec, and he had the same pleasing manner.
"My dear sir," he began, "if you are really a man, then you can tell me something of great importance."
"I" Chick retorted, "can tell you nothing until you first let me know just where I stand!"
Certainly there was a lack of common ground. Until one of them supplied it, there could be no headway. Watson realised that his whole future might revolve about the axis of his next words.
The Rhamda thought a moment, dubiously, like one who has had a pet theory damaged, though not shattered. Suddenly he spoke to the woman.
"Open the portal," said he.
She stepped to the oval window, touched a latch, and swung the pane horizontally upon two pivots. Immediately the room was flooded with a strange effulgence, amber-like, soft and mellow, as real sunshine.
But it was NOT real sunshine!
The window was set in a rather thick wall, beyond which Watson could see a royal sapphiric sky, flecked with white and purple and amethyst-threaded clouds poised above a great amber sleeping sun.
It was the sun that challenged attention. It was so mild, and yet so utterly beyond what might be expected. In diameter it would have made six of the one Watson had known; in the blue distance, touching the rim of the horizon, it looked exactly like a huge golden plate set edgewise on the end of the earth.
And—he could look straight at it without blinking!
His thoughts ran back to the first account of the Rhamda. The man had looked straight at the sun and had been blinded. This accounted for it! The man had been accustomed to this huge, soft- glowing beauty. An amberous sun, deep yellow, sleeping; could it be, after all, dreamland?
But there were other things: the myriad tintinnabulations of these microscopic bells, never ceasing, musically throbbing; and now, the exotic delight of the softest of perfumes, an air barely tinted with violet and rose, and the breath of woodland wild flowers. He could not comprehend it. He looked at the purple clouds above the lotus sun, hardly believing, and deeply in doubt.
A great white bird dived suddenly out of the heavens and flew into the focus of his vision. In all the tales of his boyhood, of large and beautiful rocs and other birds, he had come across nothing like this. From the perspective it must have measured a full three hundred feet from tip to tip; it was shaped like a swan and flew like an eagle, with magnificent, lazy sweeps of the wings; while its plumage was as white as the snow, new fallen on the mountains. And right behind it, in pursuit, hurtled a huge black thing, fully as large and just as swift; a tremendous black crow, so black that its sides gave off a greenish shimmer.
Just then the woman closed the window. It was as well; Watson was only human, and he could hide his curiosity just so long and no longer. He turned to the Rhamda.
The man nodded. "I thought so," said he with satisfaction, as one might who has proven a pet and previous theory.
Watson tried from another angle.
"Just who do you think I am, sir?"
The other smiled as before. "It is not what I may think," he replied: "but what I know. You are the proof that was promised us by the great Rhamda Avec. You are—THE FACT AND THE SUBSTANCE!"
He waited for Watson's answer. Stupefaction delayed it. After a moment the Rhamda continued:
"Is it not so? Am I not right? You are surely out of the occult, my dear sir. You are a spirit!"
It took Chick wholly by surprise. He had been ready to deal with anything—but this. It was unreal, weird, impossible. And yet, why not? The professor had set out to remove forever the screen that had hitherto shrouded the shadow: but what had he revealed? What had the Spot disclosed? Unreality or REALITY? Which is which?
In the inspiration of the moment, Chick saw that he had reached the crossroads of the occult. There was no time to think; there was time only for a plunge. And, like all strong men, Watson chose the deeper water.
He turned to the Rhamda Geos.
"Yes," said he quietly. "I—am a spirit."
UP FOR BREATH
Rhamda Geos, instead of showing the concern and uneasiness that most men would show in the presence of an avowed ghost, evinced nothing but a deep and reverent happiness. He took Watson's hand almost shyly. And while his manner was not effusive, it had the warmth that comes from the heart of a scholar.
"As a Rhamda," he declared, "I must commend myself for being the first to speak to you. And I must congratulate you, my dear sir, on having fallen, not into the hands of Bar Senestro, but into those of my own kind. It is a proof of the prophecy, and a vindication of the wisdom of the Ten Thousand.
"I bid you welcome to the Thomahlia, and I offer you my services, as guide and sponsor."
Chick did not reply at once. The chance he had taken was one of those rare decisions that come to genius; the whole balance of his fate might swing upon his sudden impulse. Not that he had any compunction; but he felt that it tied him down. It restricted him. Certainly almost any role would be easier than that of a spirit.
He didn't feel like a ghost. He wondered just how a ghost would act, anyhow. What was more, he could not understand such a queer assumption on the Rhamda's part. Why had he seemed to WANT Chick a ghost? Watson was natural, human, embodied, just like the Rhamda. This was scarcely his idea of a phantom's life. Most certainly, the two of them were men, nothing else; if one was a wraith, so was the other. But—how to account for it?
Again he thought of Rhamda Avec. The words of Geos, "The Fact and the Substance," had been exactly synonymous with what had been said of Avec by Dr. Holcomb, "The proof of the occult."
Was it indeed possible that these two great ones, from opposite poles, had actually torn away the veil of the shadow? And was this the place where he, Watson, must pose as a spirit, if he were to be accepted as genuine?
The thought was a shock. He must play the same part here that the Rhamda had played on the other side of the Spot; but he would have to do it without the guiding wisdom of Avec. Besides, there was something sinister in the unknown force that had engulfed so strong a mind as the professor's; for while Watson's fate had been of his own seeking, that of the doctor smacked too much of treachery.
He turned to the Rhamda Geos with a new question:
"This Rhamda Avec—was he a man like yourself?"
The other brightened again, and asked in return:
"Then you have seen him!"
"I—I do not know," answered Watson, caught off his guard. "But the name is familiar. I don't remember well. My mind is vague and confused. I recall a world, a wonderful world it was from which I came, and a great many people. But I can't place myself; I hardly—let me see—"
The other nodded sympathetic approval.
"I understand. Don't exert yourself. It is hardly to be expected that one forced out of the occult could come among us with his faculties unimpaired. We have had many communications with your world, and have always been frustrated by this one gulf which may not be crossed. When real thought gets across the border, it is often indefinite, sometimes mere drivel. Such answers as come from the void are usually disappointing, no matter how expert our mediums may be in communicating with the dead."
"The dead! Did you say—the dead?"
"Certainly; the dead. Are you not of the dead?"
Watson shook his head emphatically.
"Absolutely not! Not where I came from. We are all very much alive!"
The other watched him curiously, his great eyes glowing with enthusiasm; the enthusiasm of the born seeker of the truth.
"You don't mean," he asked, "that you have the same passions that we have here in life?"
"I mean," said Watson, "that we hate, love, swear; we are good and we are evil; and we play games and go fishing."
Geos rubbed his hands in a dignified sort of glee. What had been said coincided, apparently, with another of his pet theories.
"It is splendid," he exulted, "splendid! And just in line with my thesis. You shall tell it before the Council of the Rhamdas. It will be the greatest day since the speaking of the Jarados!"
Watson wondered just who this Jarados might be; but for the moment he went back to the previous question.
"This Rhamda Avec: you were about to tell me about him. Let me have as much as I can understand, sir."
"Ah, yes! The great Rhamda Avec. Perhaps you may recall him when your mind clears a little more. My dear sir, he is, or was, the chief of the Rhamdas of all the Thomahlia." "What is the 'Thomahlia'?"
"The Thomahlia! Why, it is called the world; our name for the world. It comprises, physically, land, water and air; politically, it embraces D'Hartia, Kospia and a few minor nations."
"Who are the Rhamdas?"
"They are the heads of—of the Thomahlia; not the nominal nor political nor religious heads—they are neither judicial, executive nor legislative; but the real heads, still above. They might be called the supreme college of wisdom, of science and of research. Also, they are the keepers of the bell and its temple, and the interpreters of the Prophecy of the Jarados."
"I see. You are a sort of priesthood."
"No. The priesthood is below us. The priests take what orders we choose to give, and are purely—"
The Rhamda's eyes snapped, just a trifle.
"Not at all, my dear sir! They are good, sincere men. Only, not being intellectually adept enough to be admitted to the real secrets, the real knowledge, they give to all things a provisional explanation based upon a settled policy. Not being Rhamdas, they are simply not aware that everything has an exact and absolute explanation."
"In other words," put in Watson, "they are scientists; they have not lifted themselves up to the plane of inquisitive doubt."
Still the Rhamda shook his head.
"Not quite that, either, my dear sir. Those below us are not ignorant; they are merely nearer to the level of the masses than we are. In fact, they are the people's rulers; these priests and other similar classes. But we, the Rhamdas, are the rulers of the rulers. We differ from them in that we have no material ends to subserve. Being at the top, with no motive save justice and advancement, our judgments are never questioned, and for the same reason, seldom passed.
"But we are far above the plane of doubt that you speak of; we passed out of it long ago. That is the first stage of true science; afterwards comes the higher levels where all things have a reason; ethics, inspiration, thought, emotion—"
"And—the judgment of the Jarados?"
Watson could not have told why he said it. It was impulse, and the impromptu suggestion of a half-thought. But the effect of his words upon the Rhamda and the nurse told him that, inadvertently, he had struck a keynote. Both started, especially the woman. Watson took note of this in particular, because of the ingrained acceptance of the feminine in matter of belief.
"What do you know?" was her eager interruption. "You have seen the Jarados?"
As for the Rhamda, he looked at Watson with shrewd, calculating eyes. But they were still filled with wonder.
"Can you tell us?" he asked. "Try and think!"
Chick knew that he had gained a point. He had been dealt a trump card; but he was too clever to play it at once. He was on his own responsibility and was carrying a load that required the finest equilibrium.
"I really do not know," he said. "I—I must have time to think. Coming across the border that way you must give me time. You were telling me about the Rhamdas in general; now tell me about Avec in particular."
Geos nodded as though he could understand the fog that beclouded Watson's mind.
"The Rhamda Avec is, or was, the wisest of them all; the head and the chief, and by far the most able. Few beside his own fellows knew it, however; another than he was the nominal head, and officiated for him whenever necessary. Avec had little social intercourse; he was a prodigious student.
"We are a body of learned men, you understand, and we stand at the peak of all that has been discovered through hundreds upon hundreds of centuries, so that at the present day we are the culmination of the combined effort and thought of man since the beginning of time. Each generation of Rhamdas must be greater than the one preceding. When I die and pass on to your world I must leave something new and worth-while to my successor; some thought, wisdom, or deed that may be of use to mankind. I cannot be a Rhamda else. We are a set of supreme priests, who serve man at the shrine of intelligence, not of dogma.
"Of course, we are not to be judged too highly. All research, when it steps forward must go haltingly; there are many paths into the unknown that look like the real one. Hence, we have among us various schools of thought, and each following a different trail.
"I myself am a spiritist. I believe that we can, and often have, communicated with your world at various times. There are others who do not grant it; there are Rhamdas who are inclined to lean more to the materialist's side of things, who rely entirely, when it comes to questions of this kind, upon their faith in the teachings of the Jarados. There are some, too, who believe in the value of speculation, and who contend that only through contemplation can man lift himself to the full fruits of realisation. At the head of us all—the Rhamda Avec!"
"What was his belief?"
"Let us say he believed ALL. He was eclectic. He held that we were all of us a bit right, and each of us a whole lot wrong. It was his contention, however, that there was not one thing that could not be proven; that the secret of life, while undoubtedly a secret in every sense of the word, is still very concrete, it could be proven!"
Watson nodded. He remembered hearing another man make just such a statement—Dr. Holcomb.
"For years he worked in private," went on Geos. "We never knew just what he was doing; until, one day, he called us together and delivered his lecture."
"Rather, his prophecy. For it was all that. Not that he spoke at great length; it was but a talk. He announced that he believed the time had come to prove the occult. That it could be done, and done only through concrete, material means; and that whatever existed, certainly could be demonstrated. He was going to pull aside the curtain that had hitherto cut off the shadow.
"'I am going to prove the occult,' he said. 'In three days I shall return with the fact and the substance. And then I propose to deliver my greatest lecture, my final thesis, in which my whole life shall come to a focus. I shall bring the proof for your eyes and ears, for your fingers to explore and be satisfied. You shall behold the living truth"
"'And the subject of my lecture—the subject of my lecture will be The Spot of Life.'"
THROUGH UNKNOWN WATERS
The SPOT of Life! And the subject of Dr. Holcomb's lecture, promised but never delivered, had been announced as—The Blind SPOT!
To Watson it was fairly astounding to discover that the two— Holcomb and Avec—had reached simultaneously for the curtain of the shadow. The professor had said that it would be "the greatest day since Columbus." And so it had proven, did the world but know it.
"And—the Rhamda Avec never returned?" asked Chick.
"But he sent back something within three days?" Watson was thinking, of course, of the doctor who had disappeared on the day which, Jerome overheard the Rhamda to say, was the last of his stay.
But Geos did not reply. Why, Chick could not guess. He thought it best not to press the question; in good time, if he went at it carefully, he could gain his end with safety. At the moment he must not arouse suspicion. He chose another query.
"Did Avec go alone?"
"No. The Nervina went with him. Rather, she followed within a few hours."
It was out before Watson could think. The Rhamda looked up suddenly.
"Then you have seen the Nervina! You know her?"
Chick lied. It was not his intention, just at present, to tie himself down to anything that might prove compromising or restraining.
"The name is—familiar. Who is this Nervina?"
"She is one of the queens. I thought—My dear sir, she is one of the queens of Thomahlia, half Kospian, half D'Hartian; of the first royal line running through from the day of the Jarados."
Chick cogitated for a moment. Then, taking an entirely new tack:
"You say the Rhamda and this Nervina, independently, solved the mystery of the Spot of Life, I believe you call it. And that Spot leads, apparently, into the occult?"
"Apparently, if not positively. It was the wisdom of Avec, mostly. He had been in communication with your world by means of his own discovery and application. It was all in line with the prophecy.
"Since he and the Nervina left, the people of the world have been in a state of ferment. For it was foretold that in the last days we would get in communication with the other side; that some would come and some would go. For example, your own coming was foretold by the Jarados, almost to the hour and minute."
"Then it was fortuitous," spoke Watson. "It was NOT the wisdom and science of Avec, in my case."
"Quite so. However, it is proof that the Rhamdas have fulfilled their duty. We knew of the Spot of Life, all the while; it was to be closed until we, through the effort of our intellect and virtues, could lift ourselves up to the plane of the world beyond us—your world. It could not be opened by ourselves alone, however. The Rhamda Avec had first to get in touch with your side, before he could apply the laws he had discovered."
Somehow, Chick admired this Rhamda. Men of his type could form but one kind of priesthood: exalted, and devoted to the advance of intelligence. If Rhamda Avec were of the same sort, then he was a man to be looked up to, not to hate. As for the Jarados—Watson could not make out who he had been; a prophet or teacher, seemingly, looming out of the past and reverenced from antiquity.
The Blind Spot became a shade less sinister. Already Watson had the Temple of the Leaf, or Bell, the Rhamdas and their philosophy, the great amber sun, the huge birds, the musical cadence of the perfumed air, and the counter-announcement of Rhamda Avec to weigh against the work and words of Dr. Holcomb.
The world of the Blind Spot!
As if in reaction from the unaccustomed train of thought, Watson suddenly became conscious of extreme hunger. He gave an uneasy glance round, a glance which the Rhamda Geos smilingly interpreted. At a word the woman left the room and returned with a crimson garment, like a bath-robe. When Chick had donned it and a pair of silken slippers, Geos bade him follow.
They stepped out into the corridor.
This was formed and coloured much as the room they had quitted; and it led to another apartment, much larger—about fifty feet across—coloured a deep, cool green. Its ceiling, coved like the other, seemed made of some self-radiating substance from which came both light and heat. Four or five tables, looking like ebony work, were arranged along the side walls. When they were seated at one of these, the Rhamda placed his fingers on some round alna- white buttons ranged along the edge of the table.
"In your world," he apologised, "our clumsy service would doubtless amuse you; but it is the best we have been able to devise so far."
He pressed the button. Instantly, without the slightest sound or anything else to betray just how the thing had been accomplished, the table was covered with golden dishes, heaped with food, and two flagon-like goblets, full to the brim with a dark, greenish liquid that gave off an aroma almost exhilarating; not alcoholic, but something just above that. The Rhamda, disregarding or not noticing Watson's gasp of wonder, lifted his goblet in the manner of the host in health and welcome.
"You may drink it," he offered, "without fear. It is not liquor— if I may use a word which I believe to be current in your world. I may add that it is one of the best things that we shall be able to offer you while you are with us."
Indeed it wasn't liquor. Watson took a sip; and he made a mental note that if all things in the Thomahlia were on a par with this, then he certainly was in a world far above his own. For the one sip was enough to send a thrill through his veins, a thrill not unlike the ecstasy of supreme music—a sparkling exuberance, leaving the mind clear and scintillating, glorified to the quick thinking of genius.
Later Watson experienced no reaction such as would have come from drinking alcohol or any other drug.
It was the strangest meal ever eaten by Watson. The food was very savoury, and perfectly cooked and served. Only one dish reminded him of meat.
"You have meats?" he asked. "This looks like flesh."
Geos shook his head. "No. Do you have flesh to eat, on the other side? We make all our food."
MAKE food. Watson thought best simply to answer the question:
"As I remember it, Rhamda Geos, we had a sort of meat called beef—the flesh of certain animals."
The Rhamda was intensely interested. "Are they large? Some interpret the Jarados to that effect. Tell me, are they like this?" And he pulled a silver whistle from his pocket and, placing it to his lips, blew two short, shrill notes.
Immediately a peculiar patter sounded down the corridor; a ka- tuck, ka-tuck, ka-tuck, not unlike galloping hoof-beats. Before Watson could do any surmising a little bundle of shining black, rounded the entrance to the room and ran up to them. Geos picked it up.
It was a horse. A horse, beautifully formed, perfect as an Arab, and not more than nine inches high!
Now, Chick had been in the Blind Spot, conscious, but a short while. He knew that he was in the precise position that Rhamda Avec had occupied that morning on the ferry-boat. Chick recalled the pictures of the Lilliputian deer and the miniature kittens; yet he was immensely surprised.
The little fellow began to neigh, a tiny, ridiculous sound as compared with the blast of a normal-sized horse, and began to paw for the edge of the table.
"What does he want?"
"A drink. They will do anything for it." Geos pressed a button, and in a moment he had another goblet. This he held before the little stallion, who thrust his head in above his nostrils and drank as greedily as a Percheron weighing a ton. Watson stroked his sides; the mane was like spun silk, he felt the legs symmetrical, perfectly shaped, not as large above the fetlocks as an ordinary pencil.
"Are they all of this size?"
"Yes; all of them. Why do you ask?"
"Because"—seeing no harm in telling this—"as I remember them, a horse on the other side would make a thousand of this one. People ride them."
The Rhamda nodded.
"So it is told in the books of Jarados. We had such beasts, once, ourselves. We would have them still, but for the brutality and stupidity of our ancestors. It is the one great sin of the Thomahlia. Once we had animals, great and small, and all the blessings of Nature; we had horses and, I think, what you call beef; a thousand other creatures that were food and help and companions to man. And for the good they had done our ancestors destroyed them!"
"It was neglect, unthinking and selfish. A time came when our civilisation made it possible to live without other creatures. When machinery came into vogue we put aside the animals as useless; those we had no further use for we denied the right to reproduce. The game of the forest was hunted down with powerful weapons of destruction; all went, in a century or two; everything that could be killed. And with them went the age of our highest art, that age of domesticated animals.
"Our greatest paintings, our noblest sculpture, came from that age; all the priceless relics that we call classic. And in its stead we had the mechanical age. Man likewise became a mechanism, emotionless, with no taste for Nature. Meat was made synthetically, and so was milk."
"You don't mean to say they did not preserve cows for the sake of their milk?"
"No; that kind of milk became old-fashioned; men regarded it as unsanitary, fit only for the calves. What they wanted was something chemically pure; they waged war on bacteria, microbes, and Nature in general; a cow was merely a relic whose product was always an uncertainty. With no reason for the meat and no use for the milk, our vegetarians and our purists gradually eliminated them altogether. It was a strange age; utilitarian, scientific, selfish; it was then headed straight for destruction."
And he went on to relate how men began to lose the power of emotion; there were no dependent beasts to leaven his nature with the salt of kindness; he thought only of his own aggrandisement. He became like his machine, a fine thing of perfectly correlated parts, but with no higher nature, no soul, no feeling; he was less than a brute. The animals disappeared one by one, passing through the channel of death, into the world beyond the Spot of Life, leaving behind only these tiny survivors, playthings, kept in existence longer than all others because of a mere fad.
"Does your spiritism include animals as well as men?"
"Naturally; everything that is endowed with life."
"I see. Let me ask you: why didn't the Rhamdas interfere and put a stop to this wanton sacrilege against Nature?"
The Rhamda smiled. "You forget," replied he, "that these events belong far in the past. At that time the Rhamdas were not. It was even before the coming of the Jarados."
Watson asked no more questions for a while. He wanted to think. How could this man Rhamda Geos, if indeed he were a man, accept him, Watson, as a spirit? Solid flesh was not exactly in line with his idea of the unearthly. How to explain it? He had to go back to Holcomb again. The doctor had accepted without question Avec's naturalness, his body, his appetite. Reasonably enough, Geos, with some smattering of his superior's wisdom, should accept Watson in the same way.
And then, the Jarados: at every moment his name had cropped up. Who was he? So far he had heard no word that might be construed as a clue. The great point, just now, was that the Rhamda Geos accepted him as a spirit, as the fact and substance promised by Avec. But—where was the doctor?
Chick ventured this question:
"My coming was foretold by the Rhamda Avec, I understand. Is this in accord with the words of the Jarados?"
The Rhamda looked up expectantly and spoke with evident anxiety.
"Can you tell me anything about the Jarados?"
"Let us forgo that," side-stepped Watson. "Possibly I can tell you much that you would like to know. What I want to know is, just how well prepared you are to receive me?"
"Then you come from the Jarados!"
"What do you know about him?"
"This: someone should have preceded me! The fact and the substance-you were to have it inside three days! It has been several hundred times the space allotted! Is it not so?"
The Rhamda's eyes were pin-pointed with eagerness.
"Then it IS true! You are from the Jarados! You know the great Rhamda Avec—you have seen him!"
"I have," declared Watson.
"In the other world? You can remember?"
"Yes," again committing himself. "I have seen Avec—in another world. But tell me, before we go on I would have an answer to my question: did anyone precede me?"
Watson was nonplussed, but he concealed the fact.
"Are you sure?"
"Quite, my dear sir. The Spot of Life was watched continually from the moment the Rhamda left us."
"You mean, he and the Nervina?"
"Quite so; she followed him after an interval of a few hours."
"I know. But you say that no one came out ahead of me. Who was it that guarded this—this Spot of Life? The Rhamdas?"
"They and the Bars."
"Ah! And who are the Bars?"
"The military priesthood. They are the Mahovisal, and of the Temple of the Bell. They are led by the great Bar Senestro."
"And there were times when these Bars, led by this Senestro, held guard over the Spot of Life?" To this Geos nodded; and Watson went on: "And who is this great Senestro?"
"He is the chief of the Bars, and a prince of D'Hartia. He is the affianced of the two queens, the Aradna and the Nervina."
"The TWO of them?"
Whereupon Watson learned something rather peculiar. It seemed that the princes of D'Hartia had always married the queens. This Senestro had had a brother, but he died. And in such an event it was the iron custom that the surviving brother marry both queens. It had happened only once before in all history; but the precedent was unbreakable.
"Then, there is nothing against it?"
"Nothing; except, perhaps the prophecy of the Jarados. We now know—the whole world knows—that we are fast approaching the Day of Life."
"Of course; the Day of Life." Watson decided upon another chance shot. "It has to do with the marriage of the two queens!"
"You DO know!" cried the Rhamda joyously. "Tell me!"
"No; it is I who am asking the questions."
Watson's mind was working like lightning. Whether it was the influence of the strange drink, or the equally strange influence of ordinary inspiration, he was never more self-assured in his life. It seemed a day for taking long chances.
"Tell me," he inquired, "what has the Day of Life to do with the two queens and their betrothal?"
The Rhamda throttled his eagerness. "It is one of the obscure points of the prophecy. There are some scholars who hold that such a problem as this presages the coming of the end and the advent of the chosen. But others oppose this interpretation, for reasons purely material: for if the Bar Senestro should marry both queens it would make him the sole ruler of the Thomahlia. Only once before have we had a single ruler; for centuries upon centuries we have had two queens; one of the D'Hartians, and the other of the Kospians, enthroned here in the Mahovisal."
Watson would have liked to learn far more. But the time seemed one for action on his part; bold action, and positive.
"Rhamda Geos—I do not know what is your version of the prophecy. But you are positive that no one preceded me out of the Spot?"
"I am. Why do you persist?"
"Because"—speaking slowly and with the greatest care—"because there was one greater than I, who came before me!"
The Rhamda rose excitedly to his feet, and then sank back into his chair again. In his eyes was nothing save eagerness, wonder and respect. He leaned forward.
"Who was it? Who was he?"
Watson's voice was steady as stone.
"The great Jarados himself!"
A LONG WAY FROM SHORE
Once more Watson had taken the kind of chance he preferred—a slender one. He took the chance that these people, however occult and advanced they might be, were still human enough to build their prophecy out of an old foundation. If he were right, then the person of the Jarados would be inviolable. If the professor were prisoner, held somewhere in secret, and it got noised about that he was the true prophet returned—it would not only give Holcomb immense prestige, but at the same time render the position of his captors untenable.
Chick needed no great discernment to see that he had touched a vital spot. The philosophy of the Rhamdas was firmly bound up with spiritism; they had gone far in science, and had passed out of mere belief into the deeper, finer understanding that went behind the shadow for proof. Certainly Watson inwardly rejoiced to see Rhamda Geos incredulous, his keen face whitening like that of one who has just heard sacrilege uttered—to see Geos rise in his place, grip the table tightly, and hear him exclaim:
"The Jarados! Did you say—the Jarados? He has come amongst us, and we have not known? You are perfectly sure of this?"
"I am," stated Watson, and met the other's keen scrutiny without flinching.
Would the game work? At least it promised action; and now that he had the old feeling of himself he was anxious to get under way. Any feeling of fear was gone now. He calmly nodded his head.
"Yes, it is so. But sit down. I have still a bit more to tell you."
The Rhamda resumed his seat. Clearly, his reverence had been greatly augmented in the past few seconds. From that time on there was a marked difference in his manner; and his speech, when he addressed Chick, contained the expression "my lord"—an expression that Watson found it easy enough to become accustomed to.
"Did you doubt, Rhamda Geos, that I came from the Jarados?"
"We did not doubt. We were certain."
"I see. You were not expecting the Jarados."
"Not yet, my lord. The coming of the Jarados shall be close to the Day of the Judgment. But it could not be so soon; there were to be signs and portents. We were to solve the problem first; we were to know the reason of the shadow and the why of the spirit. The wisdom of the Rhamda Avec told that the day approaches; he had opened the Spot of Life and gone through it; but he had NOT sent the fact and the substance." Watson smiled. There was just enough superstition, it seemed, beneath all the Rhamda's wisdom to make him tractable. However, Chick asked:
"Tell me: as a learned man, as a Rhamda, do you believe in the prophecy implicitly?"
"Yes, my lord. I am a spiritist; and if spiritism is truth, then the Jarados was genuine, and his prophecy is true. After all, my lord, it is not a case of legend, but of history. The Jarados came at a time of high civilisation, when men would see and understand him; he gave us his teaching in records, and imposed his laws upon the Thomahlia. Then he departed—through the Spot of Life."
And the Rhamda Geos went on to say that the teachings of the Jarados had been moral as well as intellectual. Moreover, after he had formulated his laws, he wrote out his judgment.
"What was that?"
"An exhortation, my lord, that we were to give proof of our appreciation of intelligence. We were to use it, and to prove ourselves worthy of it by lifting ourselves up to the level of the Spot of Life. In other words, the spot would be opened when, and only when, we had learned the secrets of the occult, and—had opened the Spot ourselves!"
Watson thought he understood partly. He asked:
"And that is why you doubt me?"
"You, my lord? Not so! You were found in the Temple of the Bell and Leaf; not on the Spot itself, to be sure, but on the floor of the temple. You were, both in your person and in your dress, of another world; you had been promised by the Rhamda Avec; and, in a sense, you were a part of the prophecy. We accepted you!"
"But I speak your language. Account for that, Geos."
"It need not be accounted for, my lord. We accept it as fact. The affinity of spirit would not be bound by the limitation of artificial speech. That you should talk the Thomahlia language is no more strange than that Rhamda Avec, when he passed into your world, should speak your tongue."
"We call our language English," supplied Watson. "It is the tongue of the Jarados and of myself."
"Tell me of the Jarados, my lord!" with renewed eagerness. "In the other world—what is he?"
It was Chick's opportunity. By telling the simple truth about Dr. Holcomb he would enhance himself in the eyes of Rhamda Geas.
"In the other world—we call it America—the Jaradas is a Rhamda much like yourself, the head and chief of many Rhamdas sitting in a great institution devoted to intelligence. It is called the University of California."
"And this California; what is it, my lord?"
"A name," returned Chick. "Immediately on the other side of the Spot is a region called California."
"The promised land, my lord!"
"The promised land indeed. There are some who call it paradise, even there." And for good measure he proceeded to tell much of his own land, of the woods, the rivers, the cities, animals, mountains, the sky, the moon, and the sun. When he came to the sun he explained that no man dared to look at it continuously with the bare eyes. Its great heat and splendour astounded Geos.
Concerning himself he nonchalantly stated that he was the fiance of Holcomb's daughter; that is, son-in-law-to-be of the prophet Jarados; that he was sort of Junior Rhamda. He declared that he had come from the occult Rhamdas, through the other side of the Spot, in search of the Jarados who had gone before. As to his blankness up to now, and his perplexity—he was but a Junior; and the Spot had naturally benumbed his senses. Even now, he apologised, it was difficult to know and to recall everything clearly.
Through it all the Rhamda Geos Listened in something like awe. He was hearing of wonders never before guessed in the Thomahlia. As the prospective son-in-law of the Jarados, Watson automatically lifted himself to a supreme height, so great that, could he only hold himself up to it, he would have a prestige second only to that of the prophet himself.
All of a sudden he thought of a question. It gripped him with dread, the dread of the unknown. The question was one of TIME. "How long have I been here, Rhamda Geos?"
"Over eleven months, by our system of reckoning. You were found on the floor of the temple three hundred and fifty-seven days ago; you were in a lifeless condition; you must have been there some hours, my lord, before we discovered you."
"Eleven months!" It had seemed but that many minutes. "And I was unconscious—"
"All the time, my lord. Had we caught you immediately upon your coming, we could have brought you around within three days, but in the circumstances it was impossible to restore you before we did. You have been under the care of the greatest specialists in all Thomahlia."
Geos himself had been one of these. "The council of Rhamdas went into special session, my lord, immediately after your materialisation, and has been sitting almost continually since. And now that you are revived, they are waiting in person for you to show yourself.
"They accept you. They do not know who you are, my lord; none of us has guessed even a part of the truth. The entire council awaits!"
But Chick wanted more. Besides, he looked at his clothing.
"I would have my own garments, Geos; also, whatever else was found on my person."
For Watson was thinking of a small but powerful pistol, an automatic, that he had carried on the night when he fell through the Blind Spot. This question of materiality was still a puzzle; if he himself had survived there was a chance that the firearm had done the same. It might and it might not preclude the occult. Anyway, he treasured the thought of that automatic; with it in his possession he would not be bare-handed in case of emergency.
They returned to the room in which Chick had awakened. The Rhamda left him. A few moments later he came back with a squad of men. Chick noted their discipline, movement, and uniforms, and classed them as soldiers. Two men were stationed outside the door—one, a stout, dark individual in a blue uniform; and the other a lithe, athletic chap, blond and blue-eyed, wearing a bright crimson dress. Chick instinctively preferred both man and garb in crimson; there was a touch of honour, of lightness and strength that just suited him. The other was dark, heavy and sinister.
Both wore sandals, and upon their heads curious shakos, made of the finest down, not fur. Both displayed a heavy silken braid looped from one shoulder. Each carried a spear-like weapon, of some shining black material, straight-tapered to a needle-point; but no other arms.
Watson pointed to the two uniforms.
"What is the significance, Geos?"
"One is from the queen, my lord; the other from Bar Senestro. The blue is the cloth of the Bars; the red, that of the queens. The Bar and the queen send this bodyguard with their respective compliments."
Chick took the bundle that Geos had brought, and proceeded to don his own clothes, finding deep satisfaction in the fact that they had arrived as intact as he. He felt carefully in his hip pocket; the automatic was still there, likewise the extra magazine of cartridges that he had carried about with him on that night.
In his other pockets he found two packets of cigarettes, a pouch of tobacco, some papers, a few coins, a little money and two photographs, one of Bertha and the other of her father. Not a thing had been disturbed.
He announced himself ready.
The Rhamda conducted him down the corridor, which he found to be lined with guards; red on one side, blue on the other. These men fell in behind in two parallel files, one of the one colour and one of the other.
It was a building of great size. The corridors were long and high, all with the wide-coved ceiling, and of colours that melted from one shade to another as they turned, not corners, but curves. Apparently each colour had its own suggestive reason. Such rooms as Chick could look into were uniformly large, beautiful, and distinctly lighted.
The guard moved in silent rhythm; the chief sound was that made by Watson's leather-heeled shoes, drowning out, for once, the everlasting tinkling undertone of those unseen fairy-bells; that running cadence, never ceasing, silver, liquid, like the soul of sound.
Though Watson walked with head erect, he had eyes for every little thing he passed. He noted the material of the structure and tried to name it; neither plaster nor stone, the walls were highly polished and, somehow or other, capable of emitting perfume—light and wholesome, not heavy and oppressive. And in dark passages the walls glowed.
The corridor widened, and with a graceful curve opened upon a wide stairway that descended, or rather sank—to use Watson's own words for the feeling—into the depths of the building. To the right of one landing was a large window reaching to the floor; its panes were clear and not frosted as had been the others.
Chick got his first glimpse here of what lay outside—an iridescent landscape, at first view astonishingly like an ocean of opals; for it was of many hues, red and purple and milky white, splashed violantin blue and fluorescence—a maze and shimmer of dancing, joyful colours, whirring in an uncertainty of polychromatic harmony. Such was his first fleeting impression.
At the next landing he looked closer. It was not unlike a monster bowl of bubbles; the same illusion of movement, the same delicacy and witchery of colour, only here the sensation was not that of decomposition but of life; of flowers, delicate as the rainbow, tenuous, sinuous, breathing—weaving in a serpentine maze of daedalian hues; long tendrils of orchidian beauty, lifting, weaving, drooping—a vast sea of equatorial bloom; but—no trees.
"This is our landscape," spoke the Rhamda. "According to the Jarados, it is not like that of the next world—your world, my lord. After you meet the Rhamdas, I shall take you into the Mahovisal for a closer view of it all."
They reached the bottom of the stairway. Chick noted the architecture in the entrance-way at this point; the seeming solidness of structure, as if the whole had been chiselled, not built. The vestibule was really a hall, domed and high, large enough to shelter a hundred. Like the corridor outside Chick's room, it was lined with a row each of red and blue uniformed guards.
Invariably the one belonged to the blond, lithe, quick-feeling type, the others heavy, sturdy, formidable. The extremities of the two lines converged on an oval-topped doorway, very large, having above it a design conventionalised from the three-leafed clover. One leaf was scarlet, one blue, the other green.
The door opened. The guards halted. Geos stepped aside with a bow, and Watson strode forward into the presence of the Council of the Rhamdas.
THE BAR SENESTRO
It was a critical moment for Chick. Out of the impulse of his inner nature he had chosen the odds that he must now uphold against the combined wisdom of these intellectuals. He was alone, with no one to guide him save Geos, who undoubtedly was his friend, but who as undoubtedly would desert him upon the slightest inkling of imposture.
He found himself in a great, round room, or rather an oval one, domed at the top but tinted in a far more beautiful colouring— lazuli blue. The walls were cut by long, narrow windows reaching far up into the sweep where the side melted into the ceiling. The material of the windows was of the same translucent substance already noted, but slightly tinged with green, so that they shed a soft light, cooled and quiet, over the whole assembly.
On the wall opposite the doorway was a large replica of the clover-leaf design outside, even more gem-like in brilliance; its three colours woven into a trinity almost of flame. Whether the light was artificial or intrinsic, Chick could not say. The floor of the place accommodated some three hundred tables, of the library type, and the same number of men bearing the distinguished stamp of the Rhamda. All were smooth-shaven, comparatively tall, and possessing the same aesthetic manner which impressed one with the notion of inherited, inherent culture. The entire hall had the atmosphere of learning, justice and the supreme tribunal.
For a moment Watson felt weak and uncertain. He could hold up against Geos and Avec, but in the face of such an array he wasn't so sure. There was but one thing to encourage him; the faces into which he looked. All were full of wonder and reverence.
Then he looked about him more carefully. He had come out upon a wide platform, or rostrum. He now noticed that he was flanked on either side by thrones—two of them; they seemed made of golden amber. The one on the right was occupied by a man, the other by a woman. In the pause that was vouchsafed him Chick took note of these two, and wondered.
In the first place, the man was not a Rhamda. The jewelled semi- armour that he wore was more significant than the dignified garb of the Intellectuals; at the same time, his accoutrements cheapened him, by contrast. He was executive, princely, with the bearing that comes of worldly ambitions and attainments; a man strangely handsome, vital, athletic; curling hair, dark, quick eyes and even features; except only for the mouth he might have been taken as a model of the Greek Alexander.
The clothes he wore were classic, as was everything else about him, even to his sandals, his bare arms and his jewelled breastplate.
Watson had studied history. He had a quick impression of a composite—of genius, cruelty and sensuality. Here was one with three strong natures, a sort of Nero, Caligula and Alexander combined: the sensuality of the first, the cruelty of the second, and the instinctive fire and greatness of the immortal Macedonian. The man was smiling; not an amused smile, but one of interest, humorous tolerance.
When their eyes met, Chick caught the magnetic current of personality, the same sense of illusiveness that he and Harry Wendel had noted in the Nervina; only here it was negative, resisting instead of aiding. A number of the blue guard surrounded the throne, their faces dark, strong, and of unconquerable resolution, though slow to think.
On the other throne was a girl. Chick had heard enough from the Geos to guess her identity: one of the queens, the Aradna; frail, delicate, a blue-eyed maiden, with a waving mass of straw-gold hair hanging loosely about her shoulders. She too was classically attired, although there were touches of modernity here and there in the arrangement of ribbons; the garment matched her guards' crimson, and was draped about her shoulders so as to leave one bare, together with that arm. Across her forehead was a band of dark-blue gems, and she wore no other jewels.
She was not more than seventeen or eighteen, with eyes like bluebells, lips as red as poppies, features that danced with delight and laughter and all the innocence that one would associate with elfin royalty. Instinctively Chick compared her with the Nervina.
The senior queen had the subtle magnetism, the uncountable fascination, the poise and decision that held and dictated all things to her fancy.
Not so the Aradna. Hers was the strength of simplicity, the frank, open delight of the maiden, and at the same time all the charm and suggestion of coming womanhood. When she caught Watson's eye she smiled; a smile free and unrestrained, out of an open, happy heart. She made a remark to one of her guards, who nodded a reply after the manner of a friend, rather than a courtier.
Watson turned to the Geos, who stood somewhat to one side, and a little to the rear.
"Yes. The queen of D'Hartia. The man on the other side is the Bar Senestro."
Whatever feeling Chick entertained for the one was offset by what he felt for the other. He was between two forces; his instinct warned him of the Bar, sceptical, powerful, ruthless, a man to be reckoned with; but his better nature went out to the young queen.
At a motion from Geos, the whole assembly of Rhamdas stood up. The action was both dignified and reverent. Though Chick was, in their eyes, a miracle, there was no unseemly staring nor jarring of curiosity; all was quietness, ease, poise; the only sound was that of the constant subtle music of those invisible bells.
Rhamda Geos began speaking. At the same time he placed a friendly hand on Watson's shoulder, a signal for every other Rhamda to resume his seat.
"The Fact and the Substance, my brothers."
Geos paused as he made use of the ultra-significant phrase. And then, in a few rapid sentences, he ran over the synopsis of that affair, beginning with some philosophy and other details that Watson could only half understand, making frequent allusions to the Jarados and other writers of prophecy; then he made some mention of his own particular brand of spiritism and its stand on materialisation. This he followed with an account of the finding of Watson in the temple, his long sleep and ultimate reviving. At greater length he repeated the gist of their conversation.
Not until then was there a stir among the Rhamdas. Chick glanced over at the Aradna. She was listening eagerly, her chin cupped in her hand, her blue eyes full of interest and wonder, and natural, unfeigned, child-like delight.
Then the Bar caught Chick's glance; the newcomer felt the cold chill of calculation, the cynical weight of the sceptic, and a queer foreboding of the future; no light glance, but one like fire and ice and iron. He wondered at the man's beauty and genius, and at his emotional preponderance manifest even here before the Rhamdas.
The Geos went on. His words, now, were simple and direct. Watson felt himself almost deified by that reverent manner. The Rhamdas listened with visibly growing interest; the Aradna leaned slightly forward; even the Bar dropped his interest in Watson to pay closer attention to the speaker. For Geos had come to the Jarados; he was an orator as well as a mystic, and he was advancing Chick's words with all the skill of a master of language, ascending effect— climax—the Jarados had come among them, and—They had missed him!
For a moment there was silence, then a rustle of general comment. Chick watched the Rhamdas, leaning over to whisper to each other. Could he stand up against them?
But none of them spoke. After the first murmur of comment they lapsed into silence again. It was the Bar Senestro who broke the tension.
"May I ask, Rhamda Geos, why you make such an assertion? What proof have you, to begin with, that this man," indicating Watson with a nod, "is not merely one of ourselves: a D'Hartian or a Kospian?"
The Geos replied instantly: "You know the manner of his discovery, Bar Senestro. Have you not eyes?" Geos seemed to think he had said the last word.
"Surely," rejoined the Bar good-humouredly. "I have very good eyes, Rhamda Geos. Likewise I have a mind to reason with; but my imagination, I fear, is defective. What I behold is just such a creature as myself; not otherwise. How hold you that this one is proof out of the occult?"
"You are sceptical," returned the Rhamda, evenly. "Even as you behold him, you are full of doubt. But do you not recall the words of the great Avec? Do you not know the Prophecy of the Jarados?"
"Truly, Geos; I remember them both. Especially the writing on the wall of the temple. Does not the prophet himself say: 'And behold, in the last days there shall come among ye—the false ones. Them ye shall slay'?"
"All very true, Bar Senestro. But you well know—we all know—that the true prophecy was to be fulfilled when the Spot was opened. Did not the fulfilment begin when the Avec and the Nervina passed through to the other side?"
"The fulfilment, Geos? Perhaps it was the sign of the coming of impostors! The end may not be until ALL the conditions are complied with!"
But at this moment Aradna saw fit to speak.
"Senestro, would you condemn this one without allowing him a word in his own defence? Is it fair? Besides, he does not look like an impostor to me. I like his face. Perhaps he is one of the chosen!"
At the last word the Bar frowned. His glance shifted suddenly to Watson, a swift look of ice-cold calculation.
"Very, very true, O Aradna. I, too, would have him speak in his own behalf. Let him amuse us with his tongue. What would your majesty care to hear, O Aradna, from this phantom?"
The words were of biting satire. Chick wheeled upon the Bar. Their eyes clashed; an encounter not altogether to Watson's credit. He was a bit unsteady, a trifle uncertain of his power. He had calculated on the superstition of the Rhamdas to hold him up until he caught his footing, and this unexpected scepticism was disconcerting. However, he was no coward; the feeling passed away almost at once. He strode straight up to the throne of the Bar; and once more he spoke from sheer impulse:
"The Aradna has spoken true, O Senestro, or sinister, or whatever you may be called. I demand fair hearing! It is my due; for I have come from another world. I follow—the Jarados!"
If Watson had supposed that he had taken the Bar's measure, he was mistaken. The prince's eyes suddenly glinted with a fierce pleasure. Like a flash his antagonism shifted to something astonishingly like admiration.
"Well spoken! Incidentally, you are well made and sound looking, stranger."
"Passably," replied Watson. "I do not care to discuss my appearance, however. I am certainly no more ill-favoured than some others."
"And impertinent," continued the other, quite without malice. "Do you know anything about the Bar, to whom you speak so saucily?"
"I know that you have intimated that I may be an impostor. You have done this, after hearing what the learned Rhamda Geos has said. You know the facts; you know that I have come from the Jarados. I—"
But it wasn't Watson's words that held the Bar's attention. Chick's straight, well-knit form, his quick-trained actions, overbalanced the question of the prophet in the mind of the man on the throne. His delight was self-evident.
"Truly you are soundly built, stranger; you are made of iron and whipcord, finely formed, quick and alert." He threw a word to one of his heavy-faced attendants, then suddenly stood up and descended from his throne. He came up and stood beside Watson.
Chick straightened. The prince was an inch the taller; his bare arms long-muscled, lithe, powerful; under the pink skin Chick could see the delicate, cat-like play of strength and vitality. He sensed the strength of the man, his quick, eager, instinctive glance, his panther-like step and certainty of graceful movement.
"Stranger," spoke the Bar, "indeed you ARE an athlete! What is your nationality—Kospian?"
"Neither Kospian nor D'Hartian; I am an American. True, there are some who have said that I am built like a man; I pride myself that I can conduct myself like one."
"And speak impertinently." Still in the best of humour, the prince coolly reached out and felt Watson's biceps. His eyes became still brighter. If not an admirer of decorum, he could appreciate firm flesh. "Sirra! You ARE strong! Answer me—do you know anything about games of violence?"
"Several. Anything you choose."
But the prince shook his head. "Not so. I claim no unfair advantage; you are well met, and opportune. Let it be a contest of your own choosing. The greater honour to myself, the victor!"
But the little queen saw fit to interfere.
"Senestro, is this the code of the Bar? Is not your proposal unseemly to so great a guest? Restrain your eagerness for strength and for muscle! You have preferred charges against this man; now you would hurl your body as well. Remember, I am the queen; I can command it of you."
The Senestro bowed.
"Your wishes are my law, O Aradna." Then, turning to Watson: "I am over-eager, stranger. You are the best-built man I have seen for many a circle. But I shall best you." He paced to his throne and resumed his seat. "Let him tell us his tale. I repeat, Geos, that for all his beauty this one is an impostor. When he has spoken I shall confute him. I ask only that in the end he be turned over to me."
It was plain that the Thomahlia was blest with odd rulers. If the Bar Senestro was a priest, he was clearly still more of a soldier. The fiery challenge of the man struck an answering chord in Watson; he knew the time must come when he should weigh himself up against this Alexander, and it was anything but displeasing to him.
"What must I say and do?" he asked the Rhamda Geos. "What do they want me to tell them?"
"Just what you have told me: tell them of the Nervina, and of the Rhamda Avec. The prince is a man of the world, but from the Rhamdas you will have justice."
Whereat Chick addressed the Intellectuals. They seemed accustomed to the outbursts of the handsome Bar, and were now waiting complacently. In a few words Watson described the Nervina and Avec; their appearance, manners—everything. Fortunately he did not have to dissemble. When he had finished there was a faint murmur of approval.
"It is proven," declared the girl queen. "It is truly my cousin, the Nervina. I knew not the Rhamda, but from your faces it must have been he, Senestro, what say you to this?"
But the Bar was totally unconvinced.
"All this is childish. Did I not say he is of our world—D'Hartian or Kospian, or some other? Does not all Thomahlia know of the Nervina? Few have seen the Rhamda Avec, but what of it? Some have. What this stranger says proves nothing at all. I say, give him a test."
"The test?" from Geos, in a hushed tone.
"Just that. There is none who knows the likeness of the Jarados; none but the absent Avec. None among us has ever seen his image. It is a secret to all save the High Rhamda. Yet, in cases like this, well may the Leaf be opened."
Watson, wondering what was meant, listened closely to the prince as he continued: "It is written that there are times when all may see. Surely this is such a time.
"Now let this stranger describe the Jarados. He says that he had seen him; that he is the Prophet's prospective son-in-law. Good! Let him describe the Jarados to us!
"Then open the Leaf! If he speaks true, we shall know him to be from the Jarados. If he fail, then I shall claim him for purposes of my own."
Whatever the motives of the Senestro, he surely had the genius of quick decision. Watson knew that the moment had come to test his luck to the uttermost. There was but one thing to do; he did it. He said to the Rhamda Geos, in a tone of the utmost indifference:
"I am willing."
Geos was distinctively relieved, "It is good, my lord. Tell us in simple words. Describe the Jarados just as you have seen him, just as you would have us see him. Afterwards we shall open the Leaf." And in a lower tone: "If you speak accurately I shall be vindicated, my lord. I doubt not that you are a better man than the prince; but place your reliance in the Truth; it will be one more proof of the occult, and of the Day approaching."
Which is all that Watson told. But first he breathed a prayer to One who is above all things occult or physical. He did not understand where he was nor how he had got there; he only knew that his fate was hanging on a toss of chance.
He faced the Rhamdas without flinching; and half closing his eyes and speaking very clearly, he searched his memory for what he recalled of the old professor. He tried to describe him just as he had appeared that day in the ethics class, when he made the great announcement; the trim, stubby figure of Professor Holcomb, the pink, healthy skin, the wise, grey, kindly eyes, and the close- cropped, pure white beard: all, just as Chick had known him. One chance in millions; he took it.
"That is the Jarados as I have seen him; a short, elderly, wise, BEARDED man."
There was not a breath or a murmur in comment. All hung upon his words; there was not a sound in the room as he ceased speaking, only the throb of his own heart and the subtle pounding of caution in his veins. He had spoken. If only there might be a resemblance!
The Geos stepped forward a pace. "It is well said. If the truth has been spoken, there shall be room for no dispute. It shall be known throughout all Thomahlia that the Chosen of the Jarados has spoken. Let the Leaf be opened!"
Chick never knew just what happened, much less how it was accomplished. He knew only that a black, opaque wave ran up the long windows, shutting off the light, so that instantly the darkness of night enveloped everything, blotting out all that maze of colour; it was the blackness of the void. Then came a tiny light, a mere dot of flame, over on the opposite wall; a pin-point of light it was, seemingly coming out of a vast distance like an approaching star, growing gradually larger, spreading out into a screen of radiance that presently was flashing with intrinsic life. The corruscation grew brighter; little tufts of brilliance shot out with all the stabbing suddenness of shooting stars. To Chick it was exactly as though some god were pushing his way through and out of fire. In the end the flame burst asunder, diminished into a receding circle and sputtered out.
And in the place of the strange light there appeared the illuminated figure of a man. Leaning forward, Chick rubbed his eyes and looked again.
It was the bust of Professor Holcomb.
THE PERFECT IMPOSTOR
Chick gasped. Of all that assemblage—Rhamdas, guards, the occupants of the two thrones—he himself was the most astounded. Was the great professor in actual fact the true Jarados? If not, how explain this miracle? But if he were, how to explain the duality, the identity? Surely, it could not be sheer chance!
Fortunately for Chick, it was dark. All eyes were fixed on the trim figure which occupied the space of the clover-leaf on the rear wall. Except for Chick's strangled gasp, there was only the hushed silence of reverence, deep and impressive.
Then another dot appeared. From its position, Watson took it to come from another leaf of the clover; another light approaching out of the void and cutting through the blackness exactly as the first had come. It grew and spread until it had filled the whole leaf; then, again the bursting of the flare, the diminishing of the light, and its disappearance in a thin rim at the edge. And this time there was revealed—
A handsome brown-haired DOG.
Watson of course, could not understand. The silence held; he could feel the Rhamda Geos at his side, and hear him murmur something which, in itself, was quite unintelligible:
"The four-footed one! The call to humility, sacrifice, and unselfishness! The four-footed one!"
That was all. It was a shaggy shepherd dog, with a pointed nose and one ear cocked up and the other down, very wisely inquisitive. Chick had seen similar dogs many times, but he could not account for this one; certainly not in such a place. What had it to do with the Jarados?
Still the darkness. It gave him a chance to think. He wondered, rapidly, how he could link up such a creature with his description of the Jarados. What could be the purpose of a canine in occult philosophy? Or, was the whole thing, after all, mere blundering chance?
This is what bothered Chick. He did not know how to adjust himself; life, place, sequence, were all out of order. Until he could gather exact data, he must trust to intuition as before.
The two pictures vanished simultaneously. Down came the black waves from the windows, gradually, and in a moment the room was once more flooded with that mellow radiance. The Rhamda Geos stepped forward as a murmur of awed approval arose from the assembly. There was no applause. One does not applaud the miraculous. The Geos took his hand.
"It is proven!" he declared. Then, to the Rhamdas: "Is there any question, my brothers?"
But no word came from the floor. Seemingly superstition had triumphed over all else. The men of learning turned none but reverent faces toward Watson.
He forebore to glance at the Bar Senestro. Despite the triumph he was apprehensive of the princes's keen genius. An agnostic is seldom converted by what could be explained away as mere coincidence. Moreover, as it ultimately appeared, the Bar now had more than one reason for antagonising the man who claimed to be the professor's prospective son-in-law.
"Is there any question?" repeated Rhamda Geos.
But to the surprise of Chick, it came from the queen. She was standing before her throne now. Around her waist a girdle of satin revealed the tender frailty of her figure. She gave Watson a close scrutiny, and then addressed the Geos:
"I want to put one question, Rhamda. The stranger seems to be a goodly young man. He has come from the Jarados. Tell me, is he truly of the chosen?"
But a clear, derisive laugh from the opposite throne interrupted the answer. The Bar stood up, his black eyes dancing with mocking laughter.
"The chosen, O Aradna? The chosen? Do not allow yourself to be tricked by a little thing! I myself have been chosen by the inherited law of the Thomahlia!" Then to Chick: "I see, Sir Phantom, that our futures are to be intertwined with interest!"
"I don't know what you mean."
"No? Very good; if you are really come out of superstition, then I shall teach you the value of materiality. You are well made and handsome, likewise courageous. May the time soon come when you can put your mettle to the test in a fair conflict!"
"It is your own saying, O Senestro!" warned Geos. "You must abide by my Lord's reply."
"True; and I shall abide. I know nothing of black magic, or any other. But I care not. I know only that I cannot accept this stranger as a spirit. I have felt his muscles, and I know his strength; they are a man's, and a Thomahlian's."
"Then you do not abide?"
"Yes, I do. That is, I do not claim him. He has won his freedom. But as for endorsing him—no, not until he has given further proof. Let him come to the Spot of Life. Let him take the ordeal. Let him qualify on the Day of the Prophet."
"My lord, do you accept?"
Watson had no idea what the "ordeal" might be, nor what might be the significance of the day. But he could not very well refuse. He spoke as lightly as he could.
"Of course. I accept anything." Then, addressing the prince: "One word, O Senestro."
"Speak up, Sir Phantom!"
"Bar Senestro—what have you done with the Jarados?"
An instant's stunned silence greeted this stab. It was broken by the prince.
"The Jarados!" His voice was unruffled. "What know I of the Jarados?"
"Take care! You have seen him—you know his power!"
"You have a courageous sort of impertinence!"
"I have determination and knowledge! Bar Senestro, I have come for the Jarados!" Chick paused for effect. "Now what think you? Am I of the chosen?"
He had meant it as a deliberate taunt, and so it was taken. The Bar shot to his feet. Not that he was angered; his straight, handsome form was kingly, and for all his impulsiveness there was a certain real majesty about his every pose.
"You are of the chosen. It is well; you have given spice to the taunt! I would not have it otherwise. Forget not your courage on the Day of the Prophet!"
With that he stepped gracefully, superbly from the dais beneath his throne. He bowed to the Aradna, to Geos, to Chick and to the assembly—and was gone. The blue guard followed in silence.
The rest of the ordeal was soon done. Nothing more was said about the Jarados, nor of what the Bar Senestro had brought up. There were a few questions about the world he had quit, questions which put no strain upon his imagination to answer. He was out of the deep water for the present.
When the assembly dissolved Chick was conducted back to the apartments upstairs. Not to his old room, however, but to an adjoining suite, a magnificent place—that would have done honour to a prince. But Chick scarcely noted the beauty of the place. His attention flew at once to something for which he longed—an immense globe.
Chick spun it around eagerly upon its axis. The first thing that he looked for was San Francisco—or, rather, North America. If he was on the earth he wanted to know it! Surely the oceans and continents would not change.
But he was doomed to disappointment. There was not a familiar detail. Outside of a network of curved lines indicating latitude and longitude, and the accustomed tilt of the polar axis, the globe was totally strange! So strange that Chick could not decide which was water and which land.
After a bit of puzzling Chick ran across a yellow patch marked with some strange characters which, upon examination, were translated in some unknown manner within his subconscious mind, to "D'Hartia." Another was lettered "Kospia."
Assuming that these were land—and there were a few other, smaller ones, of the same shade—then the land area covered approximately three-fifths of the globe. Inferentially the green remainder, or two-fifths, was the water or ocean covered area. Such a proportion was nearly the precise reverse of that obtaining on the earth. Chick puzzled over other strange names—H'Alara, Mal Somnal, Bloudou San, and the like. Not one name or outline that he could place!
How could he make his discovery fit with the words of Dr. Holcomb, and with what philosophy he knew? Somehow there was too much life, too much reality, to fit in with any spiritistic hypothesis. He was surrounded by real matter, atomic, molecular, cellular. He was certain that if he were put to it he could prove right here every law from those put forth by Newton to the present.
It was still the material universe; that was certain. Therefor it was equally certain that the doctor had made a most prodigious discovery. But—what was it? What was the law that had fallen out of the Blind Spot?
He gave it up, and stepped to one of the suite's numerous windows. They were all provided with clear glass. Now was his opportunity for an uninterrupted, leisurely survey of the world about him.
As before, he noted the maze of splendid, dazzling opalescence, all the colours of the spectrum blending, weaving, vibrant, like a vast plain of smooth, Gargantuan jewels. Then he made out innumerable round domes, spread out in rows and in curves, without seeming order or system; BUILDINGS, every roof a perfect gleaming dome, its surface fairly alive with the reflected light of that amazing sun. Of such was the landscape made.
As before, he could hear the incessant undertone of vague music, of rhythmical, shimmering and whispering sound. And the whole air was laden with the hint of sweet scents; tinged with the perfume of attar and myrrh—of a most delicate ambrosia.
He opened the window.
For a moment he stood still, the air bathing his face, the unknown fragrance filling his nostrils. The whole world seemed thrumming with that hitherto faint quiver of sound. Now it was resonant and strong, though still only an undertone. He looked below him; as he did so, something dropped from the side of the window opening—a long, delicate tendril, sinuous and alive. It touched his face, and then—It drooped, drooped like a wounded thing. He reached out his hand and plucked it, wondering. And he found, at its tip, a floating crimson blossom as delicate as the frailest cobweb, so inconceivably delicate that it wilted and crumbled at the slightest touch.
Chick thrust his head out of the window. The whole building, from ground to dome, was covered—waving, moving, tenuous, a maze of colour—with orchids!
He had never dreamed of anything so beautiful, or so splendid. Everywhere these orchids; to give them the name nearest to the unknown one. As far as he could see, living beauty!
And then he noticed something stranger still.
From the petals and the foliage about him, little clouds of colour wafted up, like mists of perfume, forever rising and intermittently settling. It was mysteriously harmonious, continuous—like life itself. Chick looked closer, and listened. And then he knew.
These mists were clouds of tiny, multi-coloured insects.
He looked down farther, into the streets. They were teeming with life, with motion. He was in a city whose size made it a true metropolis. All the buildings were large, and, although of unfamiliar architecture, undeniably of a refined, advanced art. Without exception, their roofs were domed. Hence the effect of a sea of bubbles.
Directly below, straight down from his window, was a very broad street. From it at varying angles ran a number of intersecting avenues. The height of his window was great—he looked very closely, and made out two lines of colour lining and outlining the street surrounding the apartments.
On the one side the line was blue, on the other crimson; they were guards. And where the various avenues intersected cables must have been stretched; for these streets were packed and jammed with a surging multitude, which the guards seemed engaged in holding back. As far up the avenues as Chick could see, the seething mass of fellow creatures extended, a gently pulsing vari-coloured potential commotion.
As he looked one of the packed streets broke into confusion. He could see the guards wheeling and running into formation; from behind, other platoons rushed up reinforcements. The great crowd was rolling forward, breaking on the edge of the spear-armed guards like the surf of a rolling sea.
Chick had a sudden thought. Were they not looking up at his window? He could glimpse arms uplifted and hands pointed. Even the guards, those held in reserve, looked up. Then—such was the distance—the rumble of the mob reached his ears; at the same time, spreading like a grass fire, the commotion broke out in another street, to another and another, until the air was filled with the new undertone of countless human tongues.
Chick was fascinated. The thing was over-strange. While he looked and listened the whole scene turned to conflict; the voice of the throng became ominous. The guards still held the cables, still beat back the populace. Could they hold out, wondered Chick idly; and what was it all about?
Something touched his shoulder. He wheeled. One of the tall, red- uniformed guards was standing beside him. Watson instinctively drew back, and as he did so the other stepped forward, touched the snap, and closed the window.
"What's the idea? I was just getting interested!"
The soldier nodded pleasantly, respectfully—reverently.
"Orders from below, my lord. Were you to remain at that window it would take all the guards in the Mahovisal to keep back the Thomahlians."
"Why?" Chick was astonished.
"There are a million pilgrims in the city, my lord, who have waited months for just one glimpse of you."
Watson considered. This was a new and a dazing aspect of the affair. Evidently the expression on his face told the soldier that some explanation would not be amiss.
"The pilgrims are almost innumerable, my lord. They are all of the one great faith. They are, my lord, the true believers, the believers in the Day."
The Day! Instantly Watson recalled Senestro's use of the expression. He sensed a valuable clue. He caught and held the soldier's eye.
"Tell me," commanded Chick. "What is this Day of which you speak!"
AN ALLY, AND SOLID GROUND
The soldier replied unhesitatingly: "It is the Day of Life, my lord. Others call it the 'first of the Sixteen Days.' Still others, simply the Day of the Prophet, or Jarados."
"When will it be?"
"Soon. It is but two days hence. And with the going down of the sun on that day the Fulfilment is to begin, and the Life is to come. Hence the crowd below, my lord; yet they are nothing compared with the crowds that today are pressing their way from all D'Hartia and Kospia towards the Mahovisal."
"All because of the Day?"
"And to see YOU, my lord."
"All believers in the Jarados?"
"All truly; but they do not all believe in your lordship. There are many sects, including the Bars, that consider you an imposter; but the rest—perhaps the most—believe you the Herald of the Day. All want to see you, for whatever motive."
"These Bars; who are they?"
"The military priesthood, my lord. As priests they teach a literal interpretation of the prophecy; as soldiers they maintain their own aggrandisement. To be more specific, my lord, it is they who accuse you of being one of the false ones."
"Because it is written in the prophecy, my lord, that we may expect impostors, and that we are to slay them."
"Then this coming contest with the Senestro—" beginning to sense the drift of things.
"Yes, my lord; it will be a physical contest, in which the best man destroys the other!"
The guard was a tall, finely made and truly handsome chap of perhaps thirty-five. Watson liked the clear blue of his eyes and the openness of his manner. At the same time he felt that he was being weighed and balanced.
"My lord is not afraid?"
"Not at all! I was just thinking—when does this kill take place?"
"Two days hence, my lord; on the first of the Sixteen Sacred Days."
And thus Chick found a staunch friend. The soldier's name, he learned, was "the Jan Lucar." He was supreme in command of the royal guards; and Chick soon came to feel that the man would as cheerfully lay down his life for him, Watson, as for the queen herself. All told, Chick was able to store away in his memory a few very important facts:
First, that the Aradna did not like the Senestro.
Second, that the Jan Lucar hated the great Bar because of the prince's ambition to wed the queen and her cousin, the Nervina; also because of his selfish, autocratic ways.
Next, that were the Nervina on hand she would thwart the Senestro; for she was a very learned woman, as advanced as the Rhamda Avec himself. But that she was a queen first and a scholar afterwards; her motive in going through the Blind Spot was to take care of the political welfare of her people, her purposes were as high as Rhamda Avec's, but partook of statesmanship rather than spirituality.
Finally, that the Rhamdas were perfectly willing for the coming contest to take place, on the evening of the Day of the Prophet, in the Temple of the Bell and Leaf.
"Jan Lucar," Watson felt prompted to say, "you need have no fear as to the outcome of the ordeal, whatever it may be. With your faith in me, I cannot fail. For the present, I need books, papers, scientific data. Moreover, I want to see the outside of this building."
The guardsman bowed. "The data is possible, my lord, but as to leaving the building—I must consult the queen and the Rhamda Geos first."
"But I said MUST" Watson dared to say. "I must go out into your world, see your cities, your lands, rivers, mountains, before I do aught else. I must be sure!"
The other bowed again. He was visibly impressed.
"What you ask, my lord, is full of danger. You must not be seen in the streets—yet. Untold bloodshed would ensue inevitably. To half the Thomahlians you are sacred, and to the other half an impostor. I repeat, my lord, that I must see the Geos and the queen."
Another bow and the Jan disappeared, to return in a few moments with the Geos.
"The Jan has told me, my lord, that you would go out."
"If possible. I want to see your world."
"I think it can be arranged. Is your lordship ready to go?"
"Presently." Watson laid a hand on the big globe he had already puzzled over. "This represents the Thomahlia?"
"Yes, my lord."
"How long is your day, Geos?"
"I mean, how many revolutions in one circuit of the sun, in one year-circle?"
As he uttered the question Chick held his breath. It had suddenly struck him that he had touched an extremely definite point. The answer might PLACE him!
"You mean, my lord, how long is a circle in term of days?"
"Three hundred and sixty-five and a fraction, my lord."
Watson was dumbfounded. Could there be, in all the universe, another world with precisely the same revolution period? But he could not afford to show his concern. He said:
"Tell me, have you a moon?"
"Yes; it has a cycle of about twenty-eight days."
Watson drew a deep breath. Inconceivable though it appeared, he was still on his own earth. For a moment he pondered, wondering if he had been caught up in tangle of time-displacement. Could it be that, instead of living in the present, he had somehow become entangled in the past or in the future?
If so—and by now he was so accustomed to the unusual that he considered this staggering possibility with equanimity—if the time coefficient was at fault, then how to account for the picture of the professor, in that leaf? Had they both been the victims of a ghastly cosmic joke?
There was but one way to find out.
"Come! Lead the way, Geos; let us take a look at your world!"
Presently the three men were standing at the door of a vast room, one entire side of which was wide open to the outer air. It was filled by a number of queer, shining objects. At first glance Chick took them to be immense beetles.
The Jan Lucar spoke to the Geos:
"We had best take the June Bug of the Rhamda Avec."
Watson thought it best to say nothing, show nothing. The Jan ran up to one of the glistening affairs, and without the slightest noise he spun it gracefully around, running it out into the centre of the mosaic floor.
"I presume," apologised the Geos, "that you have much finer aircraft in your world."
Aircraft! Watson was all eagerness. He saw that the June Bug was about ten feet high, with a bunchy, buglike body. On closer scrutiny he could make out the outlines of wings folded tight against the sides. As for the material, it must have been metal, to use a term which does not explain very much, after all. In every respect the machine was a duplicate of some great insect, except that instead of legs it had well-braced rollers.
"How does it operate?" Watson wanted to know. "That is, what power do you use, and how do you apply it?"
The Jan Lucar threw back a plate. Watson looked inside, and saw a mass of fine spider-web threads, softer than the tips of rabbit's hair, all radiating from a central grey object about the size of a pea. Chick reached out to touch this thing with his finger.
But the Geos, like a flash, caught him by the shoulder and pulled him back.
"Pardon me, my lord!" he exclaimed. "But you must not touch it! You—even you, would be annihilated!" Then to the Lucar: "Very well."
Whereupon the other did something in front of the craft; touched a lever, perhaps. Instantly the grey, spidery hairs turned to a dull red.
"Now you may touch it," said the Geos.
But Chick's desire had vanished. Instead he ventured a question:
"All very interesting, but where is your machinery?"
The Rhamda was slightly amused. He smiled a little. "You must give us a little credit, my lord. We must seem backward to you, but we have passed beyond reliance upon simple machines. That little grey pellet is, of course, our motive force; it is a highly refined mineral, which we mine in vast quantity. It has been in use for centuries. As for the hair-like web, that is our idea of a transmission."
Watson hoped that he did not look as uncomprehending as he felt. The other continued:
"In aerial locomotion we are content to imitate life as much as possible. We long ago discarded engines and propellers, and instead tried to duplicate the muscular and nervous systems of the birds and insects. We fly exactly as they do; our motive force is intrinsic. In some respects, we have improved upon life."
"But it is still only a machine, Geos."
"To be sure, my lord; only a machine. Anything without the life principle must remain so."
The Jan Lucar pressed another catch, allowing another plate to lower and thereby disclose a glazed door, which opened into a cosy apartment fitted with wicker chairs, and large enough for four persons. There was some sort of control gear, which the Jan Lucar explained was not connected directly with the flying and steering members, but indirectly through the membranes of the web-like system. It was uncannily similar to the nervous connections of the cerebellum with the various parts of the anatomy of an insect.
"Does it travel very fast?"
"We think so, my lord. This is the private machine of the Rhamda Avec. It is rather small, but the swiftest machine in the Thomahlia."
They entered the compartment, Watson took his seat beside the Geos, while the soldier sat forward next to the control elements. He laid his hands on certain levers; next instant, the machine was gliding noiselessly over the mosaic, on to a short incline and thence, with ever increasing speed, toward and through the open side of the room.
The slides had all been thrown back; the compartment was enclosed only in glass. Watson could get a clear view, and he was amazed at the speed of the craft. Before he could think they were out in mid-air and ascending skyward. Travelling on a steep slant, there was no vibration, no mechanical noise; scarcely the suggestion of movement, except for the muffled swish of the air.
Were it not for the receding city below him, Chick could have imagined himself sitting in a house while a windstorm tore by. He felt no change in temperature or any other ill effects; the cabin was fully enclosed, and heated by some invisible means. In short, ideal flight: for instance, the seats were swung on gimbals, so that no matter at what angle the craft might fly, the passengers would maintain level positions.
Below stretched the Mahovisal—a mighty city of domes and plazas, and, widely scattered, a few minarets. At the southern end there was a vast, square plaza, covering thousands of acres. Toward it, on two sides, converged scores of streets; they stretched away from it like the ribs of a giant fan. On the remaining two sides there was a tremendously large building with a V-shaped front, opening on the square. The play of opal light on its many-bubbled roof resembled the glimmer from a vast pearl.
In the air above the city an uncountable number of very small objects darted hither and thither like sparkling fireflies. It was difficult to realise that they, too, were aircraft.
To the west lay an immense expanse of silver, melting smoothly into the horizon. Watson took it to be the Thomahlian ocean. Then he looked up at the sky directly above him, and breathed a quick exclamation.
It was a single, small object, perfectly white, dropping out of the amethyst. Tiny at first, amost instantly it assumed a proportion nearly colossal—a great bird, white as the breast of the snowdrift, swooping with the grace of the eagle and the speed of the wind. It was so very large that it seemed, to Chick, that if all the other birds he had ever known were gathered together into one they would still be as the swallow. Down, down it came in a tremendous spiral, until it gracefully alighted in a splash of molten colour on the bosom of the silver sea. For a moment it was lost in a shower of water jewels—and then lay still, a swan upon the ocean.
"What is it, Geos?"
"The Kospian Limited, my lord. One of our great airships—a fast one, we consider it."
"It must accommodate a good many people, Rhamda."
"About nine thousand."
"You say it comes from Kospia. How far away is that?"
"About six thousand miles. It is an eight-hour run, with one stop. Just now the service is every fifteen minutes. They are coming, of course, for the Day of the Prophet."
Watson continued to watch the great airship, noting the swarm of smaller craft that came out from the Mahovisal to greet it, until the Jan Lucar suddenly altered the course. They stopped climbing, and struck out on a horizontal level. It left the Mahovisal behind them, a shimmering spot of fire beside the gleaming sea. They were travelling eastwards. The landscape below was level and unvaried, of a greenish hue, and much like that of Chick's own earth in the early spring-time—a vast expanse, level and sometimes dotted with opalescent towns and cities. Ribbons of silver cut through the plain at intervals, crookedly lazy and winding, indicating a drainage from north to south or vice versa. Looking back to the west, he could see the great, golden sun, poised as he had seen it that morning, a huge amber plate on the rim of the world. It was sunset.