By: Irene Clyde
May 6, 2024

AI-assisted illustration by HILOBROW

Beatrice the Sixteenth: Being the Personal Narrative of Mary Hatherley, M.B., Explorer and Geographer (1909), by the English feminist, pacifist, and non-binary or transgender lawyer and writer Irene Clyde (born Thomas Baty) introduces us to Armeria, an ambiguous utopia — to which we are introduced initially without any firm indications of its inhabitants’ genders. HiLoBooks is pleased to serialize this ground-breaking novel for HILOBROW’s readers.

BEATRICE THE SIXTEENTH: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13.




Ilex had an expedition planned for herself and me the next day.

She had instructions to proceed up the river as far as the barbarian mountains, to convoy what I understood to be goods and merchandise, which they would bring by way of tribute. As the course of the river skirted the rival realm of Uras, it was clearly advisable that we should keep our eyes open, so as to remark the condition of things there.

The sun had scarcely risen next morning when we parted. We passed out at the massive stone gate, and found a broad, flat boat waiting for us at the quay. It was poled along, not rowed, by energetic water-folk, and there sat in it quite a disproportionate I number, as I thought, of armed retainers. Ilex and I came alone, without any servant, and we were accompanied on the voyage by a single State official and two young secretaries. Despite the efforts of our crew, the progress of the boat was not rapid, and we did not reach the limits of Uras until evening. But the way was not dull. The shores, certainly, were flat, but they were not monotonous, except the north bank, which bordered on the desert, and was a kind of no-man’s-land. On the contrary, the south bank presented now a pleasant assemblage of houses; now a solitary and romantic tower; now a dense mass of riverside foliage; now a grove of stately trees, where stray fruit-gatherers would come to the water to see us pass; now a broad green meadow, with asphodels that would have comforted Homer’s heart; now a solitary monument, with herons its only guardians.

A little shallop with two occupants pushed off to meet us as we approached rather a handsome dwelling, a mile or two from the nearest village. The two young girls who rowed it hailed Ilex familiarly.

“You’re safe so far, I see,” said one.

“Yes,” replied Ilex, “no ambush so far.”

“Well, you can g0 on. Opalissa reports alright.”

“Of course we’re all right. Even if war had broken out, they daren’t interfere with our transit on the river.”

“Oh, of course not. All the same, they would! Nothing easier than to engineer an upset on the quiet.”

“Well, so long as you say all’s clear now, that’s enough. Our people are patrolling the north bank?”

The girl in the boat gave a slow nod, with a meaning look, and then they let us forge ahead. As we passed the little craft they gave us a parting flourish of paddles, and the late speaker’s eyes rested on me, and grew larger as they did so.

“Take care of yourselves, too,” shouted Ilex.

The rowers returned a cry that was nearly inaudible as their boat slipped swiftly down-stream.

“Shall we stop on the boat, Mêrê, or go on shore?” said Ilex, as we approached the wharf outside a grey rubble wall, which was my first glimpse of Uras.

“You know best. Is there any reason why we should do one or the other?” I answered.

“No particular reason,” she said. “And, indeed, unless you wish to see Achis, which is the name of this distinguished town, it will be pleasantest to sleep on board.”

The crew and armed followers lay down in the capacious bottom of the boat. The rest of us found berths on a canopied platform which we had occupied during the day. One of the young secretaries, who was a handy personage and given to looking after the comfort of her fellow-creatures, mixed us warm draughts, aromatic and cordial, of which we were glad enough, as the night grew chilly on the water at this season. I fell asleep with my last glances fixed on the form of a sentinel, stationed on our raised deck; wondering, in a sleepy way, why he had no rifle, and what would happen if a party of Bedouins with firearms were to come upon us.

A sharp crackle wakened me. But it was not the firing of guns, but the result of an attempt on our friend’s part to light a fire in a small brazier. Finally successful, she invited us to coffee by way of breakfast, and we went on our journey against the stream. With infinite curiosity I scanned the southern bank as we glided past it. This, then, was Uras, the home of the subtle and inveterate enemies of my hosts! Nothing appeared in the look of the place to show it, as one had an irrational but deeply-rooted idea that it should. The same panorama prevailed, of stately foliage of forest and river-grass, alternating with clearer spaces, where green pastures stretched away from the banks to low hills in the interior, or where collections of houses, walled or open, called for attention. Some of these riverfronts to the towns were very striking — but no less so in Uras than in Armeria. By midday the company in the boat seemed, I thought, a little excited for some reason or other. The cause was soon plain. The river broadened, and grew full of moored craft. To the left of a thick belt of trees appeared a bit of grey wall, which rapidly revealed itself as an imposing riverfront, behind which rose minarets, turrets and columned balconies. It was Cantalûna, the capital of Uras. Flags flew from the towers of its great central gate, to which a wide set of steps led up from the shore. Near the summit of the wall (not a very high one) was an open gallery, with arcaded pillars; and in it I could see three or four people watching the river. At the gate, too, there were not a few townspeople congregated. And these were Urassites! I could not take my eyes off them.

Just then, our boat, with much splashing and some objurgation, suddenly stopped, and there darted past our bows a long, narrow vessel, very light and low, and heavily gilded all over. It had, I should say, twelve or twenty rowers, and in the stern, without any canopy, were two erect forms, on whose faces were unmistakably marked disdain and determination.

AI-assisted illustration by HILOBROW

Our pilot, stationed at our stem, bowed till I momentarily expected to see the obsequious functionary go over the side into the stream: and I noticed that all the boats in the neighbourhood paid a similar compliment.

At the same time Ilex explained to me:

“That’s the Queen of Uras, and her cousin, the Chief Treasurer.”

“Which is which?” I said; but Ilex had gone forward to speak to the State officer who was with us. I turned to the invaluable young secretary, who told me the nearer to us was the queen.

“At least, she is very like her portrait, she said. “Her hair is much lighter than the Treasurer’s.”

She turned out to be right, and I followed the course of the elegant craft with much interest until it lay alongside the steps. A brilliant assemblage had gathered near the gate, but the queen sprang out and walked sharply past them, when they turned and accompanied her, in a confused procession.

“Has she come back from a journey?” I hazarded.

“No, your ladyship,” said the sentinel of the night before, looking up from below with the same frank readiness to join in the conversation that one remarks in a north-country servant or workman; “it’s her usual style. She always has a lot of attendants.”

“Nice life, too, she leads them,” muttered a retainer over her shoulder.

For a long time we poled past the city. Clumps of palms appeared over the wall now and then, and the various towers, gates, embrasures, and galleries afforded plenty of interest. After a while, however, the wall came to an end, and before long only a minaret’s summit could be seen to remind us of Cantalûna.

A chance remark I dropped made Ilex think I would like to visit a town in Uras: so we brought up for the night at a place called Lythomais, instead of pushing on to Kytôna. We drew up to a low wharf, where one or two people were loafing about; and none of us was sorry to have the opportunity of a walk on land, after the cramped accommodation of the boat. It was arranged that we should all try and find quarters in the odd little fortified town, with the exception of the Government Agent and a few of the crew and escort, who were to stand by the ship.

“Give me the stars for a bed-curtain,” observed the first-named, in an unwonted flight of eloquence.

“I can’t stand being shut up in a domestic gaol all night!”

I quoted Dr. Johnson at the Agent.

“‘A ship is a prison, with the additional chance of being drowned,'” I said. “A fortiori, a boat is —”

“Oh, but I can swim. And what’s to hinder me walking ashore?”

We might have argued the matter at some length, but the rest of the party were apprehensive the gates were going to be closed. So we strolled in, between two massive round towers. Ilex inquired about sleeping facilities. The ancient custodian of the gateway informed us there existed in the place only one khan, or travellers’ resting-place, and was sceptical as to its holding the whole party. Pressed as to other possibilities, she (or it might be he) admitted that strangers were sometimes known to be received at the house of the town seneschal. This was pointed out to us a little way along the wall. Ilex and I decided to make investigation there, while the rest of us occupied the khan in force.

The town seneschal did not live in a very imposing dwelling, and after the houses in Alzôna it seemed very rough and small. But this was only an out-of-the-way village, where one could not expect the luxuries of a capital. As everywhere, it was a one storied house: but it had two substantial square rooms built like towers, close together on the roof. The arched doorway was closed (a rare thing in Alzôna) by a heavy door with a good deal of metalwork on it. A knock brought up the seneschal in person, who was no more impressive than the dwelling, but who, after consultation with the rest of the family, agreed to take us in for the night. The preliminary discussion was a long one, and as we stood at the door listening to the voices within, word came from the others of our party that the khan was roomy enough for them all, and, with squeezing, would hold two more.

“Shall we just turn round and go?” said Ilex.

“Perhaps that would hurt the seneschal’s feelings,” I answered. “Let us wait and see what turns up.”

What turned up was that we were offered one of the roof rooms, divided into two by a most elaborate and beautiful, though roughly executed, screen of acacia-wood. An apology was offered for the fact of the evening meal being over, and we were introduced into the principal apartment of the house, where the family were assembled by the firelight. A handsome, tall, cross-looking personage was presented to us as the conjux of our host. We excused her failing to appreciate visitors at that time of night, but she certainly did not exert herself to be agreeable. Two daughters of the house, on the contrary, were pleasant enough in their way. Others, old and young, were present, whose relations to the household I did not clearly gather. Ilex and I did not stay long downstairs, but made our way to the room we had secured, where swinging lamps had been lighted. The streets, which had been absolutely deserted before dark, were now much livelier. For a good while we watched the populace, and I was surprised to find them not very much different from the Alzôna people.

There was a certain gaucherie about them, which might be due to their rustic remoteness: and they seemed less intelligent and graceful, perhaps. But I had expected to find a race of fierce swashbucklers, and, except here and there, no such grisly people were observable. Yet, after a while, I did recognise that there was a spirit abroad in the crowd which was foreign to that of Alzôna. A pushful, swaggering carelessness of others showed itself pretty distinctly to the observant onlooker. And in point of physical development, there was no doubt that the town folk here were possessed of bigger frames, stronger muscles, stouter limbs, louder voices, than my shapely friends of Armeria. Only I had expected something a great deal coarser still.

At last the crowds grew noisy, and a Babel of strident repartee, not too decent, arose in the street. We left our station from which we had looked down, in the shadow of the tower, and made our way to the back of the house. Here we were alone. We did not talk much. There was a seat in the rampart which ran round the flat roof, and we mounted on it, and finally settled down in one of its corners. Ilex seemed strangely embarrassed. I could not understand it. For myself, I was thoroughly content to be where I was — if I must remain in this strange world. If I must? Was there any motive for my leaving it? Could I be better off, or happier, in the world I used to know? Safer?

What made Ilex so silent? Did she know of any danger of which I was ignorant? Were the raucous shouts of the passing crowds directed at us? The murmur of them rose in the distance, and I shivered a little.

“You’re cold; we’ll go in,” said Ilex.

“No, indeed; it’s so much warmer than on the river!”

“But you shook with cold this minute.”

“It wasn’t cold, really. I was thinking”

“Never mind. It’s time we went in. I wonder what our respectable host thinks of us sitting out here in the starlight. Not a thing the Urassite is addicted to.”

“Isn’t it?”

“No; they much prefer a bustling causeway or a comfortable cafe. Unless, indeed, they are up to mischief.”

“Then you don’t think there is anything to be feared from them tonight?”

“My good Mêrê, no! They haven’t the invention necessary to think of it.” She and I turned slowly to the tower where our room was, she passing her arm round me in the fashion I felt so comfortable.

“We are as safe here as we could be at home.”

“You remember Thekla, though?” I said hesitatingly.

“Ah, that was a coup of the Government’s. She opened the way to the chamber as she spoke. If there were agents of the Government about in this little hole, there might be trouble. But they are too busy elsewhere.”

She kissed me, and we slept the sleep of the just, undisturbed by risks, real or imaginary.

The next day we pursued our voyage, past the kingdom of Kytôna. On successive days we proceeded along the river-shores of smaller estates; all interesting to me, and containing plenty of material for observation from the boat’s deck. Latterly, a thin blue chain of mountains was to be seen in the distance ahead, and the river was rapidly getting shallower and narrower. At last we came to a point where an artificial pool, filled with craft, communicated with the stream. Here we stopped, and commenced an overland journey, which lasted nearly two days. It was almost evening when we reached the base of the mountains, and we spent the night in the open air.

The vegetation had assumed a more tropical appearance; the nights, too, were much warmer, — which seemed curious, considering the comparatively short distance we had travelled. Our way the next morning led across an open plain dotted with patches of bamboo, to a magnificent gorge. Sheer precipices rose on each side to an immense height. Veils of green trailing plants with vivid flowers clung to the dark crags, and bright flashes high up the rocks indicated the streamlets that trickled from the mountain top. The climb was not a long one, nor a steep one either. The defile broadened into a wide amphitheatre of rocks, from which an abrupt descent led to an illimitable extent of country.

The view was splendid — forests, clearings, moors, stretched away to the horizon. Here and there, smoke rising proclaimed the existence of houses.

“And what is this fine country?” was my first question, when my admiration had subsided.

“This has no name. It is the country of the barbarians,” said the young secretary, and, when I glanced interrogatively at Ilex, she affirmed the same.

“It seems to me,” I said, “that I should feel inclined to make myself mistress of a good slice of this territory. Why, you might be the most powerful monarch in the world!”

My companions, somehow, could not be brought to see the force of this argument.

“There are the barbarians there already, you know,” observed the other secretary — (not the amateur steward).

“But think what a lot of good you would do them!”

“If they would let you,” interposed the State Agent.

“Let you! They would have to let you. Surely you are not afraid of barbarians!”

“Well, then,” went on Ilex, treating the subject with extreme levity, “you would be a ruler over so many wild rangers. P personally prefer to be a citizen of a civilised town for choice; where one can have plenty of friends and interests!”

“But you could bring people with you and build your towns.”

“And civilise the barbarians by squashing them down? It doesn’t sound a hopeful experiment, Mêrê.”

“It has been tried with the greatest success by my country-folk,” I assured her — I hope not mendaciously; but I begin to think I may have been a little too positive on the subject, when I recall the civilised barbarians I know.

The Agent, who was a matter-of-fact person, took the trouble to explain that the relations of the barbarians with the civilised world constituted too delicate a matter for anyone even to think of disturbing the status quo.

“Where should we get our children from?” she asked.

AI-assisted illustration by HILOBROW

And just then there emerged from the cover of a clump of trees a procession of dirty, unkempt denizens of the prairie, evidently the inhabitants of the land. They moved with a free and haughty air, for all their insanitary condition: but what caught my attention most was the fact that one or two infants lay in the arms of each. Tiny babies they were, to the number of a hundred or so; and they were promptly stacked, like so much merchandise, on the ground between their affectionate parents and ourselves. On our part an equally imposing pile of carpets and woven tissues of the commonest kind was erected. While the Agent and Ilex examined the one heap, the native chiefs inspected the other. Their examination was perfunctory. Each party was used to the other’s dealings, and took the quality of the supply for granted. However, Ilex asked me to accompany the Agent and her in their tour.

“What is the meaning of this?” wanted to know.

“These are the weekly supply of citizens for Armeria,” she replied. “These people are glad to be relieved of them, but they squeeze a return out of us (these carpets) by threatening to cut off the supply. They have business instincts, these innocent children of Nature!”

“May you reject weakly ones?” I said.

“Oh no. Only if there is actual disease. As you are a physician, you may be able to give us some help.”

I accordingly advised the Agent with great gravity and assumption of wisdom in each case. That officer, however, knew as much of pathology as I, and the net result of my assistance was that we detected a broken leg that had been badly set.

“Poor little mite!” said the Agent, with a gentleness that surprised me. We stood and looked at the atom.

“Look here!” resumed the Agent, “we’ll pass her. She’s had a bad time in her few months’ life; and she’ll have a better one with us than she will here.”

Of course, it was not for me to raise objections. Ilex had tired of the inspection; so had the native chiefs, and she had gone up to them, and was immersed in listening to their eloquence, and in giving directions for the feast of which we mutually partook as the next item in the day’s proceedings. The barbarians behaved very well at this repast, though it was a little laughable, when one considered it, to be solemnly picnicking in a long row, vis-á-vis of a similar range of extremely uncleanly savages of unconventional ideas as to table etiquette, The meal ended, we retired, leaving our friends in possession of their booty. Our crew and escort, laden with our living freight, which they carried in great baskets slung on poles, buckled to for the return journey. This being downhill, there was considerable danger of an upset; and I liked the extreme care which every member of the party took to avoid injury to the precious burden.

As we entered the pass, I turned and looked at the spreading panorama. The barbarians were wending their way, in a thin line, along the plain. I felt conscious of a certain thrill of pleasure as I turned my face towards Armeria.

Emerging from the cool defile, we passed a shallow lake, the resort of several white-winged birds, like cranes, with a flamingo or two amongst them. Doubtless there were flocks of these behind the tall rushes and papyrus that grew round the lake’s margin.

As one of the cranes rose and flew towards the south-west, my eye, following it, fell on an interesting monument which seemed strange in this unpeopled district. It was a small erection of pure Greek design, and was said to serve the purpose of a rest-house, in case traffickers should be overtaken by the night in bad weather.

I wondered that no cities had grown up here, for the Agent told me — and I could see — that the troops of people which gathered here from many lands was enormous. Cavalcade after cavalcade passed us. The first to go by hailed from Uras, and we took absolutely no notice of it, nor it of us. But there were others whose leaders we saluted more or less effusively. Their bizarre differences of costume, coming as they did from such widely scattered countries, was most entertaining. One set of travellers would wear helmets with great glittering crests, reminding me irresistibly of pantomime. Others would wear half-diaphanous gauzes; others carried ponderous axes. Some bands were dressed alike; most, however, were not uniformed. Long robes, short kirtles, talkative parties, solemn processions, formally ordered hierarchies, loose crowds — each nation seemed to have its own peculiar way of bringing its children home. The most startling thing was to see a troop, which I was told came from a state far to the south, called Apracôta, attended by officers carrying genuine Roman fasces whether as an emblem of rank or as religious symbols, I could not tell, but the resemblance was perfect, down to the cross binding of the fastenings.

Ilex told me where each party came from, so far as she was able, and when this source of conversation flagged, we talked about the children.

“These will be Star children,” she observed.

“Every week has a name — Star, Eagle, Crescent, Stag, and so on. I am a Fuchsia myself, because I was brought when the Kamprôna (fuchsia) week was current.”

“You!” I said, amazed. “You were not brought in this way? You’re not the child of some —”

“Some disreputable barbarian? Certainly,” she said, wonderingly. “Of course, we all are. Are you not?”

“No!” I returned, helplessly. “But you don’t mean —”

“Didn’t I make it clear that we came weekly for supplies of population? I thought —”

“Oh yes! But not all I didn’t realise that you all —”

“I see,” said Ilex, not in the least discomposed by my discovery of her shady origin. “It wasn’t quite clear. One forgets you are such a complete stranger!”

She put her arm round my neck, with a friendly pressure of her fingers on my shoulder, that made me feel a wild longing to prove her to be no scion of the degraded race beyond the mountains. I said, with a gulp and a smile:

“Don’t you see that you’re defying every law of heredity? How can you possibly be descendants — you especially — of those wretched savages? You who are cultured, well-balanced, kind-hearted people —fair-minded, high-principled —! It is not possible.”

“I’m not acquainted,” said Ilex, “with what you call the law of heredity. Has it anything to do with the law of nature? Anyhow, you may trust me for the facts. I fancy that if the law won’t square with them, so much the worse for the law!”

“But I hate to think,” I said angrily, “that you are descended from a savage! It can’t be!”

“There is no need to think it. Why should you think about it at all? I’m certain I never do. You needn’t teach me to, Mêrê!”

That remark, very quietly made, brought me to my senses. I was behaving uncommonly rudely, and much more like a savage a myself than a person who prided herself on her ancestry. I calmed down, and would have dropped the subject only that Ilex took a malicious pleasure in bringing the discussion to a natural instead of a sudden termination.

“Mind you, I admit,” she said, “that these tribes (we know next to nothing of them) sometimes get supplies of children from civilised states far away. You may fancy me one of them! Personally, I don’t want to be other than my fellow-townsfolk, however.”

After this amazing and rather disconcerting conversation, I submitted in silence to be taken down to the boat, which started on its return journey accompanied by two others, as our party was so considerably increased. The stream being with us, we reached Alzôna in much less time than it had taken us to travel up the river in going.

As we sat on the little platform and watched the broad current which bore us on, in company with bits of twigs and branches of other forest debris, the Agent told us of a curious experience.

“Nobody knows anything about these tribes, it’s true: and yet I myself have spent months, off and on, over the mountains. Not many, though, can say that! I think I could find my way to the wells, and a river or two — yes, and a track that would take one to the village of the chief barbarian of them all. If anybody wanted it!

“I’ll tell you, I was once next to going there — very much against my will. Lady Mêrê, this business of dealing with the savages is one which one has to be brought up to early. To get to know their ways is half the business, and you can’t begin too soon. It runs in families, doesn’t it, Lady Ilex? — And mine has always had one or two folks in the trade.

“Very well; I was young at the time — seventeen perhaps and hadn’t been more than a couple of years — if that — allowed to go about by myself entirely among these people. I had been with my conjux visiting a little village of theirs called Vangnula. Iërelîn (that’s my conjux, Lady Mêrê) — she was sent for suddenly, to interpret for the Governor of some Western State or other, who had come to see the place in great style. It would be a week before she came back, so here was I, alone in this uncivilised place, with nothing to do but to study the habits of these creatures.

“And I might have got some very valuable ethnological information together. But, unluckily, that’s just what you mustn’t do if you want to get on with the barbarians. They are such close creatures. Stop in your own quarters, talk business to them, and you’re all right. Take any interest in their family arrangements, though, or go near their houses, and, by the ocean! what a riot there’ll be! That’s the nuisance: you have to get to know these things, and what you may do and what you mayn’t. Or else you get into no end of trouble.

“For instance. The tribe I was with was just as quiet and peaceable as a set of lambs. Nobody ever dreamt of danger amongst them. Yet, two years after I was there, they massacred the Syltis agent in cold blood — and worse than that — for what they chose to call insult to their gods. What it was they wouldn’t explain: and we couldn’t guess. Because they are not a sensitive people by any means about their religion. They don’t mind discussing it — (some do) — and they even stand chaffing about their gods, quite calmly. So what had roused them, nobody knows. And it’s no use inquiring.

“Well, for days I occupied myself as I best could. A Urassite or a Kytonian would have hunted. A Priqua would have dreamed. I could do neither, and I grew tired. The special work Iërelîn and I were sent to do — glossary-making — I couldn’t do alone, because she was in charge of it, and my part was principally clerk’s work. I used to take long stretches into the country in different directions, with a barbarian guide with me. I had a very distinguished guide — a daughter of the chief. A prim young affair, she was — knew her way about, though — and might be sixteen or so.”

The Agent took a deep breath and shifted the rugs.

“We got pretty thick, tramping about together. And, really, she was intelligent, for a savage. haven’t your enthusiasm, Lady Ilex, for anybody and everybody, from a cat to an empress” (Ilex flushed faintly in deprecation), “and I can’t pretend to see a friend in an unadulterated barbarian. But this girl I did very nearly make a kind of friend of. It’s a long time ago — a long time — and I can scarcely realise it now. I suppose she wasn’t really — but she seemed to me to be superior to the run of savages. And she was sharp enough — never could miss the track. And kind-hearted, I think — she would never be guide for hunters, because they killed things, and she never would watch them kill the goats for supper. So we used to go out every day, more than once. And I used to enjoy her quaint remarks — quite clever, sometimes, they were —; and I kept I thinking how Iërelîn would be amused, too, when she returned.

“Well, they say it doesn’t do to make intimates of savages. I don’t know how that may be: I haven’t repeated the experiment. And I don’t know how it would have turned out if I could have brought the girl away to Armeria. But this was what happened.

“Late one night — it was the night before Iërelîn was expected — I was sitting in my quarters in the company of a dim oil-lamp. Perhaps I had eaten something that did not agree with me — perhaps I was impatient for the next day, but, like a senseless idiot, I could not turn in and go to sleep, but must cast about for something to keep me amused. What I thought was a very happy idea struck me — though, as I’ll tell you, I altered my opinion of it next morning. That was, to hunt up Sakaluna’s hut, and have a good talk with her. I started to carry out the notion on the instant. There seemed something interesting in paying a nocturnal visit to the native houses, which we always carefully kept away from. I was a brainless young ninny — but we all do absurd things now and again. The night was very bright. I was pleased and excited at finding something to occupy me so well, and I reached the savage I village in no time. I knew the knot of huts the chief lived in, and I heard Sakaluna’s voice in the nearest. I pushed aside the grass-cloth curtain, and walked in.

“But, my conscience (Irta)! I had reckoned without my host, very literally. There were five or six people in the hut. Some screamed, some flew to the corners — it makes me laugh always when I think of it — and Sakaluna stood like a ghost, trembling. I began to do my best to reassure them and to talk to my guide. She answered in the shortest snatches of words, and I saw in a I minute or two that it was hopeless to go on.

“‘Well, I have startled them!’ I said to myself. I tried to say a word or two more — that I hadn’t thought they would be so frightened, and so forth. But it was no use! Big and little, they kept up the to-do: it was laughable, but provoking. So I turned to go; but first I went up to Sakaluna, and took her by the hand, and told her exactly how it was, and how vexed I was to have caused any disturbance.

AI-assisted illustration by HILOBROW

“Well, she wouldn’t look at me. She stood like a statue, and kept her eyes away and shook. So I couldn’t do more, but I came away. I hadn’t got halfway back before I felt sure someone was following me. If you had been trained as I had to nightwork in the forests, you could have told it too. Perhaps you could scarcely say how. Anyhow, I felt quite certain of it.

“‘Maybe Sakaluna wants to explain matters,’ I thought to myself. ‘If so, she shall catch me up, I’m not going to turn for her.’ For, you see, I didn’t half relish the way I had been received by her and the rest of her lot.

“I slowed down a bit, however. Half an hour later I was lying on my back in the chief’s hut, with a kind of savage council of war being held over me. Don’t ask me how it happened, for I was unconscious for a few minutes. Whether I was struck with a club, or lassoed, or what, I can’t tell. know my head ached sufficiently. Well, there seemed to be seven or eight old chiefs present, leading the talking; and half the tribe appeared to be squeezed in, squatting and silent, except for a thick sort of groan now and then. I can tell you, my blood ran cold as listened; and I called myself all the names I could think of for not having the sense to sit quietly in my quarters, and for ever coming out at all. Their talk was all of taking me up the country to the great chief, with a cheerful view to my being clubbed or stabbed or poisoned — and their principal controversy was as to which of these particular modes of despatch to recommend. As I grew more and more collected, it seemed the oddest, strangest thing that these commonplace people, that I knew so well, should be consulting, in a matter-of-fact way, about putting a sudden end to me! And me there, listening to it all —!

“Then, you know how, when something very important’s happening, — how you take notice of little things?”

“Your mind seems to take refuge, by a kind of irony, in trifles?” suggested Ilex.

“That’s the way to put it. A lady like you knows how. I know I what I mean, but I can’t put it in those words. Same way, though, I’ve seen a prisoner, brought out to be degraded, look round as if little things caught her eye and took up all her attention — bits of matting, furniture, boxes; it doesn’t matter what. Just as if the business on hand was quite a secondary affair. I’ve seen it, too, in troops before coming to close quarters.

“That was the feeling I had then. I can see that hut-roof to this day, with its smoky beams and the pots hanging from them, the bunches of plantain and the long spears. As lay and stared at it, thought of making one try for safety. I said, as impressively as I could — I was flat on the floor, remember:

I don’t know what I’ve done to rouse your prejudices. But take care how you treat me. If any harm comes to me, my queen will see that you answer for it! She will do me justice!

“The old chief had the impertinence to answer: ‘We will save her that trouble.’

“I gave them some more of my mind, and finally they covered my mouth with a square of grass-cloth. So I could only reflect on my own imprudence, and the ceiling. I gave up listening to their debate, and thought feverishly whether it were possible that Iërelîn might come back early and trace me. At last, I was stupidly conscious that the assembly had broken up. The people and chiefs streamed out; the principal chief and conjux (I suppose) retired to a kind of porch, where the only door was. I could not wriggle out, except through there, and as I was pretty firmly fastened with tough creepers, they did not trouble to watch me. I didn’t fall asleep, you may be sure. I rolled about, trying to get loose; but to very little purpose. Except to tire myself a good deal. I was lying quiet, when I started violently at hearing a low voice.

“‘Hush!’ it said, fast and low. ‘Don’t speak! Don’t move, now! Hush, let me reach you. I mean well!’

“I can tell you I felt I a queer sensation when a form touched me — mind, I didn’t know in the least who it was — and felt to discover which was my head, and which my feet. This didn’t take long, and in a moment after, I laughed convulsively to myself, feeling the fastenings cut by a quick hand.

“The voice said, ‘Stand up, and make no noise. I have left the chief sleeping in the porch. Can you walk? You had better wait a minute till you feel less stiff. The door’s open, and you have just to step over the chief. I will go and lie beside him, and if you touch him, I will pretend it was me. It is too dark for him to see. You will find the opening by its being a little lighter outside.’

“‘Who are you, then?’ of course I asked.

“She told me she was the chief’s conjux, and she said in a shaky whisper that I had done them an irreparable wrong, etcetera, and brought insult on the house and the tribe. All the same, she had determined that I should not be killed. Why? Goodness alone knows! You may be sure I didn’t ask her. It might have been interesting to enter into a discussion as to motives, but the time and place weren’t favourable. No; I waited for her to settle down, and then I stole to the porch — one can laugh at these things now — fixed the light patch with my eye, delicately felt for a hard footing, and skipped successfully over the sleeper. I was outside; and I strolled through the village on to the path for home: and that’s all of any interest I remember. Except fainting dead, when I met Iërelîn as the sun was rising,” concluded the Agent. She stared hard at the forest that was slipping rapidly past us, and then rose from her bent attitude, and took a long drink of a special compound that Ilex thoughtfully provided for the expedition.”

“Did Iërelîn and you go back to the village?” I inquired.

“Not likely!” observed the active secretary.

“Did you ever see the chief’s conjux again or Sakaluna?” asked the other.

“I never did,” said the Agent, deliberately and rather stiffly.

“You gave them a wide berth, I should say!” laughed one of us.

“But then, did you never hear of them? Never knew if Sakaluna grew up: nor sent a message to your preserver?” said Ilex.

“Well, if you must know,” replied the Agent, “the tribe deserted the village, and moved off to far inland. And when some of our people visited it next, it was empty and ruined. There was a child we got nine years ago, reminds me very much of Sakaluna. You know, Iprys,” she said, jerking the words out rather awkwardly, as she addressed the secretary, “Mila’s youngest; Erythre. Mila the geographer. She’s a nice child. Whether she’ll be like my old friend at sixteen, I can’t say. Her chin and mouth remind me—” She was silent a while.

“And this was long ago?” I said.

“Eh, what?” said the Agent absently. “Oh yes. Thirty years — twenty-five by any reckoning. Ah, but no, you’re not coming into my coffee,” she concluded, addressing a lizard, which had just been carried up along with our afternoon refreshment.

By evening we had reached Alzôna, and disembarked.

Quiet as our going away had been, our return was received with great enthusiasm. At the quay at the foot of the great gate a long line of rose-coloured figures was drawn up, stretching away through the portals into the city. At their head stood the queen herself, together with several of the principal officers of state. The Agent delivered to her a written list of the cargo. She smiled pleasantly, and spoke with great kindness to Ilex and myself; but she looked terribly thin, and her eyes shone more brightly than I cared to see. As she turned to precede us into the town, however, her royal carriage was no less proud than in weeks past. Our prizes, carried by a hundred of the people, followed her, flanked by our escort, and we ourselves brought up the rear. Crowds of citizens, common as the spectacle must have been, assembled to see us go past. Flowers in profusion were thrown in our way. At the palace the queen left us, but watched us go by. She waved her arm slightly to us, and I saw Galêsa, who stood by her with his ill-looking son, look at her for a moment with an indescribable expression of cunning triumph. My mind went back to the unsettling revelations of Opanthë. I felt I could not rest until I had learnt what developments had taken place in my absence.

For the moment nothing could be done. We moved on, to the sound of flutes and lyres, to the Erythraion, a handsome building of warm red stone. In 1LS cheerful portico were grouped a number of the officers to whose care we were to resign our charge. The head of our procession stopped, and Ilex moved forward. She took me by the hand as she started, so that, somewhat against my will, I became a prominent figure in the proceedings. The principal officer received us with solemn courtesy, and a kind of time-honoured formula was gone through, ending in our stepping aside and handing over the new small citizens to their temporary custodians. The hundred townsfolk, the escort, and we were then feasted in an open courtyard, surrounded by pillars. I sat between Ilex and one of the officials of the place. The first question one put was naturally:

“And how is the Uras business going on?”

“Very badly!”

“But war has not broken out yet?”

“War! Oh no! I hope it won’t come to that!”

“It isn’t generally considered inevitable, then?” Ilex quickly struck in.

“Oh no, Mêrê, that is a mistake. I don’t think we most of us anticipate anything so serious, do we?”

“A good many of us are beginning to,” gloomily replied the official.

“Well, don’t!” said Ilex. “It’s the surest way to make it come. Anticipate cramp, if you’re swimming, and you are halfway to getting it. Anticipate a refusal, a if you’re asking a favour; and you may save yourself the trouble of talking. Anticipate a fall as you walk on a mountain-path; and over you go. Make sure of defeat — dwell on its certainty — and you can’t win. The only way to do anything worth living for, is to believe with all your heart in impossibilities. Then they become possible.”

“I don’t know that I altogether agree with you,” said my neighbour; but Ilex declined the discussion being engaged by the Governor of the Salîtra quarter — an important personage, who had joined in the day’s ceremony — in a lively colloquy respecting the unfitness of the Arch-Surveyor. I could only hear snatches of what they said, such as:

“But the Principal Assistant —”

“That’s not my point; I admit the work gets done, but —”

“You may rely on it; before long, half the roads —”

“Indeed? Then Beatrice must be very much occupied —” So that I turned to my neighbour again.

“It must be bad for the trade of the country that this uneasiness should be so prolonged. For I suppose it does amount to that; there is uneasiness amongst people about this?”

“Indeed there is: but it is hardly acute; it doesn’t affect our daily affairs much. Still, the negotiations which are going on must be important, because the governments won’t trust to despatches, but are constantly sending special emissaries. Not many people seem to notice this much; but, for myself, think it is very significant. And so do most of my friends.”

I expressed my agreement with her. It was clearly necessary to be keenly alive to every move of Opanthë’s, and with that view I determined to frequent the palace as much as possible. And yet it was desirable not to be much with Opanthë alone. She might be communicative; on the other hand, I might commit myself through my ignorance, and arouse her suspicions. In reflecting on my best course, I grew distraite, and I am afraid I did not prove a very lively companion during the remainder of the meal.


RADIUM AGE PROTO-SF: “Radium Age” is Josh Glenn’s name for the nascent sf genre’s c. 1900–1935 era, a period which saw the discovery of radioactivity, i.e., the revelation that matter itself is constantly in movement — a fitting metaphor for the first decades of the 20th century, during which old scientific, religious, political, and social certainties were shattered. More info here.

SERIALIZED BY HILOBOOKS: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague | Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”) | Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt | H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook | Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins | William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land | J.D. Beresford’s Goslings | E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man | Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage | Muriel Jaeger’s The Man With Six Senses | & many others.