A little before evening Thumb suddenly stopped, and stood listening. They went on a little farther, and again he stood still, with lifted head, snuffing the air. And soon they all heard plainly the sound of a great river. In the last light of sunset the travellers broke out of the forest and looked down on the waters of the deep and swollen Obea-munza. Along its banks grew giant sedge, stiff and grey with frost like meal. In this sedge little birds were disporting themselves, flitting and twittering, with long plumes of every colour that changes in the sunlight, brushing off with their tiny wings the gathered hoarfrost into the still sunset air. The Mulgars stood like painted wooden images, with their bundles and cudgels, staring down at the river, wide and turbulent, its gloomy hummocks of ice and frozen snow nodding down upon the pale green waters. They glanced at one another as if with the question on their faces, "How now, O Mulla-mulgars?"
"'His country lies beyond and beyond,'" muttered Thimble. "'Forest and river, forest, swamp, and river.' Could, then, our father Seelem walk on water?"
Thumb coughed in his throat. "What matters it? He went: we follow," he grunted stubbornly. "We must journey on till our wings grow, Mulla Thimble, or till your long legs can straddle bank to bank." And they all three stared in silence again at the swirling icy water.
Now, it was just beginning to be twilight, which is many times more brief than England's in Munza, and the frozen forest was utterly still in the fading rose and purple, the beasts not yet having come down to drink. And while the travellers stood listening, there came, as it were from afar off, the beating of a drum—seven hollow beats, and then silence.
"What in Munza, Thumb, makes a noise like that?" Nod whispered. "Listen, listen!"
They all three hearkened again, with heads bent and eyes fixed, and soon once more they heard the hollow drumming. Thumb shook his head uneasily.
"It is wary walking, my brothers," he said; "maybe there are Oomgar-nuggas [black men] by the riverside; or maybe it is one of the great hairy Gunga-mulgars whose country our father Seelem told me lies five days' journey towards the daybreak. Whicheversoever, Mulla-mulgars, we will hobble on and discover."
Thimble dropped lightly, and rested on all-fours a moment. His eyes squinted a little, for he greatly feared the drumming they had heard.
But Thumb, moving softly, edged watchfully on, and Thimble and Nod followed as he led along the reedy bank of the river. Ever and again they heard the drumming repeated, but it seemed no less distant, so they squatted down to eat while there was light enough in the sky to find the way from fingers to mouth. They sat down under a twisted Bōōbab-tree, opened their bundles, and took out the frosted nuts and fruits which they had lately gathered for their supper. But it was so bitterly cold by the waterside Nod could scarcely crack his shells between his chattering teeth. And now the waning moon was beginning to silver river and forest. From the farther bank rose the cries of Munza's beasts come down to drink, mournful, lean, and fierce from hunger and cold. Soon the long-billed river-birds began their night-talk across the water. And while the Mulgars were sitting silently munching, out of the shadow before their faces came on her soundless pads a young she-leopard, and with catlike face stood regarding them.
Thumb and Thimble dropped softly their hands, and very slowly stooped their stiff-haired heads. But the leopard, after regarding them awhile, and seeing them to be three together and Mulgars-royal, drew back her head, yawned, and leapt lightly back into the shadowy grasses from which she had stolen out. "One Roses brings many," said Thumb sourly; "let us hobble on, Mulla-mulgars, until we find a quieter sleeping-place."
But it was now so dark beside the river that the Mulgars had to stop and walk on the knuckles of their hands, as do all the Munza-mulgars. And while they walked heedfully forward, they heard the trump-billed river-birds calling their secrets one to another:
Once Thumb trod on a forest-pig that was lying half dead with cold under a root of Samarak. But the pig was too weak to squeal. Nod stooped and gave him three Ukka-nuts and a pepper-pod. "There, pig," he said, "tell your brothers who stole my bundle that Nod Nizza-neela gave you these when you were frozen." And the pig, being a pig, opened its slits of eyes and feebly snapped at his fingers. Nod laughed and hastened after his brothers.
Over the half-moon a cloud of snow was drawing, and soon the whispering flakes began to float again between the branches. The wind that blew steadily down the river was sharp and icy. The travellers were afraid, if they slept in the trees again, they would be frozen. And if even one big toe of any one of them got frost-bitten, how distant would the Valley of Tishnar seem then! They heard, too, now and then the faint sounds of snapping twig and rustling reed, and a low whimpering growl would sometimes set the giant grasses trembling. Stiff and crusted with frost, and in constant danger of falling into the river, they crawled stubbornly on.
And suddenly straight before them burned out a light in the darkness that was neither of moon, star, nor frost-fire. On they rustled, very warily now, because they knew somewhere here must lurk the Oomgar-nugga or Gunga-mulgar whose drumming they had heard. One by one they presently crept out of the sedge, and stood up a few paces from a kind of huddle or hut, standing crooked and smoking in the moonlight, and built of two or three rows of huge stakes, three times plaited, very fast and close, with Samarak and withies of all kinds. It stood about three Mulgars high, and its walls were more than four spans thick.
The light which the travellers had espied burning in the distance streamed from a misshapen window-hole far above Thimble's head. The Mulgars stood staring at one another in the shadow of the black forest, and now and then they would hear a rumble or clatter from behind the thick walls, and presently a sneeze or cough. After which would suddenly roll out the loud and hollow drumming of the great creature within.
So Thumb bade Nod climb softly on to Thimble's shoulder, and very slowly lift his face up and look in. Up went Nod, and softly drew his sheep-skinned head into the light. And the first thing he noticed was a wonderful steaming smell of broth cooking, and then, as he pushed his head farther through the window-hole, he looked down into the hut. And he saw, sitting there on a huge bench before his eating-board, a gigantic Gunga-mulgar in a shift or shirt of fish-skin. He was guzzling down broth out of a gourd, and fishing for titbits of fish-fat in it with a wooden prong or skewer. He knew his comfort, this ugly Gunga. He sat with crossed legs before a blazing fire. It shone on his fangs and teeth and flaming eyes. A huge axe, made out of a stone, hung on the wall. In one corner lay a heap of brushwood and fish-bones, and in a hole in the ground a pile of logs. There were skins, too, on the walls of fishes and birds and little furry beasts, and two fat hog-fish shone silvery in the fire-light. Besides these, there was an Oomgar-nugga's bow of wood, thrice strung with twisted string. But what pleased Nod most to see, as he peeped stealthily down through the thorny wattle window, was an old grey Burbhrie cat, which sat washing her face in front of the fire.
He was still peeping and peering into the hut, when Thumb pinched his leg to bid him come down. So he slid cautiously down Thimble's back into the cold moonlight again, and told his brothers all he had seen.
"Yes, Mulla-mulgars," he said, "and beside his bow and his sharp-nosed darts, he has three big knubbly cudgels in the corner higher than is Nod. He sits there, muttering and chuffing and sticking a long wood spit in his soup, and then he coughs and says 'Ug!' and beats his black fists on his chest till the flames shake."
Thumb's short thick scalp twitched to and fro as he sat on his heels, staring into the moonlight. "Is he very big and strong? Is he as broad and thick as Thumb?" he said.
"He's sitting in a spangly shirt," said Nod, "and his arms are like Bōōbab-roots—like Bōōbab-roots—and his eyes, Mulla-mulgars, they burn in bony houses, and his face is black as charcoal."
Thumb lifted his face uneasily and yawned. "We will push on; we will not meddle with the Gunga, my brothers," he said. "Better sleep cold than never wake." He laughed, and patted Nod on the head with his stump-thumbed hand, just as Seelem used to do when Nod was a baby. So they crept softly past the huddle on their fours, turning their heads this way, that way, snuffing softly along on an icy path that led through the sword-grass to the river's edge. And there, tossing lightly on the water, they found a boat, or Bobberie, of Bemba-wood and skin pegged down with wooden pegs. It was moored fast with a rope of Samarak, and two broad paddles lay inside it. All this the travellers saw faintly in the moonlit dusk. Far away they heard the barking and weeping of Coccadrilloes as they stooped together over the Bobberie, rising and falling on the gloomy water.
"Let us not trouble the Gunga at his supper," said Thimble, "but get in first and ask leave after."
And Thumb began softly hauling on the rope. But the smooth round stone on which they stood was coated green with ice, and as he pulled his foot slipped. He flung out his arms: down went Thumb; down went Nod. No sooner had their uproar died away than an angry and ogreish voice broke out from the hut. Thumb, with Thimble at his heels, had only just time enough to scramble off and hide himself in the giant sedge before down swung the gibbering Gunga on the crutches of his hairy arms to see what was amiss, and who was meddling with his boat.
There he found Nod, floating like a sheeny bubble in his puffed-out sheep's-jacket on the icy water. He stooped down and clawed him up with one enormous paw, and carried him off into his hut. Then, putting up the wooden door, he sat him down with a shout before his blazing fire.
"Ohé, ohé, ohé!" he bellowed. "Zutha mu beluthli zakketi zanga xūt!"
Nod, cold and trembling, lifted his little grey face out of his streaming sheep's-coat and shook his head.
Then the Gunga, seeing this crackle-shell did not understand his language, bawled at him in Munza-mulgar: "Thief, thief! What were you after, fishing from great Gunga's boat?" Nod shook his head again, for he expected every moment that great hand to clutch him up and fling him into the fire.
"Thief, thief, and son of a thief!" squalled the Gunga again, opening his great mouth.
But at that Nod's wits grew suddenly clear and still. "Not so fast—not so fast, Master Gunga," he said. "Mulla-mulgars are neither thieves nor sons of thieves. Squeal that at the Munza-mulgars, not at Ummanodda!"
The old Gunga stared with jutting teeth. "Mulla-mulgars," he grunted mockingly. "Off with that sheep-skin, Prince of Fleas! I'll skin ye 'fore I cook ye!"
Nod stared bravely into the glinting sooty face. "Gunga duseepi sooklar, by Nōōmanossi's harp!"
The old Gunga stooped closer on his fleshless legs and blinked. "What knows a fly-catching Skeeto of Nōōmanossi's harp?" he said.
"What knows a fish-bait Gunga of the Princes of Tishnar?" Nod answered, and calmly sat down beside the old Burbhrie cat on a log in front of the fire. The savage old Puss stretched out her claws, spread back her tufted ash-coloured ears, and with grey-green eyes stared fiercely into his face. But Nod clutched tight his Wonderstone, and paid no heed; and soon she lazily turned again to the flames, and began to purr like a nestful of Nikkanakkas.
The Gunga stared, too, snapped his great jaws, coughed, then beat with his warty fist on his great breast. "Ohé, ohé!" he said. "I meant no evil to the Mulla-mulgar. Princes of Tishnar journey not often past old Gunga's house. I hutch alone, far from my own country, Royal Stranger, with only my black-man's Bobberie for friend."
Nod, when he heard this, almost laughed out. "Not now, 'Prince of Bonfires,' nor 'Noddle of Pork,'" he thought, "but 'Royal Stranger,' and 'Prince of Tishnar.'"
"Why, then," he said aloud to the Gunga, "tongues chatter best when they have something good to say. I'll take a platter of soup with you, Friend of Fishes. And better still, I'll dry my magic coat." He slipped out of his dripping jacket, and spread it out in front of the fire, and there he sat, slim and silky, in his little cotton-leaf breeches, scratching Puss's head and pretending himself at home. But the old Fish-catcher's bloodshot eyes were watching—watching all the time. He was thinking what snug and beautiful breeches that sheep's-coat would make him this icy weather. But he thought, too, it would be best to speak civilly and smoothly to his visitor—at least, for the present. Not even a Gunga-mulgar cares to quarrel with peaceful Tishnar.
"Make yourself easy, Traveller," he said, nodding his peaked head with a hideous smile. "The moon was at hide-and-seek when I found you in the water; I could not see your royal countenance. But Simmul, she knows best." The old Burbhrie cat turned to her master at sound of her name, put up her tufted paw towards Nod, and mewed.
"Ohé, ohé!" said the Gunga mournfully. "She's mewing 'Magic.' And what knows a feeble old Fish-catcher of Magic?" He poured out some soup into a bowl, put in a skewer, and handed it to Nod.
"I will hang the Royal Stranger's beautiful sheep's-coat on a hook," he said slyly. "There it will dry much quicker."
But Nod guessed easily what he was after. Once hung up there, how was he ever going to reach his jacket down again? "No, no," says he; "it's nearly dry already."
He took the gourd of soup between his knees. It tasted strong of fish, and was green with a satiny river-weed; but it was hot and sweetish, and he supped it up greedily. And just as he was tilting the bowl for the last mouthful he looked up and saw Thumb's round, astonished face staring in at the little dark window. He put down his gourd and burst out laughing.
"What makes the stranger laugh?" said the old Gunga-mulgar. "It's very good broth."
"I was laughing," said Nod, "laughing at that last fish I caught."
"Was it a big fish—a fat, heavy fish?" said the Gunga.
Nod stared, with one eye shut and his head a little awry, at the two hog-fish dangling on the wall. "Five times as big as them," he said.
"Five?" said the Gunga.
"Five or six," said Nod.
"Or six!" said the Gunga.
"Truly," said Nod softly, "he fishes not for minnows who knows the magic fish-song of the Water-middens."
The old Gunga turned his great black skull, and beneath the beetling porches of his eyes glowered greedily on Nod. "And what," he said cunningly—"what song is that, O Royal Stranger?" And he stooped down suddenly and pushed Nod's jacket under the bench.
"Why do you push my sheep's-coat under the bench?" said Nod angrily.
"I smelt—I smelt," said Gunga, throwing back his head, "scorching. But softly, Mulla-mulgar. What is this Water-middens' song that catches fishes five—six times as big as mine? And if you know all this wisdom, and are truly a Prince of Tishnar, why do you sit here, this freezing night, supping up a poor old Fish-catcher's broth?"