Three Mulla-mulgars, The


Nod still lay huddled up in his jacket, his small, hairy face all drawn and grey, his eyes tight-shut and sorrowful beneath their thick black lashes. Mishcha squatted over him, and put her head down close to his little body. "He breathes no more, sister, than a moth or an Immamoosa-bud."

"Let us drag him out of his sheep-skin, and bury him in the snow," said Môha.

But Mishcha listened more closely still. "I hear his heart beating; I hear his drowsy blood just come and go. But what is it that, sweeter than a panther's breath, smells so of Magic? We must not harm the little Mulgar, sister; he is cunning. A Meermut of Magic would soon return to plague us." So she wrapped him up still closer in dry leaves and tree-moss, and opened his mouth to sprinkle a pinch of snow between his lips.

All that night and the next day Nod slept without stirring. But the evening after that, when the snow had ceased again, he opened his eyes and called "Wallah, wallah!" Mishcha hopped off and brought him snow in a plantain-leaf, and wrapped him up still warmer. But the little dry herbs and powdered root she put on his tongue he choked at, and could not swallow. His shoulder burned, he tossed to and fro with eyes blazing. Now he would start up and shout, "Thumb, Thumb!" then presently his face would all pucker up with fear, and he would scream, "The fire, the fire!" and then soon after he would be whispering, "Muzza, muzza, mutta; kara mutta, mutta!" just as if he were at home again in the little dried-up Portingal's hut.

Mishcha did all she could to soothe and quieten him. And at last she managed to make him swallow a little hard bright blue seed called Candar, which drives away fever and quiets dreams. But old Môha eyed him angrily, and wanted to throw him out into the forest to die. "Who'd sleep in a jacket that a gibbering Mulgar has died in?" she said.

When the next night was nearly gone, but before it was yet day, Nod awoke, cool and clear, and stared into the musty darkness of the Dragon-tree, wondering in vain where he was. Only one small spark of light could he see—the red star Antares, that was now burning through a little rift in the bark. He thought he heard a faint rustling of dry leaves.

"Hey, there!" he called out. "Where is Nod?"

"Hold your tongue, thieving Mulgar," cried an angry voice, "and let honest folk sleep in peace."

"If I could see," Nod answered weakly, "you wouldn't sleep much to-night, honest or no."

"You can't see," answered the voice softly, "because, my man of bones, you are dead and buried under the snow."

Nod grew cold. He pinched his legs; he opened and shut his mouth, and took long, deep breaths; then he laughed. "It's none so bad, then, being dead, Voice-of-Kindness," he said cheerfully, "if it weren't for this sore shoulder of mine."

But to this the morose voice made no answer. Not yet, even, could Nod remember all that had happened. "Hey, there!" he called out again presently, "who buried me, then?"

"Buried you? Why, Mishcha and Môha, the old witch-hares, who found you snuffling in the snow in your stolen sheep's-coat—Mishcha and Môha, who wouldn't touch monkey-skin, not for a grove of green Candar-trees."

"I remember Môha," said Nod meekly, "a gentle and sleek, a very, very handsome old Quatta. And is she dead, too?"

But again the sour voice made no reply.

"Once," said Nod, in a little while, "I had two brave brothers. I wonder where those Mulla-mulgars are now?"

"He wonders," said the voice slowly—"he wonders! Frizzling, frizzling, frizzling, my pretty Talk-by-Night, with seven smoking Gelica-nuts for company on the spit."

At this Nod fell silent. He lay quaking in his warm, rustling bed, with puckered forehead and restless eyes, wondering if the voice had told him the truth, while daybreak stole abroad in the forest.

When dusk began to stir within the Dragon-tree, Mishcha awoke and came and looked at him.

She hearkened at his ribs and mouth, and there seemed, Nod thought, a little kindness in her ways. So he put out his shrunken hand, and said: "Tell me truly, witch-hare. A voice in the night was merry with me, and told me for pleasure that my brothers Thumb and Thimble were frizzling on the cannibal Minimuls' spits. That is not true?"

"'One long and lean,'" said Mishcha, "'one fat and very heavy, and one sly and tiny, a Nizza-neela.' Here's the Nizza-neela Mulla-mulgar; I know nothing of the others."

"Ah, then," said Nod, starting up out of his bed, "I must be off to look for them. Their Little Horses ran faster than mine. And mine, he was a coward, and nibbled my sore shoulder to make me loose hold. But he could not buck or scrape me off, witch-hare, tried he never so hard. I must be off at once to look for my brothers. If they are dead, then I die too."

"Well, well," said the old hare, "it's sad to die, but it's sadder to live alone. But tell me first one thing," she said. "Where have these strange Mulgars come from in their rags and bravery?"

"Ohé," said Nod, and told her who they were.

"And tell me just one thing more," she said, when he had finished. "Where, little Mulgar, is all this Magic I can smell?"

And at that question Nod thought he could never keep from laughing. But he looked very solemn, and said: "There are three things, old hare, I always carry about with me—one is my sheep's-jacket, one is hunger, and the other is Magic; and the Magic just now is where my hunger is."

The old hare eyed him narrowly. "Well," she said, "wherever it is, if it hadn't been for the Magic, little Mulgar, the Jaccatrays would have been quarrelling over your bones. But there! remember old Mishcha sometimes in your travels, who hated every Mulgar except just one little one!" She bade him be very quiet, for her sister, after the night's talk, still lay fast asleep, her eyes wide open, in the gloom.

And she put Ukka-nuts, and dried berries and fruits of many kinds, and seven pepper-pods into his pockets, and buttoned the flaps. And she gave him also some powdered physic-nuts, three bright-blue Candar-seeds, and a little bunch of faded saffron-flower for a protection against the teeth of the dreaded Coccadrillo. She tied up his shoulder with soft clean moss, and fetched him a stout stick for cudgel out of the forest. And then she hobbled out with him to see him on his way. Dawn lay rosy and still upon the snow-laden branches.

"Where burns the Sulemnāgar, old hare?" said Nod, pretending utter bravery. And the wise old Quatta hare pointed out to him where still the Sulemnāgar gleamed faint and silver above the glistening trees.

So Nod thanked her, went forward a few paces, and stepped back to thank her again; then set out truly and for good.

He walked very cautiously, spying about him as he went. The red sun glinted on his cudgel. Once he saw a last night's leopard's track in the snow. So he roved his eyes aloft as well as to left and right of him, lest she should be lying in wait, crouched in the branches. A troop of Skeetoes pelted him with Ukka-nuts. But these, as fast as they threw them down, he gathered up and put into his bulging pockets, and waved his cap at them for thanks. They gibbered and mocked at him, and flung more nuts. "So long as it isn't stones, my long-tailed friends," he said to himself, "I will not throw back."

After a while he came to where Cullum and Samarak grew so dense amid the tree-trunks that he could scarcely walk upright. But he determined, as his mother had bidden him, to keep from stooping on to his fours as long as ever he could. Tumbling Numnuddies startled him, calling in the air. And once a clouded vulture with wings at least six cudgels wide dropped like a stone upon a leafless Bōōbab-branch, and watched him gloatingly go limping by.

He sat down in his loneliness and rested, and nibbled one of Mishcha's nuts. But try as he might, he could not swallow much. When once more he set out, for a long way some skulking beast which he could not plainly see stalked through the nodding grasses a few paces distant from him, but side by side. He flourished his cudgel, and sang softly the Mulla-mulgars' Journey-Song which Seelem had taught him long ago:

"That one
Who's dared, and gone
To seek the Magic Wonderstone,
No fear,
Or care,
Or black despair,
Shall heed until his journey's done.
"Who knows
Where blows
The Mulgars' rose,
In valleys 'neath unmelting snows—
All secrets
Shall pierce and see,
And walk unharmed where'er he goes."

Whether it was the Wonderstone under his breast-bone, on the sight of his cudgel, or a distaste for his shrill voice and skinniness, Nod could not tell, but in a little while, when he stopped a moment to peer between the thick streamers of Samarak, the secret beast was gone. Day drew on. He saw no tracks in the snow, except of wild pig and long-snouted Brackanolls. The only sound he heard was the falling of frosted clots of snow from the branches of the trees and the sad, continuous "Oo-ee, oo-ee, oo-ee!" of the little rust-coloured Bittock amid the sunlit snow. He did not dare now to rest, though his feet grew more painful at every step, and his poisoned shoulder itched and ached.

He stumbled on, scarcely heeding where his footsteps were leading him. Mulgar flies, speckled and humped, roused by the cloudless sun, buzzed round his eyes and bit and stung him. And suddenly his heart stood still at sight of seven amber and spotted beasts standing amid the grasses, casting a league-long shadow with their necks—such beasts as he had never seen before. But they were busy feeding, their heads and tiny horns and lustrous eyes half hidden in the foliage of the branches. Nod stared in fear and wonder, and passed their arbour very softly by.

Night began to fall, and the long-beaked bats to flit in their leathery hoods, seeking small birds and beasts to quench their thirst. It seemed now to Nod, his brave heart fallen, that he was utterly forsaken. Darkness had always sent him scuttling home to the Portingal's hut when he was little. How often his mother had told him that Nōōmanossi with his luring harp-strings roamed these farther forests, and strange beasts, too, that never show their faces to the sun! Worse still, as he lifted his poor wrinkled forehead to the tree-tops to catch the last beams of day, he felt a dreadful presence around him. Leopard it was not, nor Gunga, nor Minimul. He stood still, his left hand resting on its knuckles in the snow, his right clutching his cudgel, and leaning his round ear sidelong, he listened and listened. He put down his cudgel, and stood upright, his hands clasped behind his neck, and lifting his flat nose, sniffed and sniffed again the scarcely-stirring air. There was a smell, faint and strange. He turned as if to rush away, to hide himself—anywhere away from this brooding, terrifying smell, when, as if it were a little voice speaking beneath his ribs, he heard the words: "Fear not, Ummanodda; press on, press on!" He took up his cudgel with a groan, and limped quickly forward, and in an instant before he could start back, before even he could cry out, he heard a click, his foot slipped, out of the leaves whipped something smooth and shining, and he was jerked into the air, caught, bound fast in a snare.

He writhed and kicked, he spat and hissed. But the more he struggled, the tighter drew the cord round his neck. Everywhere, faint and trembling, rose the strange and dreadful unknown smell. He hung quite still. And as he dangled in pain, a night-wandering Bittock on a branch above him called piteously: "Oo-ee, oo-ee, oo-ee!"

"Why do you mock me, my friend?" groaned Nod.

"Oo-ee, oo-ee, oo-ee!" wailed the Bittock, and hopping down slowly, perched herself before his face. Her black eye gleamed. She clapped her tiny wings above her head, and softly let them fold. "Oo-ee, oo-ee, oo-ee!" she cried again.

Nod stared in a rage: "Oo-ee, oo-ee!" he mocked her feebly. "Who's caught me in this trap? Why do you come mocking me, swinging here to die? Put out my eyes, Bird of Sorrow. Nod's tired of being Nod."

The little bird seemed to listen, with rusty poll poked forward. She puffed out her feathers, raised her pointed bill, and piercingly into the shadows rang out her trembling voice again. "Oo-ee, oo-ee, oo-ee!" she sang, spread her wings, and left Nod quite alone.

His thong twitched softly. He shut his eyes. And once again, borne on the faint cold wind, that smell came sluggishly to his nostrils. His fears boiled up. His hair grew wet on his head. And suddenly he heard a distant footfall. Nearer and nearer—not panther's, nor Gunga's, nor Ephelanto's. And then some ancient voice whispered in his memory: "Oomgar, Oomgar!" Man!

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