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Three Mulla-mulgars, The

CHAPTER IX

There was only the last of day in the forest. But Nod, dangling in terror, could clearly see the Oomgar peering at him from beneath the unstirring branches—his colourless skin, his long yellow hair, his musket, his fixed, glittering eyes. And there came suddenly a voice out of the Oomgar, like none the little Mulgar had ever heard in his life before. Nod screamed and gnashed and kicked. But it was in vain. It only noosed him tighter.

"So, so, then; softly, now, softly!" said the strange clear voice. The Oomgar caught up the slack end of the noose and wound it deftly around him, binding him hand and foot together. Then he took a long steel knife from his breeches pocket, cut the cord round Nod's neck, and let him drop heavily to the ground. "Poor little Pongo! poor leetle Pongo!" he said craftily, and cautiously stooped to pick him up.

Nod could not see for rage and fear. He drew back his head, and with all his strength fixed his teeth in that white terrible thumb. The Oomgar sucked in his breath with the pain, and, catching up the little Mulgar's own cudgel that lay in the snow, rapped him angrily on the head. After that Nod struggled no more. A thick piece of cloth was tied fast round his jaws. The Oomgar slipped the barrel of his musket through the Cullum-rope, lifted the little Mulgar on to his back, and strode off with him through the darkening forest.

They came out after a while from among the grasses, vines, and undergrowth. The Oomgar climbed heavily up a rocky slope, trudged on over an open and level space of snow, across an icy yet faintly stirring stream, and came at length to a low wooden house drifted deep in snow, in front of which a big fire was burning, showering up sparks into the starry sky. Here the Oomgar stooped and tumbled Nod over his shoulder into the snow at a little distance from the fire. He bent his head to the flames, and examined his bitten thumb, rubbed the blood off with a handful of snow, sucked the wound, bound it roughly with a strip of blue cloth, and tied the bandage in a knot with his teeth. This done, making a strange noise with his lips like the hissing of sap from a green stick, he began plucking off the wing and tail feathers of a large grey bird. This he packed in leaves, and uncovering a little hole beneath the embers, raked it out, and pushed the carcass in to roast.

He squinnied narrowly over his shoulder a moment, then went into his hut and brought out a cooking-pot, which he filled with water from the stream, and put into it a few mouse-coloured roots called Kiddals, which in flavour resemble an artichoke, and are very wholesome, even when cold. He hung his cooking-pot over the fire on three sticks laid crosswise. Then he sat down and cleaned his musket while his supper was cooking.

All this Nod watched without stirring, almost without winking, till at last the Oomgar, with a grunt, put down his gun, and came near and stood over him, staring down with a crooked smile on his mouth, between his yellow hair and the short, ragged beard beneath. He held out his bandaged thumb. "There, little master," he said coaxingly, "have another taste; though I warn ye," he added, wagging his head, "it'll be your werry last." Nod's restless hazel eyes glanced to and fro above the stifling cloth wound round his mouth. He felt sullen and ashamed. How his brother Thimble would have scoffed to see him now, caught like a sucking-pig in a snare!

The Oomgar smiled again. "Why, he's nowt but skin and bone, he is; shivering in his breeches and all. Lookee here, now, Master Pongo, or whatsomedever name you goes by, here's one more chance for ye." He took out his knife and slit off the gag round Nod's mouth, and loosened the cord a little. Nod did not stir.

"And who's to wonder?" said the Oomgar, watching him. He began warily scratching the little Mulgar's head above the parting. "It was a cruel hard rap, my son—a cruel hard rap, I don't gainsay ye; but, then, you must take Andy's word for it, they was cruel sharp teeth."

Nod saw him looking curiously at his sheep's-jacket, and, thinking he would show this strange being that Mulla-mulgars, too, can understand, he sidled his hand gently and heedfully into his pocket and fetched out one of the Ukka-nuts that old Mishcha had given him.

At that the Oomgar burst out laughing. "Brayvo!" he shouted; "that's mother-English, that is! Now we's beginning to unnerstand one another." He poured a little hot water out of his cooking-pot into a platter and put it down in the snow. Nod sniffed it doubtfully. It smelt sweet and earthy of the root simmering in it. But he raised the platter of water slowly with his loosened hands, cooled it with blowing, and supped it up greedily, for he was very thirsty.

The Oomgar watched him with an astonished countenance. "Saints save us!" he muttered, "he drinks like a Christian!"

Nod wriggled his mouth, and imitated the sound as best he could. "Krisshun, Krisshun," he grunted.

The stooping Oomgar stared across the fire at Nod in the shadow as a man stares towards a strange and formidable shape in the dark. "Saints save us!" he whispered again, crossing himself, and sat down on his log.

He scraped back the embers and stripped the burnt skin and frizzled feathers off his roasted bird, stuck a wooden prong into a Kiddal, and, with a mouthful of bird and a mouthful of Kiddal, set heartily to his supper. When he had eaten his fill, he heaped up the fire with green wood, tied Nod to a thick stake of his hut, so that he could lie in comfort of the fire and to windward of its smoke; then, with a tossed-up glance at the starry and cloudless vault of the sky, he went whistling into the hut and noisily barred the door.

Softly crooning to himself in his sorrow and loneliness, Nod lay long awake. Of a sudden he would sit up, trembling, to glance as if from a dream about him, then in a little while would lie down quiet again. At last, with hands over his face and feet curled up towards the fire, he fell fast asleep.

When Nod woke the next morning the Oomgar was already abroad, and busy over his breakfast. The sun burned clear in the dark blue sky. Nod opened his eyes and watched the Oomgar without stirring. He stood in height by more than a hand's breadth taller than the Gunga-mulgar. But he was much leaner. The Gunga's horny knuckles had all but brushed the ground when he stood, stooping and glowering, on legs crooked and shapeless as wood. The Oomgar's arms reached only midway to his knees; he walked straight as a palm-tree, without stooping, and no black, cringing cunning nor bloodshot ferocity darkened his face. His hair dangled beaming in the sun about his clear skin. His hands were only faintly haired. And he wore a kind of loose jacket or jerkin, made of the inner bark of the Juzanda-tree (which is of finer texture than the Mulgars' cloth), rough breeches of buffskin, and monstrous boots. But most Nod watched flinchingly the Oomgar's light blue eyes, hard as ice, yet like nothing for strangeness Nod had ever seen in his life before, nor dreamed there was. But every time they wheeled beneath their lids piercingly towards him he closed his own, and feigned to be asleep.

At last, feeling thirsty, he wriggled up and crawled to the dish, which still lay icy in the snow, and raised it with both hands as far as his manacles would serve, and thrust it out empty towards the Oomgar.

The Oomgar made Nod a great smiling bow over the fire in answer, and filled it with water. Then, breaking off a piece of his smoking flesh, he flung it to the Mulgar in the snow. But Nod would not so much as stoop to smell it. He gravely shook his head, thrust in his fingers, and drew an Ukka-nut out of his pocket. "And who's to blame ye?" said the Oomgar cheerfully. "It's just the tale of Jack Sprat, my son, over again; only your little fancy's neether lean nor fat, but monkey-nuts!" He got up, and, screening his eyes from the sun, looked around him.

Then Nod looked, too. He saw that the Oomgar had built his hut near the edge of a kind of shelving rock, which sloped down softly to a cliff or gully. A little half-frozen stream flowed gleaming under the sun between its snowy banks, to tumble wildly over the edge of the cliff in blazing and frozen spray. Beyond the cliff stretched the azure and towering forests of Munza, immeasurable, league on league, flashing beneath the whole arch of the sky, capped and mantled and festooned with snow. Near by grew only thin grasses and bushes of thorn, except that at the southern edge of the steep rose up a little company or grove of Ukka-nuts and Ollacondas. Toward these strode off the Oomgar, with a thick billet of wood in his hand. When he reached them, he stood underneath, and flung up his billet into the tree, just as Nod himself had often done, and soon fetched down two or three fine clusters of Ukka-nuts. These he brought back with him, and held some out to the quiet little Mulgar.

"There, my son," he said, "them's for pax, which means peace, you unnerstand. I'm not afeerd of you, nor you isn't afeerd of me. All's spliced and shipshape." So there they sat beneath the blazing sun, the dazzling snow all round them, the Oomgar munching his broiled flesh, and staring over the distant forest, Nod busily cracking his Ukka-nuts, and peeling out the soft, milky, quincey kernel. Nod scarcely took his bewitched eyes from the Oomgar's face, and the longer he looked at him, the less he feared him. All creatures else he had ever seen seemed dark and cloudy by comparison. The Oomgar's face was strange and fair, like the shining of a flame.

"Now, see here, my son," said the Oomgar suddenly, when, after finishing his breakfast, he had sat brooding for some time: "I go there—there," he repeated, pointing with his hand across the stream; "and Monkey Pongo, he stay here—here," he repeated, pointing to the hut. "Now, s'posin' Andy Battle, which is me"—he bent himself towards Nod and grinned—"s'posin' Andy Battle looses off that rope's end a little more, will Master Pongo keep out of mischief, eh?"

Nod tried hard to understand, and looked as wise as ever he could. "Ulla Mulgar majubba; zinglee Oomgar," he said.

Battle burst out laughing. "Ugga, nugga, jugga, jingles! That's it—that's the werry thing," he said.

Nod looked up softly without fear, and grinned.

"He knows, by gum!" said Battle. "There be more wits in that leetle hairy cranny than in a shipload of commodores." He got up and loosened the rope round Nod's neck. "It's only just this," he said. "Andy Battle isn't turned cannibal yet—neither for white, black, nor monkey-meat. I wouldn't eat you, my son, not if they made me King of England to-morrow, which isn't likely to be, by the look of the weather, so don't ee have no meddlin' with the fire!"

"Middlinooiddyvire," said Nod, mimicking him softly.

And at that Battle burst into such a roar of laughter the hut shook. He filled Nod's platter with water, and gave him the rest of the Ukka-nuts. He went into the hut and fetched musket, powder, and bullets. He put a thick-peaked hat on his head, then, with his musket over his shoulder, he nodded handsomely at the little blinking Mulgar, and off he went.

Nod watched him stride away. With a hop, skip, and a jump he crashed across the frozen water, and soon disappeared down the steep path that led into the forest. When he was out of sight, Nod lay down in the shadow of the log-hut. He felt a strange comfort, as if there was nothing in all Munza-mulgar to be afraid of. His rage and sullenness were gone. He would rest here awhile with this Oomgar if he were as kind as he seemed to be, and try to understand what he said. Then, when his feet were healed of their sores and blains, and his shoulder was quite whole again, he would set off once more after his brothers.

All the next day, and the day after that, Nod sat patient and still, tethered with a long cord round his neck to the Oomgar's hut. When Battle spoke to him he listened gravely. When he laughed and showed his teeth, Nod showed his cheerfully, too. And when Battle sat silent and cast down in thought, Nod pretended to be unspeakably busy over his nuts.

And soon the sailor found himself beginning to look forward to seeing the hairy face peering calmly out of the sheep's-jacket on his return from his hunting. On the third evening, when, after a long absence, he came home, tired out and heavy-laden, with a little sharp-horned Impolanca-calf and a great frost-blackened bunch of Nanoes, he took off Nod's halter altogether and set him free.

"There!" said he; "we're messmates now, Master Pongo. Andy Battle's had a taste of slavery himself, and it isn't reasonable, my son. It frets in like rusty iron, my son; and Andy's supped his fill of it. I takes to your company wonnerful well, and if you takes to mine, then that's plain-sailing, says I. But if them apes and monkeys over yonder are more to your liking than a shipwrecked sailor, who's to blame ye? Every man to his own, says I; breeches to breeches, and bare to bare. The werry first thing is for me and you to unnerstand one another."

Nod listened gravely to all this talk, and caught the sailor's meaning, what with a word here, a nod, a wink, or a smile there, and the jerk of a great thumb.

"But as for Andy Battle," went on the sailor, "he never were much struck at a foreign lingo. So, says I, Andy shall learn Master Pongo his'n. And here goes! That," said he, holding up a great piece of meat on his knife—"that's meat."

"'Zmeat—ugh!" said Nod, with a shudder.

"And this here's nuts," said Battle.

"'Znuts!" repeated Nod, rubbing his stomach.

Battle rapped on his log. "Excellentissimo!" he said. "He's a scholard born. Now, monkeys like you," he went on, looking into Nod's face, "if I make no mistake, the blackamoors calls 'Pongoes.'"

Nod shook his head.

"No? 'Njekkoes, then," said the sailor.

Nod shook his head again. "Me Mulla-mulgar, Pongo—Jecco"—he shook Ins head vehemently—"me Mulla-mulgar Ummanodda Nizza-neela."

The Oomgar laughed aloud. "Axing your pardon, then, Master Noddle Ebenezer, mine's Battle—Andrew, as which is Andy, Battle."

"Whizzizandy—Baffle," said Nod, with a jerk.

"Famous!" said the sailor. "Us was a downright dunce to you, my son. Now, then, hoise anchor, and pipe up! Andy Battle is an Englishman; hip, hooray! Andy Battle——"

"'Andy Baffle——'"

"'Is an——'"

"'Izzn——'"

"'Is an Englishman.'"

"'Izziningulissmum,'" said Nod very slowly.

"'Hip, hooray!'" bawled Battle.

"'Ippooray!" squealed Nod. And Battle rocked to and fro on his log with laughter.

"That's downright rich, my son, that is! 'Izzuninglushum!' As sure as ever mariners was born to be drownded,

"We'll sail away, o'er the deep blue say,
And to old England we'll make our way."

A piece of silver for a paw-shake, and two for a good-e'en. Us 'll make a fortune, you and me, and go and live in a snug little cottage with six palm-trees and a blackamoor down Ippleby way. Andrew Battle, knight and squire, and Jack Sprat, Prince of Pongo-land. Ay, and the King shall come to sup wi' us, comfortable-like, 'twixt you and me, and drink hisself thirsty out of a golden mug."

And so it went on. Every day Battle taught Nod new words. And soon he could say a few simple things in his Mulgar-English, and begin to make himself understood. Battle taught him also to cook his meat for him, though Nod would never taste of it himself. And Nod, too, out of Sudd and Mambel-berries and Nanoes and whatever other dried and frosted fruits Battle brought home, made monkey-bread and a kind of porridge, which Battle at first tasted with caution, but at last came to eat with relish.

The sailor stitched his friend up a jacket of Juzanda cloth, with Bamba-shells for buttons, and breeches of buff-skin. These Nod dyed dark blue in patches, for his own pleasure, with leaves, as Battle directed him. Battle made him also a pair of shoes of rhinoceros-skin, nearly three inches thick, on which Nod would go sliding and tumbling on the ice, and a cap of needlework and peacocks' feathers, just as in his dream.

There were many things in Battle's hut gathered together for traffic and pleasure in his journey: a great necklace of Gunga's or Pongo's teeth; a bagful of Cassary beads, which change colour with the hour, a bolt-eyed Joojoo head, a bird-billed throwing-knife, also beads of Estridges' eggs, as large as a small melon. There was also, what Battle cherished very carefully, a little fat book of 566 pages and nine woodcuts that his mother had given him before setting out on his hapless voyagings, with a tongue or clasp of brass to keep it together. Moreover, Battle gave Nod a piece of looking-glass, the like of which he had never seen before. And the little Mulgar would often sit sorrowfully talking to his image in the glass, and bid the face that there answered his own be off and find his brothers. And Nod, in return, gave Battle for a keepsake the little Portingal's left-thumb knuckle-bone and half the faded Coccadrillo saffron which old Mishcha had given to him.

Of an evening these castaways had music for their company—a bell of copper that rang marvellously clear across the frosty air, and would bring multitudes of night-birds hovering and crying over the hut in perplexity at the sweet and hollow sound. And besides the bell, Battle had a cittern, or lute, made of a gourd, with a Jugga-wood neck like a fiddle. Stretched and pegged this was, with twangling strings made of a climbing root that grows in the denser forests, and bears a flower lovelier than any to be seen on earth beside. With Battle thrumming on this old crowd or lute, Nod danced many a staggering hornpipe and Mulgar-jig. Moreover, Battle had taught himself to pick out a melody or two. So, then, they would dance and sing songs together—"Never, tir'd Sailour," "The Three Cherrie-trees," "Who's seene my Deere with Cheekes so redde?" and many another.

Battle's voice was loud and great; Nod's was very changeable. For the upper notes of his singing were shrill and trembling, and so the best part of his songs would go; but when they dipped towards the bass, then his notes burst out so sudden and powerful, it might be supposed four men's voices had taken up the melody where a boy's had ceased. It pleased Battle mightily, this night-music—music of all the kinds they knew, white man's, Jaqqua-music, Nugga-music, and Mulla-mulgars'. Nod, too, often droned to the sailor, as time went on, the evening song to Tishnar that his father had taught him, until at last the sailor himself grew familiar with the sound, and learned the way the notes went. And sometimes Battle would sit and, singing solemnly, almost as if a little forlornly, through his nose, would join in too. And sometimes to see this small monkey perched up with head in air, he could scarce refrain his laughter, though he always kept a straight face as kindly as with a child.

But the leopards and other prowling beasts, when they heard the sound of their strings and music, went mewing and fretting; and many a great python and ash-scaled poison-snake would rear its head out of its long sleep and sway with flickering tongue in time to the noisy echoes from the rocky and firelit shelf above. Even the Jack-Alls and Jaccatrays squatted whimpering in their bands to listen, and would break when all was silent into such a doleful and dismal chorus that it seemed to shake the stars.



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