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Three Mulla-mulgars, The

CHAPTER XIII

The sun rose and beat down on the bare expanse of snow. But soon they lurched headlong down again into the forest. But it was forest not so dense as the forest of the Minimul mounds, nor by a tenth part as dark as the forest where haunts the Telateuti. At scent of Nod every small beast and bird scuttled off and flew away. And it was dreary marching for the travellers where all that lived feared even their savour on the wind. But by evening they had pushed on past Battle's farthest hunting, and being wearied with their long day's march, nor any tracks of leopards to be seen, they made no fire with their fire-sticks, but gathered a big heap of dry leaves scattered in abundance by this strange cold, this Witzaweelwūllah, and huddled themselves close for warmth in sleep.

Next day they broke out into the open again, and before them, clear as amber or coral, still and beautiful in the sunrise, rose afar off upon the horizon the solitary peaks, which are seven—Kush, Zut, and Kippel, Solmi, Makkri, Mōōt, and Mulgar-meerez—the Mountains of Arakkaboa.

All this day they trudged on in difficulty and discomfort, for the ground was sharp and stony, and sloped now perpetually upward. And though at first sight of them it had seemed they had need but to stretch out a finger to touch the mountain-tops, they found the farther they journeyed towards them the more distant seemed these wonderful peaks to be. And their spirits began to sink.

On the evening of the fifth day Thumb and Thimble were stooping together over their fire-sticks in a great waste of bare rocks, while Nod was pounding up a sweet but unknown fruit they had found in their day's march growing close upon the ground, when suddenly they heard in the distance a hubbub of shouts and cries the like of which they had never heard in their lives before. They hastily concealed their small bundles of food in a crevice of the rocks, and, creeping cautiously, peered out in the last rays of the sun in order to discover the cause of this prodigious uproar.

And they saw advancing towards them a vast host and multitude of the painted Babbabōōma-mulgars, travelling, as is their custom, in company across these desolate wastes. On they came rapidly, the biggest males on the margins. But presently, while they were yet some little way off, at sound of a great shout all came to a standstill, the sun now being set, to take up their night-quarters. Even in the fading light their body-colours glowed, scarlet and purple, and bright Candar blue, where, squatting in their hundreds at supper (some meanwhile pacing sedately on the outskirts of the company like watchmen, to and fro on all fours, with long, doglike snouts and jutting teeth), they made their evening encampment.

All that night our Mulla-mulgars never ventured to kindle a fire. They huddled for warmth as best they could in a crevice of the rocks, warmed only by their own hairy bodies. For they had heard of old from Seelem how these Babbabōōma troops resent with ferocity the least meddling with them. They will speedily stone to death any intruder, and will tear a leopard in pieces with their teeth. But the travellers, all three, curiously, cautiously peeping out, watched their doings while there was the least light left, taking good care that not a spark of their jackets should be seen, for these Babbabōōmas fret more fiercely even than our bulls at the colour red.

They watched them sprinkling, scratching themselves, like the Mullabruks, with their feet, and dusting their great bodies with dry snow, rubbing it in with their hands, though for what purpose, seeing that snow had never whitened their pilgrimages before, who can say? The children, the Karakeena-Babbabōōmas, squealed and frisked and gambolled in the last sunshine together, quarrelling and at play. The old men sat silent, munching with half-closed eyes, and watching them. And it seemed that the big shes of the Babbabōōmas had brought some small tufty, goatlike animals with them, which they now sat milking into pots or gourds. And with this milk they presently fed the littlest of the young ones.

For many hours after the sun had gone down the three brothers sat wide awake, whispering together, listening to the talk and palaver of the chiefs of the Babbabōōmas. Sometimes they seemed to be clamouring, fifty together; and then presently a great still voice would be lifted over them, and all would fall silent; while of its calm authority the master-voice said, "So shall it be," or "Thus do we make it." Then once more the clamour of the rabble would break out again. But what its meaning was, and whether they were merely gossiping together, or quarrelling, or holding consultation, or whether it was that the loud voice gave law and justice to the rest, Nod tried in vain to discover. So at last, though much against his brothers' counsel, very curious to see what could occasion all this talk, he crept gradually, boulder by boulder, nearer to their great rocky bivouac. And there, by the silvery lustre of a dying moon, he peeped and peered. But though he plainly saw against the whiteness the pacing sentinels, and others of the Babbabōōmas, huddling by families close for warmth in sleep beneath the rocks, he could not discover where their parliament or talkers were assembled. But still he heard them gabbling, and still, ever and anon, the great harsh voice sounding above all until at last this, too, ceased, and save for the befrosted watchmen, the whole innumerable horde of them lay—with the peaks of Arakkaboa to north of them, and Sulemnāgar to south—in that still dying moonlight fast asleep. Then he, too, scuffled softly back by the way he had come.

By morning (for the Babbabōōmas are on the march before daybreak), when the brothers awoke, cold and cramped, in their rocky cavern, the whole concourse was gone, and not a sign left of them except their scattered shells and husks, their innumerable footprints, and the stones they had rooted up in search of whatever small creeping food might lurk beneath. Else they seemed a dream—Meermuts of the moonlight!

By noon of next day the travellers approached the mountain-slopes. They crossed down into a valley, and now the farther they went the steeper rose the bare, snow-flecked mountain-side, and beyond and around them loftier heights yet, while in the midst spired into the midday Kush, the first of the seven of the sacred peaks of Tishnar. Ever and again they were startled by the sudden crash of the snow sweeping in long-drawn avalanches from the steeps of the hills. And though it was desolate to see those towering and unfriendly mountains, their snowy precipices and dazzling peaks, yet their hearts came back to them, for a warm wind was blowing through the valley, and they knew the white and cold of the snow would soon be over, and the forest be green again, and once more would come the flowering of the fruit-trees, and the ripening of the nuts.

But here it was that a bitter quarrel began between the brothers that might have ended in not one of them ever seeing Tishnar's Valleys alive. It was like this: Not knowing in which direction to be going in order to seek for a path or pass whereby to scale Arakkaboa, they were at a loss what to be doing. Even the Munza-mulgars detest being more than the height of the loftiest forest-tree above their shadows on the ground; more especially, therefore, did these Mulla-mulgars, who never, or very rarely, as I have said many times already, climb trees at all. So they determined to stay awhile here and rest and eat until some Mulgar should come along of whom they could ask the way. It was a valley rich with the sweet ground-fruit I have already mentioned, whose spikes of a faint and thorny blue mount just above the snow, and whose berries, owing to their sugary coats or pods, resist all coldness. So that, without mention of Ukka-nuts, of which a grove grew not far beyond the bend of the valley, the travellers had plenty to eat. They had also an abundance of water, because of a little torrent that came roaring through its ice near by the trees they had chosen for their lodging. The wind that softly blew along this low land was warmer, or, at least, not so keen and fitful as the forest wind, and they were by now growing accustomed to the cold. For the night, however, they raised up for themselves a kind of leaning shelter, or huddle, of branches to be moved against the wind according as it blew up or down the valley.

But idleness leads to mischief. And not to press on is to be sliding backward. And to wait for help is to let help limp out of sight. And overcome, perhaps, by the luscious fruit, of which they ate far too much and far too often, and growing sluggardly with sleep, the travellers soon went on to bickering and scuffling together. With all this food, too, and long sleep and idleness, their courage began to droop. And if they heard any sound of living thing, even so much as a call or crackling branch, they would sneak off and hide in their night-shelter, not caring now for any kind of boldness nor to think of venturing over these homeless mountains.

So it came about that one night, as they were sleeping together under their huddle, as was their custom, Thumb, who had been nibbling fruit nearly all day long, cried out in a loud and terrible voice in his sleep, till Thimble, half awakened by his raving, picked up his thick cudgel and laid it soundly across his brother's shoulders where he lay. Thumb started up out of his sleep, and in an instant the two brothers were up and at each other, wrestling and kicking, gnashing their teeth, and guzzling through their throats and noses like mere Gungas, Mullabruks, or Manquabees. Poor Nod, not knowing what was the cause of all the trouble, got a much worse drubbing than either, till at last, in their furious struggling, all three brothers rolled from under the wattles into the pale glimmering of the stars and snow. For in this valley after the sun goes moves a phantom light or phosphorescence over the snow. Brought suddenly to their senses by the chill dark air, the travellers sat dimly glaring one at another, hunched, bruised, and breathless. And Nod, seeing his brothers so enraged, and preparing to fight again, and having had half his senses battered out by their rough usage, asked what was amiss.

"Ask him, ask him!" broke out Thimble, "the fat and stupid, who deafens the whole forest with his gluttonous screams."

"'Glutton, glutton!'" shouted Thumb. "How many nights, my brother Ummanodda, have we lain awake comforting one another that this dismal grasshopper has only one nose to snore through! I'll teach you, graffalegs, to break my ribs with a cudgel! Wait till a blink of morning comes! Oh, grammousie, to think I have put up with such a Mullabruk so long!" He lifted a frozen hunch of snow and flung it full in Thimble's face, and soon once more they were scuffling and struggling, cuffing and kicking in the silence that lay like a cloak upon all the sacred Valleys of Tishnar. They fought till, broken in wind and strength, they could fight no more. And Nod was kept busy all the rest of the darkness of that night mending the wounds of, and trying to make peace with, now one brother, now the other.

As soon as daybreak began to stir between the hills, Thumb and Thimble rose up together, and without a word, with puffed and sullen faces, went off on their fours and began gathering a good store of fruit and Ukka-nuts, each very cautious of approaching too near the other in his search. Nod skipped drearily from one to the other, pleading with them to be friends. But he got only hard words for his pains, and even at last was accused by both of them of stirring up a quarrel between them for his own pride and pleasure. He edged sadly back to the huddle, and sat gloomily watching them, wondering what next they would be at. He was soon to know, for first Thimble came back to him where he sat beside their night-hut and bade him help tie up his bundle.

"Where are you going to, Thimble?" said Nod. "O Thimble, think a little first! All these days we have journeyed in peace together. What would our father, Royal Seelem, say to see us now fighting and quarrelling like Mullabruks, and all because you cudgelled Thumb in his sleep?"

"In his sleep!" screamed Thimble. "Tell that to your flesh-eating Oomgar, Prince of Bonfires! How could he be asleep, when he was squealing like a Bōōbab full of parakeets? I go back—back now. Who can climb mountains with a fat hulk who takes two breaths to an Ukka-nut? Come, if you dare! But I care not, whether or no." And with that, catching up bundle and cudgel, with a last black look over his shoulder at Thumb, Thimble started off down the valley towards the forest they had so bravely left behind.

Not a moment had he been gone when Thumb came limping and waddling back to the shelter, loaded with nuts and berries.

"Sit here and sulk, if you like, Nizza-neela," he growled angrily. "Come with me, or traipse back with that scatterbrains. Whichever you please, I care not. I am sick of the glutton that eats all day and cannot sleep of nights for thinking of his supper."

"How can I go with you," said Nod bitterly, "when I would not go with Thimble? O Mulla-mulgar Thumb, you who are the eldest and strongest and wisest of us, be now the best, too! Hasten after Thimble, and bring him back to be friends. How can we show our faces to our Uncle Assasimmon, even if we get over these dreadful mountains, saying we wrangled and gandered all one cold night together simply because you screamed out with fear in your sleep?"

"Thumb scream! Thumb afraid! Thumb sweat after Lean-legs! If you had not been my mother's youngest son, Ummanodda, you should never open that impudent mouth again!" And with that, off went Thumb, too, not caring whither, so long as it led him farthest away from Thimble.

Now, not to make too much ado about this precious quarrel, this is what befell the travellers: Thimble, face towards Munza, trotted—one, two, three; one, two, three—stonily on. But in a while solitude began to gather about him, and the cold after the heat of the fight struck chill and woke again his lazy senses. He sat down to wrap up his bruises, wondering where to be going, what to be doing. The Oomgar, the Nameless, the Minimuls, the River, the Gunga—even if, he thought, he should escape again all the dangers they had so narrowly but just come through together, what lay at the end of it all? A little blackened heap of ashes, the mockery of Munza-mulgar, and his mother's speechless and sorrowful ghost. What's more, while he sat idly nibbling his nuts, for his tongue had suddenly wearied of the luscious ground-fruit, he saw moving between the rocks no sweeter company than a she-leopard gazing grinningly on him where he sat beneath his rock.

Now, these leopards, made cunning by experience, and knowing that a Mulla-mulgar will fight long and bravely for his life, if, when they are hunting alone, they spy out such a one alone, too, they trot softly back until they meet with another of their kind. Then, with purring and clashing of whiskers, they come to a sworn and friendly understanding together, sharing out their supper-meat before they have so much as sharpened their claws. Then at nightfall both go hunting their prey in harmony together. Thimble well knew this crafty and evil practice, and when dusk fell, he listened and watched without stirring. And soon, over the snow, he heard the faint mewings and coughings of his enemies, both shes, of wonderful clear, dark Roses, coming on as thievishly and as softly towards him as a cat in search of her kittens. So he tore off a little strip of his tattered red jacket and laid it in the snow. Then away he scuttled till he must needs pause to breathe himself beneath a farther rock.

Meanwhile the ravenous huntresses, having come to the strip of Mulgar-scented rag, of their natures had to stop and sniff and to disport themselves with that awhile, as if to smell a dinner cooking is to enjoy it more when cooked. This done, they once more set forward with sharper hunger along Thimble's track. Three times did Thimble so play with them, and at the third appetizing rag the leopards, famished and over-eager, hardly paused at all over his keepsake, but came swiftly coursing after him. And the first, that (of her own craft) was much the younger and fleeter, soon out-distanced her hunting-mate, the which was exactly the reason of Thimble's trickery with his red flag. For when, panting and alone, the first Roses had got well ahead of the other, Thimble dashed suddenly out upon her from a rock, and before she could bare her teeth, he had caught her forefoot between his grinding jaws and bitten it clean to the bone. It spoilt poor Roses' taste for supper, and, seeing now that her sister was past fighting, and only too eager to leave the Mulgar to his lone, her mate slunk off without more ado to her own lair, to feast on the morning's bones of a frost-bitten Mullabruk.

But Thimble, though he had worsted the leopards, hadn't much liking or stomach for nights as wild as this. Thumb's nightmares were sweet peace to it. All the next day he wandered about, not heeding whither his footsteps led him. And so it came about that just before evening he stumbled upon the very same valley he had left in his sulks the morning before. There, indeed, sat Nod, fast asleep in the evening light for sheer weariness of watching for his brothers, who, some faint hope had told him, would return.

As for Thumb, after limping on up the valley a little more than a league, he soon grew ashamed and sick at heart at having so easily become a silly child again. He sat down under a great boulder, humped round with ants' nests, too desolate to go on, too proud to turn back. All that day and the next he sat moodily watching these never-idle little creatures, that, afraid of nothing, are feared of all. They had tunnelled and walled, and wherever sunbeams fell had cast back the snow that hung above the galleries. And all day long they kept going and coming, carrying syrup and eggs and meat, and all this with endless palaver of their waving horns, as if there were nothing else that side of Arakkaboa but the business of their city. Thumb alive they paid no heed to, but Thumb dead they would have picked to the bare bones before sunset.

The next evening Thumb's better head overcame him, and back he went to his brothers, sitting miserable and forlorn in the new moonlight beneath their shelter. Nothing was said. They dared scarcely look into each other's faces awhile, until Thumb caught Nod's bright, anxious little eyes glancing under his puckered forehead from brother to brother, in mortal fear they would soon be breaking out again. And Nod looked so queer, and small, and anxious, and loving, and all these things so much at once, that Thumb burst out into a roar of laughter. And there they sat all three, rocking to and fro, holding their sides beneath the gigantic steeps of Arakkaboa, happy and at peace together again, while tears ran down their nose-troughs, with their shouts on shouts of laughter.



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