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Three Mulla-mulgars, The

CHAPTER XIV

Next day the travellers were about very early, combing and grooming themselves in the dawn-mist for the first time these many days, and before the sun had shot his first colours across Arakkaboa, they had eaten and drunk and set out from the valley of the languid and luscious fruits that had been the chief cause of all their folly.

They pushed up the valley, searching anxiously the hillsides for sign of any track or path by which they might ascend. The day was crisp and golden with sunlight. And that evening they made their night-quarters beside a vast frozen pool in a kind of cup of the overhanging cliffs. Here every word they said came hollowly back in echo.

They cried, "Seelem!" "Seelem, Seelem!" replied the mocking voices.

"Ummani nâta? Still we go on?" shouted Thumb hoarsely.

"Nâta, nâta! On, on, on!" sang echo hoarselier yet.

Wind had swept clean the glassy floor. In its black lustre gleamed the increasing moon. And after dark had fallen, mists arose and trailed in moonlit beauty across the granite escarpments of the hills. So that night the travellers lay in a vast tent of lovely solitude, with only the strange noises of the ice and the whisperings of the frost to tell poor wakeful Nod he was anything more than a little Mulgar in a dream.

Next morning early they met one of those crack-brained Môh-mulgars that wander, eat, sleep, live, and die alone, having broken away from all traffic and company with their friends and kinsmen. He wore about his neck a double-coiled necklet of little bones, and wound round his middle a plait of Cullum. He was dirty, bowed, and matted, and his eyes were glazed as he lifted them into the sunlight in answer to Thumb's shout:

"Tell us, O Môh-mulgar, we beseech you, how shall three travellers to the kingdom of Assasimmon find a pathway across these hills?"

The Môh-mulgar lifted both gnarled hands above his head.

"Geguslar nōōma gulmeta mūh!" replied a thick, half-brutal voice.

"What does he say?" said Nod, wondering to see him wave his spotted arms as he wagged his crazy head.

"Well," says Thumb, "what he says is this: 'Death's at the end of all paths.'"

Thimble coughed. "So it is," he said solemnly.

"Ay," said Thumb; "but what I was asking was the longest way round.... A track, a path to the beautiful Valleys of Tishnar," he shouted across to the solitary Môh-mulgar. Sorrowfully he waved his bony arms about his head, and stooped again. "Geguslar, nōōma gulmeta mūh!" came back his dismal answer.

Thimble, with a sign to him, laid gravely down a little heap of nuts in the snow. And the three travellers left the old pilgrim still standing desolate and unquestionable in the snow, watching them till they were gone out of sight.

Coming presently after to some trees with tough, straight branches, the travellers made themselves fresh cudgels. After which, to raise their fallen spirits, they played hop-pole awhile in the sunshine, just as they used to in the first days of the snow before they set out on their travels. And about noon, when the sun stood radiant above them, they met three Men of the Mountains, with shallow baskets on their heads, coming down to gather Ukka-nuts in the valley. These Mulgars have long silken, black-and-white hair and very profuse whiskers. They are sad in face, with pouting lips, have but the meanest of thumbs, and turn their toes in as they walk, one behind another, and sometimes in chains of a hundred together. Thumb stood in their path, and inquired of the first of them, as before, which way they must follow to cross the mountains.

The voice of the Man of the Mountains who answered them was so high and weak Nod could scarcely hear his whisper. "There is no way over," he said.

"But over we must go," said Thumb.

The other shook his head, and looked sadder than ever. And on they all three went again, lisping softly together, but without another word to Thumb.

"What's to be done now?" said Nod.

"Where they came down, we can go up," said Thumb.

So, the Men of the Mountains being now hidden from sight by the rocks below, Thumb and his brothers turned up the narrow track between great boulders of stone, by which they had come down. And glad they were of the new staves or cudgels they had broken off. Even with the help of these, so steep was the path that they had often to pull themselves up by roots and jutting rocks. And gradually, besides being steep, the way grew so narrow that they were simply walking on a ledge of rock not more than two Mulgar paces wide. And for giddiness Nod nearly fell flat when by chance he turned his eyes and looked down to where, far below, a frozen torrent gleamed faintly amid huge boulders that looked from this height no bigger than pebble-stones.

It made him giddy even to keep his eyes fixed on the narrowing path before him, and shuffle up, up, up.

Suddenly, Thumb, who was wheezing and panting a few paces in front, came to a standstill.

"What is it, Thumb?" said Nod.

"Why do you stop, Nod?" said Thimble, who was last of all.

"Look, look!" said Thumb.

They slowly raised their eyes, and not a hundred paces beyond them, on the same narrow ledge of rock against the deep blue sky, came slowly winding down thirty at least of these same meagre and hairy Men of the Mountains, a few with long staves in their hands, and every one with his long tufted tail over his shoulder and a round shallow basket on his head. These Men of the Mountains have very weak eyes; and it was not until they were come close that they perceived the three travellers standing on their mountain-path. The first stopped, then he that was next, and so on, until they looked like a long black-and-white caterpillar, clinging to the precipice, with tiny tufts waving in the air.

Thumb raised his hand as if in peace. "We are, sirs, strangers to these rocks and hills. After the shade of Munza, our eyes dizzy with the heights. And we walk, journeying to the Courts of Assasimmon, in great danger of falling. How, then, shall we pass by?"

They heard a faint, shrill whispering all along the hairy row. Then the first of the Men of the Mountains came quite close, and told the three brothers to lie down flat on their faces, and he and his thirty would all walk gently over them. "But to go on has no end," he said, "and the travellers had better far turn back."

At this Thumb grew angry. "What does the old grey-beard mean?" he coughed out of the corner of his mouth. "Mulla-mulgars stoop on their faces to no one. Do you lie down on yours."

The old Mountain-mulgar blinked. "We are thirty; you are three," he said. Thumb laughed.

"We are strangers to Arakkaboa, O Man of the Mountains. And we fear to lie down, lest we never rise up again." At this civil speech the old Mulgar went shuffling back to the others.

And, to Nod's astonishment, he presently saw him take his long staff of tough, sinewy wood, and thrust it into a little crevice of the rock, even with the path, so that about a third of its length overhung the precipice. Meanwhile, another of these Mountain-mulgars had in the same way thrust his staff into the rock a little farther down. The first Man of the Mountains, who was, perhaps by half a span, taller than the rest, took firm hold of the end of his staff with his long-fingered but almost thumbless hands, and lightly swung himself down over the precipice. The next scrambled down over his shoulders until he swung by his leader's heels; the next followed, and so on. Three such Mulgar strings presently hung down from their staves over the abyss. And there being thirty Men of the Mountains in all, each string consisted of ten. [For this reason some call these Mountain-mulgars Caterpillar or Ladder Mulgars.]

When they were all thus quietly dangling, their leader bade Thumb advance. Stepping warily over the little heaps of baskets, this the brothers did. But as Nod passed each string in turn, and saw it swinging softly over the sheer precipice, and all the ten faces with pale eyes blinking sadly up at him out of their fluff of hair, he thought he should certainly be toppled over and dashed to pieces. At last, however, all three were safely passed by. But the rocky ledge was here so narrow that Thimble could not even turn himself about to thank the Mountain-mulgars for their courtesy, nor to watch them climb back one by one to their mountain-path again.

On and on, up, ever up, climbed the ribbon-like path winding about the granite flanks of Kush. Once Nod lifted up his face, and saw in one swift glimpse the glittering peaks and crest of the mountains rising in beauty, crowned with snow, out of the vast sun-shafted precipices. He hastily shut his eyes, and his knees trembled. But there could be no turning back now. He followed on close behind his fat, panting brother, until suddenly Thumb leapt back to a standstill, shouting in a voice of fear: "O ho, ho! Illa ulla, illa ulla! O ho, ho!"

"O Thumb, why do you call 'ho!' like that?" said Nod anxiously.

"Back, back!" Thumb cried; "du steepa datz."

Nod stooped low on the smooth rock, and under the tatters of Thumb's metal-hooked coat stared out between his brother's bandy legs. He simply looked out of that hairy window straight into the empty air. They stood like peering cormorants at the cliff's edge. The path had come to an end.

Thumb whined softly and coughed, and a faint steam rose up from his body. "We must go back," he barked huskily.

"Yes, brother," said Thimble softly; "but I cannot go back. If I turn, down I go. But if you two can turn, down go will I."

"Tishnar, O Tishnar," cried Nod in terror, "the hills are dancing."

"Softly, softly, child!" said Thumb. "It is only your giddy eyes rolling. What's more," he said, pretending to laugh, "those old hairy Men of the Mountains, even if only Meermuts, must have come from somewhere. Where they came from we can go to. O and Ahôh!" he called.

"Why do you call 'Ahôh!' Thumb?" whispered Nod, with tight-shut eyes.

"Both together, Thimbulla," muttered Thumb. "Ahôh, ahôh, ahôh!" they bawled.

Their voices sounded small and far-away. Only a bird screamed in answer from the chasm beneath. The sun blazed shadowlessly over the peak of Kush upon the three Mulgars, standing motionless, pressed close against the steaming rock. To Nod the minutes crawled like hours, while he crouched sick and trembling, clutching Thumb's rags to keep him from falling.

"Thimble, my brother," at last called Thumb softly, "could you, if little Nod twisted himself round, straddle your legs enough to let him creep through? We old gluttonous fellows were never meant for mountain-climbing. And standing here over the great misty pot——" But just then it seemed to Thumb he felt, light as the wind, something softly pluck at his wool hat. Very, very slowly, and without a word, he lifted his head and looked up—looked straight up into the sorrowful hairy face of a Man of the Mountains dangling, the last of a long chain, from a rocky parapet above.

"Why?" says Thumb, looking into his face. "What then?"

"Up, up!" said he, in a thin, lisping Munza-tongue, making a step or loop of his long fringed arms.

This, then, was the stairs or ladder on which the travellers must climb into safety. But Thumb could barely touch him with the tips of his fingers. He stood in doubt, staring up. And presently down that living rope of Mulgars yet another Man of the Mountains softly descended, and his arms just reached Thumb's elbows.

"Tread gently, Mulla-mulgar," said this last, with a doleful smile. "You are fat, and our ladder is slender."

Thumb, with one white, doglike glance into the deeps, took firm hold, and slowly, heavily, he climbed on from trembling Mulgar to trembling Mulgar till at length he reached the top.

"Now, Nizza-neela," said the last Man of the Mountains, "it is your turn." Up clambered Nod after Thumb, groping carefully with the palms of his feet from hairy loop to loop. But he was glad that the Men of the Mountains, as their custom generally is, dangled with their faces to the rock, and could not see into his eyes.

At last all three were safely up, and found themselves on a wide, smooth, shelving ledge of the mountain, about fifty Mulgar paces wide, with here and there a tree or tuft of grass, and to the right a cascade of ice, roped with icicles, streaming from the heights above. But what most Nod blinked in wonder at were the small white mushroom houses of these Mountain-mulgars. More than a hundred of them were here, standing like snow-white beehives in the glare of the sun, each with its low round door, from which, here and there, a baby Mulgar, with short, fleecy, and cane-coloured whiskers, stood on its fours, peeping at the strangers. When they were all three safely landed, one of the Men of the Mountains led them between the beehive houses to a cool, shadowy cavern in the mountain-side. There he bade them sit down, while others brought them a kind of thin, sour cheese and a mess of crushed and mouldy Ukka-nuts. For these Arakkaboan Mulgars will not so much as look at a nut fresh and crisp; it must be green and furred to please their taste. And while the travellers sat nibbling a little meanly of the nuts and cheese, Thumb told the Men of the Mountains as best he could in the Munza tongue who they were, and why they were come wandering in Arakkaboa.

When Thumb in his talk made mention of the name of Tishnar, the Mountain-mulgars that sat round them in a circle bobbed low, till the hair of their faces touched the cavern floor.

"The Valleys of Assasimmon lie far from here," said the first Mountain-mulgar in a shrill, thin voice. "And the Men of the Mountains walk no mountain-paths beyond the peak of Zut; nor have we ever dangled our ropes into the Ummuz-groves of Tishnar. I do not even know the way thither. It would have been go thin and come back fat, O Mulla-mulgars, if I did. Rest and sleep now, travellers. We will bring you to the Mulla-moona-mulgar [that is, Lord, or Captain] of Kush when he awakes from his 'glare.'"

This "glare," or "shine," is the name of the Mountain-mulgars give to the sleep they take in the middle of the day. Some little while before "no-shadow," as they call it, or noonday, they creep into their mushroom houses and sleep till evening begins to settle. So weak have their eyes become (or are, by nature) that they rarely venture out by day to go nut-gathering in the valleys. And often then, even, many go bandaged, keeping touch merely with their tails. It was in the midst of this noonday sleep or glare that the travellers had roused them with their halloo. At evening they awake, and when the moon is clear their ladders may be seen near and far drooping over the precipices. And they go walking with soft, shambling steps from ledge to ledge. Even the least of them have no fear of any height. Their children of an evening will sit and eat their suppers, their spindle legs dangling over a depth so extreme that no Munza-mulgar could see to the bottom.

Left alone, the Mulla-mulgars, who had been climbing many hours now, and felt stiff in legs and back, were glad to roll themselves over in the flealess sand of the cavern, and soon were all three asleep.



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