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Three Mulla-mulgars, The

CHAPTER XV

When Nod opened his eyes beneath the vast blue arch of the cavern, not a sign of the Men of the Mountains was to be seen. He sat for awhile watching his brothers humped up in sleep on the floor, and wondering rather dismally when they should have done with their troubles and come to the palace of their Uncle Assasimmon. He was blained and footsore; his small bones stuck out beneath his furry skin, his hands were cracked and scorched. And the keen high air of Arakkaboa made him gasp at every breath.

When Thumb awoke they sat quietly mumbling and talking together a while. Beyond the mouth of the cavern stood the beehive-houses of the Mountain-mulgars, each in its splash of lengthening shadow. Day drew on to evening. An eagle squalled in space. Else all was still; no living thing stirred. For these Men of the Mountains have no need to keep watch. They sleep secure in their white huts. None can come in, and none go out but first they must let down their ladders. Thumb scrambled up, and he and Nod hobbled off softly together to where the cataract hung like a shrine of hoarfrost in pillars of green ice from the frozen snows above. The evening was filled with light of the colour of a flower. Even the snow that capped the mountains was faintest violet and rose, and far in the distance, between the peaks of Zut and misty Solmi, stretched a band of darkest purple, above which the risen moon was riding in pale gold. And Nod knew that there, surely, must be Battle's Sea. He pointed Thumb to it, and the two Mulgars stood, legs bandy, teeth shining, eyes fixed. Nod gazed on it bewitched, till it seemed he almost saw the foam of its league-long billows rolling, and could catch in his thin round ear the roar and surge Battle had so often told him of. "Ohé! if my Oomgar were but with me now!" he thought. "How would his eyes stare to see his friend the sea!"

But the Men of the Mountains were now bestirring themselves. They came creeping, lean and hairy, out of their mushroom houses. Some fetched water, some looped down over the brink by which the travellers had come up. Some clambered up into little dark horseshoe courts cut in the rock like martins' holes in sand, and came down carrying sacks or suchlike out of their nut pantries and cheese-rooms. Some, too, of the elders sat combing their long beards with a kind of teasel that grows in the valleys, while their faint voices sounded in their gossiping like hundreds of grasshoppers in a meadow. Nod watched them curiously. Even the faces of quite the puny Mountain-mulgars were sad, with round and feeble eyes. And he couldn't help nudging Thumb to look at these tiny creatures gravely combing their hairy chops—for all had whiskers, from the brindled and grey, whose hair fell below their knees, to the mouse and cane coloured babies lying in basins or cradles of Ollaconda-bark, kicking their toes towards the brightening stars.

The moonlight dwelt in silver on every crag. And, like things so beautiful that they seem of another world, towered the mountains around them, clear as emeralds, and crowned with never-melting snow.

Thimble, when he awoke, was fevered and aching. The heights had made his head dizzy, and the mountain cheese was sickly and faint. He lay at full length, with wandering eyes, refusing to speak. So, when the Mulla-moona sent for the three travellers, only Thumb and Nod went together. He was old, thin-haired and thick-skinned, and rather fat with eating of cheese; he wore a great loose hat of leopard-skin on his head. And he looked at them with his eyes wizened up as if they were creatures of no account. And he asked one of the Mountain-mulgars who stood near, Who were these strangers, and by whose leave they had come trespassing on the hill-walks of the Mountain-mulgars. "Munza is your country," he said. "The leaves are never still with you, thieves and gluttons, squealing and fighting and swinging by your tails!"

Thumb opened his mouth at this. "We are three, and you are many, Old Man of the Mountains," he barked, "but keep a civil tongue with us, for all that. We are neither thieves nor gluttons. We fight, oh yes, when it pleases us. But having no tails, we do not swing by them. We are Mulla-mulgars, my brothers and I, and we go to the kingdom of our father's brother, Assasimmon, Prince of the Valleys of Tishnar. He is a Prince, O Mulla-moona, who has more slaves in his palace and more Ukka-trees in the least of his seventy-seven gardens than your royal whiskers have hairs! On, then, we go! But be not afraid, Mulla-moona-mulgar. We will leave a few small stones of Arakkaboa behind us. But whether you will or whether you won't, on we go until the Harp sounds. Then our Meermuts will Tishnar welcome, and bid wander over these her mountains, never hungry, never thirsty, never footsore, with sweet-smelling lanterns to light us, and striped Zevveras to carry us, and gongs to make music. But if we live, Chief Mulgar of Kush, we will remember your words, I and my brother Ummanodda Nizza-neela, for he shall breathe them into a little book in the Zbaffle Oomgar's tongue for Prince Assasimmon to mock at in his Ummuz-fields."

Nod listened in wonder to this palaver. Had he, then, been talking in his sleep, that Thumb knew all about the Oomgar's little fat magic-book? The old Mountain-mulgar sat solemnly blinking, fingering the tassel of his long tail. He was a doleful and dirty fellow, and very sly.

"Why," he said at last, "I did but speak Munza fashion. Scratch if you itch, traveller. Even an Utt can grow angry. As for writing my words in the Oomgar's tongue, that is magic, and I understand it not. Rest in the cool of the shadow of Kush a little, and to-morrow my servants shall lead you as far across Arakkaboa as they know the way. But this I will tell you: Beyond Zut my paths go not." He raised his pale eyes softly. "But then, Meermuts need no paths, Mulla-mulgars."

Thumb laughed. "All in good time, Prince," he said, showing his teeth. "I begin to get an itching for this Zut. We will rest only one day. The Mulla-mulgar Thimbulla has a poor stomach for your green cheese. We will journey on to-morrow."

The Mulla-moona then called an old Mulgar who stood by, whose name was Ghibba, and bade him take a rope (that is, about twenty) of the Mountain-mulgars with him to show the travellers the secret "walks" and passes across their country to the border round Zut. "After that," he said, turning sourly to Thumb, "though your Meermuts were three hundred and not three, and your Uncle, King Assasimmon, had more palaces than there are nuts on an Ukka-tree, I could help you no more. Sulâni, O Mulla-mulgars, and may Tishnar, before she scatters your bones, sweeten your tempers!"

And at that the old Mountain-man curled his tail over his shoulder and shut his eyes.

When Thumb and Nod came into the great cavern again to Thimble, they found him helpless with pain and fever. He could not even lift his head from his green pillow. His eyes glowed in their bony hollows. And when Thumb stooped over him he screamed, "Gunga! Gunga!" as if in fear.

Thumb turned and looked at Nod. "We shall have to carry him, Ummanodda," he said. "If he eats any more of their mouldy nuts and cheese our brother will die in these wild mountains. They must be sad stomachs that thrive on meat gone green with age. And now the physic is gone, and where shall we find more in these great hills of ice? We must carry him—we must carry him, Nodnodda."

Then Ghibba, who was standing near, understanding a little of what Thumb said, though he had spoken low in Mulgar-royal, called four of his twenty. And together they made a kind of sling or hammock or pallet out of their strands of Cullum, and cushioned it with hair and moss. For once every year these Mulgars shave all the hair off their bodies, and lie in chamber until it is grown again. By this means even the very old keep sleek and clean. With this hair they make a kind of tippet, also cushions and bedding of all sorts. It is a curious custom, but each, growing up, follows his father, and so does not perceive its oddness. Into this litter, then, they laid Thimble, and lifted him on to their shoulders by ropes at the corners, plaited thick, so as not to chafe the bearers. Then, the others laden with great faggots of wood and torches, bags of nuts and cheese, and skin bottles of milk, they passed through an arch in the wall of the cavern, and the travellers set out once more. All the Men of the Mountains came out with their little ones in the starlight and torch-flare to see them go. Even the old chief squinnied sulkily out of his hut, and spat on the ground when they were gone.

The Mulgar-path on the farther side of this arch was so wide that here and there trees hung over it with frost-tasselled branches. And a rare squabbling the little Mountain-owls made out of their holes in the rock to see the travellers' torches passing by. First walked six of the Men of the Mountains, two by two. Then came Thimble, tossing and gibbering on his litter. Close behind the litter followed Ghibba, walking between Thumb and Nod. And last, talking all together in their thin grasshopper voices, the other ten Mountain-mulgars with more bags, more faggots, and more burning torches. It was, as I have said, clear and starry weather. Far below them the valleys lay, their blackness fleeced with mist; high above them glittered the quiet ravines of ice and snow. So cold had it fallen again, Nod huddled himself close in his sheep's-jacket, buzzing quiet songs while he waddled along with his stick. So all night they walked without resting, except to change the litter-bearers.

When dawn began to stir, they came to where the Mulgar-path widened awhile. Here many rock-conies dwelt that have, as it were, wings of skin with which they leap as if they flew. And here the travellers doused their torches, set Thimble down, and made breakfast. While they all sat eating together, on a narrow pass beneath them wound by another of the long-haired companies of the Men of the Mountains. From upper path to lower was about fifteen Mulgars deep, for that is how they measure their heights. All these Mulgars were laden with a kind of fresh green seaweed heaped up on their shallow head-baskets, and were come three days' journey from the sea from fetching it. This seaweed they eat in their soup, or raw, as a relish or salad. Perhaps they pit it against their cheese. Whether or no, its salt and refreshing savour rose up into the air as they walked. And Nod sniffed it gladly for simple friendship and memory of his master Battle.

Breakfast done, the snow-bobbins hopped down to pick up the crumbs. These little tufty birds, of the size of a plump bull-finch, but pure white, with coral eyes, hop among the Mountain-mulgar troops wheresoever they go, having a great fancy for their sour cheese-crumbs.

The Men of the Mountains then hung up on their rods or staves a kind of thick sheet or shadow-blanket, as they call it, woven of goats' wool and Ollaconda-fibre, under which they all hid themselves from the glare of the over-riding sun. Nod, too, and Thumb sat down in close shade beside Thimble's litter, and slept fitfully, tired out with their night-march, but anxious in the extreme for their brother.

Towards about three, as we should say, or when the sun was three parts across his bridge, having wound up their shadow-blankets and made all shipshape, the little company of grey and brown Mulgars set out once more. Thimble, who had lain drowsy and panting, but quiet, during the day, now began to toss and rave as if in fear. His cries rang piercing and sorrowful against these stone walls, and even the hairy Mountain-men, who carried him in such patience slung between them, grew at last weary of his clamour, and shook his litter when he cried out, as if, indeed, that might quiet him.

Nod stumped on for a long time in silence, listening to his brother's raving. "O Thumb, what should we do," he broke out at last—"what should we do, you and me, if Thimble died?"

Thumb grunted. "Thimble will not die, little brother."

"But how can you know, Thumb? Or do you say it only to comfort me?"

"I never could tell how I know, Ummanodda; but know I do, and there's an end."

"I suppose we shall get to Tishnar's Valleys—in time?" said Nod, half to himself.

"The Nizza-neela is downcast with long travel," said Ghibba.

"Ay," muttered Thumb, "and being a Mulla-mulgar, he does not show it."

Nod turned his head away, blinked softly, shrugged up his jacket, but made no answer. And Thumb, in his kindness, and perhaps to ease his own spirits, too, broke out in his great seesaw voice into the Mulgar journey-song. High above the squabbling of the little Mountain-owls, high above the remote thunder of the surging waters in the ravine, into the clear air they raised their hoarse voices together:

"In Munza a Mulgar once lived alone,
And his name it was Dubbuldideery, O;
With none to love him, and loved by none,
His hard old heart it grew weary, O,
Weary, O weary, O weary.
"So he up with his cudgel, he on with his bag
Of Manaka, Ukkas, and Keeri, O;
To seek for the waters of 'Old-Made-Young,'
Went marching old Dubbuldideery, O
Dubbuldi-dubbuldi-deery.
"The sun rose up, and the sun sank down;
The moon she shone clear and cheery, O,
And the myriads of Munza they mocked and mopped
And mobbed old Dubbuldideery, O,
Môh Mulgar Dubbuldideery.
"He cared not a hair of his head did he,
Not a hint of the hubbub did hear he, O,
For the roar of the waters of 'Old-Made-Young'
Kept calling of Dubbuldideery, O,
Call—calling of Dubbuldideery.
"He came to the country of 'Catch Me and Eat Me'—
Not a fleck of a flicker did fear he, O,
For he knew in his heart they could never make mince-meat
Of tough old Dubbuldideery, O,
Rough, tough, gruff Dubbuldideery.
"He waded the Ooze of Queen Better-Give-Up,
Dim, dank, dark, dismal, and dreary, O,
And, crunch! went a leg down a Cockadrill's throat,
'What's one?' said Dubbuldideery, O,
Undauntable Dubbuldideery.
"He cut him an Ukka crutch, hobbled along,
Till Tishnar's sweet river came near he, O—
The wonderful waters of 'Old-Made-Young,'
A-shining for Dubbuldideery, O,
Wan, wizened old Dubbuldideery.
"He drank, and he drank—and he drank—and he—drank:
No more was he old and weary, O,
But weak as a babby he fell in the river,
And drownded was Dubbuldideery, O,
Drown-ded was Dubbuldideery!"
WITH STICKS AND STAVES AND FLARING TORCHES THEY TURNED ON THE FIERCE BIRDS THAT CAME SWEEPING AND SWIRLING OUT OF THE DARK.

It was a long song, and it lasted a long time, and so many were the verses, that at last even the Men of the Mountains caught up the crazy Mulgar drone and wheezily joined in, too. A very dismal music it was—so dismal, indeed, that many of the eagles who make their nests or eyries in the crevices and ledges of the topmost crags of Arakkaboa flew screaming into the air, sweeping on their motionless wings between the stars over the echoing precipices.

The travellers had set to the last verse of the Journey-Song more lustily than ever, when of a sudden one of these eagles, crested, and bronze in the torchlight, swooped so close in its anger of the voices that it swept off Thumb's wool hat. In his haste he heedlessly struck at the shining bird with his staff or cudgel. Its scream rose sudden and piercing as it soared, dizzily wheeling in its anger, at evens with the glassy peak of Kush. Too late the Men of the Mountains cried out on Thumb to beware. In an instant the night was astir, the air forked with wings. From every peak the eagles swooped upon the Mulgars. And soon the travellers were fighting wildly to beat them off. They hastily laid poor Thimble down in his sling and covered up his eyes from the tumult with a shadow-blanket. And with sticks and staves and flaring torches they turned on the fierce birds that came sweeping and swirling out of the dark upon them on bristling feathers, with ravening beaks and talons. But against Thumb the eagles fought most angrily for his insult to their Prince, hovering with piercing battle-cry, their huge wings beating a dreadful wind upon his cowering head. Nod, while he himself was buffeting, ducking and dodging, could hear Thumb breathing and coughing and raining blows with his great cudgel. The moon was now sliding towards the mouth of Solmi's Valley, and her beams streamed aslant on the hosts of the birds. Wherever Nod looked, the air was aflock with eagles. His hand was torn and bleeding, a great piece of his sheep's-jacket had been plucked out, and still those moon-gilded wings swooped into the torchlight, beaks snapped almost in his face, and talons clutched at him.

Suddenly a scream rose shrill above all the din around him. For a moment the birds hung hovering, and then Nod perceived one of the biggest of the eagles struggling in mid-air with something stretched and wrestling upon its back. It was a Man of the Mountains floating there in space, while the maddened eagle rose and fell, and poised itself, and shook and beat its wings, vainly striving to tear him off. And now many other of the eagles wheeled off from the Mulgars and swept in frenzy to and fro over this struggling horse and rider, darting upon them, beating the dying Mulgar with their wings, screaming their war-song, until at last, gradually, lower and lower they all sank out of the moonlight into the shadow of the valley, and were lost to sight. The few birds that remained were soon beaten off. Five lay dead in their beautiful feathers on the pass. And the breathless and bleeding Mulgars gathered together on this narrow shelf of the precipice to bind up their wounds and rest and eat. But three of them were nowhere to be found. They made no answer, though their friends called and called, again and again, in their shrill reedy voices. For one in fighting had stumbled and toppled over, torch in hand, from the path, one had been slit up by an eagle's claw, and one had been carried off by the eagles.



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