At last, after fixing a lighted torch between the logs of each raft, the Mulgars began to get aboard. On the first Ghibba and Thimble embarked, squatting the one in front and the other astern, to keep their craft steady. With big torches smoking in the sunshine, they pushed off. Tugging on a long strand of Samarak which they had looped around the smooth branch of a Boobab, they warped themselves free. Soon well adrift, with water singing in their green twigs, they slid swiftly into the stream, shoving and pulling at their long poles, beating the green water to foam, as they neared the fork, to keep their dancing catamaran from drifting into the surge that would have toppled them over the cataract. The rest of the travellers stood stock-still by the water-side, gazing beneath their hands after the green ship and its two sailors, dark and light, brandishing their poles. They followed along the bank as far as they could, standing lean in the evening beams, wheezing shrilly, "Illaloothi, Illaloothi!" as Moona and Mulla-mulgar floated into the mouth of the cavern and vanished from sight.
One after another the rest swept off, their rafts dancing light as corks on the emerald water, each with its flaming torch fast fixed, and its two struggling Mulgars tugging at their long water-poles. And as each raft drifted beneath the lowering arch of the cavern, the Mulgars aboard her raised aloft their poles for farewell to Mulgarmeerez. Last of all Thumb loosed his mooring-rope, and with the baggage-raft in tow cast off with Nod into the stream. Pale sunshine lay on the evening frost and gloom of the forests, and far in the distance wheeled Kippel, capped with snow, as the raft rocked round the curve and floated nearer and nearer to the cavern. Nod squatted low at the stern, his pole now idly drifting, while behind him bobbed the baggage-raft, tethered by its rope of Cullum. He stared into the flowing water, and it seemed out of its deeps, faintly echoing, rang the voice of the sorrowful Water-midden, bidding him farewell. And when Thumb's back was for a moment turned, he tore out of the tousled wool of his jacket another of his ivory buttons, and, lying flat in the leafy twigs, dropped it softly into the stream. "There, little brother," he whispered to the button, "tell the beautiful Midden I remembered her last of all things when the hoarse-voiced Mulgars sailed away!"
Green and dark and utterly still Arakkaboa's southern forests drew backward, with the westering sun beaming hazily behind their nameless peaks. Nod heard a sullen wash of water, the picture narrowed, faded, darkened, and in a moment they were floating in an inky darkness, lit only by the dim and wavering light of the torches.
The cavern widened as the rafts drew inward. But the Mulgars with their poles drove them into the middle of the stream, for here the current ran faster, and they feared their leafy craft might be caught by overhanging rocks near the cavern walls. A host of long-eared bats, startled from sleep by the echoing cries and splashings, and the smoke of the torches, unhooked their leathery hoods, and, mousily glancing, came flitting this way, that way, squeaking shrilly as if scolding the hairy sailors. They reminded Nod of the chattering troops of Skeetoes swinging on their frosty ropes in the gloom of Munza-mulgar. When with smoother water the raftsmen's shouts were hushed, a strange silence swept down upon the travellers. Nod glanced up uneasily at the faintly shimmering roof hung with pale spars. Only the sip and whisper of the water could be heard, and the faint crackle of the dry torch-wood. Thumb flapped the water impatiently with his long pole. "Ugh, Ummanodda, this hole of darkness chills my bones. Sing, child, sing!"
"What shall I sing, Thumb?"
"Sing that jingling lingo the blood-supping Oomgar-mulgar taught you. How goes it?—'Pore Benoleben.'"
So in the dismal water-caverns of Arakkaboa Nod sang out in his seesaw voice, to please his brother, Battle's old English song, "Poor Ben, old Ben."
When Nod's last quavering drawl had died away, Thumb lifted up his own hoarse, grating voice in the silence that followed, and as if with one consent, the travellers broke into "Dubbuldideery."
It seemed as if the walls would shatter and the roof come tumbling down at their prodigious hullabaloo. The bats raced to and fro. Scores of fishes pushed up their snouts round Nod's raft, and gazed with curious faces into the torchlight. The water was all astir with their disquietude. But in the midst of the song there sounded a shrill and hasty cry: "Down all!"
Only just in time had Ghibba seen their danger, and almost before the shrill echo had died away, and Thimble had cast himself flat, their raft was swirled under a huge rock, blossoming with quartz, that hung down almost to the surface of the water. Thimble's jacket was ripped collar to hem as he slid under, lying as close as he could. And the bobbing raft of baggage behind them was torn away in a twinkling, so that now all the food and torches the Mulgars had was what each carried for himself. They dared not stir nor lift their heads, for still the fretted roof arched close above the water. And so they drifted on and on, their torches luckily burnt low, until at length the cavern widened, the roof lifted, and they burst one by one into a great chamber of smooth water, its air filled strangely with a faint phosphorescence, so that every spar and jag of rock gleamed softly with coloured light as they paddled their course slowly through. In this great chamber they stayed awhile, for there was scarcely any current of water against its pillared sides. With their rafts clustering and moored together, they shared out equally what nuts, dry fruit, and unutterably mouldy cheese remained, and divided the torches equally between them, except that Ghibba, who led the way, had two for every one of the others.
These thin grey waters swarmed with fish, but all, it seemed, nearly blind, with scarcely visible eyes above their snouts. Some of the bigger fish, with clapping jaws, cast themselves in range or hunger against the rafts. And the Mulgars, seeing their teeth, took good heed to couch themselves close in the midst of their rafts. The longer they stayed, the thicker grew the concourse of fish drawn together by the noise and smell of the travellers, until the cavern echoed with their restless fins and a kind of supping whisper, as if the fish had speech. So the Mulgars pushed off again, laying about them with their poles to scare the bolder monsters off as they gilded softly into the sluggish current, until the channel narrowed again, and their speed freshened.
On and on they drifted. On and on the shimmering walls floated past them, now near, now distant. They lost all time. Some said night must be gone; some said nay, night must have come again; and to some it seemed like an evil dream, this drifting, without beginning or end. When sleep began to hang heavily on Thumb's eyelids, he bade Nod lie down and take his fill of it first, while he himself kept watch. Nod very gladly lay down as comfortably as he could on the rough and narrow raft, and Thumb for safety tied him close with a strand of Cullum. He dreamed a hundred dreams, rocked softly on the sliding raft, all of burning sunshine, or wild white moonlight, or of icy and dazzling Witzaweelwūlla; but the Water-midden's beauty haunted all.
He woke into almost pitch-black gloom, and, starting up, could count only four torches staining the unrippling water with their flare. And, being very thirsty, he stooped over with hollowed hand, as if to drink.
"No, no," said Thumb drowsily; "not drink, Nod. Sleepy water—sleepy water. Moona-mulgars there, drunk and drunk; thirstier and thirstier, torches out—all dead asleep—all dead asleep."
"But my tongue's crackling dry, Thumb. Drink I must, Thumb."
"Nutshells," said Thumb—"suck nutshells, suck them."
Nod took out the last few nuts he had. And in the faint glowing of the distant torches he could see Thumb's great broad-nosed face turned hungrily towards them.
"How many nuts left have you, my brother?" Nod said.
Thumb tapped his stomach. "Safe, safe all," he said. "Nod slept on and on."
"Why did you not wake me, Thumb? Lie down now. I am not hungry, only a little thirsty. Have these few crackle-shells before you sleep, old Thumb." He gave Thumb nine out of his thirteen nuts, and partly because he was ravenously hungry, partly because their oiliness a little assuaged his thirst, Thumb crunched them up hastily, shells and all. Then he lay down on the raft, and Nod tied his great body on as safely as he could.
There seemed to be some tribe of creatures dwelling in this darkness. For Thumb had but a little while lain down, when the stream bore the rafts along a smoother wall of rock, which rose, as it were, to a ledge or shelf; and all along this rocky shelf Nod could see dim, rounded holes, of a breadth to take with ease the body of a Mullabruk or Manquabee. He fancied even he saw here and there shadowy figures stooping out. And now and then in the hush he heard a flappity rustle, as of some hairy creature scampering quickly along the ledge on four naked feet. But he called and called in vain. No answer followed, except a feeble hail from Thimble's raft far ahead, with its torches feebly twinkling.
Only three of the nine rafts now showed lights, and the last of these had drifted in, and become entangled in some jutting rock or in the long, leathery weed that hung like lichen-coloured grass along the sides of the cavern. As Nod drew slowly near, he saw that on this raft both its Mulgars lay flat on their faces, lost in their second sleep from drinking of the water. He pushed hard at his long pole, and, leaning over, caught their strand of trailing Samarak, and hauled the raft safely into mid-stream again. He stirred and pommelled the Mulgars with his pole. But they made no sign of feeling, except that their mouths fell a little ajar. Then he lit the last but one of his own torches by the failing flame of theirs. But it hovered sullen and blue. The air was thick. Each breath he took was heavy as a sigh. He was shrunk very meagre with travel, and his little breathing bosom was nothing but a slender cage of bones above his heart. He crouched down in the whispering solitude. His lips were cracked, his tongue like tinder. He mumbled his shells in vain between his teeth. But from first sleep to the second sleep is but a little journey, and thence to the last the way runs all downhill.
He chafed his eyes, he clenched his teeth, he crooned wheezily all the songs Battle had taught him. And now once more the cavern opened into a wide and still lagoon, over whose grey floor phantom lights moved cloudily before the advancing rafts. Its roof wanly blazed with crystals. And there was no doubt now of Mulgar inhabitants. They sat unmoved upon their rocky ledges and parapets, with puffed-out, furry bodies and immense round, lustrous eyes, with which they steadily surveyed the worn and matted Mulgars, some stretched in stupid slumber, some fevered and famished, with burning eyes, drifting slowly past their glistening grottoes. But none so much as stirred a finger or paid any heed to the Mulgars' entreaties for food. Only their long ears, which peaked well out of their wool, twitched and nodded, as if their ducketings were a kind of secret language between them.
Nod's raft swam last across this weed-mantled lagoon amid the moving light-wisps. He called with swollen tongue: "O ubjar moose soofree! ubjar, ubjar, moose soofree!" But there came no answer, not the least stir in the creatures; only the owl-eyes stared steadily on. He lifted himself on trembling legs, and called: "Walla, walla!"
These Arakkaboans only gloated on him, and slowly turned their round heads, still twitching their ears at one another, as if in some strange talk.
And Nod fell into a Munza rage at sight of them. He danced and gibbered, and at last caught up his long water-pole, as if to strike at them; but it was too heavy for him after his long thirst; he over-balanced, threw out the pole, and fell headlong on to the raft. Thumb muttered in his sleep, wagging his head. And with parched lips, so close to that faint-smelling water, Nod could bear his thirst no longer. He leaned over, cupped his hands, and sucked in one, two, three delicious mouthfuls. Water, cavern, staring Arakkaboans, seemed to float away into the distance, as in a dream. And in a little while, with head lolling at Thumb's feet, he lay faintly snoring beside his brother.
Out of the heaviness of that long sleep Nod opened his eyes, to find Thumb's great body stooping over him with anxious face, shaking and pommelling him, and muttering harshly: "Wake, wake, Nugget of clay! Wake, Mulla-slugga! The Valleys! The Valleys, little Ummanodda! Taste, taste! Ummuz, ummuz, ummuz!"
Something sweeter than honey, something that at one taste wakened in memory Mutta, and Seelem, and the little Portingal's hut, and Glint's towering Ukka-tree, and all his childhood, was pushed between his teeth. Nod sneezed three times, struggled, and sat up.
For a moment the light blinded him. Then at last he saw all among a long low stretch of rushes, in still, green water, between the rafts, a picture of the sky. A crescent moon hung like a shell in the pale green quiet of daybreak. He scrambled to his feet, still gnawing his Ummuz-cane. He saw Thimble mumbling like a hungry dog over his food, and the lean shapes of the Moona-mulgars shuffling to and fro. On one side rose the forests of the northern slopes of Arakkaboa. A warm, sweet wind was moving with daybreak, and only on the heights next the green of the sky shone Tishnar's unchanging snows. Flowers bloomed everywhere around him, not vanishing flowers of magic now. And as far as his round eyes could see, golden with Ummuz and Immamoosa, and silver with dreaming waters, stretched the long-sought, lovely Valleys of Tishnar. This, then, was the Mulgars' journey's end!
Nod flung himself down in the long grasses, and cried as if his heart would break. And still with his oozy stick of Ummuz clutched between his fingers, he fell asleep.
But soon came Ghibba to waken him. Thumb and Thimble and all the Moona-mulgars were squatting together round a little fire they had kindled beneath an enormous tree by the water-side. Bees, that might, indeed, be honey-makers from Assasimmon's hives, were droning in the tree-blossoms overhead, and tiny Tominiscoes flitting among the branches. It was a wonder, indeed, that birds should draw near such scarecrow travellers. More like the Nōōmad of Jack-Alls they sat than honest Mulgars; some toasting the last paring of their beloved cheese to eat with their Nanoes, some with stones pounding Ummuz, some at their scratching and combing, and one or two worn out, bonily sprawling in the comfort of the sunbeams streaming upon them now from far across Arakkaboa.
Beneath them lay the shallows of the green lagoon in the morning. But near at hand rose up a gigantic grove of Ollacondas into the windless sky, so that beyond these the travellers could see nothing of the farther country.
When they had eaten and drunk, and were well rested, Thumb and Nod, taking again cudgels in their hands, started off towards the hills that rose above the cavern, of purpose, if need be, to climb into the higher branches of some tree, from which they might descry, perhaps, what lay on the other side of this great grove.
Through the thick dews they stumped along together, their eyes roving this way and that, in wonder and curiosity of their way. And in a while they had climbed up through the thick undergrowth on to a wide green ledge, on which were playing and scampering in the fresh shadows a host of a kind of Weddervols, but smaller and furrier than those of Munza. And now they could see beneath them the huge arch through which their rafts had floated out while they lay snoring.
White flocks of long-legged water-birds were preening their wings in the shadows, in which rock and boughs and farthest snow stood glassed. There the two Mulgars stood, ragged and worn, snuffing the sweet air, while a faint surge of singing rose from the forests above their heads.
"It is a big nest Tishnar's water-birds build," said Nod suddenly.
Thumb's great head turned on his stooping shoulders, and, with mouth ajar, he stared long and closely at what seemed to be a heap of tangled boughs washed up in the water far beneath them.
"No nest, Ummanodda," he said at last; "it is some Mulgar's tree-roost fallen into the water. Its leaves are dry, and the feet of that long-legs stand deep in Spider-flower."
"To my eyes," said Nod slowly, "it looks to me, Thumb, just like such another as one of our water-rafts."
"Wait here a little while, Nizza-neela," grunted Thumb suddenly; "I go down to look for eggs."
Nod watched his brother pushing his way down through the sedge and trailing Samarak. "Eggs," he whispered—"eggs!" and broke out into his little yapping laughter, though he knew not why he laughed.
Up, up, on sounding wings flew a bird as white as snow from its lodging as Thumb drew near. And there he was, stooping, paddling, pushing with his cudgel, and peering into the tangle at the water-side.
Nod turned his head, filled with a sudden weariness and loneliness. And in the silence of the beautiful mountains he fell sad, and a little afraid, as do even travellers resting awhile in the journey that has no end.
Out of his Mulgar dreams he was startled by a sudden, sharp, short Mulgar bark from far beneath, that might be fear or might be sudden gladness.
And, in a moment, Thumb, having cast down his cudgel, and with something clutched in his great hand, was swinging and scrambling back through the thick, flowery undergrowth of the hillside by the way he had come.
Nod watched him, with head thrust forward and side-long, and at last he drew near, sweating and coughing.
"Sōōtli, sōōtli!" he muttered. "Magic, magic!" and held out in the sunlight an old red, rotted gun.
Rusty, choked with earth, its butt smashed, its lock long gone, the two Mulgars stood with the gun between them.
"Oomgar's gun, Thumb?—Oomgar's?" grunted Nod at last.
Thumb opened wide his mouth, still panting and trembling.
"Noos unga unka, Portingal, Ummanodda. Seelem arggutchkin! Seelem! kara, kara! Seelem mugleer!"
And even as that last Seelem was uttered, and back to Nod's mind came that morning leagues, leagues away, and himself sitting on his father's shoulder, clutching the long cold barrel of the little Portingal's gun—even at that moment a faint halloo came echoing across the steeps, and, turning, the Mulla-mulgars saw climbing towards them between the trees Thimble and Ghibba. But not only these. For between them walked on high in a high, hairy cup, with a band of woven scarlet about his loins, and a basket of honeycombs over his shoulder, a Mulgar of a presence and a strangeness, who was without doubt of the Kingdom of Assasimmon.