Dare I say it? Dare I say that I, a plain, prosaic lieutenant in the republican service have done the incredible things here set out for the love of a woman—for a chimera in female shape; for a pale, vapid ghost of woman-loveliness? At times I tell myself I dare not: that you will laugh, and cast me aside as a fabricator; and then again I pick up my pen and collect the scattered pages, for I MUST write it—the pallid splendour of that thing I loved, and won, and lost is ever before me, and will not be forgotten. The tumult of the struggle into which that vision led me still throbs in my mind, the soft, lisping voices of the planet I ransacked for its sake and the roar of the destruction which followed me back from the quest drowns all other sounds in my ears! I must and will write—it relieves me; read and believe as you list.
At the moment this story commences I was thinking of grilled steak and tomatoes—steak crisp and brown on both sides, and tomatoes red as a setting sun!
Much else though I have forgotten, THAT fact remains as clear as the last sight of a well-remembered shore in the mind of some wave-tossed traveller. And the occasion which produced that prosaic thought was a night well calculated to make one think of supper and fireside, though the one might be frugal and the other lonely, and as I, Gulliver Jones, the poor foresaid Navy lieutenant, with the honoured stars of our Republic on my collar, and an undeserved snub from those in authority rankling in my heart, picked my way homeward by a short cut through the dismalness of a New York slum I longed for steak and stout, slippers and a pipe, with all the pathetic keenness of a troubled soul.
It was a wild, black kind of night, and the weirdness of it showed up as I passed from light to light or crossed the mouths of dim alleys leading Heaven knows to what infernal dens of mystery and crime even in this latter-day city of ours. The moon was up as far as the church steeples; large vapoury clouds scudding across the sky between us and her, and a strong, gusty wind, laden with big raindrops snarled angrily round corners and sighed in the parapets like strange voices talking about things not of human interest.
It made no difference to me, of course. New York in this year of grace is not the place for the supernatural be the time never so fit for witch-riding and the night wind in the chimney-stacks sound never so much like the last gurgling cries of throttled men. No! the world was very matter-of-fact, and particularly so to me, a poor younger son with five dollars in my purse by way of fortune, a packet of unpaid bills in my breastpocket, and round my neck a locket with a portrait therein of that dear buxom, freckled, stub-nosed girl away in a little southern seaport town whom I thought I loved with a magnificent affection. Gods! I had not even touched the fringe of that affliction.
Thus sauntering along moodily, my chin on my chest and much too absorbed in reflection to have any nice appreciation of what was happening about me, I was crossing in front of a dilapidated block of houses, dating back nearly to the time of the Pilgrim Fathers, when I had a vague consciousness of something dark suddenly sweeping by me—a thing like a huge bat, or a solid shadow, if such a thing could be, and the next instant there was a thud and a bump, a bump again, a half-stifled cry, and then a hurried vision of some black carpeting that flapped and shook as though all the winds of Eblis were in its folds, and then apparently disgorged from its inmost recesses a little man.
Before my first start of half-amused surprise was over I saw him by the flickering lamp-light clutch at space as he tried to steady himself, stumble on the slippery curb, and the next moment go down on the back of his head with a most ugly thud.
Now I was not destitute of feeling, though it had been my lot to see men die in many ways, and I ran over to that motionless form without an idea that anything but an ordinary accident had occurred. There he lay, silent and, as it turned out afterwards, dead as a door-nail, the strangest old fellow ever eyes looked upon, dressed in shabby sorrel-coloured clothes of antique cut, with a long grey beard upon his chin, pent-roof eyebrows, and a wizened complexion so puckered and tanned by exposure to Heaven only knew what weathers that it was impossible to guess his nationality.
I lifted him up out of the puddle of black blood in which he was lying, and his head dropped back over my arm as though it had been fixed to his body with string alone. There was neither heart-beat nor breath in him, and the last flicker of life faded out of that gaunt face even as I watched. It was not altogether a pleasant situation, and the only thing to do appeared to be to get the dead man into proper care (though little good it could do him now!) as speedily as possible. So, sending a chance passer-by into the main street for a cab, I placed him into it as soon as it came, and there being nobody else to go, got in with him myself, telling the driver at the same time to take us to the nearest hospital.
“Is this your rug, captain?” asked a bystander just as we were driving off.
“Not mine,” I answered somewhat roughly. “You don’t suppose I go about at this time of night with Turkey carpets under my arm, do you? It belongs to this old chap here who has just dropped out of the skies on to his head; chuck it on top and shut the door!” And that rug, the very mainspring of the startling things which followed, was thus carelessly thrown on to the carriage, and off we went.
Well, to be brief, I handed in that stark old traveller from nowhere at the hospital, and as a matter of curiosity sat in the waiting-room while they examined him. In five minutes the house-surgeon on duty came in to see me, and with a shake of his head said briefly—
“Gone, sir—clean gone! Broke his neck like a pipe-stem. Most strange-looking man, and none of us can even guess at his age. Not a friend of yours, I suppose?”
“Nothing whatever to do with me, sir. He slipped on the pavement and fell in front of me just now, and as a matter of common charity I brought him in here. Were there any means of identification on him?”
“None whatever,” answered the doctor, taking out his notebook and, as a matter of form, writing down my name and address and a few brief particulars, “nothing whatever except this curious-looking bead hung round his neck by a blackened thong of leather,” and he handed me a thing about as big as a filbert nut with a loop for suspension and apparently of rock crystal, though so begrimed and dull its nature was difficult to speak of with certainty. The bead was of no seeming value and slipped unintentionally into my waistcoat pocket as I chatted for a few minutes more with the doctor, and then, shaking hands, I said goodbye, and went back to the cab which was still waiting outside.
It was only on reaching home I noticed the hospital porters had omitted to take the dead man’s carpet from the roof of the cab when they carried him in, and as the cabman did not care about driving back to the hospital with it, and it could not well be left in the street, I somewhat reluctantly carried it indoors with me.
Once in the shine of my own lamp and a cigar in my mouth I had a closer look at that ancient piece of art work from heaven, or the other place, only knows what ancient loom.
A big, strong rug of faded Oriental colouring, it covered half the floor of my sitting-room, the substance being of a material more like camel’s hair than anything else, and running across, when examined closely, were some dark fibres so long and fine that surely they must have come from the tail of Solomon’s favourite black stallion itself. But the strangest thing about that carpet was its pattern. It was threadbare enough to all conscience in places, yet the design still lived in solemn, age-wasted hues, and, as I dragged it to my stove-front and spread it out, it seemed to me that it was as much like a star map done by a scribe who had lately recovered from delirium tremens as anything else. In the centre appeared a round such as might be taken for the sun, while here and there, “in the field,” as heralds say, were lesser orbs which from their size and position could represent smaller worlds circling about it. Between these orbs were dotted lines and arrow-heads of the oldest form pointing in all directions, while all the intervening spaces were filled up with woven characters half-way in appearance between Runes and Cryptic-Sanskrit. Round the borders these characters ran into a wild maze, a perfect jungle of an alphabet through which none but a wizard could have forced a way in search of meaning.
Altogether, I thought as I kicked it out straight upon my floor, it was a strange and not unhandsome article of furniture—it would do nicely for the mess-room on the Carolina, and if any representatives of yonder poor old fellow turned up tomorrow, why, I would give them a couple of dollars for it. Little did I guess how dear it would be at any price!
Meanwhile that steak was late, and now that the temporary excitement of the evening was wearing off I fell dull again. What a dark, sodden world it was that frowned in on me as I moved over to the window and opened it for the benefit of the cool air, and how the wind howled about the roof tops. How lonely I was! What a fool I had been to ask for long leave and come ashore like this, to curry favour with a set of stubborn dunderheads who cared nothing for me—or Polly, and could not or would not understand how important it was to the best interests of the Service that I should get that promotion which alone would send me back to her an eligible wooer! What a fool I was not to have volunteered for some desperate service instead of wasting time like this! Then at least life would have been interesting; now it was dull as ditch-water, with wretched vistas of stagnant waiting between now and that joyful day when I could claim that dear, rosy-checked girl for my own. What a fool I had been!
“I wish, I wish,” I exclaimed, walking round the little room, “I wish I were—”
While these unfinished exclamations were actually passing my lips I chanced to cross that infernal mat, and it is no more startling than true, but at my word a quiver of expectation ran through that gaunt web—a rustle of anticipation filled its ancient fabric, and one frayed corner surged up, and as I passed off its surface in my stride, the sentence still unfinished on my lips, wrapped itself about my left leg with extraordinary swiftness and so effectively that I nearly fell into the arms of my landlady, who opened the door at the moment and came in with a tray and the steak and tomatoes mentioned more than once already.
It was the draught caused by the opening door, of course, that had made the dead man’s rug lift so strangely—what else could it have been? I made this apology to the good woman, and when she had set the table and closed the door took another turn or two about my den, continuing as I did so my angry thoughts.
“Yes, yes,” I said at last, returning to the stove and taking my stand, hands in pockets, in front of it, “anything were better than this, any enterprise however wild, any adventure however desperate. Oh, I wish I were anywhere but here, anywhere out of this redtape-ridden world of ours! I WISH I WERE IN THE PLANET MARS!”
How can I describe what followed those luckless words? Even as I spoke the magic carpet quivered responsively under my feet, and an undulation went all round the fringe as though a sudden wind were shaking it. It humped up in the middle so abruptly that I came down sitting with a shock that numbed me for the moment. It threw me on my back and billowed up round me as though I were in the trough of a stormy sea. Quicker than I can write it lapped a corner over and rolled me in its folds like a chrysalis in a cocoon. I gave a wild yell and made one frantic struggle, but it was too late. With the leathery strength of a giant and the swiftness of an accomplished cigar-roller covering a “core” with leaf, it swamped my efforts, straightened my limbs, rolled me over, lapped me in fold after fold till head and feet and everything were gone—crushed life and breath back into my innermost being, and then, with the last particle of consciousness, I felt myself lifted from the floor, pass once round the room, and finally shoot out, point foremost, into space through the open window, and go up and up and up with a sound of rending atmospheres that seemed to tear like riven silk in one prolonged shriek under my head, and to close up in thunder astern until my reeling senses could stand it no longer, and time and space and circumstances all lost their meaning to me.
Categories: English Literature