Chapter three

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Chapter three Aphrasöe — City of the SavantiStill munching those delicious cherries whose delights I had found and often savored higher up the river, I went back to my leaf boat. It was hard with the same kind of tough fibrous hardness the reeds had displayed when cut. But also it had a sinuous suppleness about it that stemmed from its leaf-construction. It would twist and squirm through the rapids, as I had found to my satisfaction. But would it withstand the battering it was bound to sustain? Would I, a mere mortal human, remain alive under such colossal punishment? To haul the boat back up the river against that smooth powerful current would be an enormous task. I could not stay here. I ate some of the meat left from the last animal I had brought down with a flung spear higher up the river. On both banks vast herds of various kinds of animals, many of them resembling cattle and deer, had roamed and I had pleasantly varied my diet between them and fish and the other vegetables and berries and cherries — but no animals roamed here. Thoughtfully I took out of the bottom of the leaf the flat stones I had used as ballast to give better stability. As I did this, as I bundled the spears in a lashing of split reed and secured them to the sides, I knew I had made the only decision fate or whatever other forces involved had decreed. The leaf boat would float upside-down, this I knew. I strapped myself in with split reeds, flat to the bottom, with the ten-feet long pole to hand. The boat rushed down the current. I knew when we took off and sprang out into thin air. The boat dipped. The air whistled from my lungs. My ears pained. I was aware of a floating sensation. Just when we hit I must have lost consciousness, for the next thing I remembered was of the boat upside-down, pitching and tossing and going in circles, and of myself hanging in my reed strappings above the greenish gloom of foaming water. It hurt to breathe and I wondered how many ribs I had fractured. But I must get out of the whirlpool. There was not even time to feel thankful I was still alive. Freeing myself was easy enough with a spear-blade. To right the boat took a little more time; but those broad shoulders of mine did the job and I tumbled in and seized a spear-paddle and, with a series of vigorous thrusts, pushed myself from the dangerous vicinity of the foot of the waterfall. In an instant I was floating free and being whirled away down the river once more. I breathed in deeply. The pain was not severe. Bruises only. Only a fool or a madman — or one beloved by the gods — would have dared do what I had done. I looked up at the sheer descending wall of water, at the powerful smooth descent and the foaming caldron where the water struck and bounced in a frothing frenzy, and I knew that luck or no luck, mad or not, beloved of the gods or the prey of the Scorpion, I had come through alive what few men could have survived. Now I could see what lay on the other side of the mountains. They extended in a chain all around the horizon, gradually diminishing in size as they trended in a circle until directly before me they were a mere purple thread on the horizon. But obstructing the view directly ahead was a — was a — even now it is difficult to adequately convey that first breathtaking sight of Aphrasöe, the City of the Savants. The rim wall of mountains formed a crater as vast as a crater on the moon and in the exact center the river flowed into a wide-spreading lake. Rising from the center of the lake grew tall reeds. But their reality dwarfs words. They were each of various thicknesses, ranging from newly-growing specimens of a yard in diameter to mature growths of twenty feet across; at intervals up their stems bulbous swellings grew like Chinese lanterns strung on cords. Up and up soared the reeds, and I was reminded of kelp with its bulges growing up underwater. From the gracefully arching tops of the reeds long filaments descended again, and I was soon to understand the use to which this multiplicity of lines was put. I have lived a long life and seen the marvelous steel and concrete towers of New York, have ascended the Eiffel Tower and London’s Post Office Tower, have explored the cliff hanging palaces of Inner Tibet; but in no other place in no other world have I found a city quite like Aphrasöe. The very air was scented as my leaf boat bore me on. From starboard another river wended across the plain pent between the circular crater walls and joined my river in a wide confluence some three miles from the city and the lake. The lake itself I judged to be five miles across, and the height of the vegetable towers — at that time I could only sit and stare upward, baffled. How could one call those serene vegetable giants reeds? From the clusters of filaments growing from their tops, down past the protuberances swelling from their stems, many of them the size of an Indian bungalow, many the size of a solid Georgian mansion in old England, right down to the massive girth of their trunks which vanished into the water, they were of themselves, independent, isolate, retaining their own essential nature despite anything that might occur around them. The nearer I approached, the bigger they became. Now I had to crane my head back to stare up at them, and could no longer see their tops for the froth of fronds depending. Those fronds were in perpetual motion, swinging in every direction. I wondered at this. A boat was approaching me up the river. Naked as I was, all I could do was smooth my drying hair back and lay hold of a spear, and wait. Like any sailorman I studied the craft approaching with a critical eye. She was a galley. Long silver-bladed oars rose and fell in a rhythm, feathering perfectly together, giving that short sharp chopping stroke that is the Navy way of driving a boat through water. That was needful in a seaway, where there were waves of consequence; within this landlocked water a longer stroke could have been used. I surmised that the rowing arrangements — to use a landsman’s phrase — precluded a long stroke and recovery. The bows were finely molded and high-raked, with much gilding and silver and gold work. She carried no masts. I waited in silence. Now I could hear, above the sounds of the oars and the bubble of water from her stem, shouted commands; the starboard bank backed water, the larboard continued to pull ahead, and the galley swung around smoothly. Another order was followed by the simultaneous lifting of the oars — how often had I given a similar command! — and the galley drifted gently broadside on as I swung down on the current. From this angle her lines were clearly apparent; long and low as was to be expected, with that high beak and with a high canopied quarterdeck and poop. People thronged her deck. Some of them were waving. I saw white arms and a multitude of colored clothing. There was even music, wafting gently on the breeze. Had I wanted to escape there was no escape possible. As I drifted down, a single oar lowered. My boat ran alongside. Still gripping my spear, I leaped out, onto the blade, and then ran lightly up the loom toward the gunwale. It was a stroke oar. I vaulted the rail to land on the quarterdeck. The canopy overhead rustled in the breeze. The deck was as white as any on a King’s Ship. The only person visible here was a man wearing a white tunic and duck trousers who advanced toward me with outstretched hand, smiling, eager. “Dray Prescot! We are glad to welcome you to Aphrasöe.” Numbly I shook hands. Above the quarterdeck the poop rose in a splendor of gilt and ornamentation. Up there would be the quartermasters at the tiller. I turned to look forward. I could see row after row of bronzed upturned faces, all smiling and laughing at me. Brawny arms stretched to the oars and muscles bunched as a girl — a girl! — nodded and beat lightly on a tambourine. In time with her gentle strokes the oars bit into the water and the galley smoothly gathered way. “You are surprised, Dray? But of course. Allow me to present myself. I am Maspero.” He gestured negligently. “We do not take much pride in titles in Aphrasöe; but I am often called the tutor. But you are thirsty, hungry? How remiss of me — please allow me to offer you some refreshment. If you will follow me—” He led off to the stern cabin and, dazed, I followed. That girl, with her corn-colored hair and laughing face, banging time with her tambourine — she had not taken the slightest notice of my nakedness. I followed Maspero and once more that sense of foreordained destiny encompassed me. He had known my name. He spoke English. Was I, then, in truth in the grip of a fevered dream, hanging near to death on a torture stake in the African jungle? The chafe in my wrists had all gone. There was nothing now to chain me to reality. A last look back over my shoulder at this amazing galley revealed that our prow now pointed at the city. We moved forward with a steady solid motion very strange to a sailor accustomed to the rolling and pitching of a frigate in the great waves of the ocean. A white dove flew down from the bright sky, circled the galley, and alighted on that upthrusting prow. I stared at the dove. I remembered that it had flown into my view many times since that first occasion; but the gorgeous scarlet and golden raptor had not returned. The people I had seen were now drifting back onto the deck and their clothes blazed brilliantly in the sunshine as they laughed and gossiped like merry folk at a fair. The man called Maspero nodded, smiling and genial. “We attempt always to respect the mores and behavior of the cultures invited to Aphrasöe. In your case we know that nakedness can cause embarrassment.” “I’m used to it,” I said. But I took from him the plain white shirt and duck trousers — although as my fingers closed on the material I realized I had never encountered it before. It was not cotton or linen. Now, of course, that Earthmen have discovered the use of artificial fibers for clothing, the garments or their like could be found in any chain store. But at the time I was a simple seaman used to heavy worsteds, coarse cottons, and the most elementary of scientific marvels could astonish me. Maspero wore a pair of light yellow satiny slippers. Most of my life — until I eased my way through the hawsehole — I had gone barefoot. Even then my square-toed shoes had been graced by cut-steel buckles, for I could not even afford pinchbeck. Gold buckles, of course, were waiting on the taking of a prize of real value. We walked through the aft cabin with its simple tasteful furniture constructed from some light wood like sandalwood and Maspero motioned me to a seat beneath the stern windows. Now it was possible to take stock of him. The first and immediately dominating impression was one of vivacity, of aliveness, alertness, and of an abiding sense of completeness that underlay all he did or said. He had very dark curly hair and was clean-shaven. My own thick brown hair was in not too conspicuous a disarray; but my beard was now reaching the silky stage and was not, I venture to think, too displeasing to the eye. Later on, when they were invented, the name torpedo would be given to that style of beard. Food was brought by a young girl clad in a charming if immodestly brief costume of leaf-green. There was fresh-baked bread in long rolls after the French fashion, and a silver bowl of fruit including, I was pleased to see, some of the yellow port-flavored cherries. I selected one and chewed with satisfaction. Maspero smiled and all the skin around his eyes crinkled up. “You have found our Kregish palines tasteful? They grow wild all over Kregen wherever the climate is suitable.” He looked at me quizzically. “You seem to be in a remarkable state of preservation.” I took another cherry — another paline, as I recognized I would have henceforth to call them. I did not understand quite what he meant by the last part of his sentence. “You see, Dray, there is much to tell you and much you must learn. However, by successfully reaching Aphrasöe, you have passed the first test.” “Test?” “Of course.” I could become angry now. I could lash out in fury at being wantonly dragged through dangers. There was a single redeeming feature in Maspero’s favor. Speaking slowly, I said: “When you brought me here did you know what I was doing, where I was, what was happening to me?” He shook his head and I was about to let my anger boil. “But we did not bring you, in that sense, Dray. Only by the free exercise of your will could you contrive the journey. Once you had done that, however, the voyage down the river was a very real test. As I said, I am surprised you look so well.” “I enjoyed the river,” I told him. His eyebrows rose. “But the monsters—” “The scorpion — I suppose he was a house pet of yours? — gave me a fright. But I doubt if he was really real.” “He was.” “Sink me!” I burst out. “Suppose I’d been killed!” Maspero laughed. My fists clenched despite the gracious surroundings and the goblet of wine and the food. “Had there been a chance of you losing your life you would not have been entered on the river, Dray. The River Aph is not to be trifled with.” I told Maspero of my circumstances when the red eye of Antares had fallen on me in the jungle of Africa and he nodded sympathetically. He began my education there and then, telling me many things about this planet called Kregen. Kregen. How the name fires my blood! How often I have longed to return to that world beneath the crimson and emerald suns! From an inlaid cabinet Maspero took a small golden box, much engraved, and from this box he lifted a transparent tube. Inside the tube nestled a number of round pills. I had never had much time for doctors; I had seen too much of their bungling work in the cockpit, and I steadfastly refused to be bled or leeched. “We of Aphrasöe are the Savanti, Dray. We are an old people and we revere what we consider to be the right ways of wisdom and truth, tempered with kindness and compassion. But we know we are not infallible. It may be you are not the man for us. We have many entrants seeking admittance; many are called but few are chosen.” He lifted the transparent tube. “On this world of Kregen there are many local languages, as is inevitable on any world where growth and expansion is taking place. But there is one language spoken by everyone and this you must know.” He extended the tube. “Open your mouth.” I did as he bid. Do not ask me what I thought, if perhaps the idea of poison did not cross my mind. I had been brought here, of my own free will — maybe — but all this effort, like the provision of the leaf boat, would scarcely be wasted the moment they had seen me. Or — might it? Might I not already have failed whatever schemes they had in mind for me? I swallowed down the pill Maspero dispensed. “Now, Dray, when the pill has dissolved and its genetic constituents habilitate themselves in your brain, you will have a complete understanding, both written and oral, of the chief language of Kregen. That tongue is called Kregish, for clearly it could bear no other name.” To me, a simple sailorman of the late eighteenth century, this was magic. I then knew nothing of the genetic code, and of DNA and the other nucleic acids, and of how imprinted with information they can be absorbed into the brain. I swallowed down the pill and accepted what new marvels there might lie in store. As to the business of a world having many languages, this was natural and anything else would have been a foolish dream. We on our Earth almost had a common language which might be spoken and understood from the farthest western shores of Ireland across to the eastern frontiers against the Turk. Latin was such a language; but that had vanished with the rise of nationalism and the vernacular. The galley rocked gently beneath us and Maspero jumped up. “We have docked!” he cried gaily. “Now you must see Aphrasöe, the City of the Savanti!”
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