Chapter four

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Chapter four BaptismAphrasöe was Paradise. There seems to me now no other way of describing that city. Many times I wondered if in very truth I was dead and this was Heaven. So many impressions, so many wonderful insights, so much beauty. Downriver wide acres of gardens and orchards, dairy farms and open ranges, provided an abundance of plenty. Everywhere glowed color and brilliance and lightness, and yet there were many cool places of repose and rest and meditation. The people of Aphrasöe were uniformly kind and considerate, laughing and merry, gentle and compassionate, filled with all the noble sentiments so much talked about on our old Earth and so much ignored in everyday life. Naturally, I looked for the canker in the bud, the dark secret truth of these people that would reveal them to be a sham, a city of hypocrites. I looked for compulsions I suspected and could never find. In all honest sober truth I believe that if Paradise ever existed among mortal men it is to be found in the City of the Savanti, Aphrasöe on the planet Kregen beneath the crimson and emerald suns of Antares. In all the wonders that each day opened out to me one of the greatest came on that very first day when Maspero led me into the city growing from the lake. We left the galley and stepped down onto a granite dock festooned with flowers. Many people thronged here, laughing and chattering, and as we passed toward a tall domed archway they called out happily: “Lahal, Maspero! Lahal, Dray Prescot!” And I understood what Lahal meant — a word of greeting, a word of comradeship. And, too, as the language pill dissolved within me and its genetic components drifted into place within my brain, I understood that the word “Llahal” — pronounced in the Welsh way — was a word of greeting given by strangers, a word of more formal politeness. Stretching my lips, which are of the forbidding cut of habitual sternness, into the unfamiliar rictus of a smile, I lifted my arm and returned the greetings. “Lahal,” I said as I followed Maspero. The entranceway led into the interior of one of the enormous trunks. Having left the Earth in the year of Trafalgar, I was not prepared for the room in which I now found myself to rise swiftly upward, pressing my feet against the floor and bending my knees. Maspero chuckled. “Swallow a couple of times, Dray.” My ears performed the usual antics as the Eustachian tubes cleared. It is unnecessary now to describe lifts or elevators, save to say that to me they were another wonder of the city. During my stay in Aphrasöe I found myself, against my will as the days passed, continually searching for that flaw in the gem, that canker in the bud, that worm in the heart, that I suspected and that I dreaded to find. Then, I knew that ways of compulsion existed that I understood and had used. The press gangs would dump their unsavory human freight at the receiving ships, and from the slopships they would come aboard, miserable, seasick, scared, angry. The cat would tame them and discipline them along with Billy Pitt’s Quota Men. The discipline was open and understood, a stark fact of life, given the circumstances a necessary evil. Here I suspected forces that worked in darkness away from the sight of honest men. Subsequently I have seen and studied many systems of control. On Kregen I have encountered disciplines and methods of enforcing order that make all the notorious brainwashing indoctrinations of Earth’s political empires seem as the strictures of a gray-headed mistress at a girls’ school. If any brainwashing system or any other method of indoctrination and compulsion existed in Aphrasöe I was not then, and never since as my knowledge has expanded, aware of any secret controls. When the elevator stopped and the door opened by itself I jumped. I knew nothing of selenium cells and solenoids and their application to self-opening doors. It now sounds droll that among the vagaries of my memory I knew that there existed a thing — whether substance, liquid, fluid or what I knew not and nor did anyone else — called vis electrica, named by the English physician Gilbert, obtaining his derivation from the Greek word for amber — electron; and that also I knew that Hauksbee had produced sparks. I had heard of the men Volta and Galvani and their work had excited me — and then the thoughts of making a frog’s leg twitch abruptly reminded me of that froggy thought I had had on my leaf boat as that damned great scorpion had sat staring at me with his eyes going up and down, up and down, rather like the elevators within the tree trunks. I stepped out into fresh scented air. All about me stretched the city. The city! Such a sight no man could see and possibly forget. At this height the lake revealed its almost circular shape, cut into by the many tall trunks — I found myself calling them tree trunks; but they were surely of an incredibly more ancient order of vegetable life than trees. From their tops the massed bunches of tendrils drooped. I admit to a shaming thought then, for the appearance of these dangling lines was faintly similar to those of a cat-o’-nine-tails as it lifts in the fist of the bosun’s mate at the gratings. In the railing of the platform before us a gateway led out onto thin air. Maspero started forward confidently. He touched one of a number of colored buttons set in a small desk with, inscribed above it, the name Aisle South. Ten. A platform large enough to accommodate four people within an encircling railing flew toward us through the air and notched itself against the opening in the platform on which we stood. It had come swinging up toward us. I noticed a line extending from a cradle in the center of the aerial platform leading aloft — and guessed at once that this line was really a tendril of the great plants. Maspero politely motioned me aboard. I stepped on and felt the resilience as the line took my weight. Maspero jumped on, released the locking device and at once we swung out and down and gained a tremendous acceleration like a child on the downward arc seated in a playground’s swing. We swung through the air, the line arcing under the wind-pressure above us, flying between the tall trunks and their bulbous houses, and as we swung so I saw many other people swinging past in all directions. Maspero had sat down so that his head was below the transparent windshield and he could speak to me. I stood, letting the wind hurtle past my ears and stream my hair out behind me like a mane. He explained that a central system prevented tangling; it was complicated but they had machines capable of the task. Computers were unknown — except in their most basic ancient forms — to sailing ship officers. The experience of standing on that platform and swinging dizzily through the air was one of the greatest liberating moments of my life. We curved up in a great graceful arc and docked ourselves against another high platform. At perigee we had skimmed the surface of the lake. We transferred to another platform. This time Maspero had to manipulate the translucent vane, rather like a vertical bird’s-tail, that trailed away from the line above our heads. He corrected our course so that we passed in a flash another flying platform. I heard a delighted shriek of girlish laughter as we hurtled by. “They will play their pranks,” Maspero sighed. “She well knew I would give way, the minx.” “Isn’t it dangerous?” was my foolish question. We swooped down on our line, swinging grandly toward the lake, and then up and up we climbed dizzily until once again we notched into a platform around a trunk. Here other people were climbing aboard platforms, pushing off to swoop down like playful children. We covered perhaps a mile in this fashion, and all without a single error or tangle. There was a pattern observable in the line of swinging so that right-angle confrontations were obviated. I could have gone on swinging all day. Swingers, the flying platforms were called, and Aphrasöe was often referred to as The Swinging City. On one high railed platform a party waited for our swinger and one of them, after the greeting: “Lahal, Maspero,” and a quiet, polite word to me, said: “Three graints came through Loti’s Pass yesterday. Will you be there?” “Alas, no. I have matters to attend to. But soon— soon—” The party boarded the swinger and then for the first time I heard the words of farewell that came to mean so much to me. “Happy Swinging, Maspero,” called his friend. “Happy Swinging,” replied Maspero, with a smile and a wave. Happy Swinging. How right those words are to express the delight and joy in life in The Swinging City! Among the many people swinging from place to place I saw youngsters sitting astride a simple bar, holding in one hand the downward-pointing handle of their guiding vane and with the other waving to everyone they passed as they twisted and turned. It looked so free, so fine, so much a part of the air and the wind, this rushing arcing swinging that I yearned to try my skill. “We have to sort out the tangles they make from time to time,” said Maspero. “But although we age but slowly, age we do. We are not immortals.” When we reached our destination Maspero ushered me into his house fashioned from a gigantic bulbous swelling. It must have been five hundred feet from the lake. Up the center went the trunk containing its elevator, and around it extended a ring of rooms with wide windows overlooking the city and the plants and the lake glinting through the traceries of trunks and swingers. The place was furnished with impeccable taste and luxury. For a man whose ideas of comfort had been formed by moving from the lower deck into the wardroom I gasped. Maspero made me at home very kindly. There was much to be learned. During the days that followed I learned of this planet Kregen, and dimly sensed the mission the Savanti had set themselves. Put into simple terms I could grasp it was their task to civilize this world but coercion could not be used, it must be done by precept and example, and there were very few of them. They recruited — as far as I could understand — from other worlds of which they seemed to know, to my great surprise, and I was a candidate. I wanted no other future. The Savanti possessed a driving obligation to help all humanity — they still do — but they needed help to fulfill this self-imposed task. Only certain people would be capable and it was hoped I would be one of them. I find it painfully difficult to detail all the wonderful events of my life in Aphrasöe, The Swinging City, the City of the Savanti. I met many delightful people and was absorbed into their life and culture. On excursions I saw the extent of their cut-off little world within that giant crater. Here they were fashioning the instrument that would bring a similar level of happiness and comfort to all the world. I saw their papermills and watched as the pulp gradually changed through their whining spinning machinery into smooth velvety paper, beautiful stock, fit to commemorate the loftiest words in the language. But there was a mystery attached to their paper manufacture. I gathered that on certain times during the year they dispatched caravans of paper which would find its way all over Kregen. But the paper was blank, virginal, waiting to be written on. I sensed the secret here; but could not fathom it. Very soon I was told to prepare for the baptism. I use the English word as the nearest equivalent to the Kregish, intending no blasphemy. Very early we set out, Maspero, four other tutors whom I now knew and liked, and their four candidates. We took a galley which pulled steadily up the other river, not the Aph but the Zelph. The oarsmen laughed and joked as their brawny arms pulled. I had discussed slavery with Maspero and found in him the same deep hatred of that ignoble institution as burned in me. Among the oarsmen I recognized the man who had asked Maspero if he were hunting the graint. I had myself taken my turn at the oars, feeling the muscles across my back slipping into familiar power lines as I pulled. Slavery was one of the institutions of Kregen that the Savanti must needs change if they were to fulfill their mission. We pulled as far up the River Zelph as we could and then transferred to a longboat pulled by all of us in turn. I had seen no old men or women, no sick or crippled, in Aphrasöe, and everyone took a cheerful hand at the most menial of tasks. The galley turned back, with the girls at the tiller waving until we were out of sight between craggy gray walls. The water rushed past. It was of a deep plum color, quite unlike that of its sister river Aph. The ten of us pulled against the current. We then went through rapids, portering the boat, and pressed on. Maspero and the other tutors held instruments that revealed themselves to be of potent power. A giant spider-like beast leaped from a rock to bar our way. I stared rigidly at it — and Maspero calmly leveled his weapon; a silvery light issued from the muzzle that quietened the monster until we were past. It clicked its jaws at us, its great eyes blank and hostile; but it could not move. I do not think even the science of Earth can yet reproduce that peaceful victory over brute force. One of the candidates was a girl, of a clear cast of feature with long dark hair, not unprepossessing but in no way a great beauty. We pushed on, passing many horrific dangers that were quelled by the silvery fire of the tutors. At last we reached a natural amphitheater in the rock where the river plunged down in a cataract that was a miserable imitation of the one over which I had plunged on the Aph; but which was nevertheless of considerable size. Here we entered a cave. This was the first underground place I had been on Kregen. The light streamed in with its usual warm pink glow; but it gradually faded as we advanced and that pinkness was slowly replaced by an effulgent blueness — a blueness that reminded me vividly of the blue fires that had limned my impression of the Scorpion as I had stared upward from the African jungle. We gathered at the brink of what seemed a simple pool in the rocky floor of the cave. The water stirred gently, like heating milk, and wisps of vapor arose from its surface. The solemnness of the occasion impressed me. A flight of stairs was cut leading down into the pool. Maspero took me to one side, politely allowing the others to go first. The candidates, one after the other, removed their clothes. Then, with uplifted faces and firm tread, we all walked down the steps into the water. I felt the warmness enclosing me and a sensation like a warm mouth kissing me all over, a sensation like a billion tiny needles pricking my skin, a sensation that penetrated to the inmost fibers of what I was, myself, unique and isolate. I walked down the rocky steps until my head sank beneath the surface. A great body moved in the milky fluid before me. When I could hold my breath no longer I returned up the steps. I am a good swimmer — some have said I must have been spawned from a mermaid (and when he got up with a black eye and apologized, for I admit of no reflection upon my father and mother, I had to admit he meant nothing ill; that in truth what he said could be proved by the facts of my swimming ability). Now I can see they were joking; but in my young days jokes and I were rough bedfellows. I was the last out. I saw the three young men and they seemed to me strong and healthy and fine-looking. The girl — surely she was not the same girl who had walked with us into the pool? For now she was a resplendent creature, firm of body, with bright eyes and laughing face and red lips ripe for the kissing. She saw me and laughed and then her face changed expression and even Maspero said: “By the Great Savant Himself! Dray Prescot — you must be of the chosen!” I must admit I felt in better health than I could ever remember. My muscles felt toned up and limber; I could have run ten miles, I could have lifted a ton weight, I could have gone without sleep for a week. Maspero laughed again and handed me my clothes and clapped me on the back. “Welcome, again, Dray Prescot! Lahal and Lahal!” He chuckled, and then, casually, said: “When you have lived for a thousand years you may return here to be baptized again.”
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