The Chessmen of Mars (Barsoom #5)

Page 2

“Your ancient history has doubtless told you that Gathol was built upon an island in Throxeus, mightiest of the five oceans of old Barsoom. As the ocean receded Gathol crept down the sides of the mountain, the summit of which was the island upon which she had been built, until today she covers the slopes from summit to base, while the bowels of the great hill are honeycombed with the galleries of her mines. Entirely surrounding us is a great salt marsh, which protects us from invasion by land, while the rugged and ofttimes vertical topography of our mountain renders the landing of hostile airships a precarious undertaking.”

“That, and your brave warriors?” suggested the girl.

Gahan smiled. “We do not speak of that except to enemies,” he said, “and then with tongues of steel rather than of flesh.”

“But what practice in the art of war has a people which nature has thus protected from attack?” asked Tara of Helium, who had liked the young jed’s answer to her previous question, but yet in whose mind persisted a vague conviction of the possible effeminacy of her companion, induced, doubtless, by the magnificence of his trappings and weapons which carried a suggestion of splendid show rather than grim utility.

“Our natural barriers, while they have doubtless saved us from defeat on countless occasions, have not by any means rendered us immune from attack,” he explained, “for so great is the wealth of Gathol’s diamond treasury that there yet may be found those who will risk almost certain defeat in an effort to loot our unconquered city; so thus we find occasional practice in the exercise of arms; but there is more to Gathol than the mountain city. My country extends from Polodona (Equator) north ten karads and from the tenth karad west of Horz to the twentieth west, including thus a million square haads, the greater proportion of which is fine grazing land where run our great herds of thoats and zitidars.

“Surrounded as we are by predatory enemies our herdsmen must indeed be warriors or we should have no herds, and you may be assured they get plenty of fighting. Then there is our constant need of workers in the mines. The Gatholians consider themselves a race of warriors and as such prefer not to labor in the mines. The law is, however, that each male Gatholian shall give an hour a day in labor to the government. That is practically the only tax that is levied upon them. They prefer however, to furnish a substitute to perform this labor, and as our own people will not hire out for labor in the mines it has been necessary to obtain slaves, and I do not need to tell you that slaves are not won without fighting. We sell these slaves in the public market, the proceeds going, half and half, to the government and the warriors who bring them in. The purchasers are credited with the amount of labor performed by their particular slaves. At the end of a year a good slave will have performed the labor tax of his master for six years, and if slaves are plentiful he is freed and permitted to return to his own people.”

“You fight in platinum and diamonds?” asked Tara, indicating his gorgeous trappings with a quizzical smile.

Gahan laughed. “We are a vain people,” he admitted, good-naturedly, “and it is possible that we place too much value on personal appearances. We vie with one another in the splendor of our accoutrements when trapped for the observance of the lighter duties of life, though when we take the field our leather is the plainest I ever have seen worn by fighting men of Barsoom. We pride ourselves, too, upon our physical beauty, and especially upon the beauty of our women. May I dare to say, Tara of Helium, that I am hoping for the day when you will visit Gathol that my people may see one who is really beautiful?”

“The women of Helium are taught to frown with displeasure upon the tongue of the flatterer,” rejoined the girl, but Gahan, Jed of Gathol, observed that she smiled as she said it.

A bugle sounded, clear and sweet, above the laughter and the talk. “The Dance of Barsoom!” exclaimed the young warrior. “I claim you for it, Tara of Helium.”

The girl glanced in the direction of the bench where she had last seen Djor Kantos. He was not in sight. She inclined her head in assent to the claim of the Gatholian. Slaves were passing among the guests, distributing small musical instruments of a single string. Upon each instrument were characters which indicated the pitch and length of its tone. The instruments were of skeel, the string of gut, and were shaped to fit the left forearm of the dancer, to which it was strapped. There was also a ring wound with gut which was worn between the first and second joints of the index finger of the right hand and which, when passed over the string of the instrument, elicited the single note required of the dancer.

The guests had risen and were slowly making their way toward the expanse of scarlet sward at the south end of the gardens where the dance was to be held, when Djor Kantos came hurriedly toward Tara of Helium. “I claim—” he exclaimed as he neared her; but she interrupted him with a gesture.

“You are too late, Djor Kantos,” she cried in mock anger. “No laggard may claim Tara of Helium; but haste now lest thou lose also Olvia Marthis, whom I have never seen wait long to be claimed for this or any other dance.”

“I have already lost her,” admitted Djor Kantos ruefully.

“And you mean to say that you came for Tara of Helium only after having lost Olvia Marthis?” demanded the girl, still simulating displeasure.

“Oh, Tara of Helium, you know better than that,” insisted the young man. “Was it not natural that I should assume that you would expect me, who alone has claimed you for the Dance of Barsoom for at least twelve times past?”

“And sit and play with my thumbs until you saw fit to come for me?” she questioned. “Ah, no, Djor Kantos; Tara of Helium is for no laggard,” and she threw him a sweet smile and passed on toward the assembling dancers with Gahan, Jed of far Gathol.

The Dance of Barsoom bears a relation similar to the more formal dancing functions of Mars that The Grand March does to ours, though it is infinitely more intricate and more beautiful. Before a Martian youth of either sex may attend an important social function where there is dancing, he must have become proficient in at least three dances—The Dance of Barsoom, his national dance, and the dance of his city. In these three dances the dancers furnish their own music, which never varies; nor do the steps or figures vary, having been handed down from time immemorial. All Barsoomian dances are stately and beautiful, but The Dance of Barsoom is a wondrous epic of motion and harmony—there is no grotesque posturing, no vulgar or suggestive movements. It has been described as the interpretation of the highest ideals of a world that aspired to grace and beauty and chastity in woman, and strength and dignity and loyalty in man.

Today, John Carter, Warlord of Mars, with Dejah Thoris, his mate, led in the dancing, and if there was another couple that vied with them in possession of the silent admiration of the guests it was the resplendent Jed of Gathol and his beautiful partner. In the ever-changing figures of the dance the man found himself now with the girl’s hand in his and again with an arm about the lithe body that the jeweled harness but inadequately covered, and the girl, though she had danced a thousand dances in the past, realized for the first time the personal contact of a man’s arm against her naked flesh. It troubled her that she should notice it, and she looked up questioningly and almost with displeasure at the man as though it was his fault. Their eyes met and she saw in his that which she had never seen in the eyes of Djor Kantos. It was at the very end of the dance and they both stopped suddenly with the music and stood there looking straight into each other’s eyes. It was Gahan of Gathol who spoke first.

“Tara of Helium, I love you!” he said.

The girl drew herself to her full height. “The Jed of Gathol forgets himself,” she exclaimed haughtily.

“The Jed of Gathol would forget everything but you, Tara of Helium,” he replied. Fiercely he pressed the soft hand that he still retained from the last position of the dance. “I love you, Tara of Helium,” he repeated. “Why should your ears refuse to hear what your eyes but just now did not refuse to see—and answer?”

“What meanest thou?” she cried. “Are the men of Gathol such boors, then?”

“They are neither boors nor fools,” he replied, quietly. “They know when they love a woman—and when she loves them.”

Tara of Helium stamped her little foot in anger. “Go!” she said, “before it is necessary to acquaint my father with the dishonor of his guest.”

She turned and walked away. “Wait!” cried the man. “Just another word.”

“Of apology?” she asked.

“Of prophecy,” he said.

“I do not care to hear it,” replied Tara of Helium, and left him standing there. She was strangely unstrung and shortly thereafter returned to her own quarter of the palace, where she stood for a long time by a window looking out beyond the scarlet tower of Greater Helium toward the northwest.

Presently she turned angrily away. “I hate him!” she exclaimed aloud.

“Whom?” inquired the privileged Uthia.

Tara of Helium stamped her foot. “That ill-mannered boor, the Jed of Gathol,” she replied.

Uthia raised her slim brows.

At the stamping of the little foot, a great beast rose from the corner of the room and crossed to Tara of Helium where it stood looking up into her face. She placed her hand upon the ugly head. “Dear old Woola,” she said; “no love could be deeper than yours, yet it never offends. Would that men might pattern themselves after you!”

 

CHAPTER II

AT THE GALE’S MERCY

Tara of Helium did not return to her father’s guests, but awaited in her own apartments the word from Djor Kantos which she knew must come, begging her to return to the gardens. She would then refuse, haughtily. But no appeal came from Djor Kantos. At first Tara of Helium was angry, then she was hurt, and always she was puzzled. She could not understand. Occasionally she thought of the Jed of Gathol and then she would stamp her foot, for she was very angry indeed with Gahan. The presumption of the man! He had insinuated that he read love for him in her eyes. Never had she been so insulted and humiliated. Never had she so thoroughly hated a man. Suddenly she turned toward Uthia.

“My flying leather!” she commanded.

“But the guests!” exclaimed the slave girl. “Your father, The Warlord, will expect you to return.”

“He will be disappointed,” snapped Tara of Helium.

The slave hesitated. “He does not approve of your flying alone,” she reminded her mistress.

The young princess sprang to her feet and seized the unhappy slave by the shoulders, shaking her. “You are becoming unbearable, Uthia,” she cried. “Soon there will be no alternative than to send you to the public slave-market. Then possibly you will find a master to your liking.”

Tears came to the soft eyes of the slave girl. “It is because I love you, my princess,” she said softly. Tara of Helium melted. She took the slave in her arms and kissed her.

“I have the disposition of a thoat, Uthia,” she said. “Forgive me! I love you and there is nothing that I would not do for you and nothing would I do to harm you. Again, as I have so often in the past, I offer you your freedom.”

“I do not wish my freedom if it will separate me from you, Tara of Helium,” replied Uthia. “I am happy here with you—I think that I should die without you.”

Again the girls kissed. “And you will not fly alone, then?” questioned the slave.

Tara of Helium laughed and pinched her companion. “You persistent little pest,” she cried. “Of course I shall fly—does not Tara of Helium always do that which pleases her?”

Uthia shook her head sorrowfully. “Alas! she does,” she admitted. “Iron is the Warlord of Barsoom to the influences of all but two. In the hands of Dejah Thoris and Tara of Helium he is as potters’ clay.”

“Then run and fetch my flying leather like the sweet slave you are,” directed the mistress.

Far out across the ochre sea-bottoms beyond the twin cities of Helium raced the swift flier of Tara of Helium. Thrilling to the speed and the buoyancy and the obedience of the little craft the girl drove toward the northwest. Why she should choose that direction she did not pause to consider. Perhaps because in that direction lay the least known areas of Barsoom, and, ergo, Romance, Mystery, and Adventure. In that direction also lay far Gathol; but to that fact she gave no conscious thought.

She did, however, think occasionally of the jed of that distant kingdom, but the reaction to these thoughts was scarcely pleasurable. They still brought a flush of shame to her cheeks and a surge of angry blood to her heart. She was very angry with the Jed of Gathol, and though she should never see him again she was quite sure that hate of him would remain fresh in her memory forever. Mostly her thoughts revolved about another—Djor Kantos. And when she thought of him she thought also of Olvia Marthis of Hastor. Tara of Helium thought that she was jealous of the fair Olvia and it made her very angry to think that. She was angry with Djor Kantos and herself, but she was not angry at all with Olvia Marthis, whom she loved, and so of course she was not jealous really. The trouble was, that Tara of Helium had failed for once to have her own way. Djor Kantos had not come running like a willing slave when she had expected him, and, ah, here was the nub of the whole thing! Gahan, Jed of Gathol, a stranger, had been a witness to her humiliation. He had seen her unclaimed at the beginning of a great function and he had had to come to her rescue to save her, as he doubtless thought, from the inglorious fate of a wall-flower. At the recurring thought, Tara of Helium could feel her whole body burning with scarlet shame and then she went suddenly white and cold with rage; whereupon she turned her flier about so abruptly that she was all but torn from her lashings upon the flat, narrow deck. She reached home just before dark. The guests had departed. Quiet had descended upon the palace. An hour later she joined her father and mother at the evening meal.

“You deserted us, Tara of Helium,” said John Carter. “It is not what the guests of John Carter should expect.”

“They did not come to see me,” replied Tara of Helium. “I did not ask them.”

“They were no less your guests,” replied her father.