A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS
It was by this time past three o'clock. Feeling hungry, for they had eaten nothing since early morning, Maskull went downstairs to forage, but without much hope of finding anything in the shape of food. In a safe in the kitchen he discovered a bag of mouldy oatmeal, which was untouchable, a quantity of quite good tea in an airtight caddy, and an unopened can of ox tongue. Best of all, in the dining- room cupboard he came across an uncorked bottle of first-class Scotch whisky. He at once made preparations for a scratch meal.
A pump in the yard ran clear after a good deal of hard working at it, and he washed out and filled the antique kettle. For firewood, one of the kitchen chairs was broken up with a chopper. The light, dusty wood made a good blaze in the grate, the kettle was boiled, and cups were procured and washed. Ten minutes later the friends were dining in the library.
Nightspore ate and drank little, but Maskull sat down with good appetite. There being no milk, whisky took the place of it; the nearly black tea was mixed with an equal quantity of the spirit. Of this concoction Maskull drank cup after cup, and long after the tongue had disappeared he was still imbibing.
Nightspore looked at him queerly. "Do you intend to finish the bottle before Krag comes?"
"Krag won't want any, and one must do something. I feel restless."
"Let us take a look at the country."
The cup, which was on its way to Maskull's lips, remained poised in the air. "Have you anything in view, Nightspore?"
"Let us walk out to the Gap of Sorgie."
"A showplace," answered Nightspore, biting his lip.
Maskull finished off the cup, and rose to his feet. "Walking is better than soaking at any time, and especially on a day like this.... How far is it?"
"Three or four miles each way."
"You probably mean something," said Maskull, "for I'm beginning to regard you as a second Krag. But if so, so much the better. I am growing nervous, and need incidents."
They left the house by the door, which they left ajar, and immediately found themselves again on the moorland road that had brought them from Haillar. This time they continued along it, past the tower.
Maskull, as they went by, regarded the erection with puzzled interest. "What is that tower, Nightspore?"
"We sail from the platform on the top."
"Tonight?" -- throwing him a quick look.
Maskull smiled, but his eyes were grave. "Then we are looking at the gateway of Arcturus, and Krag is now travelling north to unlock it."
"You no longer think it impossible, I fancy," mumbled Nightspore.
After a mile or two, the road parted from the sea coast and swerved sharply inland, across the hills. With Nightspore as guide, they left it and took to the grass. A faint sheep path marked the way along the cliff edge for some distance, but at the end of another mile it vanished. The two men then had some rough walking up and down hillsides and across deep gullies. The sun disappeared behind the hills, and twilight imperceptibly came on. They soon reached a spot where further progress appeared impossible. The buttress of a mountain descended at a steep angle to the very edge of the cliff, forming an impassable slope of slippery grass. Maskull halted, stroked his beard, and wondered what the next step was to be.
"There's a little scrambling here," said Nightspore. "We are both used to climbing, and there is not much in it."
He indicated a narrow ledge, winding along the face of the precipice a few yards beneath where they were standing. It averaged from fifteen to thirty inches in width. Without waiting for Maskull's consent to the undertaking, he instantly swung himself down and started walking along this ledge at a rapid pace. Maskull, seeing that there was no help for it, followed him. The shelf did not extend for above a quarter of a mile, but its passage was somewhat unnerving; there was a sheer drop to the sea, four hundred feet below. In a few places they had to sidle along without placing one foot before another. The sound of the breakers came up to them in a low, threatening roar.
Upon rounding a corner, the ledge broadened out into a fair-sized platform of rock and came to a sudden end. A narrow inlet of the sea separated them from the continuation of the cliffs beyond.
"As we can't get any further," said Maskull, "I presume this is your Gap of Sorgie?"
"Yes," answered his friend, first dropping on his knees and then lying at full length, face downward. He drew his head and shoulders over the edge and began to stare straight down at the water.
"What is there interesting down there, Nightspore?"
Receiving no reply, however, he followed his friend's example, and the next minute was looking for himself. Nothing was to be seen; the gloom had deepened, and the sea was nearly invisible. But, while he was ineffectually gazing, he heard what sounded like the beating of a drum on the narrow strip of shore below. It was very faint, but quite distinct. The beats were in four-four time, with the third beat slightly accented. He now continued to hear the noise all the time he was lying there. The beats were in no way drowned by the far louder sound of the surf, but seemed somehow to belong to a different world....
When they were on their feet again, he questioned Nightspore. "We came here solely to hear that?"
Nightspore cast one of his odd looks at him. "It's called locally 'The Drum Taps of Sorgie.' You will not hear that name again, but perhaps you will hear the sound again."
"And if I do, what will it imply?" demanded Maskull in amazement.
"It bears its own message. Only try always to hear it more and more distinctly.... Now it's growing dark, and we must get back."
Maskull pulled out his watch automatically, and looked at the time. It was past six.... But he was thinking of Nightspore's words, and not of the time.
Night had already fallen by the time they regained the tower. The black sky was glorious with liquid stars. Arcturus was a little way above the sea, directly opposite them, in the east. As they were passing the base of the tower, Maskull observed with a sudden shock that the gate was open. He caught hold of Nightspore's arm violently. "Look! Krag is back."
"Yes, we must make haste to the house."
"And why not the tower? He's probably in there, since the gate is open. I'm going up to look."
Nightspore grunted, but made no opposition.
All was pitch-black inside the gate. Maskull struck a match, and the flickering light disclosed the lower end of a circular flight of stone steps. "Are you coming up?" he asked.
"No, I'll wait here."
Maskull immediately began the ascent. Hardly had he mounted half a dozen steps, however, before he was compelled to pause, to gain breath. He seemed to be carrying upstairs not one Maskull, but three. As he proceeded, the sensation of crushing weight, so far from diminishing, grew worse and worse. It was nearly physically impossible to go on; his lungs could not take in enough oxygen, while his heart thumped like a ship's engine. Sweat coursed down his face. At the twentieth step he completed the first revolution of the tower and came face to face with the first window, which was set in a high embrasure.
Realising that he could go no higher, he struck another match, and climbed into the embrasure, in order that he might at all events see something from the tower. The flame died, and he stared through the window at the stars. Then, to his astonishment, he discovered that it was not a window at all but a lens.... The sky was not a wide expanse of space containing a multitude of stars, but a blurred darkness, focused only in one part, where two very bright stars, like small moons in size, appeared in close conjunction; and near them a more minute planetary object, as brilliant as Venus and with an observable disk. One of the suns shone with a glaring white light; the other was a weird and awful blue. Their light, though almost solar in intensity, did not illuminate the interior of the tower.
Maskull knew at once that the system of spheres at which he was gazing was what is known to astronomy as the star Arcturus.... He had seen the sight before, through Krag's glass, but then the scale had been smaller, the colors of the twin suns had not appeared in their naked reality.... These colors seemed to him most marvellous, as if, in seeing them through earth eyes, he was not seeing them correctly.... But it was at Tormance that he stared the longest and the most earnestly. On that mysterious and terrible earth, countless millions of miles distant, it had been promised him that he would set foot, even though he might leave his bones there. The strange creatures that he was to behold and touch were already living, at this very moment.
A low, sighing whisper sounded in his ear, from not more than a yard away. "Don't you understand, Maskull, that you are only an instrument, to be used and then broken? Nightspore is asleep now, but when he wakes you must die. You will go, but he will return."
Maskull hastily struck another match, with trembling fingers. No one was in sight, and all was quiet as the tomb.
The voice did not sound again. After waiting a few minutes, he redescended to the foot of the tower. On gaining the open air, his sensation of weight was instantly removed, but he continued panting and palpitating, like a man who has lifted a far too heavy load.
Nightspore's dark form came forward. "Was Krag there?"
"If he was. I didn't see him. But I heard someone speak."
"Was it Krag?"
"It was not Krag -- but a voice warned me against you."
"Yes, you will hear these voices too," said Nightspore enigmatically.