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We were standing on a narrow, irregular, all too slanting little ledge, and should doubtless have ignominiously slipped off and broken our rash necks but for the vine. This was a thick-leaved, wide-spreading thing, a little like Amphelopsis.
"It's not quite vertical here, you see," said Terry, full of pride and enthusiasm. "This thing never would hold our direct weight, but I think if we sort of slide down on it, one at a time, sticking in with hands and feet, we'll reach that next ledge alive."
"As we do not wish to get up our rope again — and can't comfortably stay here — I approve," said Jeff solemnly.
Terry slid down first — said he'd show us how a Christian meets his death. Luck was with us. We had put on the thickest of those intermediate suits, leaving our tunics behind, and made this scramble quite successfully, though I got a pretty heavy fall just at the end, and was only kept on the second ledge by main force. The next stage was down a sort of "chimney" — a long irregular fissure; and so with scratches many and painful and bruises not a few, we finally reached the stream.
It was darker there, but we felt it highly necessary to put as much distance as possible behind us; so we waded, jumped, and clambered down that rocky river bed, in the flickering black and white moonlight and leaf shadow, till growing daylight forced a halt.
We found a friendly nut-tree, those large, satisfying, soft-shelled nuts we already knew so well, and filled our pockets.
I see that I have not remarked that these women had pockets in surprising number and variety. They were in all their garments, and the middle one in particular was shingled with them. So we stocked up with nuts till we bulged like Prussian privates in marching order, drank all we could hold, and retired for the day.
It was not a very comfortable place, not at all easy to get at, just a sort of crevice high up along the steep bank, but it was well veiled with foliage and dry. After our exhaustive three or four hour scramble and the good breakfast food, we all lay down along that crack — heads and tails, as it were — and slept till the afternoon sun almost toasted our faces.
Terry poked a tentative foot against my head.
"How are you, Van? Alive yet?"
"Very much so," I told him. And Jeff was equally cheerful.
We had room to stretch, if not to turn around; but we could very carefully roll over, one at a time, behind the sheltering foliage.
It was no use to leave there by daylight. We could not see much of the country, but enough to know that we were now at the beginning of the cultivated area, and no doubt there would be an alarm sent out far and wide.
Terry chuckled softly to himself, lying there on that hot narrow little rim of rock. He dilated on the discomfiture of our guards and tutors, making many discourteous remarks.
I reminded him that we had still a long way to go before getting to the place where we'd left our machine, and no probability of finding it there; but he only kicked me, mildly, for a croaker.
"If you can't boost, don't knock," he protested. "I never said 'twould be a picnic. But I'd run away in the Antarctic ice fields rather than be a prisoner."
We soon dozed off again.
The long rest and penetrating dry heat were good for us, and that night we covered a considerable distance, keeping always in the rough forested belt of land which we knew bordered the whole country. Sometimes we were near the outer edge, and caught sudden glimpses of the tremendous depths beyond.
"This piece of geography stands up like a basalt column," Jeff said. "Nice time we'll have getting down if they have confiscated our machine!" For which suggestion he received summary chastisement.
What we could see inland was peaceable enough, but only moonlit glimpses; by daylight we lay very close. As Terry said, we did not wish to kill the old ladies — even if we could; and short of that they were perfectly competent to pick us up bodily and carry us back, if discovered. There was nothing for it but to lie low, and sneak out unseen if we could do it.
There wasn't much talking done. At night we had our marathon-obstacle race; we "stayed not for brake and we stopped not for stone," and swam whatever water was too deep to wade and could not be got around; but that was only necessary twice. By day, sleep, sound and sweet. Mighty lucky it was that we could live off the country as we did. Even that margin of forest seemed rich in foodstuffs.
But Jeff thoughtfully suggested that that very thing showed how careful we should have to be, as we might run into some stalwart group of gardeners or foresters or nut-gatherers at any minute. Careful we were, feeling pretty sure that if we did not make good this time we were not likely to have another opportunity; and at last we reached a point from which we could see, far below, the broad stretch of that still lake from which we had made our ascent.
"That looks pretty good to me!" said Terry, gazing down at it. "Now, if we can't find the 'plane, we know where to aim if we have to drop over this wall some other way."
The wall at that point was singularly uninviting. It rose so straight that we had to put our heads over to see the base, and the country below seemed to be a far-off marshy tangle of rank vegetation. We did not have to risk our necks to that extent, however, for at last, stealing along among the rocks and trees like so many creeping savages, we came to that flat space where we had landed; and there, in unbelievable good fortune, we found our machine.
"Covered, too, by jingo! Would you think they had that much sense?" cried Terry.
"If they had that much, they're likely to have more," I warned him, softly. "Bet you the thing's watched."
We reconnoitered as widely as we could in the failing moon-light — moons are of a painfully unreliable nature; but the growing dawn showed us the familiar shape, shrouded in some heavy cloth like canvas, and no slightest sign of any watchman near. We decided to make a quick dash as soon as the light was strong enough for accurate work.
"I don't care if the old thing'll go or not," Terry declared. "We can run her to the edge, get aboard, and just plane down — plop! — beside our boat there. Look there — see the boat!"
Sure enough — there was our motor, lying like a gray cocoon on the flat pale sheet of water.
Quietly but swiftly we rushed forward and began to tug at the fastenings of that cover.
"Confound the thing!" Terry cried in desperate impatience. "They've got it sewed up in a bag! And we've not a knife among us!"
Then, as we tugged and pulled at that tough cloth we heard a sound that made Terry lift his head like a war horse — the sound of an unmistakable giggle, yes — three giggles.
There they were — Celis, Alima, Ellador — looking just as they had when we first saw them, standing a little way off from us, as interested, as mischievous as three schoolboys.
"Hold on, Terry — hold on!" I warned. "That's too easy. Look out for a trap."
"Let us appeal to their kind hearts," Jeff urged. "I think they will help us. Perhaps they've got knives."
"It's no use rushing them, anyhow," I was absolutely holding on to Terry. "We know they can out-run and out-climb us."
He reluctantly admitted this; and after a brief parley among ourselves, we all advanced slowly toward them, holding out our hands in token of friendliness.
They stood their ground till we had come fairly near, and then indicated that we should stop. To make sure, we advanced a step or two and they promptly and swiftly withdrew. So we stopped at the distance specified. Then we used their language, as far as we were able, to explain our plight, telling how we were imprisoned, how we had escaped — a good deal of pantomime here and vivid interest on their part — how we had traveled by night and hidden by day, living on nuts — and here Terry pretended great hunger.
I know he could not have been hungry; we had found plenty to eat and had not been sparing in helping ourselves. But they seemed somewhat impressed; and after a murmured consultation they produced from their pockets certain little packages, and with the utmost ease and accuracy tossed them into our hands.
Jeff was most appreciative of this; and Terry made extravagant gestures of admiration, which seemed to set them off, boy-fashion, to show their skill. While we ate the excellent biscuits they had thrown us, and while Ellador kept a watchful eye on our movements, Celis ran off to some distance, and set up a sort of "duck-on-a-rock" arrangement, a big yellow nut on top of three balanced sticks; Alima, meanwhile, gathering stones.
They urged us to throw at it, and we did, but the thing was a long way off, and it was only after a number of failures, at which those elvish damsels laughed delightedly, that Jeff succeeded in bringing the whole structure to the ground. It took me still longer, and Terry, to his intense annoyance, came third.
Then Celis set up the little tripod again, and looked back at us, knocking it down, pointing at it, and shaking her short curls severely. "No," she said. "Bad — wrong!" We were quite able to follow her.
Then she set it up once more, put the fat nut on top, and returned to the others; and there those aggravating girls sat and took turns throwing little stones at that thing, while one stayed by as a setter-up; and they just popped that nut off, two times out of three, without upsetting the sticks. Pleased as Punch they were, too, and we pretended to be, but weren't.
We got very friendly over this game, but I told Terry we'd be sorry if we didn't get off while we could, and then we begged for knives. It was easy to show what we wanted to do, and they each proudly produced a sort of strong clasp-knife from their pockets.
"Yes," we said eagerly, "that's it! Please — " We had learned quite a bit of their language, you see. And we just begged for those knives, but they would not give them to us. If we came a step too near they backed off, standing light and eager for flight.
"It's no sort of use," I said. "Come on — let's get a sharp stone or something — we must get this thing off."
So we hunted about and found what edged fragments we could, and hacked away, but it was like trying to cut sailcloth with a clamshell.
Terry hacked and dug, but said to us under his breath. "Boys, we're in pretty good condition — let's make a life and death dash and get hold of those girls — we've got to."
They had drawn rather nearer to watch our efforts, and we did take them rather by surprise; also, as Terry said, our recent training had strengthened us in wind and limb, and for a few desperate moments those girls were scared and we almost triumphant.
But just as we stretched out our hands, the distance between us widened; they had got their pace apparently, and then, though we ran at our utmost speed, and much farther than I thought wise, they kept just out of reach all the time.
We stopped breathless, at last, at my repeated admonitions.
"This is stark foolishness," I urged. "They are doing it on purpose — come back or you'll be sorry."
We went back, much slower than we came, and in truth we were sorry.
As we reached our swaddled machine, and sought again to tear loose its covering, there rose up from all around the sturdy forms, the quiet determined faces we knew so well.
"Oh Lord!" groaned Terry. "The Colonels! It's all up — they're forty to one."
It was no use to fight. These women evidently relied on numbers, not so much as a drilled force but as a multitude actuated by a common impulse. They showed no sign of fear, and since we had no weapons whatever and there were at least a hundred of them, standing ten deep about us, we gave in as gracefully as we might.
Of course we looked for punishment — a closer imprisonment, solitary confinement maybe — but nothing of the kind happened. They treated us as truants only, and as if they quite understood our truancy.
Back we went, not under an anesthetic this time but skimming along in electric motors enough like ours to be quite recognizable, each of us in a separate vehicle with one able-bodied lady on either side and three facing him.
They were all pleasant enough, and talked to us as much as was possible with our limited powers. And though Terry was keenly mortified, and at first we all rather dreaded harsh treatment, I for one soon began to feel a sort of pleasant confidence and to enjoy the trip.
Here were my five familiar companions, all good-natured as could be, seeming to have no worse feeling than a mild triumph as of winning some simple game; and even that they politely suppressed.
This was a good opportunity to see the country, too, and the more I saw of it, the better I liked it. We went too swiftly for close observation, but I could appreciate perfect roads, as dustless as a swept floor; the shade of endless lines of trees; the ribbon of flowers that unrolled beneath them; and the rich comfortable country that stretched off and away, full of varied charm.
We rolled through many villages and towns, and I soon saw that the parklike beauty of our first-seen city was no exception. Our swift high-sweeping view from the plane had been most attractive, but lacked detail; and in that first day of struggle and capture, we noticed little. But now we were swept along at an easy rate of some thirty miles an hour and covered quite a good deal of ground.
We stopped for lunch in quite a sizable town, and here, rolling slowly through the streets, we saw more of the population. They had come out to look at us everywhere we had passed, but here were more; and when we went in to eat, in a big garden place with little shaded tables among the trees and flowers, many eyes were upon us. And everywhere, open country, village, or city — only women. Old women and young women and a great majority who seemed neither young nor old, but just women; young girls, also, though these, and the children, seeming to be in groups by themselves generally, were less in evidence. We caught many glimpses of girls and children in what seemed to be schools or in playgrounds, and so far as we could judge there were no boys. We all looked, carefully. Everyone gazed at us politely, kindly, and with eager interest. No one was impertinent. We could catch quite a bit of the talk now, and all they said seemed pleasant enough.
Well — before nightfall we were all safely back in our big room. The damage we had done was quite ignored; the beds as smooth and comfortable as before, new clothing and towels supplied. The only thing those women did was to illuminate the gardens at night, and to set an extra watch. But they called us to account next day. Our three tutors, who had not joined in the recapturing expedition, had been quite busy in preparing for us, and now made explanation.
They knew well we would make for our machine, and also that there was no other way of getting down — alive. So our flight had troubled no one; all they did was to call the inhabitants to keep an eye on our movements all along the edge of the forest between the two points. It appeared that many of those nights we had been seen, by careful ladies sitting snugly in big trees by the riverbed, or up among the rocks.
Terry looked immensely disgusted, but it struck me as extremely funny. Here we had been risking our lives, hiding and prowling like outlaws, living on nuts and fruit, getting wet and cold at night, and dry and hot by day, and all the while these estimable women had just been waiting for us to come out.
Now they began to explain, carefully using such words as we could understand. It appeared that we were considered as guests of the country — sort of public wards. Our first violence had made it necessary to keep us safeguarded for a while, but as soon as we learned the language — and would agree to do no harm — they would show us all about the land.
Jeff was eager to reassure them. Of course he did not tell on Terry, but he made it clear that he was ashamed of himself, and that he would now conform. As to the language — we all fell upon it with redoubled energy. They brought us books, in greater numbers, and I began to study them seriously.
"Pretty punk literature," Terry burst forth one day, when we were in the privacy of our own room. "Of course one expects to begin on child-stories, but I would like something more interesting now."
"Can't expect stirring romance and wild adventure without men, can you?" I asked. Nothing irritated Terry more than to have us assume that there were no men; but there were no signs of them in the books they gave us, or the pictures.
"Shut up!" he growled. "What infernal nonsense you talk! I'm going to ask 'em outright — we know enough now."
In truth we had been using our best efforts to master the language, and were able to read fluently and to discuss what we read with considerable ease.
That afternoon we were all sitting together on the roof — we three and the tutors gathered about a table, no guards about. We had been made to understand some time earlier that if we would agree to do no violence they would withdraw their constant attendance, and we promised most willingly.
So there we sat, at ease; all in similar dress; our hair, by now, as long as theirs, only our beards to distinguish us. We did not want those beards, but had so far been unable to induce them to give us any cutting instruments.
"Ladies," Terry began, out of a clear sky, as it were, "are there no men in this country?"
"Men?" Somel answered. "Like you?"
"Yes, men," Terry indicated his beard, and threw back his broad shoulders. "Men, real men."
"No," she answered quietly. "There are no men in this country. There has not been a man among us for two thousand years."
Her look was clear and truthful and she did not advance this astonishing statement as if it was astonishing, but quite as a matter of fact.
"But — the people — the children," he protested, not believing her in the least, but not wishing to say so.
"Oh yes," she smiled. "I do not wonder you are puzzled. We are mothers — all of us — but there are no fathers. We thought you would ask about that long ago — why have you not?" Her look was as frankly kind as always, her tone quite simple.
Terry explained that we had not felt sufficiently used to the language, making rather a mess of it, I thought, but Jeff was franker.
"Will you excuse us all," he said, "if we admit that we find it hard to believe? There is no such — possibility — in the rest of the world."
"Have you no kind of life where it is possible?" asked Zava.
"Why, yes — some low forms, of course."
"How low — or how high, rather?"
"Well — there are some rather high forms of insect life in which it occurs. Parthenogenesis, we call it — that means virgin birth."
She could not follow him.
"Birth, we know, of course; but what is virgin?"
Terry looked uncomfortable, but Jeff met the question quite calmly. "Among mating animals, the term virgin is applied to the female who has not mated," he answered.
"Oh, I see. And does it apply to the male also? Or is there a different term for him?"
He passed this over rather hurriedly, saying that the same term would apply, but was seldom used.
"No?" she said. "But one cannot mate without the other surely. Is not each then — virgin — before mating? And, tell me, have you any forms of life in which there is birth from a father only?"
"I know of none," he answered, and I inquired seriously.
"You ask us to believe that for two thousand years there have been only women here, and only girl babies born?"
"Exactly," answered Somel, nodding gravely. "Of course we know that among other animals it is not so, that there are fathers as well as mothers; and we see that you are fathers, that you come from a people who are of both kinds. We have been waiting, you see, for you to be able to speak freely with us, and teach us about your country and the rest of the world. You know so much, you see, and we know only our own land."
In the course of our previous studies we had been at some pains to tell them about the big world outside, to draw sketches, maps, to make a globe, even, out of a spherical fruit, and show the size and relation of the countries, and to tell of the numbers of their people. All this had been scant and in outline, but they quite understood.
I find I succeed very poorly in conveying the impression I would like to of these women. So far from being ignorant, they were deeply wise — that we realized more and more; and for clear reasoning, for real brain scope and power they were A No. 1, but there were a lot of things they did not know.
They had the evenest tempers, the most perfect patience and good nature — one of the things most impressive about them all was the absence of irritability. So far we had only this group to study, but afterward I found it a common trait.
We had gradually come to feel that we were in the hands of friends, and very capable ones at that — but we couldn't form any opinion yet of the general level of these women.
"We want you to teach us all you can," Somel went on, her firm shapely hands clasped on the table before her, her clear quiet eyes meeting ours frankly. "And we want to teach you what we have that is novel and useful. You can well imagine that it is a wonderful event to us, to have men among us — after two thousand years. And we want to know about your women."
What she said about our importance gave instant pleasure to Terry. I could see by the way he lifted his head that it pleased him. But when she spoke of our women — someway I had a queer little indescribable feeling, not like any feeling I ever had before when "women" were mentioned.
"Will you tell us how it came about?" Jeff pursued. "You said 'for two thousand years' — did you have men here before that?"
"Yes," answered Zava.
They were all quiet for a little.
"You should have our full history to read — do not be alarmed — it has been made clear and short. It took us a long time to learn how to write history. Oh, how I should love to read yours!"
She turned with flashing eager eyes, looking from one to the other of us.
"It would be so wonderful — would it not? To compare the history of two thousand years, to see what the differences are — between us, who are only mothers, and you, who are mothers and fathers, too. Of course we see, with our birds, that the father is as useful as the mother, almost. But among insects we find him of less importance, sometimes very little. Is it not so with you?"
"Oh, yes, birds and bugs," Terry said, "but not among animals — have you no animals?"
"We have cats," she said. "The father is not very useful."
"Have you no cattle — sheep — horses?" I drew some rough outlines of these beasts and showed them to her.
"We had, in the very old days, these," said Somel, and sketched with swift sure touches a sort of sheep or llama," and these" — dogs, of two or three kinds, "that" — pointing to my absurd but recognizable horse.
"What became of them?" asked Jeff.
"We do not want them anymore. They took up too much room — we need all our land to feed our people. It is such a little country, you know."
"Whatever do you do without milk?" Terry demanded in-credulously.
"Milk? We have milk in abundance — our own."
"But — but — I mean for cooking — for grown people," Terry blundered, while they looked amazed and a shade displeased.
Jeff came to the rescue. "We keep cattle for their milk, as well as for their meat," he explained. "Cow's milk is a staple article of diet. There is a great milk industry — to collect and distribute it."
Still they looked puzzled. I pointed to my outline of a cow. "The farmer milks the cow," I said, and sketched a milk pail, the stool, and in pantomime showed the man milking. "Then it is carried to the city and distributed by milkmen — everybody has it at the door in the morning."
"Has the cow no child?" asked Somel earnestly.
"Oh, yes, of course, a calf, that is."
"Is there milk for the calf and you, too?"
It took some time to make clear to those three sweet-faced women the process which robs the cow of her calf, and the calf of its true food; and the talk led us into a further discussion of the meat business. They heard it out, looking very white, and presently begged to be excused.