I was recalled from my meditations by the hand of the blond-haired man upon my arm.
I looked up to discover the botanist had gone into the inn.
The blond-haired man was for a moment almost stripped of pose.
“I say,” he said. “Weren't you listening to me?”
“No,” I said bluntly.
His surprise was manifest. But by an effort he recalled what he had meant to say.
“Your friend,” he said, “has been telling me, in spite of my sustained interruptions, a most incredible story.”
I wondered how the botanist managed to get it in. “About that woman?” I said.
“About a man and a woman who hate each other and can't get away from each other.”
“I know,” I said.
“It sounds absurd.”
“Why can't they get away? What is there to keep them together? It's ridiculous. I―”
“He would tell it to me.”
“It's his way.”
“He interrupted me. And there's no point in it. Is he―” he hesitated, “mad?”
“There's a whole world of people mad with him,” I answered after a pause.
The perplexed expression of the blond-haired man intensified. It is vain to deny that he enlarged the scope of his inquiry, visibly if not verbally. “Dear me!” he said, and took up something he had nearly forgotten. “And you found yourselves suddenly on a mountain side?… I thought you were joking.”
I turned round upon him with a sudden access of earnestness. At least I meant my manner to be earnest, but to him it may have seemed wild.
“You,” I said, “are an original sort of man. Do not be alarmed. Perhaps you will understand… . We were not joking.”
“But, my dear fellow!”
“I mean it! We come from an inferior world! Like this, but out of order.”
“No world could be more out of order―”
“You play at that and have your fun. But there's no limit to the extent to which a world of men may get out of gear. In our world―”
He nodded, but his eye had ceased to be friendly.
“Men die of starvation; people die by the hundred thousand needlessly and painfully; men and women are lashed together to make hell for each other; children are born—abominably, and reared in cruelty and folly; there is a thing called war, a horror of blood and vileness. The whole thing seems to me at times a cruel and wasteful wilderness of muddle. You in this decent world have no means of understanding―”
“No?” he said, and would have begun, but I went on too quickly.
“No! When I see you dandering through this excellent and hopeful world, objecting, obstructing, and breaking the law, displaying your wit on science and order, on the men who toil so ingloriously to swell and use the knowledge that is salvation, this salvation for which our poor world cries to heaven―”
“You don't mean to say,” he said, “that you really come from some other world where things are different and worse?”
“And you want to talk to me about it instead of listening to me?”
“Oh, nonsense!” he said abruptly. “You can't do it—really. I can assure you this present world touches the nadir of imbecility. You and your friend, with his love for the lady who's so mysteriously tied—you're romancing! People could not possibly do such things. It's—if you'll excuse me—ridiculous. He began—he would begin. A most tiresome story—simply bore me down. We'd been talking very agreeably before that, or rather I had, about the absurdity of marriage laws, the interference with a free and natural life, and so on, and suddenly he burst like a dam. No!” He paused. “It's really impossible. You behave perfectly well for a time, and then you begin to interrupt… . And such a childish story, too!”
He spun round upon his chair, got up, glanced at me over his shoulder, and walked out of the arbour. He stepped aside hastily to avoid too close an approach to the returning botanist. “Impossible,” I heard him say. He was evidently deeply aggrieved by us. I saw him presently a little way off in the garden, talking to the landlord of our inn, and looking towards us as he talked—they both looked towards us—and after that, without the ceremony of a farewell, he disappeared, and we saw him no more. We waited for him a little while, and then I expounded the situation to the botanist… .
“We are going to have a very considerable amount of trouble explaining ourselves,” I said in conclusion. “We are here by an act of the imagination, and that is just one of those metaphysical operations that are so difficult to make credible. We are, by the standard of bearing and clothing I remark about us, unattractive in dress and deportment. We have nothing to produce to explain our presence here, no bit of a flying machine or a space travelling sphere or any of the apparatus customary on these occasions. We have no means beyond a dwindling amount of small change out of a gold coin, upon which I suppose in ethics and the law some native Utopian had a better claim. We may already have got ourselves into trouble with the authorities with that confounded number of yours!”
“You did one too!”
“All the more bother, perhaps, when the thing is brought home to us. There's no need for recriminations. The thing of moment is that we find ourselves in the position—not to put too fine a point upon it—of tramps in this admirable world. The question of all others of importance to us at present is what do they do with their tramps? Because sooner or later, and the balance of probability seems to incline to sooner, whatever they do with their tramps that they will do with us.”
“Unless we can get some work.”
“Exactly—unless we can get some work.”
The botanist leant forward on his arms and looked out of the arbour with an expression of despondent discovery. “I say,” he remarked; “this is a strange world—quite strange and new. I'm only beginning to realise just what it means for us. The mountains there are the same, the old Bristenstock and all the rest of it; but these houses, you know, and that roadway, and the costumes, and that machine that is licking up the grass there—only… .”
He sought expression. “Who knows what will come in sight round the bend of the valley there? Who knows what may happen to us anywhere? We don't know who rules over us even … we don't know that!”
“No,” I echoed, “we don't know that.”