David Bruce Bozarth
Copyright © 1997
The meeting with the English lord was arranged by wire easily enough, but there was the matter of transporting Uncle Jack, his wife, son and Thuvia from the family's Virginia estate across the Atlantic.
"Not another concern, sir," John Carter said, taking me by the elbow.
In the bowels of the fantastic ship which had brought my relative across the void of space I was shown a trim Barsoomian flyer, a ten man speedster with a half-cabin forward. Within the hour we were well over the Atlantic racing toward the sunrise.
Carthoris dug a finger between the tight collar of the unfamiliar shirt and his bronzed neck and approached his sire. "Recalibrated for Jasoom's magnetic field. Try it now."
"It" was the ship's directional compass. The two men, so alike in physical size and appearance, monitored the device for a quarter-hour before Uncle Jack nodded approbation. "Fine work, son. I'll go check on your mother."
Carthoris shook his head in warning. "Thuvia's being difficult. Let mother handle it."
"It" was clothing. I was nearer the cabin's closed hatch, thus heard the occasional disparaging tone, though never a clear word, of Carthoris' beautiful wife. I suppose our earthly tabus seem so provincial to Aunt Dee and Thuvia, but they must be observed in company, or difficult explanations may have to be made. Clothing at the English lord's estate was optional though Western visitors rarely peeled as far as Thuvia and Dejah Thoris!
Shortly after sundown the ship began to slow. The directional compass indicated we had arrived at the input latitude and longitude. As requested by telegraph before our departure, the English lord's people had cleared an area near the big house and marked a square one-hundred feet each side with torches, into which Carthoris deftly landed the off-world flyer.
Lord John shook hands warmly as I exited the ship. I stepped back so the two men I most admire could meet each other. They were of the same type, large men well-muscled and at the peak of their vitality. The sinews of each forearm corded as the handshake intensified. Two sets of grey eyes smiled at each other, then suddenly Carter relaxed.
"It would be impolite for the guest to injure the host..."
Lord John warmly laughed. "It is the nature of man to test the mettle of those he meets. Welcome to my estate. Please, come inside away from the night air and the insects."
In the foyer, under the steady illumination of electric lights, Lord John introduced his lovely wife Jane, who immediately took charge of Dejah Thoris and Thuvia--who still scowled at wearing a simple flower-print frock. Carthoris excused himself saying, "I think I better go with them, father."
Uncle Jack and I followed Lord John to the man's den, a quiet, simple room with comfortable seating.
"Port?" the English lord inquired.
"Please," the Warlord replied. "It has been ages since I've had some." After a sip, he added, "And excellent, too!"
Cigars were passed. I declined as the two men lighted and settled into the cushions of the thick-upholstered leather chairs.
"On the way here," Carter began, "I was told of the recent visit by my nephew and the Custers from Nebraska. A most interesting tale."
"Some might even say 'supernatural--'" the lord of the estate grinned, "--if one believed in the supernatural."
Both looked at me. "I embellish nothing," I said indignantly.
Uncle Jack barked a sharp laugh and winked. Lord John's smile was also friendly. I resigned myself to being the target of their amusement.
The English lord sipped his port, drew upon the fragrant cigar, then spoke to Carter. "I have been told a portion of why you are here, hence my ready agreement to the safari, but I would like to hear more."
Carter examined the ash on the cigar, then knocked it off in the ashtray at his side. "Our Barsoomian banth fills much the same niche as the African lion. The banth is the most successful predator of the Martian dead sea bottoms but it has declined by mysterious disease to near extinction. Thuvia, that young girl with the frown, is the leading authority on banths. She has secluded what we believe are the last seven banths on Barsoom in a protective shelter.
"So far the beasts show no signs of the terrible disease and Thuvia hopes that they might be encouraged to breed in captivity--and the species restored to full vigor--but on the off chance that is not possible we have another problem to consider."
Lord John waited in silence as Uncle Jack drew upon the cigar and exhaled.
"The banth is a dangerous predator and will attack all creatures, but like the lion, it has a favored appetite and preys on a limited number of animals. The banth usually devours up to a dozen camsaks each day, the camsak being an innocuous beast not quite twenty inches in height nor weighs more than fifteen pounds. It breeds with a ferocity that exceeds that of the earthly rabbit it resembles by nature, though not in appearance."
the English lord saw that Carter's glass was empty. He poured and made an astute observation. "This camsak is now without natural enemy and is creating great havoc in the environment."
"Exactly!" Uncle Jack looked at me, pleased to have met a man who had no need of diagrams. "In my early years I spent time in the armies of European powers with interests in the African continent. I saw and admired the great vigor and, yes, the beauty, of the lion. I have remembered this creature through all my wanderings and even compared it to the banth in form and function. It is my belief a pride of lions brought to Mars and released into the wild would fill the niche vacated by the disaster-stricken banth."
the English lord contemplated the smoky liquid in his stemmed glass. "How can you know if our lion will serve this purpose? Lions are independent creatures given to indulging their own desires rather than those of others."
"That is why Thuvia is along. My daughter-in-law's telepathic abilities with the lower beasts, the banth in particular, are of astonishing complexity. We hope she will be able to link with your lions and make that determination."
"But first, you must find lions to make the experiment." the English lord nodded his agreement. "Tomorrow morning I will take you to a place where a new pride has formed. They are sharing the same hunting territory with another, more mature pride and neither is doing well. There may be a side benefit if your mission proves successful."
"Oh? What is that?"
"It will save me from having to destroy one of the prides to prevent the less successful from turning upon my natives."
* * * * * * * *
Carthoris took to the horse as naturally as his sire, who was cavalry-trained. I rode a sedate mare by choice. The English lord made his appearance in loin cloth, bow, rope and knife. He sat astride a black gelding, more impressive in his barbaric costume than Carter, who wore khaki, shirt and boots. Thuvia was enchanted by the earth animal, one of the English lord's magnificent Arabians, and rode bareback without reins--proof her telepathic ability extended to the creatures of this world 40,000,000 miles from her own.
Dejah Thoris remained at the big house, content to visit with Jane and to sample the culinary delights of the European-style kitchen.
It was a beautiful day, moderate temperature and sunshine, with stark white clouds moving briskly. Carthoris was fascinated by the atmospheric phenomenon as clouds are virtually non-existent upon Barsoom owing to the lack of humidity.
An hour's ride, which took us across open grassland and into forest, then back onto grassland again, brought us to the location Lord John sought. "Wait here," he said, dismounting. A heartbeat later we were alone under the wide sky--the English lord had vanished into the long grass as if by magic.
Carter sat his horse silently, admiring the expansive land, so green and full of life as compared to the sparse deserts of his beloved Barsoom. Carthoris quietly bombarded me with question upon question about the landscape until Uncle Jack glared his son to silence.
Thuvia lay flat on her animal's back, arms outstretched to encircle the horse's arched neck. The copper-skinned woman and fine-bred quadruped were completely oblivious to the world about them.
Carthoris dismounted, handing his reins to me, then walked to his wife's side. Thuvia did not stir at his light caress. "Thuvia..." he whispered. When there was no response, Carthoris looked to his regal sire.
The warlord frowned as he gazed at his motionless daughter-in-law, but before he could make a suggestion, Lord John returned.
"Give her a moment," he suggested.
We watched quietly, though Carthoris rapidly became anxious. It seemed as if Thuvia was under a spell or enchantment, something unearthly that had robbed her senses. Time seemed to slow, seconds becoming eternities, yet hardly five minutes passed when the dear girl sighed and slowly sat up. There was a look of contentment upon her sweet features as I have never seen.
"Dearest..." Carthoris took her hand.
The girl looked down at her husband and smiled. "I frightened you. I am sorry. Forgive me all," she added, looking to each of us. "I was not prepared for the powerful essence underlying the link between human and terrestrial creature. It is almost seductive," she flushed, "the incredible life-spark!" Thuvia ran her hand across the horse's neck. The animal dipped its head, whinnied, and pawed the earth.
Carthoris appeared momentarily jealous, then grinned foolishly. "It is magnificent," he admitted, being more telepathic than his sire and thus able to understand more readily his wife's fascination.
the English lord indicated we should dismount and follow quietly. We walked single file, Lord John, Thuvia, Carthoris, me, then Uncle Jack. The land rose gently, perhaps twenty feet over one-hundred yards. As we neared the summit of this gentle wale the English lord motioned for a crouch, then later, like Indians, we reached the top crawling on our stomachs.
At the bottom of a bowl-shaped depression, not more than two-hundred feet from where we observed, a pride of lions basked in the sun. The male was young, his mane magnificent, his long tawny body lean and strong. An older female lay flat, her square-shaped head utterly relaxed upon the grass. Two young females lay side by side, licking paws, occasionally turning heads to lick the other behind the ear--a rough affection that left fur glistening. A fourth female, also young, stood slightly apart watching the forest to the left of our position. She was an alert sentry and might have discovered us if the wind had not been coming into our faces, thus carrying our scent away.
Thuvia shivered beside me, Carthoris beyond. I sensed the woman's excitement as surely as if it were writ upon the sky above. "Oh!" she softly exclaimed, gripping her husband's forearm.
"They are beautiful," Carthoris allowed. "Can you reach them, dear?"
Thuvia closed her eyes though I had the impression she could still see the splendid animals as well as I. Uncle Jack tapped my shoulder, motioning for me to back away, which I did. Carthoris squeezed Thuvia's hand, then joined Lord John and us a little to one side of the red woman.
The English lord nudged Carter then pointed to the male lion. The animal's heavy head had turned toward the grass-covered knoll. His whole appearance was that of curiosity rather than alarm, but when the great brute rose to his feet, my heart skipped a beat.
"Steady," Lord John admonished.
Then to my ears came a sound, a melody soft, yet compelling. It took a moment to realize it was Thuvia who sang. She rose from the grass, swaying sinuously, arms moving in time to the melody that increased in volume and intricacy.
The lions faced us, even the old female who'd been sleeping. Their ears twitched forward to capture more of the tune the Barsoomian maid trilled as sweetly as any bird.
Thuvia walked toward the creatures, the most feared on the continent. When I started to speak it was Carthoris who cautioned me to silence. "This is Thuvia's way," he said. "She is in no danger."
It was as the son of John Carter said. Thuvia walked into that pride of lions and touched each as I might have touched the family cat and her kittens. The great beasts twined about the Martian woman's legs in demonstration of acceptance and affection.
Uncle Jack glared at me. "Bring up the horses."
Lord John had been observing Thuvia and the lions with interest, but at the Virginian's order, he interjected, "Lions and horses do not mix."
Carthoris inclined his head to the base of the knoll. Thuvia was returning, and the pride of lions followed her! The prince of Helium said, "They are under her control--they are as docile as soraks."
Nor were the horses ill-at-ease when I fetched them. The huge felines paced alongside our mounts and we entered the English lord's estate approximately an hour later--much to the surprise of the guards and workers!
"There remains one final test," Carthoris said. He kneed his spirited steed into a gallop toward the Barsoomian flyer. Almost before we were dismounted and the horses turned out, Carthoris returned. He carried a small cage inside which was an animal about the size of a rabbit, though it had six legs. The rear legs were twice the length of the middle, which were twice the length of the forelegs, giving the animal a curiously sloped stance. It was covered with a fuzzy growth which seemed more like supple feathers than hair and gave it the appearance of having three times the bulk. Head and other features were concealed by the feathers and it seemed harmless and "cute."
the English lord stepped forward immediately and prevented Carthoris from opening the cage. "I presume you intend to release this creature to see if the lions will take it as sport. I am concerned that should this animal elude the lions it might cause untold damage to my jungles as the rabbit has done to poor Australia."
Carthoris agreed. "That was a consideration, sir. This camsak has been neutered. It cannot reproduce."
Mollified, the black-haired man acquiesced.
"Thuvia!" Carthoris called.
His wife came to the entrance of the barn. At her side, with the red woman's hand stroking her head, stood the eldest lioness. "She has volunteered to hunt the camsak." Thuvia pointed to a grove of trees a few hundred yards from the house. "Take it there. She will follow. When you have released it come back. She will bring the kill to me, then will eat it."
Carthoris left to carry out Thuvia's instructions. The large cat walked right past me, so close I could feel the heat of its body through my khaki pants. The prince of Helium disappeared inside the grove. He emerged a moment later and walked past the lioness, who stared into the shadows under the trees; body rigid, the great tail slowly twisting like a snake.
Suddenly the lioness was gone!
The son of John Carter had rejoined us when the lioness reappeared, fifty yards left of where the camsak had been released. The cat trotted past Carthoris and brought the kill to Thuvia. Thuvia knelt down, placing her hands on both sides of the massive blood-stained mouth, and stared into the animal's eyes. What communication passed between them I can only guess, but it was soon over. Thuvia stood by Carthoris as we watched the lioness, with the best of table manners, swiftly dismember and consume the greater part of the camsak.
"Now what?" I asked.
Lord John answered for the others. "We wait to see if the creature is agreeable to the cat's digestion. It would be useless to transport them otherwise."
Before I could ask "How long will that take?" Uncle Jack took my elbow. With the English lord attending, we went onto the wide veranda and sat where we could watch Thuvia, Carthoris and the lioness.
Jane, dear heart, brought brandy. Dejah, looking lovely in a native sarong, carried a tray of sliced meats, cheese and bread. Sandwiches were made and consumed.
The afternoon passed with quiet conversation. I managed to get Uncle Jack to open up regarding things Barsoomian and Jane prevailed upon her husband to gossip for his guests' benefit. It was most illuminating and stories were told that one day I shall have to write down. On that day, however, the future was not about manuscripts, but about the fate of Mars, for it was every bit as serious as that. Unchecked, the camsak threatened the existence of every living creature by consuming resources that other animals required.
By nightfall Thuvia and Carthoris returned to the house with positive news. "The lioness is well," Thuvia said. "She is a creature unlike any I have ever met. Her mate, her partner in life, is powerful, cunning, protective. The young females are nearing their prime. The thought of hunting new territory all their own is appealing. They are ready to go."
the English lord asked the question I had barely framed: "The lions have told you this?"
Thuvia, imperious, frowned. Her husband gently chided the woman.
"This is my interpretation of their dreams," she said, "for these animals do dream. But their dreams are unlike any a human ever had. Each dream is an emotion, a feeling bright as gems and as unique as any jewel fashioned by master craftsmen. Like diamonds and rubies and emeralds their thoughts center around basic life events and necessity--the very emotions which drive us of the higher orders but we are reluctant to admit having. In these creatures' minds I have seen wealth beyond that of all the jeddaks of Barsoom."
The English lord rose at that moment to lift his glass in salute, first to Thuvia, then the rest. "Until this moment I had not decided whether I would allow the export of lions to Mars. I, too, needed some reassurance, my dear Thuvia. I give you the gift of earth's lions because the dream is true. I know this dream because I had it myself sleeping in the arms of my mother beneath the African moon."
Lord John walked to the edge of the veranda and called out orders in a native tongue. Turning back, he bowed to Carthoris' wife. "A token to remind you of this visit to Earth." A fine-looking black came into the light which fell from the veranda into the yard. He led two horses, yearlings really, one of each gender. "Their names are Jewel and Bright. They are yours."
Thuvia threw her arms about the English lord dressed in a loin cloth and kissed him; then as suddenly ran into the yard to be with the horses.
John Carter took me aside to where we could watch without disturbing. "We came to earth to save Barsoom from ecological disaster. This we shall surely do," he said, "but it seems we have found more than we bargained. We have also found Thuvia's treasure."