They found the old man in the poorest and least protected cave in the cliff side, exposed to the attack of the first prowling carnivore, or skulking foeman.
He was sick, and there was none to care for him; but he did not complain. That was the way of his people. When a man became too old to be of service to the community it were better that he died, and so they did nothing to delay the inevitable. When one became an absolute burden upon his fellows it was customary to hasten the end—a carefully delivered blow with a heavy rock was calculated quickly to relieve the burdens of the community and the suffering of the invalid.
Thandar and Nadara came in and sat down beside him. The old fellow seemed glad to see them.
“I am Thandar,” said the young man. “I wish to take your daughter as my mate.”
The old man looked at him questioningly for a moment.
“You have killed Korth and Flatfoot—who is to prevent you from taking Nadara?”
“I wish to be joined to her with your permission an in accordance with the marriage ceremonies of your people,” said Thandar.
The old man shook his head.
“I do not understand you,” he replied at last. “There are several fine caves that are not occupied—if you wish a better one you have but to slay the present occupants if they do not get out when you tell them to—but I think they will get out when the slayer of Korth and Flatfoot tells them to.”
“I am not worried about a cave,” said Thandar. “Tell me how men take their wives among you.”
“If they do not come with us willingly we take them by the hair and drag them with us,” replied Nadara’s father. “My mate would not come with me,” he continued, “and even after I had caught her and dragged her to my cave she broke away and fled from me, but again I overhauled her, for when I was young none could run more swiftly, and this time I did what I should have done at first—I beat her upon the head until she went to sleep. When she awoke she was in my own cave, and it was night, and she did not try to run away any more.”
For a long time Thandar sat in thought. Presently he spoke addressing Nadara.
“In my country we do not take our wives in any such way, nor shall I take you thus. We must be married properly, according to the customs and laws of civilization.”
Nadara made no reply. To her it seemed that Thandar must care very little for her—that was about the only explanation she could put upon his strange behavior. It made her sad. And then the other women would laugh at her—of that she was quite certain, and that, too, made her feel very badly—they would see that Thandar did not want her.
The old man, lying upon his scant bed of matted, filthy grasses, had heard the conversation. He was as much at sea as Nadara. At last he spoke—very feebly now, for rapidly he was nearing dissolution.
“I am a very old man, “he said to Thandar. “I have not long to live. Before I did I should like to know that Nadara has a mate who will protect her. I love her, though—: He hesitated.
“Though what?” asked Thandar.
“I have never told,” whispered the old fellow. “My mate would not let me, but now that I am about to die it can do no harm. Nadara is not my daughter.”
The girl sprang to her feet.
“Not your daughter? Then who am I?”
“I do not know who you are, except that you are not even of my people. All I know I will tell you now before I die. Come close, for my voice is dying faster than my body.”
The young man and the girl came nearer to his side, and squatting there leaned close that they might catch each faintly articulated syllable.
“My mate and I,” commenced the old man, “were childless, though many moons had passed since I took her to my cave. She wanted a little one, for thus only may women have aught upon which to lavish their love.
“We had been hunting together for several days alone and far from the village, for I was a great hunter when I was young—no greater ever lived among our people.
“And one day we came down to the great water, and there, a short distance from the shore we saw a strange thing that floated upon the surface of the water, and when it was blown closer to us we saw that it was hollow and that in it were two people—a man and a woman. Both appeared to be dead.
“Finally I waded out to meet the thing, dragging it to shore, and there sure enough was a man and a woman, and the man was dead—quite dead. He must have been dead for a long time; but the woman was not dead.
“She was very fair though her eyes and hair were black. We carried her ashore, and that night a little girl was born to her, but the woman died before morning.
“We put her back into the strange thing that had brought her—she and the dead man who had come with her—and shoved them off upon the great water, where the breeze, which runs away from the land twice each day carried them out of sight, nor ever did we see them again.
“But before se sent them off my mate took from the body of the woman her strange coverings and a little bag of skin which contained many sparkling stones of different colors and metals of yellow and white made into things the purposes of which we could not guess.
“It was evident that the woman had come from a strange land, for she and all her belongs were unlike anything that either of us had ever seen before. She herself was different as Nadara is different—Nadara looks as her mother looked, for Nadara is the little babe that was born that night.
“We brought her back to our people after another moon, saying that she was born to my mate; but there was one woman who knew better, for it seemed that she had seen us when we found the boat, having been running away from a man who wanted her as his mate.
“But my mate did not want anyone to say that Nadara was not hers, for it is a great disgrace, as you well know, for a woman to be barren, and so she several times nearly killed this woman, who knew the truth, to keep her from telling it to the whole village.
“But I love Nadara as well as though she had been my own, and so I should like to see her well mated before I die.”
Thandar had gone white during the narration of the story of Nadara’s birth. He could scarce restrain an impulse to go upon his knees and thank his God that he had harked to the call of his civilized training rather than have given in to the easier way, the way these primitive, beast-like people offered. Providence, he thought, must indeed have sent him here to rescue her.
The old man, turning upon his rough pallet, fastened his sunken eyes questioningly upon Thandar. Nadara, too, with parted lips waited for him to speak. The old man gasped for breath—there was a strange rattling sound in his throat.
Thandar leaned above him, raising his head and shoulders slightly. The young man never had heard that sound before, but now that he heard it he needed no interpreter.
The locust, rubbing his legs along his wings, startles the uninitiated into the belief that a hidden rattler lurks in the pathway; but when the great diamond back breaks forth in warning none mistakes him for a locust.
And so it is with the death rattle in the human throat.
Thandar knew that it was the end. He saw the old man’s might effort to push back the grim reaper that he might speak once more. In the dying eyes were a question and a plea. Thandar could not misunderstand.
He reached forward and took Nadara’s hand.
“In my own land we shall be mated,” he said. “None other shall wed with Nadara, and as proof that she is Thandar’s shell shall wear this always,” and from his finger he slipped a splendid solitaire to the third finger of Nadara’s left hand.
The old man saw. A look of relief and contentment that was almost a smile settled upon his features, as, with a gasping sigh, he sank limply into Thandar’s arms, dead.
That afternoon several of the younger men carried the body of Nadara’s foster father to the top of the cliff, depositing it about half a mile from the caves. There was no ceremony. In it, though, Waldo Emerson saw what might have been the first human funeral cortege—simple, sensible and utilitarian—from which the human race has retrograded to the ostentatious, ridiculous, pestilent burials of present day civilization.
The young men, acting under Big Fist’s orders, carried the worthless husk to a safe distance from the caves, leaving it there to the rapid disintegration provided by the beasts and birds of prey.
Nadara wept, silently. An elderly lady with a single tooth espying her, moaned in sympathy. Presently other females, attracted by the moaning, joined them, and, becoming affected by the strange hysteria to which womankind is heir, mingled their moans with those of the toothless one.
Excited by their own noise they soon were shrieking and screaming in hideous chorus. Then came Big Fist and others of the men. The din annoyed them. They set upon the mourners with their fists and teeth scattering them in all directions. This ended the festivities.
Or would have had not Big Fist made the fatal mistake of launching a blow on Nadara. Thandar had been standing nearby looking with wonder upon the strange scene.
He had noted the quiet grief of the young girl—real grief; and he had witnessed the hysterical variety of the “mourners”—no sham grief. Precisely, because they made no pretense to grief—it was noise to which they aspired. And as the fiendish din had set his own nerves on edge he wondered not at all that Big Fist and the other men should take steps to quell the tumult.
The female half-brutes were theirs and Waldo Emerson had reverted sufficiently to the primitive to feel no incentive to interfere. But Nadara was not theirs—she was not of them and even had she not belonged to him the American would have felt bound to stand between her and the savage creatures among who fate had cast her.
That she did belong to him, however, sent him hot with the blood lust of the killer as he sprang to intercept the rush of Big Fist toward her.
Waldo Emerson Smith-Jones had learned nothing of the manly art of self-defense in that other life that had been so zealously guarded from the rude and vulgar. This was unfortunate since it would have given him a great advantage over the man-brute. A single well-timed swing to that unguarded chin would have ended hostilities at once; but of hooks and jabs and jolts, scientific, Thandar knew nothing.
Except for his crude weapons he was a primeval in battle as his original anthropoid progenitor, and quite as often as not he forgot all about his sword, his knife, his bow and arrows and his spear when, half stooped, he crouched to meet the charge of a foeman.
Now he sprang for Big Fist’s hairy throat. There was a sullen thud as the two bodies met, and then, rolling, biting and tearing, they struggled hither and thither upon the rocky ground at the base of the cliff.
The other men desisted from their attack upon the women. The women ceased their vocal mourning. In a little circled they formed about the contestants—a circle which moved this way and that as the fighters moved, keeping them always in the center.
Nadara forced her way through them to the front. She wished to be near Thandar. In her hand she carried a jagged bit of granite—one could never tell.
Big Fist was burly—mountainous—but Thandar was muscled like Nagoola, the black panther. His movement were all grace and each, but oh, so irresistible. A sudden and unexpected blow upon the side of Big Fist’s head bent that bullet-shaped thing sideward with a jerk that almost dislocated the neck.
Big Fist shrieked with the pain of it. Thandar, delighted by the result of the accidental blow, repeated it. Big Fist bellowed—agonized. He made a last supreme effort to close with his agile foeman, and succeeded. His teeth sought Thandar’s throat, but the act brought his own jugular close to Thandar’s jaws.
The strong white teeth of Waldo Emerson Smith-Jones closed upon it as naturally as though no countless ages had rolled their snail-like way between himself and the last of his progenitors to bury bloody fangs in the soft flesh of an antagonist.
Wasted ages! Fleeing from the primitive and the brute toward the neoteric and the human—in a brief instant your labors are undone, the veneer of eons crumbles in the heat of some pristine passion revealing again naked and unashamed the primitive and the brute.
Big Fist, white now from terror at impending death, struggled to be free. Thandar buried his teeth more deeply. There was a sudden rush of spurting blood that choked him. Big Fist relaxed, inert.
Thandar, drenched crimson, rose to his feet. The huge body on the ground before him floundered spasmodically once or twice as the life blood rushed from the severed jugular. The eyes rolled up and set, there was a final twitch and Big Fist was dead.
Thandar turned toward the circle of interested spectators. He singled out a burly quartet.
“Bear Big Fist to the cliff top,” he commanded. “When you return we shall chose a new king.”
The men did as they were bid. They did not at all understand what Thandar meant about choosing a king. Having slain Big Fist, Thandar was king, unless some ambitious one desired to dispute his right to reign. But all had seen him slay Big Fist, and all knew that he had killed Korth and Flatfoot, so who was there would dare question his kingship?
When they had come back to the village Thandar gathered them beneath a great tree that grew close to the base of the cliff. Here they squatted upon their haunches in a rough circle. Behind them stood the women and children, wide-eyed and curious.
“Let us chose a king,” said Thandar, when all had come.
There was a long silence, then one of the older men spoke.
“I am an old man. I have seen many kings. They come by killing. They go by killing. Thandar has killed two kings. Now he is king. Who wishes to kill Thandar and become king?
There was no answer.
The old man arose.
“It was foolish to come here to choose a king,” he said, “when a king we already have.”
“Wait,” commanded Thandar. “Let us chose a king properly. Because I have killed Flatfoot and Big Fist does not prove that I can make a good king. Was Flatfoot a good king?”
“He was a bad man,” replied the ancient one.
“Has a good man ever been king?” asked Thandar.
The old fellow puckered his brow in thought.
“Not for a long time.”
“That is because you always permit a bully and a brute to rule you,” said Thandar. “That is not the proper way to choose a king. Rather you should come together as we are come, and among you talk over the needs of the tribe and when you are decided as to what measures are best for the welfare of the members of the tribe then should you select the man best fitted to carry out your plans. That is a better way to choose a king.”
The old man laughed.
“And then,” he said, “would come a Big Fist or a Flatfoot and slay our king that he might be king in his place.”
“Have you ever seen a man who could slay all the other men of the tribe at the same time?”
The old man looked puzzled.
“That is my answer to your argument,” said Thandar. “Those who choose the king can protect him from his enemies. So long as he is a good king they should do so, but when he comes a bad king they can then select another, and if the bad king refuses to obey the new it would be an easy matter for several men to kill him or drive him away, no matter how mighty a fighter he might be.”
Several of the men nodded understandingly.
“We had not thought of that,” they said. “Thandar is indeed wise.”
“So now,” continued the American, “let us choose a king whom the majority of us want, and then so long as he is a good king the majority of us must fight for him and protect him. Let us choose a man whom we know to be a good man regardless of his ability to kill his fellows, for if he has the majority of the tribe to fight for him what need will he have to fight for himself? What we want is a wise man—one who can lead the tribe to fertile lands and good hunting, and in the time of battle direct the fighting intelligently. Flatfoot and Big Fist had not brains enough between them to do aught but steal the mates of other men. Such should not be the business of kings. You king should protect your mates from such as Flatfoot, and he should punish those who would steal them.”
“But how may he do these things?” asked a young man, “if he is not the best fighter in the tribe?”
“Have I not shown you how?” asked Thandar. “We who make him king shall be his fighters—he will not need to fight with his own hands.”
Again there was a long silence. Then the old man spoke again.
“There is wisdom in the talk of Thandar. Let us choose a king who will have to be good to us if he wishes to remain king. It is very bad for us to have a king whom we fear.”
“I, for one,” said the young man who had previously spoken, “do not care to be ruled by a king unless he is able to defeat me in battle. If I can defeat him then I should be king.”
And so they took sides, but at last they compromised by selecting one whom they knew to be wise and a great fighter as well. Thus they chose Thandar king.
“Once each week,” said the new king, “we shall gather here and talk among ourselves of the things which are for the best good of the tribe, and what seems best to the majority shall be done. The tribe will tell the king what to do—the king will carry out the work. And all must fight when the king says fight and all must work when the king says work, for we shall all be fighting or working for the whole tribe, and I, Thandar, your king, shall fight and work the hardest of you all.”
It was a new idea to them and placed the kingship in a totally different light from any by which they had previously viewed it. That it would take a long time for them to really absorb the idea Thandar knew, and he was glad that in the meantime that had a king who could command their respect according to their former standards.
And he smiled when he thought of the change that had taken place in him since first he had sat trembling, weeping and coughing upon the lonely shore before the terrifying forest.