Back to the Stone Age

Chapter X


Edgar Rice Burroughs

VON HORST struggled and fought to free himself. He shouted aloud to La-ja to run to the opening they had seen ahead of them and make her escape. He did not know that she, too, had been captured. It seemed that a dozen hands clung to each of his arms, and though he was a powerful man he could neither escape nor wrench his arm free long enough to draw his pistol. His spear had been snatched from him at the moment of his seizure.

It was very dark in the corridor down which he was being dragged along a steep declivity; so that he could not see whether they were men or beasts that had captured him. Yet, though they did not speak, he was sure that they were men. Presently, at a sudden turning of the corridor, they came into a lighted chamber—a vast subterranean room illuminated by many torches. And here von Horst saw the nature of the creatures into whose hands he had fallen. They were of the same race as the man he had seen fleeing from the zanth. They were mostly men; but there were a few women among them and perhaps a dozen children. All had white skins, white hair, and the pink and red eyes of Albinos, which in themselves are not disgusting. It was the bestial, brutal faces of these creatures that made them appear so horrible.

Most of the assemblage, which must have numbered several hundred people, sat or squatted or lay near the wall of the roughly circular chamber, leaving a large open space in the center. To this space von Horst was dragged; then he was thrown to the ground, his hands tied behind his back, and his ankles secured.

As he lay on his side, taking in all that he could see of the repulsive concourse, his heart suddenly sank. From the mouth of a corridor opposite that through which he had been brought into the chamber he saw La-ja being dragged. They brought her to the open space where he lay and bound her as they had bound him. The two lay facing one another. Von Horst tried to smile, but there was not much heart in it. From what he had seen of these people and what he had guessed of their customs, he could draw no slightest ray of hope that they might escape a fate similar to that of those whose ghastly remains they had seen in those other two chambers of the cave.

“It looks like a hard winter,” he said.

“Winter? What is winter?” she asked.

“It is the time of year—oh, but then you don’t even know what a year is. What’s the use? Let’s talk about something else.”

“Why do we have to talk?”

“I don’t know why I have to, but I do. Ordinarily I’m not a very loquacious person, but right now I’ve got to talk or go crazy.”

“Be careful what you say, then,” she whispered, “if you are thinking of talking of a way to escape.”

“Do you suppose these things can understand us?” he demanded.

“Yes, we can understand you,” said one of the creatures standing near them, in hollow, sepulchral tones.

“Then tell us why you captured us. What are you going to do with us?”

The fellow bared his yellowed teeth in a soundless laugh. “He asks what we are going to do with them,” he announced in loud tones that were none the less suggestive of the grave because of their loudness.

The audience rocked with silent mirth. “What are we going to do with them?” echoed several, and then they went off into gales of hideous, mirthless laughter that was as silent as the tomb.

“If they want to know, lets show them now,” suggested one.

“Yes, Torp,” said another, “now, now.” “No,” said he who had been addressed as Torp, the same fellow who had originally spoken to von Horst. “We already have plenty, many of which have aged too long as it is.” He stepped closer to the prisoners; and, stooping, pinched their flesh, digging a filthy forefinger between their ribs. “They need fattening,” he announced. “We shall feed them for a while. Plenty of nuts and a little fruit will put a layer of juicy fat on their ribs.” He rubbed his palms together and licked his flabby lips. “Some of you take them away and put them in that little room over there, get nuts and fruit for them; and keep them there until they get fat.” As he finished speaking, another of the creatures entered the room from one of the runways that led above. He was very much excited as he ran into the center of the cavern.

“What’s the matter with you, Durg?” demanded Torp.

“I was chased by a zarith,” exclaimed Durg, “but that is not all. A strange gilak with a woman made many loud noises with a little black stick, and the zarith fell down and died. The strange gilak saved Durg’s life; but why, I do not know.”

The men who had gathered about von Horst and La-Ja to take them to the chamber in which they were to be fattened had removed the thongs from their ankles and dragged them to their feet just as Durg finished his story; so that he saw them now for the first time.

“There they are!” he exclaimed excitedly. “There is the same gilak that saved Durg’s life. What are you going to do with them, Torp?”

“They are going to be fattened,” replied Torp; “they are too thin.”

“You should let them go, because they saved my life,” urged Durg.

“Should I let them go because the man is a fool?” demanded Torp. “If he had any sense he would have killed and eaten you. Take them away.”

“He saved a Gorbus!” cried Durg, addressing the assembled tribe. “Should we let him be killed for that? I say, let them go free.”

“Let them go!” cried a few, but there were more who shrieked, “Fatten them! Fatten them!”

As the men were pushing them toward the entrance to the chamber in which they were to be confined, von Horst saw Durg facing Torp angrily.

“Some day I am going to kill you,” threatened the former. “We need a good chief. You are no good.”

“I am chief,” screamed Torp. “It is I who will kill you.”

“You?” demanded Durg with disgust. “You are only a killer of women. You murdered seven of them. You never murdered a man. I murdered four.”

“You poisoned them,” sneered Torp.

“I did not!” shrieked Durg. “I killed three of them with a cleaver and stabbed the other with a dagger.”

“In the back?” asked Torp.

“No, not in the back, you woman killer.” As von Horst was pushed from the large cavern into the darkness of the small one that adjoined it the two Gorbuses were still quarrelling; and as the European meditated upon what he had heard, he was struck not so much by the gruesomeness of their words as by Durg’s use of two English words—cleaver and dagger.

This was sufficiently remarkable in itself, and even more so coming from the lips of a member of a tribe that was apparently so low in the scale of evolution that they had no weapons of any description. How could Durg know what a dagger was? How could he ever have heard of a cleaver? And where did he learn the English words for them? Von Horst could discover no explanation of the mystery.

The Gorbuses left them in the smaller cave without bothering to secure their ankles again, though they left their hands tied behind them. There were leaves and grasses on the floor, and the two prisoners made themselves as comfortable as they could. The torch-light from the larger cave relieved the gloom of their prison cell, permitting them to see one another dimly as they sat on the musty bedding that littered the floor.

“What are we going to do now?” demanded La-ja.

“I don’t know of anything that we can do right now,” replied the man, “but it appears that later on we are going to be eaten—when we are fatter. If they feed us well we should do our best to get fat. We must certainly leave a good impression behind us when we go.”

“That is stupid,” snapped the girl. “Your head must be very sick indeed to think of anything so stupid.”

“Perhaps ‘thick’ would be a better word,” laughed von Horst. “Do you know, La-ja, it is just too bad.”

“What is too bad?”

“That you have no sense of humor,” he replied. “We could have a much better time if you had.”

“I never know when you are serious and when you are laughing with words,” she said. “If you will tell me when the things you say are supposed to be funny, perhaps I can laugh at them.”

“You win, La-ja,” the man assured her.

“Win what?” she demanded.

“My apology and my esteem—you have a sense of humor, even though you don’t know it.”

“You said a moment ago,” said La-ja, “that you didn’t know of anything that we could do right now. Don’t you wish to escape, or would you rather stay here and get eaten?”

“Of course I’d prefer escaping,” replied von Horst, “but I don’t see any possibility of it at present while all those creatures are in the big cave.”

“What have you got that thing you call peestol for?” demanded La-ja, not without a note of derision. “You killed a zarith with it. You could much more easily kill these Gorbuses; then we could escape easily.”

“There are too many of them, La-ja,” he replied. “If I fired away all my ammunition, I could not possibly kill enough of them to make escape certain; furthermore my hands are tied behind me. But even were they free, I’d wait to the very last moment before attempting it.

“You have no way of knowing it, La-ja; but when I have used up all these shiny little things tucked in my belt, the pistol will be of no more use to me; for I can never get any more of them. Therefore, I must be very careful not to waste them.

“However, you may rest assured that before I’ll let ’em eat either one of us, I’ll do a little shooting. My hope is that they will be so surprised and frightened by the reports that they’ll fall over one another in their efforts to escape.”

As he ceased speaking, a Gorbus entered their little cave. It. was Durg. He carried a small torch which illuminated the interior, revealing the rough walls, the litter of leaves and grasses, the two figures lying uncomfortably with bound hands.

Durg looked them over in silence for a moment; then he squatted on the floor near them. “Torp is a stubborn fool,” he said in his hollow voice. “He ought to set you free, but he won’t. He’s made up his mind that we’re going to eat you, and I guess we shall.

“It’s too bad though. No one ever saved a Gorbus’s life before; it was unheard of. If I had been chief, I would have let you go.”

“Maybe you can help us anyway,” suggested von Horst.

“How?” asked Durg.

“Show us how we can escape.”

“You can’t escape,” Durg assured him emphatically.

“Those people don’t stay in that other cave all the time, do they?” demanded the European.

“If they go away, Torp will leave a guard here to see that you don’t get away.”

Von Horst mused for a moment. Finally he looked up at their grotesque visitor. “You’d like to be chief, wouldn’t you?” he demanded.

“S-s-sh!” cautioned Durg. “Don’t let anyone hear you say that. But how did you know?”

“I know many things,” replied von Horst in a whisper, mysteriously.

Durg eyed him half fearfully. “I knew that you were not as other gilaks,” he said. “You are different. Perhaps you are from that other life, that other world, of which Gorbuses get fleeting glimpses out of the dim background of almost forgotten memories. Yes, they are forgotten; and yet there are always reminders of them constantly tormenting us. Tell me—who are you? From whence came you?”

“I am called Von; and I come from the outer world—from a world very different from this one.”

“I knew it!” exclaimed Durg. “It must be that there is another world. Once we Gorbuses lived in it. It was a happy world; but because of what we did we were sent away from it to live here in this dark forest, miserable and unhappy.”

“I do not understand,” said von Horst. “You didn’t come from my world; there is no one like you there.”

“We were different there,” said Durg. “We all feel that we were different. To some the memories are more distinct than to others, but they are never wholly clear. We get fleeting glimpses that are blurred and dim and that fade quickly before we can decipher them or fix them definitely in our memories. It is only those that we murdered that we see clearly—we see them and the way that we murdered them; but we do not see ourselves as we were then, except rarely; and then the visions are only hazy suggestions. But we know that we were not as we are here. It is tantalizing; it drives us almost to madness—never quite to see, never quite to recall.

“I can see the three that I killed with the cleaver—my father and two older brothers—I did it that I might get something they had; I do not know what. They stood in my way. I murdered them. Now I am a naked Gorbus feeding on human bodies. Some of us think that thus we are punished.”

“What do you know about cleavers?” asked von Horst, now much interested in the weird recital and its various implications.

“I know nothing of cleavers except that it was with a cleaver I killed my father and my two brothers. With a dagger, I stabbed a man. I do not know why. I can see him—his pain distorted features clearly, the rest of him very vaguely. He had on blue clothes with shiny buttons. Ah, now he has faded away—all but his face. He is glaring at me. I almost had something then—clothes, buttons! What are they? I almost knew—now they are gone. What were the words? What words did I just say? They have gone, too. It is ever thus. We are plagued by half pictures that are snatched away from us immediately.”

“You all suffer thus?” asked von Horst.

“Yes,” said Durg. “We all see those we have murdered; those are the only memories that we retain permanently:’

“You are all murderers?”

“Yes. I am one of the best. Torp’s seven women are nothing. Some he killed while they were embracing him with love—he smothered them or choked them. One he strangled with her own hair. He is always bragging about that one.”

“Why did he kill them?” demanded La-ja.

“He wished something that they had. It was thus with all of us. I can’t imagine what it was I wished when I killed my father and brothers, nor what any of the others wished. Whatever it was, we didn’t get it; for we have nothing here. The only thing we ever crave is food, and we have plenty of that. Anyway, no one would kill for food. It gives no satisfaction. It is nauseating. We eat because if we didn’t we believe that we would die and go to a worse place than this. We are afraid of that.”

“You don’t enjoy eating?” asked von Horst. “What do you enjoy?”

“Nothing. There is no happiness in the Forest of Death. There are cold and hopelessness and nausea and fear. Oh, yes; there is hate. We hate one another. Perhaps we get some satisfaction from that, but not a great deal. We are all hating, and you can’t get a great deal of pleasure doing what every one else is doing.

“I derived a little pleasure from wishing to set you free—that was different; that was unique. It is the first pleasure I have ever had. Of course I am not certain just what pleasure is, but I thought I recognized the sensation as pleasure because while I was experiencing it I forgot all about cold and hopelessness and nausea and fear. Anything that makes one forget must be a pleasure.”

“You are all murderers?” asked La-ja.

“We have each killed something,” replied Durg. “Do you see that old woman sitting over there with her face in her hands? She killed the happiness of two people. She remembers it quite clearly. A man and a woman. They loved each other very much. All that they asked was to be left alone and allowed to be happy.

“And that man standing just beyond her. He killed something more beautiful than life. Love. He killed his wife’s love.

“Yes, each of us has killed something; but I am glad that it was men that I killed and not happiness or love.”

“Perhaps you are right,” said von Horst. “There are far too many men in the world but not half enough happiness or love.”

A sudden commotion in the outer cave interrupted further conversation. Durg jumped to his feet and left them; and von Horst and La-ja, looking out, saw two prisoners being dragged into the cavern.

“More food for the larder,” remarked the man.

“And they don’t even enjoy eating it,” said La-ja. “I wonder if what Durg told us is true—about the murders, I mean, and the other life they half recall.”

Van Horst shook his head. “I don’t know; but if it is, it answers a question that has been bothering generations of men of the outer crust.”

“Look,” said La-ja. “They are bringing the prisoners this way.”

“To the fattening pen,” said van Horst with a grin.

“One of them is a very big man, is he not?” remarked. La-ja. “It takes many Gorbuses to force him along.”

“That fellow looks familiar to me,” said von Horst. “Not the big one—the other. There are so many Gorbuses around them that I can’t get a good look at either of them.”

The new prisoners were brought to the smaller cave and thrust in roughly, so that they almost fell upon the two already there. The larger man was blustering and threatening; the other whined and complained. In the semi-darkness of the interior it was impossible to distinguish the features of either.

They paid no attention to von Horst or La-ja although they must have been aware of their presence; yet the former felt certain that the loud bragging of the larger man must be for the purpose of impressing them, as the Gorbuses had departed; and the fellow’s companion did not appear to be the type that anyone would wish to impress. He was quite evidently a coward and in a blue funk of terror. He was almost gibbering with fright as he bemoaned the fate that had ever brought him to the Forest of Death; but the other man paid no attention to him, each rambling on quite independently of the other.

As von Horst, half amused, listened to them, several Gorbuses approached the cave, bearing fruits and nuts. One of them carried a torch, the light from which illuminated the interior of the cave as the fellow entered; and in the flickering light, the faces of the prisoners were revealed to each other.

“You!” fairly screamed the big fellow who had been blustering, as his eyes fell upon von Horst. It was Frug, and his companion was Skruf.

Back to the Stone Age - Contents    |     Chapter XI - Fattened for Slaughter

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