The Eternal Lover

Part II

Chapter II

Back to the Stone Age

Edgar Rice Burroughs

IT WAS morning when Nat-ul awoke. The sun was streaming in across a wide sea to illumine the interior of the cave where she lay huddled in a great pile of soft, furry pelts. Near her lay a woman, older than herself, but still beautiful. In front of them, nearer the mouth of the cave, two men slept. One was Tha, her father, and the other her brother, Aht. The woman was Nat-ul’s mother, Lu-tan. Now she, too, opened her eyes. She stretched, raising her bare, brown arms above her head, and half turning on her side toward Nat-ul—it was the luxurious movement of the she-tiger—the embodiment of perfect health and grace. Lu-tan smiled at her daughter, exposing a row of strong, white, even teeth. Nat-ul returned the smile.

“I am glad that it is light again,” said the girl. “The shaking of the ground, yesterday, frightened me, so that I had the most terrible dreams all during the darkness—ugh!” and Nat-ul shuddered.

Tha opened his eyes and looked at the two women.

“I, too, dreamed,” he said. “I dreamed that the earth shook again; the cliffs sank; and the Restless Sea rolled in upon them, drowning us all. This is no longer a good place to live. After we have eaten I shall go speak to Nu, telling him that we should seek other caves in a new country.”

Nat-ul rose and stepping between the two men came to the ledge before the entrance to the cave. Before her stretched a scene that was perfectly familiar and yet strangely new. Below her was an open patch at the foot of the cliff, all barren and boulder strewn except for a rude rectangle that had been cleared of rock and debris. Beyond lay a narrow strip of tangled tropical jungle. Enormous fern-like trees lifted their huge fronds a hundred feet into the air. The sun was topping the horizon, coming out of a great sea that lay just beyond the jungle. And such a sun! It was dull red and swollen to an enormous size. The atmosphere was thick and hot—almost sticky. And the life! Such countless myriads of creatures teeming through the jungle, winging their way through the air, and blackening the surface of the sea!

Nat-ul knit her brows. She was trying to think—trying to recall something. Was it her dream that she attempted to visualize, or was this the dream? She shook herself. Then she glanced quickly down at her apparel. For an instant she seemed not to comprehend the meaning of her garmenture—the single red-doe skin, or the sandals of the thick hide of Ta, the woolly rhinoceros, held to her shapely feet by thin lacings of the rawhide of the great Bos. And yet, she quickly realized, she had always been clothed just thus—but, had she? The question puzzled her.

Mechanically her hand slipped to the back of her head above the nape of her neck. A look of puzzlement entered her eyes as her fingers fell upon the loose strands of her long hair that tumbled to her waist in the riotous and lovely confusion of early morning. What was it that her light touch missed? A barette? What could Nat-ul, child of the stone age, know of barrettes?

Slowly her fingers felt about her head. When they came in contact with the broad fillet that bound her hair back from her forehead she smiled. This was the fillet that Nu, the son of Nu, had fashioned for her from a single gorgeous snake skin of black and red and yellow, split lengthwise and dried. It awoke her to a more vivid realization of the present. She turned and reentered the cave. From a wooden peg driven into a hole in the wall she took a handful of brilliant feathers. These she stuck in the front of the fillet, where they nodded in a gay plume above her sweet face.

By this time Lu-tan, Tha, and Aht had risen. The older woman was busying herself with some dry tinder and a fire stick, just inside the entrance to the cave. Tha and Aht had stepped out upon the ledge, filling their lungs with the morning air. Nat-ul joined them. In her hand was a bladder. The three clambered down the face of the cliff.

Other men and women were emerging from other caves that pitted the rocky escarpment. They greeted the three with smiles and pleasant words, and upon every tongue was some comment upon the earthquake of the preceding night.

Tha and Aht went into the jungle toward the sea. Nat-ul stopped beside a little spring, that bubbled, clear and cold, at the foot of the cliff. Here were other girls with bladders which they were filling with water. There was Ra-el, daughter of Kor, who made the keenest spear tips and the best balanced. And there was Una, daughter of Nu, the chief, and sister of Nu, the son of Nu. And beside these were half a dozen others—all clean limbed, fine featured girls, straight as arrows, supple as panthers. They laughed and talked as they filled their bladders at the spring.

“Were you not frightened when the earth shook, Nat-ul?” asked Una.

“I was frightened,” replied Nat-ul—“yes; but I was more frightened by the dream I had after the shaking had stopped.”

“What did you dream?” cried Ra-el, daughter of Kor—Kor who made the truest spear heads, with which a strong man could strike a flying reptile in mid-air.

“I dreamed that I was not Nat-ul,” replied the girl. “I dreamed of a strange world and strange people. I was one of them. I was clothed in many garments that were not skin at all. I lived in a cave that was not a cave—it was built upon the ground of the stuff of which trees are made, only cut into thin slabs and fastened together. There were many caves in the one cave.

“There were men and women, and some of the men were black.”

“Black!” echoed the other girls.

“Yes, black,” insisted Nat-ul. “And they alone were garbed something as are our men. The white men wore strange garments and things upon their heads, and had no beards. They carried short spears that spit smoke and great noise out upon their enemies and the wild beasts, and slew them at a great distance.”

“And was Nu, the son of Nu, there?” asked Ra-el, tittering behind her hand.

“He came and took me away,” replied Nat-ul, gravely. “And at night the earth shook as we slept in the cave of Oo. And when I awoke I was here in the cave of Tha, my father.”

“Nu has not returned,” said Una.

Nat-ul looked at her inquiringly.

“Where did Nu, the son of Nu, go?” she asked.

“Who should know better than Nat-ul, daughter of Tha, that Nu, the son of Nu, went forth to slay Oo, the killer of men and mammoths, that he might lay Oo’s head before the cave of Nat-ul?” she asked, in reply.

“He has not returned?” asked Nat-ul. “He said that he would go but I thought that he joked, for one man alone may not slay Oo, the killer of men and of mammoths.” But she did not use the word “mammoth,” nor the word “man.” Instead she spoke in a language that survives only among the apes of our day, if it survives at all, and among them only in crude and disjointed monosyllables. When she spoke of the mammoth she called him Gluh, and man was Pah. The tongue was low and liquid and entirely beautiful and enchanting, and she spoke, too, much with her eyes and with her graceful hands, as did her companions, for the tribe of Nu was not far removed from those earlier peoples, descended from the alalus who were speechless, and who preceded those who spoke by signs.

The girls, having filled the bladders with water, now returned to their respective caves. Nat-ul had scarce entered and hung up the bladder ere Tha and Aht returned—one with the carcass of an antelope, the other with an armful of fruits.

In the floor of the cave beside the fire a little hollow had been chipped from the living rock. Into this Nat-ul poured some water, while Lu-tan cut pieces of the antelope’s flesh into small bits, dropping them into the water. Then she scooped a large pebble from the fire where it had been raised to a high temperature. This she dropped into the water with the meat. There was a great bubbling and sputtering, which was repeated as Lu-tan dropped one super-heated pebble after another into the water until the whole became a boiling cauldron. When the water continued to boil for a few moments after a pebble was thrown in Lu-tan ceased her operation, sitting quietly with her family about the primitive stew for several minutes. Occasionally she would stick a finger into the water to test its temperature, and when at last she seemed satisfied she signalled Tha to eat.

The man plunged his stone knife into a piece of the half cooked meat, withdrew it from the cauldron and tossed it upon the floor beside Lu-tan. A second piece was given to Nat-ul, a third to Aht, and the fourth Tha kept to himself. The four ate with a certain dignity. There was nothing bestial nor repulsive in their manners, and as they ate they talked and laughed among themselves—there seemed great good-fellowship in the cavehold of Tha.

Aht joked with Nat-ul about Nu, the son of Nu, telling her that doubtless a hyena had devoured the mighty hunter before ever he had had a chance to slay Oo. But Lu-tan came to her daughter’s rescue, saying that it was more likely that Nu, the son of Nu, had discovered Oo and all his family and had remained to kill them all.

“I do not fear for Nu, because of Oo,” said Tha, presently. “For Nu, the son of Nu, is as great a hunter as his father; but I shall be glad to see him safe again from all that might have befallen him when the earth rocked and the thunder came from below instead of from above. I shall be glad to have him return and take my daughter as his mate, whether he brings back the head of Oo or not.”

Nat-ul was silent, but she was worried, for all feared the power of the elements against which no man might survive in battle, no matter how brave he might be.

After breakfast Tha went, as he had said that he should, to the cave of Nu, the chief. There he found many of the older warriors and the young men. There were so many of them that there was not room within the cave and upon the narrow ledge without, so, at a word from Nu, they all descended to the little, roughly cleared rectangle at the base of the cliff. This place was where their councils were held and where the tribe congregated for feasts, or other purposes that called many together.

Nu sat at one end of the clearing upon a flat rock. About his shoulders fell the shaggy haired skin of a huge cave bear. In the string that supported his loin cloth reposed a wooden handled stone axe and a stone knife. Upright in his hand, its butt between his feet, rose a tall, slim spear, stone tipped. His black hair was rudely cut into a shock. A fillet of tiger hide encircled his head, supporting a single long, straight feather. About his neck depended a string of long, sharp fangs and talons, and from cheek to heel his smooth, bronzed hide was marked with many scars inflicted by these same mementos when they had armed the mighty paws and jaws of the fierce denizens of that primeval world. He let the skin that covered him slip from his shoulders, for the morning was warm. In that hot and humid atmosphere there was seldom need for covering, but even then men were slaves to fashion. They wore the trophies of their prowess, and bedecked their women similarly.

Tha, being second only to Nu, was the first among the warriors to speak. As speech was young and words comparatively few they must needs be supplemented with many signs and gestures. Oratory was, therefore, a strenuous business, and one which required a keen imagination, more than ordinary intelligence, and considerable histrionic ability. Because it was so difficult to convey one’s ideas to one’s fellowmen the art of speech, in its infancy, was of infinitely more value to the human race than it is today. Now, we converse mechanically—the more one listens to ordinary conversations the more apparent it becomes that the reasoning faculties of the brain take little part in the direction of the vocal organs. When Tha spoke to Nu and the warriors of his tribe he was constantly required to invent signs and words to carry varying shades of meaning to his listeners. It was great mental exercise for Tha and for his audience as well—men were good listeners in those days; they had to be and they advanced more rapidly in proportion to our advancement, because what little speech they heard meant something—it was too precious to waste, nor could men afford to attend to foolish matters where it required all their eyes as well as their ears and the concentration of the best of their mental faculties to follow the thread of an argument.

Tha stepped to the center of the group of warriors. There was a little open space left there for the speaker. About it squatted the older men. Behind them knelt others, and behind these stood the young men of the tribe of Nu.

Tha uttered a deep rumbling from his chest cavity. He shook his giant frame.

“The ground roars and trembles where we live,” he said. “The cliffs will fall.” He pointed toward their dwellings, making a gesture with his open palms toward the ground. “We shall all be killed. Let us go. Let us seek a new place where the ground does not tremble. The beasts are everywhere. Fruit is everywhere. Grain grows in the valley of every river. We may hunt elsewhere as well as here. We shall find plenty to eat. Let us take our women and our children and go out of this place.”

As he spoke he mimicked the hunting of game, the gathering of fruit and grain, the marching and the search for a new home. His motions were both dignified and graceful. His listeners sat in rapt attention. When he had done he squatted down among the older warriors. Then another rose—a very old man. He came to the center of the open space, and told, by word and pantomime, the dangers of migration. He recalled the numerous instances when strangers, in small parties and in great numbers had come too close to the country of Nu, and how they, Nu’s warriors, had rushed upon them, slaying all who could not escape.

“Others will do the same to us,” he said, “if we approach their dwellings.”

When he had sat down Hud pushed through to the center from the ring of younger warriors. Hud desired Nat-ul, the daughter of Tha. Therefore he had two good reasons for espousing the cause of her father. One was that he might ingratiate himself with the older man, and the other was the hope that the tribe might migrate at once while Nu, the son of Nu, was absent, thus giving Hud uninterrupted opportunity to push his suit for the girl.

“Tha has spoken wisely,” he said. “This land is no longer safe for man or beast. Scarce a moon passes that does not see the ground tremble and crack, and in places have faces of the mountains tumbled away. Any time it may be the turn of our cliff to fall. Let us go to a land where the ground does not tremble. We need not fear the strangers. That is the talk of old men, and women who are big with child. The tribe of Nu is mighty. It can go where it pleases, and slay those who would block its way. Let us do as Tha says, and go away from here at once—another great trembling may come at any moment. Let us leave now, for we have eaten.”

Others spoke, and so great was the fear of the earthquakes among them that there was scarce a dissenting voice—nearly all wished to go. Nu listened with grave dignity. When all had spoken who wished to speak he arose.

“It is best,” he said. “We will go away—” Hud could scarce repress a smile of elation “so soon as Nu, my son, returns.” Hud scowled. “I go to seek him,” concluded Nu.

The council was over. The men dispersed to their various duties. Tha accompanied Nu in search of the latter’s son. A party of hunters went north toward the Barren Cliffs, at the foot of which, not far from the sea, one of the tribe had seen a bull mammoth the previous day.

Hud went to his cave and watched his opportunity to see Nat-ul alone. At last his patience was rewarded by sight of her going down toward the spring, which was now deserted. Hud ran after her. He overtook her as she stooped to fill the bladder.

“I want you,” said Hud, coming directly to the point in most primitive fashion, “to be my mate.”

Nat-ul looked at him for a moment and then laughed full in his face.

“Go fetch the head of Oo and lay it before my father’s cave,” she answered, “and then, maybe, Nat-ul will think about becoming the mate of Hud. But I forgot,” she suddenly cried, “Hud does not hunt—he prefers to remain at home with the old men and the women and the children while the men go forth in search of Gluh.” She emphasized the word men.

The man colored. He was far from being a physical coward—cowards were not bred until a later age. He seized her roughly by the arm.

“Hud will show you that he is no coward,” he cried, “for he will take you away to be his mate, defying Nu and Tha and Nu, the son of Nu. If they come to take you from him, Hud will slay them all.”

As he spoke he dragged her toward the jungle beyond the spring—the jungle that lay between the cliff and the sea. Nat-ul struggled, fighting to be free; but Hud, a great hand across her mouth and an arm about her body, forged silently ahead with his captive. Beyond the jungle the man turned north along the beach. Now he relaxed his hold upon the girl’s mouth.

“Will you come with me?” he asked, “or must I drag you thus all day?”

“I shall not come willingly,” she replied, “for otherwise Nu, the son of Nu, nor my father, nor my brother might have the right to kill you for what you have done; but now they may, for you are taking me by force as did the hairy people who lived long time ago take their mates. You are a beast, Hud, and when my men come upon you they will slay you for the beast you are.”

“You will suffer most,” retorted Hud, “for if you do not come willingly with me the tribe will kill the child.”

“There will be no child,” replied Nat-ul, and beneath her red-doe skin she hugged the stag handle of a stone knife.

Hud kept to the beach to escape detection by the mammoth hunters upon their return from the chase, for they, too, had gone northward; but along the base of the cliffs upon the opposite side of the strip of jungle that extended parallel with the beach to the very foot of the Barren Cliffs, where they jutted boldly out into the Restless Sea half a day’s journey northward.

The sun was directly above the two when Hud dragged his unwilling companion up the steep face of the Barren Cliffs which he had determined to cross in search of a secure hiding place, for he knew that he might not return to the tribe for a full moon after the thing that he had done. Even then it might not be safe, for the men of the tribe of Nu had not taken their mates by force for many generations. There was a strong belief among them that the children of women who mated through their own choice were more beautiful, better natured and braver than those whose mothers were little better than prisoners and slaves. Hud hoped, however, to persuade Nat-ul to say that she had run away with him voluntarily, to which there could be no objection. But that might require many days.

From the top of the Barren Cliffs there stretched away toward the north an entirely different landscape than that upon the southern side. Here was a great level plain, dotted with occasional clumps of trees. At a little distance a broad river ran down to the sea, its banks clothed in jungle. Upon the plain, herds of antelope, bison and bos browsed in tall grasses and wild grains. Sheep, too, were there, and rooting just within the jungle were great droves of wild hog. Now and then there would be a sudden stampede among the feeding herbivora as some beast of prey dashed among them. Bleating, bellowing, squealing or grunting they would race off madly for a short distance only to resume their feeding and love-making when assured that they were not pursued, though the great carnivore might be standing in full sight of them above the carcass of its kill. But why run further? All about them, in every direction, were other savage, bloodthirsty beasts. It was but a part of their terror stricken lives, fleeing hither and thither as they snatched sustenance, and only surviving because they bred more surely than the beasts that preyed upon them and could live further from water.

Hud led Nat-ul down the northern face of the Barren Cliffs; searching for a cavern in which they might make their temporary home. Half way between the summit and the base he came upon a cave. Before it were strewn gnawed bones of antelope, buffalo and even mammoth. Hud grasped his spear more firmly as he peered into the dark interior. Here was the cave of Ur, the cave-bear. Hud picked up a bone and threw it within. There was no remonstrative growl—Ur was not at home.

Hud pushed Nat-ul within, then he rolled a few large boulders before the cave’s mouth—enough to bar the entrance of the gigantic bear upon his return. After, he crawled through the small opening that he had left. In the dim light of the interior he saw Nat-ul flattened against the further side of the cave. He crossed toward her to take her in his arms.

The Eternal Lover - Contents    |     Part II - Chapter III - The Great Cave-Bear

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