The Eternal Lover

Part II

Chapter IV

The Boat Builders

Edgar Rice Burroughs

NAT-UL kept to the beach as she tramped southward. Upon her right was the jungle, upon her left the great sea, stretching away she knew not whither. To her it represented the boundary of the world—all beyond was an appalling waste of water. To the southeast she could see the outlines of islands. They were familiar objects, yet shrouded in mystery. Often they formed the topic of conversation among her people. What was there upon them? Were they inhabited? And if so, were the creatures men and women like themselves? To Nat-ul they were as full of romantic mystery as are the stars and planets to us, but she knew less of them than we do of the countless brilliant islands that dot the silent sea of space—they were further from Nat-ul and her people than is Mars from us. A boat was as utterly unknown to Nat-ul as was a telescope.

Just beyond a rise of ground ahead of Nat-ul fifty or sixty men, women and children were busy beside a little stream that flowed into the sea. When Nat-ul topped the rise and her eyes fell upon these strangers she dropped suddenly flat upon her belly behind a bush. There she watched the peculiar actions of these people. It was evident that they had but just arrived after a long march. They differed in many ways from any people she had ever seen. Their skins were of the less dangerous animals—those which fed upon grasses. Their head-dresses bore the horns of bulls and antelope, giving them, altogether, a most fearsome aspect.

But it was their habitations and the work upon which they were engaged which caused Nat-ul the greatest wonderment. Their caves were not caves at all. They were constructed of a number of long saplings leaned inward against one another in a circle, and covered with skins and brush, or the great fronds of giant palms as well as those of the plant which is known today as it was in Nat-ul’s time as elephant’s ear, because of its resemblance to that portion of the great pachyderm.

The weapons of these peoples were unlike those with which Nat-ul was familiar. The stone ax was of a different shape, and the spear was much shorter and stouter, its point being barbed, and having one end of a long, plaited sinew rope tied to it, while the balance of the rope was fastened in a coil at the warrior’s side. Nat-ul knew nothing of fisher folk. Her own people often caught fish. Sometimes they speared them with their light spears, but they did not make a business of fishing. So she did not know that the spears of these strangers answered the double purpose of weapons of warfare and harpoons.

What interested her most, however, was the strange work upon which many of the people were engaged. They had cut down a number of large trees, which they had chopped and burned into different lengths, from fifteen to twenty feet. With their stone axes they had hewn away the bark and heavier growth along the upper surfaces of the logs. The softer, pithy centers had been scooped out and fires built within.

Nat-ul could not but wonder at the purpose of all this labor. She saw the men and women tending the fires carefully, extinguishing with water any blaze that seemed threatening to pierce too far from the center of a tree. Deeper and deeper the flames ate until there remained but a thin outer husk of firehardened wood.

So intent was the girl upon the strange sights before her that she did not note the approach of a tall, young warrior from the jungle at her right and a little behind her. The man was tall and straight. A shaggy bison hide fell from his shoulders, the tail dragging upon the ground behind him. Upon his head the skull of the bull fitted firmly—a primitive helmet—clothed in its dried skin and with the short, stout horns protruding at right angles from his temples.

In his right hand was the stout harpoon and at his waist the coil of sinew rope. The robe, falling away in front, disclosed a well knit, muscular figure, naked but for a loin cloth of doe skin in which was stuck his stone knife and ax.

For several minutes he stood watching the girl, his eyes glowing at the beauties of her profile and lithe, graceful figure. Then, very cautiously, he crept toward her. It was Tur of the Boat Builders. Never in his life had Tur looked upon a more beautiful woman. To see her was to want her. Tur must own her. He was almost upon her when a dried twig snapped beneath his tread.

Like a startled antelope Nat-ul was upon her feet. At the same instant Tur leaped forward to seize her. She was between him and the camp she had been watching. To run toward them would have meant certain capture. Like a shot she wheeled right into Tur’s outstretched arms, but as they closed to grasp her they encircled but empty air. Nat-ul had ducked beneath the young warrior’s eager embrace and was fleeing north along the beach, like a frightened deer.

After her sprang Tur, calling upon her to stop; but with terror goaded speed the fleet footed Nat-ul raced on. A hundred paces behind her came Tur. For a short distance she might outstrip him, he knew, but in the end his mightier muscles would prevail. Already she was lagging. No longer was the distance between them growing. Soon it would lessen. He would close upon her—and then!

.     .     .     .     .

To the north of the Barren Cliffs Nu overtook the tribe of Nu, his father. He came upon them during a period of rest, and as he approached he noted the constraint of their manners as they greeted him. The young women looked at him with sorrowing eyes. His young warrior friends did not smile as he called their names in passing.

Straight to Nu, his father, he went, as became a returning warrior. He found the chief sitting with Tha before a small fire where a ptarmigan, clay wrapped, was roasting.

His father rose and greeted him. There was pleasure in the older man’s eyes at sight of his son, but no smile upon his lips. He glanced at the head and pelt of Ur.

“Oo did not return?” he asked.

“Oo did not return,” replied the son.

Nu, the son of Nu, looked about among the women and children and the uneasy warriors. She he sought was not there. His mother came and kissed him as did Una his sister.

“Where is Nat-ul?” asked Nu.

His mother and his sister looked at one another and then at his father. Nu, the chief, looked at Tha. Tha rose and came before the young man. He laid his hand upon the other’s shoulder.

“Since your mother bore you,” he said, “always have I loved you—loved you second only to Aht, my own son. Some day I hoped that you would become my son, for I saw that you loved Nat-ul, my daughter. But now Nat-ul has gone away with Hud. We know not how it happened, but Ra-el, the daughter of Kor, says that she went willingly.”

He got no further.

“It is a lie!” cried Nu, the son of Nu. “Nat-ul never went willingly with Hud or any other. When did they go? Whither went they? Tell me, and I will follow and bring back Nat-ul, and with her own lips she will give Ra-el the lie. I will bring her back if she still lives, but unless she escaped Hud she is dead, for she would have died rather than mate with another than Nu, the son of Nu. I have spoken. Which way went they?”

No one could tell him. All that they knew was that when the tribe set out from their old dwellings Hud and Nat-ul could not be found, and then Ra-el had come forward and said that the two had fled together. When he questioned Ra-el he could glean nothing more from her, but she stuck obstinately to her assertion that Nat-ul had gone willingly.

“And will Nu, the son of Nu, be such a fool as to follow after a woman who has chosen another mate when there are those as beautiful whom Nu, the son of Nu, could have for the asking?” she said.

At her words the young man saw the motive behind her statement that Nat-ul had run away voluntarily with Hud, and now he was more positive than ever that the girl did not speak the truth. Her words recalled many little occurrences in the past that had slipped by unnoticed at a time when all his thoughts were of the splendid Nat-ul. It was evident that Ra-el would have liked Nu for herself.

The young man returned to his father’s side.

“I go,” he said, “nor shall I return until I know the truth.”

The older man laid his hand upon the shoulder of the younger.

“Go, my son,” he said; “your father’s heart goes with you.”

In silence Nu, the son of Nu, retraced his steps southward toward the Barren Cliffs. It was his intention to return directly to the former dwellings of his people and there search out the spoor of Hud and Nat-ul. A great rage burned in his heart as he thought of the foul deed that Hud had done. The tribe of Nu had progressed far beyond the status of the beasts. They acknowledged certain property rights, among them the inalienable right of the man to his mate, and, going a step further, the right of the woman to mate as she chose. That Nat-ul had chosen to mate with Hud, Nu could not for a moment admit. He knew the courageous nature of the girl, and, knowing it, knew that had she preferred Hud to him she would have mated with the man of her choice openly after the manner of the tribe. No, Nat-ul would never have run off with any man—not even himself.

Half way up the face of the Barren Cliffs Nu was arrested by a faint moan, coming apparently from a cave at his right. He had no time to devote to the pleasures of the chase, but there was a human note in the sound that he had heard that brought him up all suddenly alert and listening. After a moment it was repeated. No, there could be no doubt of it—that sound came only from a human throat. Cautiously Nu crept toward the mouth of the cave from which the moaning seemed to issue. At the entrance he came to a sudden halt, at the sight that met his eyes.

There, in the half light of the entrance, lay Hud in a pool of blood. The man was breathing feebly. Nu called him by name. Hud opened his eyes. When he saw who stood over him he shrugged his shoulders and lay still, as though to say, the worst has already been done to me—you can do no more.

“Where is Nat-ul?” asked Nu.

Hud shook his head. Nu knelt beside him raising his head in his arms.

“Where is Nat-ul, man?” he cried, shaking the dying warrior. “Tell me before you die. I do not ask if she went with you willingly, for I know that she did not—all I ask is what have you done with her? Does she live? And if she lives, where is she?”

Hud tried to speak. The effort cost him dear. But at last he managed to whisper a few words.

“She-did-this,” he panted. “Then she—went—away. I don’t—know—” he gasped, and died.

Nu dropped him back upon the stone floor of the cave and ran out upon the ledge. He searched about the face of the cliff, even going down upon all fours and creeping from ledge to ledge, oftentimes with his nose close to the trail—sniffing.

After half an hour of going back and forth over the same ground and following a rocky ascent upward toward the summit of the cliff a dozen times, as though proving and reproving the correctness of his deductions, Nu at last set forth across the Barren Cliffs and down onto the beach beside the Restless Sea.

Here he found the spoor more plainly marked in many places above high tide where Nat-ul’s little sandals had left their legible record in the soft loam or upon the higher sand that the water had not reached. The way led southward, and southward hurried Nu, the son of Nu. Straight to the old dwellings led the trail. There Nu found evidence that Nat-ul had spent the night in a cave above the one in which he had slept. There was the bed of grasses and a trace of the delicate aroma that our blunted sense of smell could never have detected, but which was plain to Nu, and deliciously familiar.

A pang of regret seized him as he realized that his Nat-ul had been so close to him, and that he had unwittingly permitted her to remain alone and unprotected amidst the countless dangers of their savage world, and to go forth, none knew where, into other myriad dangers.

Returning to the foot of the cliff he once more came upon the girl’s spoor. Again it led south along the beach. Swiftly he followed it until it stopped behind a little clump of bushes at the top of a rise in the ground. Before Nu realized that this was the southern limit of the trail he had seen the village beyond and the people engaged in what to him seemed a strange occupation. He knew that the same sight had brought Nat-ul to a halt a few hours before, and now he saw where she had lain upon her belly watching, just as he was watching. For a few minutes he lay watching the workers and seeking through the little cluster of skin and thatch shelters for some sign that Nat-ul was a prisoner there.

Nu had never seen a boat or guessed that such a thing might be. His people had been hunters from time immemorial. They had come down from the great plateaus far inland but a few generations since. Then, for the first time, had his forefathers seen the ocean. As yet they had not met with any need that required them to navigate its waters, nor had they come in contact with the Boat Builders who dwelt far south at the mouth of a great river that emptied into the Restless Sea.

Now, for the first time, Nu saw both the boats and the Boat Builders. For the first time he saw artificial shelters, and to Nu they seemed frail and uncomfortable things by comparison with his eternal caves. The Boat Builders had been several days in this new camp. What had driven them so far north of their ancestral home, who may guess? A tribal feud, perhaps; or the birth of a new force that was to drive them and their progeny across the face of the world in restless wanderings to the end of time—the primitive wanderlust from which so many of us suffer, and yet would not forego.

Nu saw that of all the workers one tall young giant labored most rapidly. His haste seemed almost verging upon frenzy. Nu wondered what he could be about upon the felled tree trunk that required so much exertion. Nu did not like work of that nature. It is true that he had never done any manual labor outside the needs of the chase, but intuitively he knew that he disliked it. He was a hunter, a warrior, and even then, in his primitive and untutored mind, there arose a species of contempt for the drudge. At last, tiring of watching, he turned his attention again to the spoor he had been following. Where had Nat-ul gone after lying here behind these bushes?

Nu crawled about until he saw evidences of the girl’s quick leap to her feet and her rapid flight. Then it was he came upon the footprints of Tur. Now Nu’s blood ran hot. It surged through his heart and pounded against his temples—Nat-ul, his Nat-ul, was in danger.

He saw where the girl had dodged past the man. He saw, distinctly in the sand, the marks of Tur’s quickly turning footsteps as he wheeled in pursuit. He saw that the two had been running rapidly along the beach toward the north—the man following the girl, and then, to his surprise, he saw that the man had come to a sudden stop, had taken a few steps forward, stood for some time looking seaward and then turned and raced back toward the strange camp at breakneck speed.

And the girl’s trail had continued toward the north for perhaps a hundred paces beyond the point at which the man had halted. Nu followed it easily—they were fresh signs since the last high tide, alone and uncrossed upon a wide stretch of smooth, white sand.

Nu followed the dainty imprints of Nat-ul’s swiftly flying little feet for a hundred paces beyond the end of the man’s pursuit—and came to a dead, bewildered halt. The foot prints ended abruptly upon the beach midway between the ocean and the jungle. About them was only an expanse of unbroken sand. They simply ceased, that was all. They did not double back upon themselves. They did not enter the ocean. They did not approach the jungle. They stopped as though Nat-ul had suddenly been swallowed by a great hole in the beach. But there was no hole. Nu halted and looked about in every direction. There was no trace of any living thing about. Where had Nat-ul gone? What had become of her? Had the foot prints of the man who pursued her reached the point upon the sand where hers ended, Nu would have concluded that he had picked her up and carried her back to his village; but the man had been a hundred paces behind Nat-ul when her trail ceased, nor had he approached closer to the spot at any time. And when he had returned to his village he had done so at a rapid run, and the lightness of his spoor indicated that he had not been burdened with a heavy load.

For some time Nu stood in bewildered thought, but at last he turned back toward the village of the Boat Builders. Nu knew little of the super-natural, and so he turned first to the nearest material and natural cause of Nat-ul’s disappearance that he could conceive—the man who had pursued her. And that man had returned to the village of the strangers who were diligently burning and scooping the hearts out of felled trees.

Nu returned to the vantage of the bush before the village. Here he lay down again to watch—he was positive that in some way these people were responsible for the disappearance of Nat-ul. They knew where she was, and, judging by his own estimate of the girl, he knew that the man who had seen her and pursued her would not lightly relinquish his attempts to obtain her. Nu had seen the women of the strangers—beside his Nat-ul they looked like the shes of the ape-folk. No, the man would seek to follow and capture the radiant stranger. Nu wished that he could guess which of the men it was who had chased Nat-ul. Something told him that it was the young giant who worked with such feverish haste, so Nu watched him most closely.

At last Tur’s boat was completed. The centers of the trees the Boat Builders selected for their craft is soft, and easily burned and scooped. The fires kindled in the hollowed trunk served a double purpose—they ate away the harder portions nearer the outside and at the same time tended to harden what remained. The result was a fairly light and staunch dug-out.

When Tur’s boat was finished he called to several of the other workers. These came, and, lending a hand with Tur, dragged the hollowed log down to the water. One of the women came with a long stick, larger at one end than the other, and with the large end flattened upon both sides. It was a paddle. Tur tossed this into the boat and then running through the surf he launched his primitive craft upon the crest of a receding roller, leaped in, and seizing the paddle struck out vigorously against the next incoming wave.

Nu watched him with wide eyes. His estimate of the man rose in leaps and bounds. Here was sport! And Nu did not have to attempt the feat he had witnessed to know that it required skill and courage. Only a brave man would venture the perils of the awful waters. Where was he going? Nu saw that he paddled straight out into the sea. In the distance were the islands. Could he be going to these? Nu, from childhood, had always longed to explore those distant lands of mystery. These people had found a way. Nu had learned something—an aeroplane could not have presented greater wonders to him than did this crude dug-out.

For a while he watched the man in the little boat. They grew smaller and smaller as wind, tide and the sturdy strokes of the paddler carried the hollowed log farther out to sea. Then Nu turned his attention once more to the other workers. He saw that they, too, were rapidly completing their boats. They were talking back and forth among themselves, raising their voices, as they were scattered over a considerable distance about the village. Nu caught a word now and then. The language was similar to his own. He discovered that they were talking about the man who had just departed, and about his venture. Nu wanted to hear more. He crept cautiously to his right into the jungle, circling about until he was in the rear of the camp. Then he approached through the dense vegetation to the little clearing the strangers had made about their shelters. As he peered through the curtain of tangled creepers that hid him from their view, he saw the camp more closely. He saw the ring of ashes that surrounded it—the remains of the nocturnal fires that kept off the beasts of prey by night. He saw the cooking fire before each rude shelter. He saw pots of clay—something new to him. He saw the women and the children and the men. They did not differ greatly from his own people, though their garments and weapons were dissimilar. And now he could hear all their conversation.

“She must be beautiful,” a man was saying, “or Tur would not venture across this strange water to those unknown lands in search of her,” and he grinned broadly, casting a knowing glance at a young woman who suckled a babe, as she sat scraping, scraping, scraping with a bit of sharpened flint upon the hide of an aurochs, pegged out upon the ground before her.

The young woman looked up with an ugly scowl.

“Let him bring her back,” she cried, “and she will no longer be beautiful. This will I do to her face,” and she fell to scraping viciously upon the skin.

“Tur was very angry when she escaped him,” continued the man. “He almost had his hands upon her; but he will find her, though whether there will be enough left of her to bring back is hard to say—I, myself, rather doubt it and think that it is a foolish thing for Tur to waste his time thus.”

Nu was nonplused. Could it be possible that the man they called Tur was pursuing Nat-ul to those distant islands? How could Nat-ul be there? It was impossible. And yet there seemed little doubt from the conversation he had overheard that the man was following some woman across the water to the mysterious lands—a woman he had just surprised and chased that very day, and who had eluded him. Who else could it be but Nat-ul?

The Eternal Lover - Contents    |     Part II - Chapter V - Nu’s First Voyage

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