Normálně dávám do ukázky první kapitolu, ale tady je to dost nevhodné, protože ta se odehrává v úplně jiném prostředí než zbytek knihy. Rozhodl jsem se proto, že vám nabídnu kapitolu pátou, odehrávající se bezprostředně poté, co Mark s Margaret poprvé narazí na podzemní lidi. Teprve tady se čtenář začne seznamovat s prostředím, ve kterém se bude odehrávat zbytek knížky. Jak jsem psal v recenzi, úvod je v této knížce poněkud zdlouhavý…
- WYNDHAM, John: The Secret People. London: Coronet Books, 1975. 192 str. ISBN 0-340-15834-4.
Consciousness began to trickle back in a very filtered form. The first thing Mark was aware of was a familiar, blinding headache. He moved uneasily. There had been the explosion; the whole world turning somersaults; the Sun Bird diving at the sea… No, that was farther off.
Hadn’t something else happened since then? He made a tremendous effort to open his eyes. Each lid seemed to be weighted with several pounds as well as being stiff from disuse. And when they lifted, he could not focus properly. There was a hazy vision of a grey surface which whirled and tilted. It steadied after a few seconds, and became dearer. Rock? That was familiar somehow…
Memory suddenly came back in full flood. The passages, the caves, the fantastic mushrooms, and the little men…
“Margaret?” he said feebly.
He turned his head, searching for her. He found himself lying in a cave the size of an ordinary dining-room. In the centre of the ceiling a blue-white lamp was glowing, smaller, but in other particulars like those in the corridors. Beside him, on the floor, stood a bowl of polished stone, full almost to the brim with water. He stretched out a hand to pull it closer, and then stopped in the middle of the action; the hand felt so weak, looked so thin and wasted that he could scarcely recognise it for his own. How long had he been here? he wondered as he leant over the bowl to drink.
The cool water did him good. He leaned his head back on the pillow and considered the surroundings more carefully.
The cave could hardly be called furnished, but someone had made attempts to render it habitable. Against the other walls were set low, couch-like mounds like that on which he himself lay. The coverings of both the small cushions and the larger which served for mattresses were woven from inch-wide strips of some strange material which was leather-like in colour, though not in texture. To give warmth and extra comfort somebody had wrapped a long, blue woollen scarf about him.
In several places the nakedness of the rock walls had been hidden by designs and pictures painted in three or four raw colours. But he noted that though the execution was rough, it was backed by knowledge; the crudity was in the workmanship, not in the observation. The study of a fungus forest was no less informed than the view of an Arab village, but there were figures here and there which puzzled him. Arabs he could recognize, white men and even the dwarf grey folk, but there were others, both men and women, which fitted into neither of these categories.
He raised a hand to his aching head and found that it was heavily bandaged. What had happened since that fight in the corridor? He had a misty notion of faces close to his own, voices which murmured encouragingly, but they had been strangers. Where was Margaret? He must find her…
The effort of sitting up set his head pounding again so that he had to clench his teeth. With difficulty he got to his feet and leaned for some swimming seconds against the wall. His legs felt so weakly useless that any movement might double them beneath him. The effort required to force them on was prodigious. Only his anxiety for Margaret drove him to make it.
The cave entrance had been chiselled to the shape of a doorway, though it held no door. It gave on to a corridor, dimly lit and stretching away to both sides. A faint murmur which might be of voices came from the right, and decided him to go that way. In all he made a journey of perhaps fifty yards, but it seemed one of the longest of his life. Four times in his slow course he was forced to rest against the wall, feeling too spent either to continue or return, wishing only to drop where he was. But each time he regathered, at last, just enough strength to drag his unsteady feet forward.
Finally the passage gave on to a cavern. He stood looking at numbers of men and women who crossed its floor on the way from one tunnel mouth to another. He tried to call out to them, but his voice sounded childishly weak. And something queer was happening to the people… They seemed to be swimming about… The whole cave was reeling drunkenly. His knees suddenly sagged. The floor of the cavern rose obliquely from the left, and hit him.
Arms lifted him into a sitting position; a smooth something was thrust against his lips.
“Here, drink this,” said a voice.
He obeyed feebly. A gulp of some coarse spirit burned its way down. His eyes opened to the hazy sight of two bearded faces hanging over his own. The mouth in one opened:
“What are you doing out here?”
“Margaret,” he managed to say. “Where is she?”
The two bearded faces looked at one another. The first spoke again.
“That’s all right, buddy. Don’t you worry. All you got to do is rest. How about getting back now?”
They assisted him to his feet.
“Think you can walk?”
He nodded dumbly, but at the first faltering step his knees doubled up again. The taller of the two men picked him up easily, and strode back along the passage. Very thankfully Mark felt himself laid down on the couch he had so lately left. After an indefinite period which might have been a few minutes or a few hours, someone roused him. The man who had carried him was holding out two bowls, one containing water, and the other, a kind of mash.
“What—?” he began. But the other shook his head.
“No, just you get outside this first. You can talk after.”
He took a drink of water and started on the mash. It had a slightly earthy flavour, curious, though not unpleasant. While he fed he took stock once more of his surroundings. He was back in the decorated cave, all right, but this time he had three companions. The man who had spoken was a tall, broad figure, clad in the rags of a French uniform. His hands, and such parts of his face as were visible behind a matted beard, were lined with ingrained grime. Hair which might be fair when clean had been clumsily restrained, possibly with the aid of a knife. Above it, far back on the head was perched a battered kepi.
Wonderingly, Mark transferred his gaze to the next. A slighter man, this, with hair thinning, though such as did grow had been lopped in the same crude fashion. His beard, like the others, was matted, and his hands equally grimy, but his clothing was different. The tatters of his suit would never be recognised by its London maker, but they were tatters of good quality. The third man was an Arab, wearing a burnous which had the appearance of having served its owner throughout an arduous campaign. It reminded Mark vaguely of certain battle-torn flags he had seen hung in churches.
He finished the mash, in which he detected traces of the same coarse spirit which had been given him before, and pushed the bowl away. He felt greatly improved. In a pocket he found a packet of cigarettes which he handed round. The three men looked at him as if he had performed a miracle. They lit up with a care which was almost reverent.
“Now perhaps you’ll tell me where she is?” he asked.
“Was she with you?” inquired the big man.
“Of course she was. Do you mean you’ve not seen her?” He looked questioningly at them in turn. They shook their heads.
“But she was with me when I was knocked out. I’ve got to find her.”
He began to struggle to his feet. The tall man caught his arm and pushed him back.
“No. You keep sitting awhile. There’s a whole lot you got to learn yet. And one of ‚em is that it ain’t no sort of good being in a hurry in these parts.”
“I tell you, you can’t do a thing. Anyway, you’re still sick, and got to lay up for a bit. Take it from me, if your girl’s safe now, she’ll stay safe.”
“You mean that?”
“Sure I mean it.”
Mark believed him. The man spoke firmly, as though he had no doubt. Moreover, in his present state of weakness, he could be of assistance to no one. He dropped back on his cushions and contemplated the three.
“Well, for God’s sake tell me something about this place. I’ve been living in a kind of nightmare. I don’t know how long I’ve been here, or even where I really am.”
“Well, you’re the latest arrival, I can tell you that, though you’ve been sick a goodish time. You’re a tailor’s dummy to the rest of us in this dump. How d’you get here? Tell us your yarn first.”
Mark told his story in considerable detail. The first part seemed to hold more interest for his listeners than did the account of the fungus forest, and the tall man quelled the very evident desires of the European to make frequent interruptions. He was silent for a time after Mark’s account of the fight.
“So that’s what it’s all about,” he said thoughtfully. “No wonder the poor devils are getting all het up. It’ll mean the end of them.”
“And of us too,” said the other.
The Arab merely nodded.
“But what are you doing here?” Mark asked impatiently. “You’re American, aren’t you? Why the French uniform?”
“Say, we’ve forgotten the introductions. I’m John Smith, leastways that’s my name in the Legion. This is Charles Gordon, of London, England, and this, Mahmud el Jiz-zah, of some God-forsaken hole in the desert. Gordon is an arch—, arch—, anyway, he digs for things which aren’t no manner of good to anybody. And Mahmud, well I don’t know what he does, but he was educated in some swell place, in England, Oxford College.”
“Balliol,” murmured the Arab, deprecatingly.
“But what are you all doing here?”
“Just living here.”
“Because we darn well can’t do nothing else. D’you think we’re here for fun?”
Mark looked at their beards, and the rags which flapped about them.
“How long have you been here?”
“What’s the date?”
Mark considered. Probably several days had elapsed during his unconsciousness, but he could remember the date of the Sun Bird’s crash.
“It was the sixteenth of September when we fell in.”
“The year, man.”
He stared. “Why, 1964, of course.”
“That makes six years for me.”
“Seven for me,” said Gordon.
“Five,” admitted the Arab.
Mark’s eyes opened wide. He looked from face to face for a sign that this was a leg pull.
“Seven years!” He stared at Gordon. “You can’t mean it. Seven years—here, in these caves?”
The other nodded and smiled a little grimly. “Oh yes, I mean it, all right.”
“But—but I don’t understand. There must be ways out.”
“There are ways out—must be any amount of them. The trouble is that we can’t get at them.”
“Why not? You found your ways in.”
“So did you, but it doesn’t help, does it?”
“But you didn’t all come in down waterfalls.”
“No. The real trouble is these little grey guys. They’ve got us penned up like we was cattle. And haven’t they just got the drop on us. Say, it’d be easier to crash out of hell than out of this joint.”
“But you don’t mean you’re here for good?”
“You’ve said it, buddy. You too.”
Mark was aware again of the feeling that this was all part of a nightmare, growing worse at every turn. Imprisoned in these caves for the rest of one’s life! It wast fantastic, it couldn’t be true. He turned to Gordon who was staring at the picture of the Arab village. There was something in his expression more disturbing than an hour of the American’s conversation.
“It is quite true,” the Arab’s voice assured him calmly.
“It can’t be true. There must be a way out.”
“If anyone had ever got out, this place would no longer be secure. That it is secret means that no one ever has got out.”
Gordon interrupted. “No, that’s not so. I believe in my theory that—”
“Oh, damn your theories,” Smith cut in. “Even if they’re right, what the hell’s the good of them to us? Cut ‚em out.”
He turned back to Mark. “The sooner you get a hold on the idea that you and me and all of us are in the cooler for keeps, the easier it’s gonna be for you.”
Mark’s convalescence was a long business. When it irked him, and he grumbled at the waste of time, Gordon did his best to be reassuring.
“For one thing, the phrase ‘waste of time’ has no meaning in here,” he said. “And, for another, you’re damned lucky to be convalescent at all. Candidly, you were in such a mess when you came in that we never thought you’d make it. Then you didn’t help things by getting out of here the minute you came round—it gave you a nasty relapse. Just lie there quietly, and don’t fret about things. It won’t do you any good to get what Smith calls ‘all het up’.”
Mark did his best to obey, and during the time which followed, he came to know the three men well. His first hazy impressions had to be revised. Smith, for instance, was not altogether the pessimist he had appeared. So far from losing all hopes of escaping from the caves, as he had suggested, he was full of hopes. His insistence on its impossibility was seldom a genuine belief; far more often it was a defence, a kind of counter-suggestion set up to check his hopes from rising too high. Once, in a moment of unusual confidence, he admitted:
“If I didn’t think we were going to get clear of this place sometime, I guess I’d have bumped myself off before now; but if I let myself get too worked up, I’ll probably have to bump myself off one day through sheer disappointment. Most of the time I expect the worst; it’s so good when it doesn’t happen.”
A simple theory, Smith’s, of not tempting the gods. It had points in common with the practice of carrying an umbrella to persuade the sun to shine, or travelling with two spare wheels in order to avoid a puncture. Beneath his attempts to bluff fate, he was more hopeful than the others.
Gordon had reached a mental stage verging upon acceptance of the inevitable. Only a firm belief in some of his theories—of which, Mark was to discover, he had many—had prevented him from long ago relinquishing all idea of return. Even so, he was not likely to sink into the despair which Smith feared. He had a power of dissociating himself from his surroundings and losing himself in the purely conjectural, without which he would indeed have been forlorn. He was not without moods of deep dejection, but even a chance word would often break their spell. A light of sudden excitement would flicker in his eyes, the thin face would come to life as though a mask had been cast off, and in a few moments he would be holding forth violently, passionately advocating theories which were sometimes sound common sense, and at others the extreme of fantasy. For the most part his words seemed to flow around Smith without causing a ripple of appreciation; though occasionally the big man would grasp a practical suggestion out of the flood of words, and haul it ashore with satisfaction.
The Arab listened to the talk with little more comment than a grunt here and there. Mark was uncertain whether his silence covered fatalistic acceptance, or profound thought. Whichever it was, he seemed of all the party the least affected by the situation. When he did talk it was usually to give reminiscences or to tell some Arab fable of which the point was completely incomprehensible to the European mind. His chief link with the others seemed to be a mutual admiration between Smith and himself. The big frame and the slow strength of the American found its complement in the wiry agility of the Arab.
Mark, growing stronger, began to develop a more active interest in his surroundings, and a desire to know how he came to be in his present company. His own method of entry was, beyond doubt, unique. He demanded to know how Smith had found his way in.
Smith pulled his ear thoughtfully, and looked at the others with some doubt. Mark realised that the three must know one another’s stories by heart.
“I don’t mind. Carry on,” said Gordon, and the Arab nodded amiably.
“Well, it ain’t much of a yarn, but here it is. We—a company of us, that is—had been moved up to do some police work in the mountains north of Ghardaia—and let me tell you that if you don’t know where Ghardaia is, you ain’t missed much.
“Now, the Frenchies have an idea that a guy who’s still alive after a couple of months in the Legion is so tough that he can’t be killed anyway. And they behave according. They dress you up in the heaviest clothes they can find, give you a camel-sized pack and send you hiking for thousands of kilometres where the sun’s shining twice as hot as it does any place else. I can’t say how many blasted, blistering miles we put away that day, but I do know they marched us till we was pretty near dead. Some of the poor devils were all but asleep on their feet, and I was as near all in as makes no difference.
“I guess they didn’t mean us to fight. The big idea was to make a nice bright show of uniforms, and whatever local sheik it was that had gotten a bit above himself would just naturally curl up and reflect on the glory of la France. Yes, that was the idea, right enough. The trouble was the Arabs didn’t see it that way—maybe the uniforms didn’t look smart enough, or something. Anyway, they waited till we were about played out, and then took a hand. We were in the open, and they were on the cliffs above us, skipping about just like antelopes—’cept that they had guns—and taking playful pot shots—most of ‚em bulls. It wasn’t so funny, and we got orders to do the only possible thing—leg it to the cliff foot and take cover.
“There were a lot of caves there, all sizes, and not wanting to stay outside and have rocks dropped on our nuts, we made for ‚em. And there we stayed put. They’d got us all nicely bottled up, and how! All you’d got to do for a fatal dose of lead poisoning was to take one look outside. Some guys who’d been told that Arabs can’t shoot tried it—once.
“Maybe it sounds worse than it looked. Anyway, we weren’t worrying a lot—I reckon we all just wanted to sleep. It wouldn’t be long before somebody at headquarters missed us and started raising hell to know what we were at. We’d nothing to do bar sit tight and wait.
“But the local sheik didn’t see the fun of that. He’d started something, and he was going through with it. It’d probably be easier for him to explain away the disappearance of a whole company than to account for a few dead bodies. He was wholesale-minded, that fellow. We’d been there about an hour when there was hell’s own crash, away on the right. A couple of our men looked out to see what had happened—maybe they did, but it wasn’t much help to us, seeing that they got bullets through their heads for their trouble. The rest of us were content to sit tight and guess what particular form of hell-raising was going on outside. A half-hour later we knew for certain. There was a Gawdalmighty explosion right above us. Half the cliff face must have split off and come down with a run. Leastways, it was enough to bury the mouth of our cave, and put paid to four poor devils who were standing near. The wily sheik had hit on a swell idea for covering up his tracks, and it looked like we were buried alive… I reckon the guys in the other caves were; I ain’t seen none of ‚em in these parts.
“Well, that left three of us standing. Olsen, Dubois, and me. And we had the choice of sitting down to die right there, or looking round the cave to see whether there wasn’t some other way out. We hadn’t a hope of shifting the tons of stuff in the entrance. After a bit we found a kind of a crack at the back. There was a draught through it, which meant it went some place. We shoved in and started hiking again, with a few bits of candle between us.
“I don’t know how long it was before Olsen and me found ourselves looking down a split into one of those lighted tunnels—some days, most likely. And it’s no good my telling you the way those lights struck us; you must’ve felt the same way yourself when you first saw ‚em. If it hadn’t been that Olsen saw ‚em, same as me, I’d’ve thought I was nuts.
“We’d lost Dubois. He’d fallen into a crevice some place back along, and broken his neck—poor devil. Olsen wasn’t in too good shape, either; he’d broken an arm, and pretty near knocked himself silly on a stalactite. But we’d made it—just.
“A bunch of them white pygmies found us wandering around. They didn’t seem much surprised to see us. They brought up some food, and let us sleep a bit, then they marched us off here.”
He stopped. Apparently he considered his tale was finished. From Mark’s point of view, it was scarcely begun.
“But what is this place?” he prompted. “You forget I’ve seen practically nothing of it except this particular cave.”
“This? Oh well, you could call it a kind of jail. It’s a corner of their system of caves, and there’s only one way in to it. You were ‘out’ when they lugged you along, or you’d have seen the way it is. They brought you down a tunnel much the same as the rest, only it stops short on a ledge. And that ledge is about a hundred feet up the side of one of the biggest of our caves. There’s no ramp, nor steps, nor nothing leading from it. They just put a rope round you and let you down in here, and that’s that. You can’t climb up a hundred feet of smooth rock—not even if you’re a human fly.”
“But do you mean to say that nobody’s tried to get up?”
“Tried? By gosh, they have. But there’s always some of the little grey guys watching for ‚em. There’s marks near the bottom where somebody had a try at cutting hand-holes—they say he was stopped by a rock being dropped on his head. I once saw a fellow try to make a break for it. Frenchie, he was, and about half crazed, or he’d never have tried it. They’d just let down a new specimen into this corral when this guy thinks he sees a chance. He rushes out of the crowd of us watching, grabs the rope and starts climbing like a monkey. They let him get three-quarters of the way up before they cut the rope.”
Mark remained almost as puzzled as before. Smith had been so long below ground that he failed to understand the bewilderment of a newcomer. Familiarity had wiped away his earlier amazement at this system of caves. Its existence had become an accepted, unsurprising fact, and the life within it a misfortune rather than an astonishment.
“But who are these little white men? What are they doing here? Why don’t they come out?”
The American shook his head.
“That’s out of my line. Gordon has a theory about it. Get him to tell you some time. What’s interesting me right now is the dope you gave us. It makes things clearer.”
“I gave you?”
“Sure. The low down on this New Sea stuff. There’s been something worrying them, we’ve seen that, but we couldn’t figure out just what it was. Now we’ve got it.”
“Does it help?”
“Help? Oh, it helps all right. It means when we get drowned down here we won’t have to worry any more about getting out.”
Another time Mark put his questions to Gordon with greater success. The archaeologist, though he had been imprisoned longer than Smith, had contrived to keep his mind more supple. Not only had he retained an active interest, save for brief periods of depression, in the whys and wherefores of this subterranean race and its origin, but he possessed some capacity for seeing another’s point of view—a quality which could never have been characteristic of the American. Requests for information which Smith met with the assurance that there was “no hurry” and that Mark would have “a hell of a long time to find it out in”, were treated by Gordon with some appreciation of the newcomer’s bewilderment. He enlarged upon Smith’s remark that their quarters were a “kind of jail”.
“We’re in prison for safety,” he explained. “Our safety, and theirs. There are two good ways of making a man keep a secret; one is to stop his mouth, and the other, to stop his heart. Why they choose the former, I can’t tell you, they don’t seem squeamish about things like that. Anyhow, this way’s just as effective, and it costs them nothing. We’ve got our own fungus caves, and we grow our own food in them. In fact the only real difference between their position and ours is that they can go out, but don’t want to, while we want to, but can’t.”
“How many are there in here?”
“It was somewhere about fifteen hundred last time we counted.”
Mark, who had thought from the way the others talked, that fifty or a hundred might be a likely estimate, stared. Fifteen hundred—?
“You do mean prisoners?”
“Yes, prisoners. Counting all kinds. You’ll see them as soon as you’re strong enough to get about a bit.” Gordon spoke for once in a way irritatingly reminiscent of Smith.
“And none have ever escaped?”
“That’s what they tell us, but I think they’re wrong there. It was probably a devil of a long time ago, but I think it’s been done—more than once.”
“Well,” Gordon frowned slightly, “mind you, this is only a theory. I don’t say that the facts might not be explained another way, but I hold that it is a possible explanation. You remember that you saw a fungus forest?”
“What did it remind you of?”
“I don’t quite—”
“Didn’t it seem somehow familiar—as if you might have seen it before somewhere?”
Mark fancied he saw what the man was driving at. He remembered how Margaret had remarked on their likeness to toadstools in a story-book picture. Gordon beamed when he heard it.
“And what did she think of the white pygmies?”
“That they looked like gnomes—only they had no beards.”
The other spread his hands in showman style.
“Well, there you are. You did in some degree recognise the situation—it was not entirely unfamiliar to you although you thought it was. And what does that mean?”
Mark, not having the least idea of what it might or might not mean, remained silent. Gordon continued:
“It means that some suspicion, some faint rumour of such a place has leaked out into the world. All folk-beliefs have a rational beginning somewhere if you can find it. Men didn’t invent the tales of gnomes and trolls, nor the idea of giant toadstools. Someone had the tale from a man who had actually seen them—several men, perhaps, for the legends are widespread. In the course of time the stories became garbled, and at the hands of painters our pygmies underwent a transformation, but they were still dwarfs, and in most places were reported as being unfriendly to ordinary men.
“I tell you, our pygmies are the originals. Centuries ago somebody who had been in here did get back to the world and tell them about it.”
Mark looked extremely doubtful.
“But nobody would have believed it—they’d have laughed them down. Just think what they’d say of us if we got out and told them about this without any proof.”
“You’re getting your crowd psychology wrong. More primitive people were wiser in some ways than we are. They did not jeer at everything outside the immediate realities. The mass attitude right up to the Middle Ages was to believe until an assertion was disproved (and in some matters that attitude still persists), but the typically modern attitude is to disbelieve until proof is forthcoming. In the old days people believed in the sea-serpent, nowadays they wouldn’t believe in a kangaroo without photographs. They can still be hoaxed, of course, but the method has to be different. Besides, think of the peasants of old Europe; why should they be more surprised by hearing of small men who lived underground than by travellers‘ tales of men with black skins who went naked? One is as credible as the other. The difference is that in the course of time one tale became substantiated, while the other for lack of evidence to support it decayed into what is called folk-lore. Just suppose the blacks had killed every white man they saw, wouldn’t their existence have become a myth, just as this people’s has? Of course it would.”
Mark, confronted for the first time with one of Gordon’s theories, felt that while it was extremely plausible, it was also extremely unconvincing. He avoided expressing his opinion by temporising.
“Then you think no one has escaped for a long time—perhaps several centuries?”
Gordon shrugged his shoulders. “Impossible to say. They may have done. But, if so, there ought at least to have been rumours—tales among the Arabs. There may be, of course, but it is strange that we’ve never heard any. The most I can say is that I am convinced that there have been escapes in the past.”
“And if then, why not now?”
“Any of a dozen reasons. They may have found the loophole and blocked it. These may not be the same prison caves. I must confess that the thing which puzzles me most is why they don’t kill us as they find us, and have done with it—but then, different races always have their own funny ideas on the subject of killing…”