Men Like Gods
Chapter 3: the Beautiful People
The fire in the little house did not seem to be making headway. The smoke that came from it was much less now than when Mr. Barnstaple had first observed it. As they came close they found a quantity of twisted bits of bright metal and fragments of broken glass among the shattered masonry. The suggestion of exploded scientific apparatus was very strong. Then almost simultaneously the entire party became aware of a body lying on the grassy slope behind the ruins. It was the body of a man in the prime of life, naked except for a couple of bracelets and a necklace and girdle, and blood was oozing from his mouth and nostrils. With a kind of awe Mr. Barnstaple knelt down beside this prostrate figure and felt its still heart. He had never seen so beautiful a face and body before.
"Dead," he whispered.
"Look!" cried the shrill voice of the man with the eye-glass.
He was pointing to something that was hidden from Mr. Barnstaple by a piece of wall. Mr. Barnstaple had to get up and climb over a heap of rubble before he could see this second find. It was a slender girl, clothed as little as the man. She had evidently been flung with enormous violence against the wall and killed instantaneously.
Her face was quite undistorted although her skull had been crushed in from behind; her perfect mouth and green-grey eyes were a little open and her expression was that of one who is still thinking out some difficult but interesting problem. She did not seem in the least dead but merely disregardful. One hand still grasped a copper implement with a handle of glass. The other lay limp and prone.
For some seconds nobody spoke. It was as if they all feared to interrupt the current of her thoughts.
Then Mr. Barnstaple heard the voice of the priestly gentleman speaking very softly behind him. "What a perfect form!" he said.
"I admit I was wrong," said Mr. Burleigh with deliberation. "I have been wrong ... These are no earthly people. Manifestly. And ergo, we are not on earth. I cannot imagine what has happened nor where we are. In the face of sufficient evidence I have never hesitated to retract an opinion. This world we are in is not our world. It is something--"
He paused. "It is something very wonderful indeed."
"And the Windsor party," said Mr. Catskill without any apparent regret, "must have its lunch without us."
"But then," said the clerical gentleman, "what world are we in, and how did we get here?"
"Ah! there," said Mr. Burleigh blandly, "you go altogether beyond my poor powers of guessing. We are here in some world that is singularly like our world and singularly unlike it. It must be in some way related to our world or we could not be here. But how it can be related, is, I confess, a hopeless mystery to me. Maybe we are in some other dimension of space than those we wot of. But my poor head whirls at the thought of these dimensions. I am--I am mazed--mazed."
"Einstein," injected the gentleman with the eye-glass compactly and with evident self-satisfaction.
"Exactly!" said Mr. Burleigh. "Einstein might make it clear to us.
Or dear old Haldane might undertake to explain it and fog us up with that adipose Hegelianism of his. But I am neither Haldane nor
Einstein. Here we are in some world which is, for all practical purposes, including the purposes of our week-end engagements,
Nowhere. Or if you prefer the Greek of it, we are in Utopia. And as I do not see that there is any manifest way out of it again, I suppose the thing we have to do as rational creatures is to make the best of it. And watch our opportunities. It is certainly a very lovely world. The loveliness is even greater than the wonder. And there are human beings here--with minds. I judge from all this material lying about, it is a world in which experimental chemistry is pursued--pursued indeed to the bitter end--under almost idyllic conditions. Chemistry--and nakedness. I feel bound to confess that whether we are to regard these two people who have apparently just blown themselves up here as Greek gods or as naked savages, seems to me to be altogether a question of individual taste. I admit a bias for the Greek god--and goddess."
"Except that it is a little difficult to think of two dead immortals," squeaked the gentleman of the eye-glass in the tone of one who scores a point.
Mr. Burleigh was about to reply, and to judge from his ruffled expression his reply would have been of a disciplinary nature.
But instead he exclaimed sharply and turned round to face two newcomers. The whole party had become aware of them at the same moment. Two stark Apollos stood over the ruin and were regarding our Earthlings with an astonishment at least as great as that they created.
One spoke, and Mr. Barnstaple was astonished beyond measure to find understandable words reverberating in his mind.
"Red Gods!" cried the Utopian. "What things are you? And how did you get into the world?"
(English! It would have been far less astounding if they had spoken
Greek. But that they should speak any known language was a matter for incredulous amazement.)
Mr. Cecil Burleigh was the least disconcerted of the party. "Now," he said, "we may hope to learn something definite--face to face with rational and articulate creatures."
He cleared his throat, grasped the lapels of his long dust-coat with two long nervous hands and assumed the duties of spokesman. "We are quite unable, gentlemen, to account for our presence here," he said.
"We are as puzzled as you are. We have discovered ourselves suddenly in your world instead of our own."
"You come from another world?"
"Exactly. A quite different world. In which we have all our natural and proper places. We were travelling in that world of ours in--Ah!--certain vehicles, when suddenly we discovered ourselves here. Intruders, I admit, but, I can assure you, innocent and unpremeditated intruders."
"You do not know how it is that Arden and Greenlake have failed in their experiment and how it is that they are dead?"
"If Arden and Greenlake are the names of these two beautiful young people here, we know nothing about them except that we found them lying as you see them when we came from the road hither to find out or, in fact, to inquire--"
He cleared his throat and left his sentence with a floating end.
The Utopian, if we may for convenience call him that, who had first spoken, looked now at his companion and seemed to question him mutely. Then he turned to the Earthlings again. He spoke and again those clear tones rang, not--so it seemed to Mr. Barnstaple--in his ears but within his head.
"It will be well if you and your friends do not trample this wreckage. It will be well if you all return to the road. Come with me. My brother here will put an end to this burning and do what needs to be done to our brother and sister. And afterwards this place will be examined by those who understand the work that was going on here."
"We must throw ourselves entirely upon your hospitality," said Mr.
Burleigh. "We are entirely at your disposal. This encounter, let me repeat, was not of our seeking."
"Though we should certainly have sought it if we had known of its possibility," said Mr. Catskill, addressing the world at large and glancing at Mr. Barnstaple as if for confirmation. "We find this world of yours--most attractive."
"At the first encounter," the gentleman with the eye-glass endorsed,
"a most attractive world."
As they returned through the thick-growing flowers to the road, in the wake of the Utopian and Mr. Burleigh, Mr. Barnstaple found
Lady Stella rustling up beside him. Her words, in this setting of pure wonder, filled him with amazement at their serene and invincible ordinariness. "Haven't we met before somewhere--at lunch or something--Mr.--Mr.--?"
Was all this no more than a show? He stared at her blankly for a moment before supplying her with:
His mind came into line with hers.
"I've never had that pleasure, Lady Stella. Though, of course, I know you--I know you very well from your photographs in the weekly illustrated papers."
"Did you hear what it was that Mr. Cecil was saying just now?
About this being Utopia?"
"He said we might call it Utopia."
"So like Mr. Cecil. But is it Utopia?--really Utopia?
"I've always longed so to be in Utopia," the lady went on without waiting for Mr. Barnstaple's reply to her question. "What splendid young men these two Utopians appear to be! They must, I am sure, belong to its aristocracy--in spite of their--informal--costume.
Or even because of it."...
Mr. Barnstaple had a happy thought. "I have also recognized Mr.
Burleigh and Mr. Rupert Catskill, Lady Stella, but I should be so glad if you would tell me who the young gentleman with the eye-glass is, and the clerical gentleman. They are close behind us."
Lady Stella imparted her information in a charmingly confidential undertone. "The eye-glass," she murmured, "is--I am going to spell it--F.R.E.D.D.Y. M.U.S.H. Taste. Good taste. He is awfully clever at finding out young poets and all that sort of literary thing. And he's Rupert's secretary. If there is a literary Academy, they say, he's certain to be in it. He's dreadfully critical and sarcastic. We were going to Taplow for a perfectly intellectual week-end, quite like the old times. So soon as the Windsor people had gone again, that is ... Mr. Gosse was coming and Max Beerbohm--and everyone like that. But nowadays something always happens. Always ... The unexpected--almost excessively ... The clerical collar"--she glanced back to judge whether she was within earshot of the gentleman under discussion--"is Father Amerton, who is so dreadfully outspoken about the sins of society and all that sort of thing.
It's odd, but out of the pulpit he's inclined to be shy and quiet and a little awkward with the forks and spoons. Paradoxical, isn't it?"
"Of course!" cried Mr. Barnstaple. "I remember him now. I knew his face but I couldn't place it. Thank you so much, Lady Stella."
There was something very reassuring to Mr. Barnstaple in the company of these famous and conspicuous people and particularly in the company of Lady Stella. She was indeed heartening: she brought so much of the dear old world with her, and she was so manifestly prepared to subjugate this new world to its standards at the earliest possible opportunity. She fended off much of the wonder and beauty that had threatened to submerge Mr. Barnstaple altogether.
Meeting her and her company was in itself for a man in his position a minor but considerable adventure that helped to bridge the gulf of astonishment between the humdrum of his normal experiences and this all too bracing Utopian air. It solidified, it--if one may use the word in such a connexion--it degraded the luminous splendour about him towards complete credibility that it should also be seen and commented on by her and by Mr. Burleigh, and viewed through the appraising monocle of Mr. Freddy Mush. It brought it within range of the things that get into the newspapers. Mr. Barnstaple alone in Utopia might have been so completely overawed as to have been mentally overthrown. This easy-mannered brown-skinned divinity who was now exchanging questions with Mr. Burleigh was made mentally accessible by that great man's intervention.
Yet it was with something very like a catching of the breath that
Mr. Barnstaple's attention reverted from the Limousine people to this noble-seeming world into which he and they had fallen. What sort of beings really were these men and women of a world where ill-bred weeds, it seemed, had ceased to thrust and fight amidst the flowers, and where leopards void of feline malice looked out with friendly eyes upon the passer-by?
It was astounding that the first two inhabitants they had found in this world of subjugated nature should be lying dead, victims, it would seem, of some hazardous experiment. It was still more astonishing that this other pair who called themselves the brothers of the dead man and woman should betray so little grief or dismay at the tragedy. There had been no emotional scene at all, Mr.
Barnstaple realized, no consternation or weeping. They were evidently much more puzzled and interested than either horrified or distressed.
The Utopian who had remained in the ruin, had carried out the body of the girl to lay it beside her companion's, and he had now, Mr.
Barnstaple saw, returned to a close scrutiny of the wreckage of the experiment.
But now more of these people were coming upon the scene. They had aeroplanes in this world, for two small ones, noiseless and swift in their flight as swallows, had landed in the fields near by. A man had come up along the road on a machine like a small two-wheeled two-seater with its wheels in series, bicycle fashion; lighter and neater it was than any earthly automobile and mysteriously able to stand up on its two wheels while standing still. A burst of laughter from down the road called Mr. Barnstaple's attention to a group of these Utopians who had apparently found something exquisitely ridiculous in the engine of the Limousine. Most of these people were as scantily clothed and as beautifully built as the two dead experimentalists, but one or two were wearing big hats of straw, and one who seemed to be an older woman of thirty or more wore a robe of white bordered by an intense red line. She was speaking now to Mr. Burleigh.
Although she was a score of yards away, her speech presented itself in Mr. Barnstaple's mind with great distinctness.
"We do not even know as yet what connexion your coming into our world may have with the explosion that has just happened here or whether, indeed, it has any connexion. We want to inquire into both these things. It will be reasonable, we think, to take you and all the possessions you have brought with you to a convenient place for a conference not very far from here. We are arranging for machines to take you thither. There perhaps you will eat. I do not know when you are accustomed to eat?"