"Have you met any suspicious characters between here and the statues?" asked the youth. "I came across the ashes of a fire lower down; there had been three men sitting for some time round it, and they had all been eating quails. Here are some of the bones and feathers, which I shall keep. They had not been gone more than a couple of hours, for the ashes were still warm; they are getting bolder and bolder--who would have thought they would dare to light a fire? I suppose you have not met any one; but if you have seen a single person, let me know."My father said quite truly that he had met no one. He then laughingly asked how the youth had been able to discover as much as he had.
"There were three well-marked forms, and three separate lots of quail bones hidden in the ashes. One man had done all the plucking. This is strange, but I dare say I shall get at it later."After a little further conversation the Ranger said he was now going down to Sunch'ston, and, though somewhat curtly, proposed that he and my father should walk together.
"By all means," answered my father.
"Before they had gone more than a few hundred yards his companion said, "If you will come with me a little to the left, I can show you the Blue Pool."To avoid the precipitous ground over which the stream here fell, they had diverged to the right, where they had found a smoother descent; returning now to the stream, which was about to enter on a level stretch for some distance, they found themselves on the brink of a rocky basin, of no great size, but very blue, and evidently deep.
"This," said the Ranger, "is where our orders tell us to fling any foreign devil who comes over from the other side. I have only been Head Ranger about nine months, and have not yet had to face this horrid duty; but," and here he smiled, "when I first caught sight of you I thought I should have to make a beginning. I was very glad when I saw you had a permit.""And how many skeletons do you suppose are lying at the bottom of this pool?""I believe not more than seven or eight in all. There were three or four about eighteen years ago, and about the same number of late years; one man was flung here only about three months before I was appointed. I have the full list, with dates, down in my office, but the rangers never let people in Sunch'ston know when they have Blue-Pooled any one; it would unsettle men's minds, and some of them would be coming up here in the dark to drag the pool, and see whether they could find anything on the body."My father was glad to turn away from this most repulsive place.
After a time he said, "And what do you good people hereabouts think of next Sunday's grand doings?"Bearing in mind what he had gleaned from the Professors about the Ranger's opinions, my father gave a slightly ironical turn to his pronunciation of the words "grand doings." The youth glanced at him with a quick penetrative look, and laughed as he said, "The doings will be grand enough.""What a fine temple they have built," said my father. "I have not yet seen the picture, but they say the four black and white horses are magnificently painted. I saw the Sunchild ascend, but I saw no horses in the sky, nor anything like horses."The youth was much interested. "Did you really see him ascend?" he asked; "and what, pray, do you think it all was?""Whatever it was, there were no horses."
"But there must have been, for, as you of course know, they have lately found some droppings from one of them, which have been miraculously preserved, and they are going to show them next Sunday in a gold reliquary.""I know," said my father, who, however, was learning the fact for the first time. "I have not yet seen this precious relic, but Ithink they might have found something less unpleasant.""Perhaps they would if they could," replied the youth, laughing, "but there was nothing else that the horses could leave. It is only a number of curiously rounded stones, and not at all like what they say it is.""Well, well," continued my father, "but relic or no relic, there are many who, while they fully recognise the value of the Sunchild's teaching, dislike these cock and bull stories as blasphemy against God's most blessed gift of reason. There are many in Bridgeford who hate this story of the horses."The youth was now quite reassured. "So there are here, sir," he said warmly, "and who hate the Sunchild too. If there is such a hell as he used to talk about to my mother, we doubt not but that he will be cast into its deepest fires. See how he has turned us all upside down. But we dare not say what we think. There is no courage left in Erewhon."Then waxing calmer he said, "It is you Bridgeford people and your Musical Banks that have done it all. The Musical Bank Managers saw that the people were falling away from them. Finding that the vulgar believed this foreign devil Higgs--for he gave this name to my mother when he was in prison--finding that--But you know all this as well as I do. How can you Bridgeford Professors pretend to believe about these horses, and about the Sunchild's being son to the sun, when all the time you know there is no truth in it?""My son--for considering the difference in our ages I may be allowed to call you so--we at Bridgeford are much like you at Sunch'ston; we dare not always say what we think. Nor would it be wise to do so, when we should not be listened to. This fire must burn itself out, for it has got such hold that nothing can either stay or turn it. Even though Higgs himself were to return and tell it from the house-tops that he was a mortal--ay, and a very common one--he would be killed, but not believed.""Let him come; let him show himself, speak out and die, if the people choose to kill him. In that case I would forgive him, accept him for my father, as silly people sometimes say he is, and honour him to my dying day.""Would that be a bargain?" said my father, smiling in spite of emotion so strong that he could hardly bring the words out of his mouth.
"Yes, it would," said the youth doggedly.
"Then let me shake hands with you on his behalf, and let us change the conversation."He took my father's hand, doubtfully and somewhat disdainfully, but he did not refuse it.