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THE EIGHTH CHAPTER - THE HANGING STONE
BUT the change of heart in the Bag-jagderags was really sincere. The Doctor had made a great impression on them - a deeper one than even he himself realized at the time. In fact I sometimes think that that speech of his from the palace-steps had more effect upon the Indians of Spidermonkey Island than had any of his great deeds which, great though they were, were always magnified and exaggerated when the news of them was passed from mouth to mouth.
A sick girl was brought to him as he reached the place where the boats lay. She turned out to have some quite simple ailment which he quickly gave the remedy for. But this increased his popularity still more. And when he stepped into his canoe, the people all around us actually burst into tears. It seems (I learned this afterwards) that they thought he was going away across the sea, for good, to the mysterious foreign lands from which he had come.
Some of the chieftains spoke to the Popsipetels as we pushed off. What they said I did not understand; but we noticed that several canoes filled with Bag-jagderags followed us at a respectful distance all the way back to Popsipetel.
The Doctor had determined to return by the other shore, so that we should he thus able to make a complete trip round the island's shores.
Shortly after we started, while still off the lower end of the island, we sighted a steep point on the coast where the sea was in a great state of turmoil, white with soapy froth. On going nearer, we found that this was caused by our friendly whales who were still faithfully working away with their noses against the end of the island, driving us northward. We had been kept so busy with the war that we had forgotten all about them. But as we paused and watched their mighty tails lashing and churning the sea, we suddenly realized that we had not felt cold in quite along while. Speeding up our boat lest the island be carried away from us altogether, we passed on up the coast; and here and there we noticed that the trees on the shore already looked greener and more healthy. Spidermonkey Island was getting back into her home climates.
About halfway to Popsipetel we went ashore and spent two or three days exploring the central part of the island. Our Indian paddlers took us up into the mountains, very steep and high in this region, overhanging the sea. And they showed us what they called the Whispering Rocks.
This was a very peculiar and striking piece of scenery. It was like a great vast basin, or circus, in the mountains, and out of the centre of it there rose a table of rock with an ivory chair upon it. All around this the mountains went up like stairs, or theatre-seats, to a great height - except at one narrow end which was open to a view of the sea. You could imagine it a council-place or concert-hall for giants, and the rock table in the centre the stage for performers or the stand for the speaker.
We asked our guides why it was called the Whispering Rocks; and they said, "Go down into it and we will show you."
The great bowl was miles deep and miles wide. We scrambled down the rocks and they showed us how, even when you stood far, far apart from one another, you merely had to whisper in that great place and every one in the theatre could hear you. This was, the Doctor said, on account of the echoes which played backwards and forwards between the high walls of rock.
Our guides told us that it was here, in days long gone by when the Popsipetels owned the whole of Spidermonkey Island, that the kings were crowned. The ivory chair upon the table was the throne in which they sat. And so great was the big theatre that all the Indians in the island were able to get seats in it to see the ceremony.
They showed us also an enormous hanging stone perched on the edge of a volcano's crater - the highest summit in the whole island. Although it was very far below us, we could see it quite plainly. and it looked wobbly enough to be pushed off its perch with the hand. There was a legend among the people, they said, that when the greatest of all Popsipetel kings should be crowned in the ivory chair, this hanging stone would tumble into the volcano's mouth and go straight down to the centre of the earth.
The Doctor said he would like to go and examine it closer.
And when we were come to the lip of the volcano (it took us half a day to get up to it) we found the stone was unbelievably large - big as a cathedral. Underneath it we could look right down into a black hole which seemed to have no bottom. The Doctor explained to us that volcanoes sometimes spurted up fire from these holes in their tops; but that those on floating islands were always cold and dead.
"Stubbins," he said, looking up at the great stone towering above us, "do you know what would most likely happen if that boulder should fall in?"
"No," said I, "what?"
"You remember the air-chamber which the porpoises told us lies under the centre of the island?"
"Well, this stone is heavy enough, if it fell into the volcano, to break through into that air-chamber from above. And once it did, the air would escape and the floating island would float no more. It would sink."
"But then everybody on it would be drowned, wouldn't they?" said Bumpo.
"Oh no, not necessarily. That would depend on the depth of the sea where the sinking took place. The island might touch bottom when it had only gone down, say, a hundred feet. But there would be lots of it still sticking up above the water then, wouldn't there?"
"Yes," said Bumpo, "I suppose there would. Well, let us hope that the ponderous fragment does not lose its equilibriosity, for I don't believe it would stop at the centre of the earth - more likely it would fall right through the world and come out the other side."
Many other wonders there were which these men showed us in the central regions of their island. But I have not time or space to tell you of them now.
Descending towards the shore again, we noticed that we were still being watched, even here among the highlands, by the Bag-jagderags who had followed us. And when we put to sea once more a boatload of them proceeded to go ahead of us in the direction of Popsipetel. Having lighter canoes, they traveled faster than our party; and we judged that they should reach the village - if that was where they were going - many hours before we could.
The Doctor was now becoming anxious to see how Long Arrow was getting on, so we all took turns at the paddles and went on traveling by moonlight through the whole night.
We reached Popsipetel just as the dawn was breaking.
To our great surprise we found that not only we, but the whole village also, had been up all night. A great crowd was gathered about the dead chief's house. And as we landed our canoes upon the beach we saw a large number of old men, the seniors of the tribe, coming out at the main door.
We inquired what was the meaning of all this; and were told that the election of a new chief had been going on all through the whole night. Bumpo asked the name of the new chief; but this, it seemed, had not yet been given out. It would be announced at mid-day.
As soon as the Doctor had paid a visit to Long Arrow and seen that he was doing nicely, we proceeded to our own house at the far end of the village. Here we ate some breakfast and then lay down to take a good rest.
Rest, indeed, we needed; for life had been stren-uous and busy for us ever since we had landed on the island. And it wasn't many minutes after our weary heads struck the pillows that the whole crew of us were sound asleep.
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