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CHASING A FLYING FIGURE
After what had happened Martin could never visit the waterside and
look at the great birds wading and swimming there without a feeling
that was like a sudden coldness in the blood of his veins. The rosy
spoonbill he had killed and cried over and the great bird-cloud that
had frightened him were never forgotten. He grew tired of shouting
to the echoes: he discovered that there were even more wonderful
things than the marsh echoes in the world, and that the world was
bigger than he had thought it. When spring with its moist verdure
and frail, sweet-smelling flowers had gone; when the great plain
began to turn to a rusty-brown colour, and the dry hard earth was
full of cracks, and the days grew longer and the heat greater, there
came an appearance of water that quivered and glittered and danced
before his wondering sight, and would lead him miles from home every
day in his vain efforts to find out what it was. He could talk of
nothing else, and asked endless questions about it, and they told
him that this strange thing was nothing but the Mirage, but of
course that was not telling him enough, so that he was left to
puzzle his little boy-brains over this new mystery, just as they had
puzzled before over the mystery of the echoes. Now this Mirage was a
glittering whiteness that looked just like water, always shining and
dancing before him and all round him, on the dry level plain where
there was no water. It was never quiet, but perpetually quivering
and running into wavelets that threw up crests and jets of sprays as
from a fountain, and showers of brilliant drops that flashed like
molten silver in the sunlight before they broke and vanished, only
to be renewed again. It appeared every day when the sun was high and
the air hot, and it was often called _The False Water_. And false it
was, since it always flew before him as he ran, so that although he
often seemed to be getting nearer to it he could never quite
overtake it. But Martin had a very determined spirit for a small boy,
and although this appearance of water mocked his efforts a hundred
times every day with its vanishing brightness and beauty, he would
not give up the pursuit.
Now one day when there was not a cloud on the great hot whitey-blue
sky, nor a breath of air stirring, when it was all silent, for not
even a grass-hopper creaked in the dead, yellow, motionless grass,
the whole level earth began to shine and sparkle like a lake of
silvery water, as Martin had never seen it shine before. He had
wandered far away from home--never had he been so far--and still he
ran and ran and ran, and still that whiteness quivered and glittered
and flew on before him; and ever it looked more temptingly near,
urging him to fresh exertions. At length, tired out and overcome
with heat, he sat down to rest, and feeling very much hurt at the
way he had been deceived and led on, he shed one little tear. There
was no mistake about that tear; he felt it running like a small
spider down his cheek, and finally he saw it fall. It fell on to a
blade of yellow grass and ran down the blade, then stopped so as to
gather itself into a little round drop before touching the ground.
Just then, out of the roots of the grass beneath it, crept a tiny
dusty black beetle and began drinking the drop, waving its little
horns up and down like donkey's ears, apparently very much pleased
at its good fortune in finding water and having a good drink in such
a dry, thirsty place. Probably it took the tear for a drop of rain
just fallen out of the sky.
"You _are_ a funny little thing!" exclaimed Martin, feeling now less
like crying than laughing.
The wee beetle, satisfied and refreshed, climbed up the grass-blade,
and when it reached the tip lifted its dusty black wing-cases just
enough to throw out a pair of fine gauzy wings that had been neatly
folded up beneath them, and flew away.
Martin, following its flight, had his eyes quite dazzled by the
intense glitter of the False Water, which now seemed to be only a
few yards from him: but the strangest thing was that in it there
appeared a form--a bright beautiful form that vanished when he gazed
steadily at it. Again he got up and began running harder than ever
after the flying mocking Mirage, and every time he stopped he
fancied that he could see the figure again, sometimes like a pale
blue shadow on the brightness; sometimes shining with its own
excessive light, and sometimes only seen in outline, like a figure
graved on glass, and always vanishing when looked at steadily.
Perhaps that white water-like glitter of the Mirage was like a
looking-glass, and he was only chasing his own reflection. I cannot
say, but there it was, always before him, a face as of a beautiful
boy, with tumbled hair and laughing lips, its figure clothed in a
fluttering dress of lights and shadows. It also seemed to beckon to
him with its hand, and encourage him to run on after it with its
bright merry glances.
At length when it was past the hour of noon, Martin sat down under a
small bush that gave just shade enough to cover him and none to spare.
It was only a little spot of shade like an island in a sea of heat
and brightness. He was too hot and tired to run more, too tired even
to keep his eyes open, and so, propping his back against the stem of
the small bush, he closed his tired hot eyes.
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