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Ichthyander’s valet - The Amphibian Man by Alexander Belyaev

Salvator was going into the mountains again-this time without Cristo. Apparently well satisfied with Cristo’s work, Salvator was leaving him behind to his now permanent duties of Ichthyander’s servant. That suited Cristo’s book for it would facilitate his meeting with Baltasar. Cristo had already sent word to him that he had discovered the “sea-devil’s” whereabouts. It was time for them to lay plans for his kidnapping.

For some time now Cristo had been living in the white-stone lichen-covered cottage and seeing much of Ichthyander. Soon they had become good friends. Ichthyander, for whom human companionship was a welcome novelty, had fairly cottoned to the old Indian, who was so ready with tales about life on land — something Ichthyander knew little about. But he knew more about life in the sea than the world’s greatest experts on the subject all rolled in one. He had a good grounding in geography, at least as far as the oceans, seas and major rivers went; and also knew something of astronomy, navigation, physics, botany and zoology. But he knew little about men, actually nothing beyond the mere fact of the existence of different races on earth, something still vaguer about their history, and as to their political and economic relations, his knowledge did not exceed that of a five-year-old.

At noon when it grew hot Ichthyander would descend into the underground cave and swim away. He would return to the cottage when the heat had abated and stay there till the next morning. But if it rained or there was a storm at the sea he would as often as not remain in the cottage the whole day and feel all right owing to the extra moisture.

The cottage was not big, just four rooms, one leading into another, and a kitchen. Cristo lived in the room next to the kitchen. Then came the dining-room and a big library (Ichthyander could read Spanish and English). The farthest and biggest room was Ichthyander’s bedroom. A big bath took up most of its centre. The bed was on the side, against one of the walls, but Ichthyander seemed to prefer the bath to it. Before going away, however, Salvator had ordered Cristo to see to it that Ichthyander slept in his bed no less than three nights a week, and so every night Cristo saw Ichthyander to bed and grumbled like an old nurse if the young man was being disobedient.

“But I find it a good deal pleasanter sleeping in the water,” protested Ichthyander.

“The Doctor’s orders were that you should sleep in bed — you mustn’t disobey your father.”

Though Ichthyander called Salvator Father, the old Indian doubted they were blood relations at all. True, the amphibian’s skin where it could be seen was rather pale, but that might be due to long immersions. Considering his elongated head, straight nose, thin lips and big sparkling eyes — Ichthyander rather struck Cristo as looking like an Araucanian.

Cristo wanted very much to see what colour Ichthyander’s body was under its close-fitting suit made of some unknown material.

“Do you never take off this thing-not even for the night?” he asked the young man one evening.

“Why should I? I feel comfortable enough in it. It doesn’t prevent either gill or skin breathing and besides is a good armour. Neither a shark’s teeth nor a sharp knife can pierce it,” Ichthyander replied.

“Why do you put goggles and those gloves and shoes on?” Cristo asked looking at the quaint objects lying near the bed. The gloves were made of greenish rubber and had extra finger joints with webs in between. The toes were still longer.

“The gloves and shoes are for faster swimming. And the goggles so that I don’t get sand in my eyes. Besides I can see a good deal better with them on. Without goggles everything’d be lost in a fog down there.” And smiling he continued, “When I was quite small Father used to let me play with the children in the other garden. I was very much surprised to see them swim without their gloves. ‘How can you swim without gloves?’ I asked them but they didn’t understand what I meant, for I never swam in their presence.”

“Do you still swim out into the gulf?” asked Cristo.

“Of course. Only I use the side tunnel. Some bad people nearly caught me with a net, so I’m very careful now.”

“Hm. So there’s a side tunnel leading to the sea, is there?”

“Yes, actually several of them. What a pity you can’t go swimming with me. I could have shown you simply wonderful things. We’d have ridden my sea-horse together. Oh, why can’t all people live underwater?”

“Your sea-horse? What’s that?”

“It’s a dolphin. I tamed him. I found the poor fellow on the shore after a storm, with a fin badly smashed. I dragged him into the water. That was quite a job, I can tell you. Dolphins weigh a lot more on land than they do in water. But then everything else does up here, in this world of yours. Even your own body. Life’s easier down there, you know. So I dragged the dolphin into the water as I’ve said, but found he couldn’t swim and that meant he couldn’t get food either.

I fed fish to him — for a whole month. In that time he not only became tame but sort of got attached to me. We made good friends. The other dolphins got to know me too. You can’t imagine what great fun it is, gambolling in the waves with dolphins on a sunny day! It’s good to be under the waves too. You seem to be swimming through thick blue air. It’s quiet all round. You don’t feel your own body; it becomes free, light, responsive to the merest movement… I have many friends out in the sea. I feed small fish as you’d feed birds, they follow me round in shoals.”

“Haven’t you any enemies?”

“Oh yes-sharks and octopuses. But I’m not afraid of them. I’ve got my knife.”

“And what if they steal upon you unawares?”

Ichthyander looked surprised.

“Why, I can hear them coming at quite a distance.”

“Hear them?” It was Cristo’s turn to look surprised. “Even when they try to steal up on the sly?”

“That’s right. Is there anything surprising? I can hear them with my ears and with my whole body. They make the water osculate and the waves they produce run ahead of them. I feel them and so get my warning.”

“Even when you’re asleep?”

“Of course.”

“But look, what about fishes?”

“Fish are beaten not by a surprise attack but by stronger fish. And I’m stronger than any of them. The fish of prey know it, too. They don’t dare tackle me.”

Zurita’s right: the fellow’s well worth the trouble of getting him, thought Cristo. And he’ll take a lot of getting too. Hearing with his whole body! How do you like that? Nothing short of a damn good trap would get him for us. I must speak to Zurita about it.

“How beautiful the underwater world is! “ Ichthyander was saying. “No, I’d never leave the sea for your stuffy dusty land.”

“Why, isn’t it yours too? You were born on land, weren’t you? Who was your mother?”

“I–I don’t know,” Ichthyander stammered. “Father says my mother died giving me birth.”

“But surely she was a mortal woman and not a fish.”

“Perhaps,” Ichthyander agreed.

Cristo gave a short laugh.

“Now tell me, why did you molest the fishermen, cutting their nets, throwing their catch back into the sea and all that?”

“Because they caught more than they could eat.”

“But they caught fish to sell it.”

Ichthyander did not understand.

“So that other people could eat fish too,” the Indian had to explain.

“Why, are there so many people?” Ichthyander queried in surprise. “Haven’t they got enough animals and birds on land? Why do they have to come to the ocean?”

“Ah, that’s not so easy to explain,” Cristo said with a yawn. “It’s time you were in bed, though. So don’t you go crawling into the bathtub again. Your father will be displeased,” and he went out.

Ichthyander was already gone when Cristo came in early next morning to find a little pool of water on the flagstones.

“Slept in the bathtub again, did he,” the Indian said grumpily. “And then went out to sea.”

Ichthyander was late for his breakfast that day.

He seemed upset over something, the way he poked about with his fork in the plate.

“Roast meat again,” he said.

“That’s right,” Cristo said in a stern voice. “Those are Doctor’s orders. Looks like you’ve been eating raw fish in the sea again. If this goes on much longer you’ll not be able to touch roast meat, much less eat it. And you slept in the bathtub. You’ll get that pain in the sides again, as sure as eggs is eggs. And now you’re late for breakfast. When Doctor comes back I’ll complain to him, see if I don’t. Why, you’ve got quite out of hand lately.”

“Don’t tell him, Cristo. I don’t want to make him sad.” Ichthyander hung his head and was back in his thoughts. Then he suddenly raised his big, now melancholy, eyes at the Indian.

“Listen, Cristo,” he said, “I saw a girl this morning. Never before have I seen anything nearly as beautiful — not even under the waves.”

“So our land is not all that bad after all, eh?” said Cristo.

“I was riding my dolphin when I saw her on the beach near Buenos Aires. She had blue eyes and golden hair.” And he added, “But when she saw me she got frightened and ran away. Oh, why didn’t I take the goggles and gloves off?” After a pause he said in a low voice: “Once I pulled a girl out of the sea. I didn’t notice then what she looked like. What if it’s the same girl? I think I remember that one had golden hair too. Yes, I think she had…” The young man was again lost in thought. Presently he went across to the mirror and for the first time in his life had a good look at himself.

“What did you do after she ran away?”

“I waited, but she never came back, Cristo, is it possible she will never come down to the beach again?”

Perhaps it’s not at all bad that he likes the girl, Cristo thought. Up till now, praise the pleasures of the city as he would, he could not induce Ichthyander to venture as far as Buenos Aires, where his capture would have been no problem for Zurita.

“That’s as may be, but I’ll help you find her. You’ll put on town clothes and well go and look for her in Buenos Aires.”

“I will see her, won’t I?” exclaimed Ichthyander.

“There’re many girls there. With luck you’ll find the one you saw on the beach.”

“Let’s go straightway! Ill ride my dolphin and you’ll walk along the coast.”

“It’s too late. And it’s not all that near on foot.”

“Surely we can make it.”

“Aren’t you eager! “ Cristo said. “We’ll set out together at dawn tomorrow. You’ll swim out into the gulf and I’ll be waiting for you on the beach with the clothes. And I must get them for you first. (I’ll have to call on my brother tonight, thought Cristo). So see you at dawn.”

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