“Gold?” The stranger snatched it back, almost dropping his shabby bag in his agitation, and scrutinized it incredulously. Through the coppery tarnish gleamed the dull warm yellow of precious metal.
Without more ado he slumped into the vacant chair at this table, and a waggle-hipped servant-girl came to his side. “Food and drink!” he commanded, letting the miraculous coin ring on the table. “I starve and I’m clemmed with thirst-therefore be quick!”
Eyes twinkling, the traveler regarded his new acquaintance. “And how are you called, sir?” he demanded.
“Jacques of Ys is my name,” the other sighed. “Though truth to tell I’m not overmuch inclined to add my origin to my name any longer.”
“Could you wish to be shamed by connection with a cityful of fools?”
“Considering the matter with due reflection,” said the traveler, “I think-no.”
“Well, then!” Jacques ran his long bony fingers through his already untidy hair; the water had been trying to slick it down, but half an ocean would have been unequal to the task. He was a gaunt man, neither old nor young, with burning grey eyes and a bush of tawny beard.
“So in what way are the folk of Ys foolish?” probed the traveler.
“Oh, once they were a great people,” grunted Jacques. “And that’s where the trouble started, I suppose.
Once we had a fleet-and not on any land-locked lake, either, but on Oceanus itself, mother of storms and gulls. Also we had an army to guard our trade-routes, skilful money-changers, wise counselors… Ah, Ys was among the noblest cities of the world!”
“I believe I’ve heard so,” the traveler agreed.
“Then your news is stale, sir!” Jacques thumped the table. “Listen! There came changes-in the times, in the weather, in the currents of the sea. To be expected, I say, for did not Heraclitus teach us all things flow? But soft living and much ease had stolen the brains out of the people’s heads! Faced with the silting-up of our great estuary, did they go to it and build dredgers? They did not! Faced with a landslide that closed our chief silk-road, did they send scouts to locate another way? They did not! Faced with long winters that killed our autumn wheat in the ground, did they sow barley or the hardy northern oat? They did not!”
“Then what did they do?” the traveler inquired. “If anything.”
“Fell first to moaning and wringing their hands, and lamenting their sad fate; then, when this proved unfruitful and incapable of filling the granaries, turned to a crowning imbecility and invoked the impossible aid of magic. I see you scowl, sir, and well you may, for all the world knows that magic is a vain and ridiculous snare laid by evil demons in the path of mankind.”
This was a stubborn and unobservant fellow, clearly; with his hand closed around a coin that veritable magic-and no petty domestic hearth-spell, either-had turned from copper to gold, he could still make such an assertion. He would not care for this domain in which he now found himself. Still, there was no help for that.
“And to what purposes tended their research in- ah-magic?” the traveler asked.
“To bring back the great days of the past, if you please,” said Jacques with majestic scorn, and on the last word crammed his mouth full from a dish the serving-girl placed before him.
While he assuaged his hunger, his companion contemplated these data. Yes, such an event as Jacques had described would account for the paradox of Ys reversing the cosmic trend and exchanging Time for eternity and its attendant confusions. But there must have been a great and terrible lust in the minds of very many people for the change to be brought about; there must have been public foolishness on a scale unparalleled in the All. Thinking on this, the traveler felt his face grow grim.
Reaching for his staff, he made to depart, and Jacques glanced up with his cheeks bulging. Having swallowed frantically, he spoke, “Sir, did I intrude on your meditations? Your pardon if-”
“No, no! You merely recalled me to some unfinished business. You are correct in your description of the people of Ys. They are fools indeed. So do not-if you will take my advice-go back there.”