The Country Of The Blind By H. G. Wells

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Three hundred miles and more from Chimborazo, one hundred from the snows
of Cotopaxi, in the wildest wastes of Ecuador’s Andes, there lies that
mysterious mountain valley, cut off from the world of men, the Country of
the Blind. Long years ago that valley lay so far open to the world that
men might come at last through frightful gorges and over an icy pass into
its equable meadows; and thither indeed men came, a family or so of
Peruvian half-breeds fleeing from the lust and tyranny of an evil Spanish
ruler. Then came the stupendous outbreak of Mindobamba, when it was night
in Quito for seventeen days, and the water was boiling at Yaguachi and all
the fish floating dying even as far as Guayaquil; everywhere along the
Pacific slopes there were land-slips and swift thawings and sudden floods,
and one whole side of the old Arauca crest slipped and came down in
thunder, and cut off the Country of the Blind for ever from the exploring
feet of men. But one of these early settlers had chanced to be on the
hither side of the gorges when the world had so terribly shaken itself,
and he perforce had to forget his wife and his child and all the friends
and possessions he had left up there, and start life over again in the
lower world. He started it again but ill, blindness overtook him, and he
died of punishment in the mines; but the story he told begot a legend that
lingers along the length of the Cordilleras of the Andes to this day.

He told of his reason for venturing back from that fastness, into which he
had first been carried lashed to a llama, beside a vast bale of gear, when
he was a child. The valley, he said, had in it all that the heart of man
could desire–sweet water, pasture, and even climate, slopes of rich brown
soil with tangles of a shrub that bore an excellent fruit, and on one side
great hanging forests of pine that held the avalanches high. Far overhead,
on three sides, vast cliffs of grey-green rock were capped by cliffs of
ice; but the glacier stream came not to them but flowed away by the
farther slopes, and only now and then huge ice masses fell on the valley
side. In this valley it neither rained nor snowed, but the abundant
springs gave a rich green pasture, that irrigation would spread over all
the valley space. The settlers did well indeed there. Their beasts did
well and multiplied, and but one thing marred their happiness. Yet it was
enough to mar it greatly. A strange disease had come upon them, and had
made all the children born to them there–and indeed, several older
children also–blind. It was to seek some charm or antidote against this
plague of blindness that he had with fatigue and danger and difficulty
returned down the gorge. In those days, in such cases, men did not think
of germs and infections but of sins; and it seemed to him that the reason
of this affliction must lie in the negligence of these priestless
immigrants to set up a shrine so soon as they entered the valley. He
wanted a shrine–a handsome, cheap, effectual shrine–to be erected in the
valley; he wanted relics and such-like potent things of faith, blessed
objects and mysterious medals and prayers. In his wallet he had a bar of
native silver for which he would not account; he insisted there was none
in the valley with something of the insistence of an inexpert liar. They
had all clubbed their money and ornaments together, having little need for
such treasure up there, he said, to buy them holy help against their ill.
I figure this dim-eyed young mountaineer, sunburnt, gaunt, and anxious,
hat-brim clutched feverishly, a man all unused to the ways of the lower
world, telling this story to some keen-eyed, attentive priest before the
great convulsion; I can picture him presently seeking to return with pious
and infallible remedies against that trouble, and the infinite dismay with
which he must have faced the tumbled vastness where the gorge had once
come out. But the rest of his story of mischances is lost to me, save that
I know of his evil death after several years. Poor stray from that
remoteness! The stream that had once made the gorge now bursts from the
mouth of a rocky cave, and the legend his poor, ill-told story set going
developed into the legend of a race of blind men somewhere “over there”
one may still hear to-day.

And amidst the little population of that now isolated and forgotten valley
the disease ran its course. The old became groping and purblind, the young
saw but dimly, and the children that were born to them saw never at all.
But life was very easy in that snow-rimmed basin, lost to all the world,
with neither thorns nor briars, with no evil insects nor any beasts save
the gentle breed of llamas they had lugged and thrust and followed up the
beds of the shrunken rivers in the gorges up which they had come. The
seeing had become purblind so gradually that they scarcely noted their
loss. They guided the sightless youngsters hither and thither until they
knew the whole Valley marvellously, and when at last sight died out among
them the race lived on. They had even time to adapt themselves to the
blind control of fire, which they made carefully in stoves of stone. They
were a simple strain of people at the first, unlettered, only slightly
touched with the Spanish civilisation, but with something of a tradition
of the arts of old Peru and of its lost philosophy. Generation followed
generation. They forgot many things; they devised many things. Their
tradition of the greater world they came from became mythical in colour
and uncertain. In all things save sight they were strong and able, and
presently the chance of birth and heredity sent one who had an original
mind and who could talk and persuade among them, and then afterwards
another. These two passed, leaving their effects, and the little community
grew in numbers and in understanding, and met and settled social and
economic problems that arose. Generation followed generation. Generation
followed generation. There came a time when a child was born who was
fifteen generations from that ancestor who went out of the valley with a
bar of silver to seek God’s aid, and who never returned. Thereabouts it
chanced that a man came into this community from the outer world. And this
is the story of that man.

He was a mountaineer from the country near Quito, a man who had been down
to the sea and had seen the world, a reader of books in an original way,
an acute and enterprising man, and he was taken on by a party of
Englishmen who had come out to Ecuador to climb mountains, to replace one
of their three Swiss guides who had fallen ill. He climbed here and he
climbed there, and then came the attempt on Parascotopetl, the Matterhorn
of the Andes, in which he was lost to the outer world. The story of the
accident has been written a dozen times. Pointer’s narrative is the best.
He tells how the little party worked their difficult and almost vertical
way up to the very foot of the last and greatest precipice, and how they
built a night shelter amidst the snow upon a little shelf of rock, and,
with a touch of real dramatic power, how presently they found Nunez had
gone from them. They shouted, and there was no reply; shouted and
whistled, and for the rest of that night they slept no more.

As the morning broke they saw the traces of his fall. It seems impossible
he could have uttered a sound. He had slipped eastward towards the unknown
side of the mountain; far below he had struck a steep slope of snow, and
ploughed his way down it in the midst of a snow avalanche. His track went
straight to the edge of a frightful precipice, and beyond that everything
was hidden. Far, far below, and hazy with distance, they could see trees
rising out of a narrow, shut-in valley–the lost Country of the Blind. But
they did not know it was the lost Country of the Blind, nor distinguish it
in any way from any other narrow streak of upland valley. Unnerved by this
disaster, they abandoned their attempt in the afternoon, and Pointer was
called away to the war before he could make another attack. To this day
Parascotopetl lifts an unconquered crest, and Pointer’s shelter crumbles
unvisited amidst the snows.

And the man who fell survived.

At the end of the slope he fell a thousand feet, and came down in the
midst of a cloud of snow upon a snow slope even steeper than the one
above. Down this he was whirled, stunned and insensible, but without a
bone broken in his body; and then at last came to gentler slopes, and at
last rolled out and lay still, buried amidst a softening heap of the white
masses that had accompanied and saved him. He came to himself with a dim
fancy that he was ill in bed; then realised his position with a
mountaineer’s intelligence, and worked himself loose and, after a rest or
so, out until he saw the stars. He rested flat upon his chest for a space,
wondering where he was and what had happened to him. He explored his
limbs, and discovered that several of his buttons were gone and his coat
turned over his head. His knife had gone from his pocket and his hat was
lost, though he had tied it under his chin. He recalled that he had been
looking for loose stones to raise his piece of the shelter wall. His
ice-axe had disappeared.

He decided he must have fallen, and looked up to see, exaggerated by the
ghastly light of the rising moon, the tremendous flight he had taken. For
a while he lay, gazing blankly at that vast pale cliff towering above,
rising moment by moment out of a subsiding tide of darkness. Its
phantasmal, mysterious beauty held him for a space, and then he was seized
with a paroxysm of sobbing laughter…

After a great interval of time he became aware that he was near the lower
edge of the snow. Below, down what was now a moonlit and practicable
slope, he saw the dark and broken appearance of rock-strewn turf. He
struggled to his feet, aching in every joint and limb, got down painfully
from the heaped loose snow about him, went downward until he was on the
turf, and there dropped rather than lay beside a boulder, drank deep from
the flask in his inner pocket, and instantly fell asleep…

He was awakened by the singing of birds in the trees far below.

He sat up and perceived he was on a little alp at the foot of a vast
precipice, that was grooved by the gully down which he and his snow had
come. Over against him another wall of rock reared itself against the sky.
The gorge between these precipices ran east and west and was full of the
morning sunlight, which lit to the westward the mass of fallen mountain
that closed the descending gorge. Below him it seemed there was a
precipice equally steep, but behind the snow in the gully he found a sort
of chimney-cleft dripping with snow-water down which a desperate man might
venture. He found it easier than it seemed, and came at last to another
desolate alp, and then after a rock climb of no particular difficulty to a
steep slope of trees. He took his bearings and turned his face up the
gorge, for he saw it opened out above upon green meadows, among which he
now glimpsed quite distinctly a cluster of stone huts of unfamiliar
fashion. At times his progress was like clambering along the face of a
wall, and after a time the rising sun ceased to strike along the gorge,
the voices of the singing birds died away, and the air grew cold and dark
about him. But the distant valley with its houses was all the brighter for
that. He came presently to talus, and among the rocks he noted–for he was
an observant man–an unfamiliar fern that seemed to clutch out of the
crevices with intense green hands. He picked a frond or so and gnawed its
stalk and found it helpful.

About midday he came at last out of the throat of the gorge into the plain
and the sunlight. He was stiff and weary; he sat down in the shadow of a
rock, filled up his flask with water from a spring and drank it down, and
remained for a time resting before he went on to the houses.

They were very strange to his eyes, and indeed the whole aspect of that
valley became, as he regarded it, queerer and more unfamiliar. The greater
part of its surface was lush green meadow, starred with many beautiful
flowers, irrigated with extraordinary care, and bearing evidence of
systematic cropping piece by piece. High up and ringing the valley about
was a wall, and what appeared to be a circumferential water-channel, from
which the little trickles of water that fed the meadow plants came, and on
the higher slopes above this flocks of llamas cropped the scanty herbage.
Sheds, apparently shelters or feeding-places for the llamas, stood against
the boundary wall here and there. The irrigation streams ran together into
a main channel down the centre of the valley, and this was enclosed on
either side by a wall breast high. This gave a singularly urban quality to
this secluded place, a quality that was greatly enhanced by the fact that
a number of paths paved with black and white stones, and each with a
curious little kerb at the side, ran hither and thither in an orderly
manner. The houses of the central village were quite unlike the casual and
higgledy-piggledy agglomeration of the mountain villages he knew; they
stood in a continuous row on either side of a central street of
astonishing cleanness; here and there their particoloured facade was
pierced by a door, and not a solitary window broke their even frontage.
They were particoloured with extraordinary irregularity, smeared with a
sort of plaster that was sometimes grey, sometimes drab, sometimes
slate-coloured or dark brown; and it was the sight of this wild plastering
first brought the word “blind” into the thoughts of the explorer. “The
good man who did that,” he thought, “must have been as blind as a bat.”

He descended a steep place, and so came to the wall and channel that ran
about the valley, near where the latter spouted out its surplus contents
into the deeps of the gorge in a thin and wavering thread of cascade. He
could now see a number of men and women resting on piled heaps of grass,
as if taking a siesta, in the remoter part of the meadow, and nearer the
village a number of recumbent children, and then nearer at hand three men
carrying pails on yokes along a little path that ran from the encircling
wall towards the houses. These latter were clad in garments of llama cloth
and boots and belts of leather, and they wore caps of cloth with back and
ear flaps. They followed one another in single file, walking slowly and
yawning as they walked, like men who have been up all night. There was
something so reassuringly prosperous and respectable in their bearing that
after a moment’s hesitation Nunez stood forward as conspicuously as
possible upon his rock, and gave vent to a mighty shout that echoed round
the valley.

The three men stopped, and moved their heads as though they were looking
about them. They turned their faces this way and that, and Nunez
gesticulated with freedom. But they did not appear to see him for all his
gestures, and after a time, directing themselves towards the mountains far
away to the right, they shouted as if in answer. Nunez bawled again, and
then once more, and as he gestured ineffectually the word “blind” came up
to the top of his thoughts. “The fools must be blind,” he said.

When at last, after much shouting and wrath, Nunez crossed the stream by a
little bridge, came through a gate in the wall, and approached them, he
was sure that they were blind. He was sure that this was the Country of
the Blind of which the legends told. Conviction had sprung upon him, and a
sense of great and rather enviable adventure. The three stood side by
side, not looking at him, but with their ears directed towards him,
judging him by his unfamiliar steps. They stood close together like men a
little afraid, and he could see their eyelids closed and sunken, as though
the very balls beneath had shrunk away. There was an expression near awe
on their faces.

“A man,” one said, in hardly recognisable Spanish–“a man it is–a man or
a spirit–coming down from the rocks.”

But Nunez advanced with the confident steps of a youth who enters upon
life. All the old stories of the lost valley and the Country of the Blind
had come back to his mind, and through his thoughts ran this old proverb,
as if it were a refrain–

“In the Country of the Blind the One-eyed Man is King.”

“In the Country of the Blind the One-eyed Man is King.”

And very civilly he gave them greeting. He talked to them and used his
eyes.

“Where does he come from, brother Pedro?” asked one.

“Down out of the rocks.”

“Over the mountains I come,” said Nunez, “out of the country beyond
there–where men can see. From near Bogota, where there are a hundred
thousands of people, and where the city passes out of sight.”

“Sight?” muttered Pedro. “Sight?”

“He comes,” said the second blind man, “out of the rocks.”

The cloth of their coats Nunez saw was curiously fashioned, each with a
different sort of stitching.

They startled him by a simultaneous movement towards him, each with a hand
outstretched. He stepped back from the advance of these spread fingers.

“Come hither,” said the third blind man, following his motion and
clutching him neatly.

And they held Nunez and felt him over, saying no word further until they
had done so.

“Carefully,” he cried, with a finger in his eye, and found they thought
that organ, with its fluttering lids, a queer thing in him. They went over
it again.

“A strange creature, Correa,” said the one called Pedro. “Feel the
coarseness of his hair. Like a llama’s hair.”

“Rough he is as the rocks that begot him,” said Correa, investigating
Nunez’s unshaven chin with a soft and slightly moist hand. “Perhaps he
will grow finer.” Nunez struggled a little under their examination, but
they gripped him firm.

“Carefully,” he said again.

“He speaks,” said the third man. “Certainly he is a man.”

“Ugh!” said Pedro, at the roughness of his coat.

“And you have come into the world?” asked Pedro.

Out of the world. Over mountains and glaciers; right over above
there, half-way to the sun. Out of the great big world that goes down,
twelve days’ journey to the sea.”

They scarcely seemed to heed him. “Our fathers have told us men may be
made by the forces of Nature,” said Correa. “It is the warmth of things
and moisture, and rottenness–rottenness.”

“Let us lead him to the elders,” said Pedro.

“Shout first,” said Correa, “lest the children be afraid… This is a
marvellous occasion.”

So they shouted, and Pedro went first and took Nunez by the hand to lead
him to the houses.

He drew his hand away. “I can see,” he said.

“See?” said Correa.

“Yes, see,” said Nunez, turning towards him, and stumbled against Pedro’s
pail.

“His senses are still imperfect,” said the third blind man. “He stumbles,
and talks unmeaning words. Lead him by the hand.”

“As you will,” said Nunez, and was led along, laughing.

It seemed they knew nothing of sight.

Well, all in good time he would teach them.

He heard people shouting, and saw a number of figures gathering together
in the middle roadway of the village.

He found it tax his nerve and patience more than he had anticipated, that
first encounter with the population of the Country of the Blind. The place
seemed larger as he drew near to it, and the smeared plasterings queerer,
and a crowd of children and men and women (the women and girls, he was
pleased to note, had some of them quite sweet faces, for all that their
eyes were shut and sunken) came about him, holding on to him, touching him
with soft, sensitive hands, smelling at him, and listening at every word
he spoke. Some of the maidens and children, however, kept aloof as if
afraid, and indeed his voice seemed coarse and rude beside their softer
notes. They mobbed him. His three guides kept close to him with an effect
of proprietorship, and said again and again, “A wild man out of the rock.”

“Bogota,” he said. “Bogota. Over the mountain crests.”

“A wild man–using wild words,” said Pedro. “Did you hear that–
Bogota? His mind is hardly formed yet. He has only the beginnings
of speech.”

A little boy nipped his hand. “Bogota!” he said mockingly.

“Ay! A city to your village. I come from the great world–where men have
eyes and see.”

“His name’s Bogota,” they said.

“He stumbled,” said Correa, “stumbled twice as we came hither.”

“Bring him to the elders.”

And they thrust him suddenly through a doorway into a room as black as
pitch, save at the end there faintly glowed a fire. The crowd closed in
behind him and shut out all but the faintest glimmer of day, and before he
could arrest himself he had fallen headlong over the feet of a seated man.
His arm, outflung, struck the face of someone else as he went down; he
felt the soft impact of features and heard a cry of anger, and for a
moment he struggled against a number of hands that clutched him. It was a
one-sided fight. An inkling of the situation came to him, and he lay
quiet.

“I fell down,” he said; “I couldn’t see in this pitchy darkness.”

There was a pause as if the unseen persons about him tried to understand
his words. Then the voice of Correa said: “He is but newly formed. He
stumbles as he walks and mingles words that mean nothing with his speech.”

Others also said things about him that he heard or understood imperfectly.

“May I sit up?” he asked, in a pause. “I will not struggle against you
again.”

They consulted and let him rise.

The voice of an older man began to question him, and Nunez found himself
trying to explain the great world out of which he had fallen, and the sky
and mountains and sight and such-like marvels, to these elders who sat in
darkness in the Country of the Blind. And they would believe and
understand nothing whatever he told them, a thing quite outside his
expectation. They would not even understand many of his words. For
fourteen generations these people had been blind and cut off from all the
seeing world; the names for all the things of sight had faded and changed;
the story of the outer world was faded and changed to a child’s story; and
they had ceased to concern themselves with anything beyond the rocky
slopes above their circling wall. Blind men of genius had arisen among
them and questioned the shreds of belief and tradition they had brought
with them from their seeing days, and had dismissed all these things as
idle fancies, and replaced them with new and saner explanations. Much of
their imagination had shrivelled with their eyes, and they had made for
themselves new imaginations with their ever more sensitive ears and
finger-tips. Slowly Nunez realised this; that his expectation of wonder
and reverence at his origin and his gifts was not to be borne out; and
after his poor attempt to explain sight to them had been set aside as the
confused version of a new-made being describing the marvels of his
incoherent sensations, he subsided, a little dashed, into listening to
their instruction. And the eldest of the blind men explained to him life
and philosophy and religion, how that the world (meaning their valley) had
been first an empty hollow in the rocks, and then had come, first,
inanimate things without the gift of touch, and llamas and a few other
creatures that had little sense, and then men, and at last angels, whom
one could hear singing and making fluttering sounds, but whom no one could
touch at all, which puzzled Nunez greatly until he thought of the birds.

He went on to tell Nunez how this time had been divided into the warm and
the cold, which are the blind equivalents of day and night, and how it was
good to sleep in the warm and work during the cold, so that now, but for
his advent, the whole town of the blind would have been asleep. He said
Nunez must have been specially created to learn and serve the wisdom, they
had acquired, and that for all his mental incoherency and stumbling
behaviour he must have courage, and do his best to learn, and at that all
the people in the doorway murmured encouragingly. He said the night–for
the blind call their day night–was now far gone, and it behoved every one
to go back to sleep. He asked Nunez if he knew how to sleep, and Nunez
said he did, but that before sleep he wanted food.

They brought him food–llama’s milk in a bowl, and rough salted bread–and
led him into a lonely place, to eat out of their hearing, and afterwards
to slumber until the chill of the mountain evening roused them to begin
their day again. But Nunez slumbered not at all.

Instead, he sat up in the place where they had left him, resting his limbs
and turning the unanticipated circumstances of his arrival over and over
in his mind.

Every now and then he laughed, sometimes with amusement, and sometimes
with indignation.

“Unformed mind!” he said. “Got no senses yet! They little know they’ve
been insulting their heaven-sent king and master. I see I must bring them
to reason. Let me think–let me think.”

He was still thinking when the sun set.

Nunez had an eye for all beautiful things, and it seemed to him that the
glow upon the snowfields and glaciers that rose about the valley on every
side was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. His eyes went from
that inaccessible glory to the village and irrigated fields, fast sinking
into the twilight, and suddenly a wave of emotion took him, and he thanked
God from the bottom of his heart that the power of sight had been given
him.

He heard a voice calling to him from out of the village. “Ya ho there,
Bogota! Come hither!”

At that he stood up smiling. He would show these people once and for all
what sight would do for a man. They would seek him, but not find him.

“You move not, Bogota,” said the voice.

He laughed noiselessly, and made two stealthy steps aside from the path.

“Trample not on the grass, Bogota; that is not allowed.”

Nunez had scarcely heard the sound he made himself. He stopped amazed.

The owner of the voice came running up the piebald path towards him.

He stepped back into the pathway. “Here I am,” he said.

“Why did you not come when I called you?” said the blind man. “Must you be
led like a child? Cannot you hear the path as you walk?”

Nunez laughed. “I can see it,” he said.

“There is no such word as see,” said the blind man, after a pause.
“Cease this folly, and follow the sound of my feet.”

Nunez followed, a little annoyed.

“My time will come,” he said.

“You’ll learn,” the blind man answered. “There is much to learn in the
world.”

“Has no one told you, ‘In the Country of the Blind the One-eyed Man is
King’?”

“What is blind?” asked the blind man carelessly over his shoulder.

Four days passed, and the fifth found the King of the Blind still
incognito, as a clumsy and useless stranger among his subjects.

It was, he found, much more difficult to proclaim himself than he had
supposed, and in the meantime, while he meditated his coup d’йtat,
he did what he was told and learnt the manners and customs of the Country
of the Blind. He found working and going about at night a particularly
irksome thing, and he decided that that should be the first thing he would
change.

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