Dwellers in the Mirage, by Abraham Merritt

Chapter V.

The Mirage

Jim had sat silent, watching me, but now and again I had seen the Indian stoicism drop from his face. He leaned over and put a hand on my shoulder.

“Leif,” he said quietly, “how could I have known? For the first time, I saw you afraid — it hurt me. I did not know . . . .”

From Tsantawu, the Cherokee, this was much. “It’s all right, Indian. Snap back,” I said roughly. He sat for a while not speaking, throwing little twigs on the fire.

“What did you friend Barr say about it?” he asked abruptly.

“He gave me hell,” I said. “He gave me hell with the tears streaming down his cheeks. He said that never had anyone betrayed science as I had since Judas kissed Christ. He was keen on mixed metaphors that got under your skin. That went deep under mine, for it was precisely what I was thinking of myself — not as to science but as to the girl. I had given her the kiss of Judas all right. Barr said that I had been handed the finest opportunity man ever had given him. I could have solved the whole mystery of the Gobi and its lost civilization. I had run away like a child from a bugaboo. I was not only atavistic in body, I was atavistic in brain. I was a blond savage cowering before my mumbo-jumbos. He said that if he had been given my chance he would have let himself be crucified to have learned the truth. He would have, too. He was not lying.”

“Admirably scientific,” said Jim. “But what did he say about what you saw?”

“That is was nothing but hypnotic suggestion by the old priest. I had seen what he had willed me to see — just as before, under his will, I had seen myself riding to the temple. The girl hadn’t dissolved. She had probably been standing in the wings laughing at me. But if everything that my ignorant mind had accepted as true had been true then my conduct was even more unforgivable. I should have remained, studied the phenomena and brought back the results for science to examine. What I had told him of the ritual of Khalk’ru was nothing but the second law of thermo-dynamics expressed in terms of anthropomorphism. Life was an intrusion upon Chaos, using that word to describe the unformed, primal state of the universe. An invasion. An accident. In time all energy would be changed to static heat, impotent to give birth to any life whatsoever. The dead universes would float lifelessly in the illimitable void. The void was eternal, life was not. Therefore the void would absorb it. Suns, worlds, gods, men, an things animate, would return to the void. Go back to Chaos. Back to Nothingness. Back to Khalk’ru. Or if my atavistic brain preferred the term — back to the Kraken. He was bitter.”

“But the others saw the girl taken, you say. How did he explain that?”

“Oh, easily. That was mass hypnotism-like the Angels of Mons, the ghostly bowmen of Crecy and other collective hallucinations of the War. I had been a catalyzer. My likeness to the traditional ancient race, my completeness as a throwback, my mastery at Khalk’ru’s ritual, the faith the Uighurs had in me — all this had been the necessary element in bringing about the collective hallucination of the tentacle. Obviously the priests had long been trying to make work a drug in which an essential chemical was lacking. I, for some reason, was the missing chemical — the catalyzer. That was all.” Again he sat thinking, breaking the little twigs.

“It’s a reasonable explanation. But you weren’t convinced?”

“No, I wasn’t convinced — I saw the girl’s face when the tentacle touched her.” He arose, stood staring toward the north.

“Leif,” he asked suddenly, “what did you do with the ring?”

I drew out the little buckskin pouch, opened it and handed the ring to him. He examined it closely, returned it to me.

“Why did you keep it, Leif?”

“I’don’t know.” I slipped the ring over my thumb. “I Didn’t give it back to the old priest; he didn’t ask for it. Oh, hell — I’ll tell you why I kept it — for the same reason Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner had the albatross tied round his neck. So I couldn’t forget I’m a murderer.”

I put the ring back in the buckskin bag, and dropped it down my neck. Faintly from the north came a roll of drums. It did not seem to travel with the wind this time. It seemed to travel underground, and died out deep beneath us.

“Khalk’ru!” I said.

“Well. don’t let’s keep the old gentleman waiting,” said Jim cheerfully.

He busied himself with the packs, whistling. Suddenly he turned to me.

“Listen, Leif. Barr’s theories sound good to me. I’m not saying that if I’d been in your place I would have accepted them. Maybe you’re right. But I’m with Barr — until events, if-when-and-how they occur, prove him wrong.”

“Fine!” I said heartily, and entirely without sarcasm.

“May your optimism endure until we get back to New York — if-when-and-how.”

We shouldered the packs, and took up our rifles and started northward.

It was not hard going, but it was an almost constant climb. The country sloped upward, sometimes at a breathtaking pitch. The forest, unusually thick and high for the latitude, began to thin. It grew steadily cooler. After we had covered about fifteen miles we entered a region of sparse and stunted trees. Five miles ahead was a thousand-feet-high range of bare rocks. Beyond this range was a jumble of mountains four to five thousand feet higher, treeless, their peaks covered with snow and ice, and cut by numerous ravines which stood out glistening white like miniature glaciers. Between us and the nearer range stretched a plain, all grown over with dwarfed thickets of wild roses, blueberries and squawbemes, and dressed in the brilliant reds and blues and greens of the brief Alaskan summer.

“If we camp at the base of those hills, we’ll be out of that wind,” said Jim. “It’s five o’clock. We ought to make it in an hour.”

We set off. Bursts of willow ptarmigans shot up around us from the berry thickets like brown rockets; golden plovers and curlews were whistling on all sides; within rifle shot a small herd of caribou was feeding, and the little brown cranes were stalking everywhere. No one could starve in that country, and after we had set up camp we dined very well.

There were no sounds that night — or if there were we slept too deeply to hear them.

The next morning we debated our trail. The low range stood directly in our path north. It continued, increasing in height, both east and west. It presented no great difficulties from where we were, at least so far as we could see. We determined to climb it, taking it leisurely. It was more difficult than it had appeared; it took us two hours to wind our way to the top.

We tramped across the top toward a line of huge boulders that stretched like a wall before us. We squeezed between two of these, and drew hastily back. We were standing at the edge of a precipice that dropped hundreds of feet sheer to the floor of a singular valley. The jumble of snow-and-ice-mantled mountains clustered around it. At its far end, perhaps twenty miles away, was a pyramidal-shaped peak.

Down its centre, from tip to the floor of the valley, ran a glittering white streak, without question a glacier filling a chasm which split the mountain as evenly as though it had been made by a single sword stroke. The valley was not wide, not more than five miles, I estimated, at its widest point. A long and narrow valley, its far end stoppered by the glacier-cleft giant, its sides the walls of the other mountains, dropping, except here and there where there had been falls of rock, as precipitously into it as the cliff under us.

But it was the floor of the valley itself that riveted our attention. It seemed nothing but a tremendous level field covered with rocky rubble. At the far end, the glacier ran through this rubble for half the length of the valley. There was no trace of vegetation among the littered rocks. There was no hint of green upon the surrounding mountains; only the bare black cliffs with their ice and snow-filled gashes. It was a valley of desolation.

“It’s cold here, Leif.” Jim shivered.

It was cold — a cold of a curious quality, a still and breathless cold. It seemed to press out upon us from the valley, as though to force us away.

“It’s going to be a job getting down there,” I said.

“And hard going when we do,” said Jim. “Where the hell did all those rocks come from, and what spread them out so flat?”

“Probably dropped by that glacier when it shrunk,” I said. “It looks like a terminal moraine. In fact this whole place looks as though it had been scooped out by the ice.”

“Hold on to my feet, Leif, I’ll take a look.” He lay on his belly and wriggled his body over the edge. In a minute or two I heard him call, and pulled him back.

“There’s a slide about a quarter of a mile over there to the left,” he said. “I couldn’t tell whether it goes all the way to the top. We’ll go see. Leif, how far down do you think that valley is?”

“Oh, a few hundred feet.”

“It’s all of a thousand if it’s an inch. The cliff goes down and down. I don’t understand what makes the bottom seem so much closer here. It’s a queer place, this.”

We picked up the packs and marched off behind the wall — like rim of boulders. In a little while we came across a big gouge in the top, running far back. Here frost and ice had bitten out the rock along some fault. The shattered debris ran down the middle of the gouge like giant stepping-stones clear to the floor of the valley.

“We’ll have to take the packs off to negotiate that,” said Jim. “What shall be do — leave them here while we explore, or drop them along with us as we go?”

“Take them with us. There must be an outlet off there at the base of the big mountain.”

We began the descent. I was scrambling over one of the rocks about a third of the way when I heard his sharp exclamation.

Gone was the glacier that had thrust its white tongue in among the rubble. Gone was the rubble. Toward its .far end, the valley’s floor was covered with scores of pyramidal black stones, each marked down its centre with a streak of glistening white. They stood in ranks, spaced regularly, like the dolmens of the Druids. They marched half-down the valley. Here and there between them arose wisps of white steam, like smokes of sacrifices.

Between them and us, lapping at the black cliffs, was a blue and rippling lake! It filled the lower valley from side to side. It rippled over the edges of the shattered rocks still far below us.

Then something about the marshalled ranks of black stones struck me.

“Jim! Those pyramid-shaped rocks. Each and every one of them is a tiny duplicate of the mountain behind them! Even to the white streak!”

As I spoke, the blue lake quivered. It flowed among the black pyramids, half-submerging them, quenching the sacrificial smokes. It covered the pyramids. Again it quivered. It was gone. Where the lake had been was once more the rubble-covered floor of the valley.

There had been an odd touch of legerdemain about the transformations, like the swift work of a master magician. And it had been magic — of a kind. But I had watched nature perform that magic before.

“Hell t” I said. “It’s a mirage I”

Jim did not answer. He was staring at the valley with a singular expression.

“What’s the matter with you, Tsantawu? Listening to the ancestors again? It’s only a mirage.”

“Yes?” he said. “But which one? The lake — or the rocks?”

I studied the valley’s floor. It looked real enough. The theory of a glacial moraine accounted for its oddly level appearance — that and our height above it. When we reached it we would find that distribution of boulders uncomfortably uneven enough, I would swear.

“Why, the lake of coarse.”

“No,” he said, “I think the stones are the mirage.”

“Nonsense. There’s a layer of warm air down there. The stones radiate the sun’s heat. This cold air presses on it. It’s one of the conditions that produces mirages, and it has just done it for us. That’s all.”

“No,” he said, “it isn’t all.”

He leaned against the rock.

“Leif, the ancestors had a few things more to say last night than I told you.”

“I know damned well they did.”

“They spoke of Ataga’hi. Does that mean anything to you.”

“Not a thing.”

“It didn’t to me — then. It does now. Ataga’hi was an enchanted lake, in the wildest part of the Great Smokies, westward from the headwaters of the Ocana-luftee. It was the medicine lake of the animals and birds. All the Cherokee knew it was there, though few had seen it. If a stray hunter came close, all he saw was a stony flat, without blade of grass, forbidding. But by prayer and fasting and an all-night vigil, he could sharpen his spiritual sight. He would then behold at daybreak a wide shallow sheet of purple water, fed by springs, spouting from the high cliffs around. And in the water all kinds of fish and reptiles, flocks of ducks and geese and other birds flying about, and around the lake the tracks of animals. They came to Ataga’hi to be cured of wounds or sickness. The Great Spirit had placed an island in the middle of the lake. The wounded, the sick’ animals and birds swam to it. When they had reached it — the waters of Ataga’hi had cured them. They came up on its shores — whole once more. Over Ataga’hi ruled the peace of God. All creatures were friends.”

“Listen, Indian, are you trying to tell me this is your medicine lake?”

“I didn’t say that at all. I said the name of Ataga’hi kept coming into my mind. It was a place that appeared to be a stony flat, without blade of grass, forbidding. So does this place. But under that illusion was — a lake. We saw a lake. It’s a queer coincidence, that’s all. Perhaps the stony flat of Ataga’hi was a mirage —” He hesitated: “Well, if some other things the ancestors mentioned turn up, I’ll shift sides and take your version of that Gobi affair.”

“That lake was the mirage. I’m telling you.”

He shook his head, stubbornly.

“Maybe. But maybe what we see down there now is mirage, too. Maybe both are mirage. And if so, then, how deep is the real floor, and can we make our way over it?”

He stood staring silently at the valley. He shivered, and again I was aware of the curiously intense quality of the cold. I stooped and caught hold of my pack. My hands were numb.

“Well, whatever it is — let’s find out.”

A quiver ran through the valley floor. Abruptly it became again the shimmering blue lake. And as abruptly turned again to nibbled rock.

But not before I had seemed to see within that lake of illusion — if illusion it were — a gigantic shadowy shape, huge black tentacles stretching out from a vast and nebulous body . . . a body which seemed to vanish back into immeasurable distances . . . vanishing into the void . . . as the Kraken of the Gobi cavern had seemed to vanish into the void . . . into that void which was — Khalk’ru!

We crept between, scrambled over and slid down the huge broken fragments. The further down we went, the more intense became the cold. It had a still and creeping quality that seeped into the marrow. Sometimes we dropped the packs ahead of us, sometimes dragged them after us. And ever more savagely the cold bit into our bones.

By the frequent glimpses of the valley floor, I was more and more assured of its reality. Every mirage I had ever beheld — and in Mongolia I had seen many — had retreated, changed form, or vanished as I drew near. The valley floor did none of these things. It was true that the stones seemed to be squatter as we came closer; but I attributed that to the different angle of vision.

We were about a hundred feet above the end of the slide when I began to be less sure. The travelling had become peculiarly difficult. The slide had narrowed. At our left the rock was clean swept, stretching down to the valley as smoothly as though it had been brushed by some titantic broom. Probably an immense fragment had broken loose at this point, shattering into the boulders that lay heaped at its termination. We veered to the right, where there was a ridge of rocks, pushed to the side by that same besom of stone. Down this ridge we picked our way.

Because of my greater strength, I was carrying both our rifles, swung by a thong over my left shoulder. Also I was handling the heavier pack. We came upon an extremely awkward place. The stone upon which I was standing suddenly tipped beneath my weight. It threw me sideways. The pack slipped from my hands, toppled, and fell over on the smooth rock. Automatically I threw myself forward, catching at it. The thong holding the two rifles broke. They went slithering after the escaping pack.

It was one of those combinations of circumstances that makes one believe in a God of Mischance. The thing might have happened anywhere else on our journey without any result whatever. And even at that moment I didn’t think it mattered.

“Well,” I said, cheerfully, “that saves me carrying them. We can pick them up when we get to the bottom.”

“That is.” said Jim, “if there is a bottom.”

I cocked my eye down the slide. The rifles had caught up with the pack and the three were now moving fast.

“There they stop,” I said. They were almost on the rubble at the end.

“The hell they do,” said Jim. “There they go!”

I rubbed my eyes, and looked and looked again. The pack and the pushing rifles should have been checked by that barrier at the slide’s end. But they had not been. They had vanished.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 23:09