The Metal Monster, by Abraham Merritt

Chapter I

Valley of the Blue Poppies

In this great crucible of life we call the world — in the vaster one we call the universe — the mysteries lie close packed, uncountable as grains of sand on ocean’s shores. They thread gigantic, the star-flung spaces; they creep, atomic, beneath the microscope’s peering eye. They walk beside us, unseen and unheard, calling out to us, asking why we are deaf to their crying, blind to their wonder.

Sometimes the veils drop from a man’s eyes, and he sees — and speaks of his vision. Then those who have not seen pass him by with the lifted brows of disbelief, or they mock him, or if his vision has been great enough they fall upon and destroy him.

For the greater the mystery, the more bitterly is its verity assailed; upon what seem the lesser a man may give testimony and at least gain for himself a hearing.

There is reason for this. Life is a ferment, and upon and about it, shifting and changing, adding to or taking away, beat over legions of forces, seen and unseen, known and unknown. And man, an atom in the ferment, clings desperately to what to him seems stable; nor greets with joy him who hazards that what he grips may be but a broken staff, and, so saying, fails to hold forth a sturdier one.

Earth is a ship, plowing her way through uncharted oceans of space wherein are strange currents, hidden shoals and reefs, and where blow the unknown winds of Cosmos.

If to the voyagers, painfully plotting their course, comes one who cries that their charts must be remade, nor can tell WHY they must be — that man is not welcome — no!

Therefore it is that men have grown chary of giving testimony upon mysteries. Yet knowing each in his own heart the truth of that vision he has himself beheld, lo, it is that in whose reality he most believes.

The spot where I had encamped was of a singular beauty; so beautiful that it caught the throat and set an ache within the breast — until from it a tranquillity distilled that was like healing mist.

Since early March I had been wandering. It was now mid-July. And for the first time since my pilgrimage had begun I drank — not of forgetfulness, for that could never be — but of anodyne for a sorrow which had held fast upon me since my return from the Carolines a year before.

No need to dwell here upon that — it has been written. Nor shall I recite the reasons for my restlessness — for these are known to those who have read that history of mine. Nor is there cause to set forth at length the steps by which I had arrived at this vale of peace.

Sufficient is to tell that in New York one night, reading over what is perhaps the most sensational of my books — “The Poppies and Primulas of Southern Tibet,” the result of my travels of 1910–1911, I determined to return to that quiet, forbidden land. There, if anywhere, might I find something akin to forgetting.

There was a certain flower which I long had wished to study in its mutations from the singular forms appearing on the southern slopes of the Elburz — Persia’s mountainous chain that extends from Azerbaijan in the west to Khorasan in the east; from thence I would follow its modified types in the Hindu–Kush ranges and its migrations along the southern scarps of the Trans–Himalayas — the unexplored upheaval, higher than the Himalayas themselves, more deeply cut with precipice and gorge, which Sven Hedin had touched and named on his journey to Lhasa.

Having accomplished this, I planned to push across the passes to the Manasarowar Lakes, where, legend has it, the strange, luminous purple lotuses grow.

An ambitious project, undeniably fraught with danger; but it is written that desperate diseases require desperate remedies, and until inspiration or message how to rejoin those whom I had loved so dearly came to me, nothing less, I felt, could dull my heartache.

And, frankly, feeling that no such inspiration or message could come, I did not much care as to the end.

In Teheran I had picked up a most unusual servant; yes, more than this, a companion and counselor and interpreter as well.

He was a Chinese; his name Chiu–Ming. His first thirty years had been spent at the great Lamasery of Palkhor–Choinde at Gyantse, west of Lhasa. Why he had gone from there, how he had come to Teheran, I never asked. It was most fortunate that he had gone, and that I had found him. He recommended himself to me as the best cook within ten thousand miles of Pekin.

For almost three months we had journeyed; Chiu–Ming and I and the two ponies that carried my impedimenta.

We had traversed mountain roads which had echoed to the marching feet of the hosts of Darius, to the hordes of the Satraps. The highways of the Achaemenids — yes, and which before them had trembled to the tramplings of the myriads of the godlike Dravidian conquerors.

We had slipped over ancient Iranian trails; over paths which the warriors of conquering Alexander had traversed; dust of bones of Macedons, of Greeks, of Romans, beat about us; ashes of the flaming ambitions of the Sassanidae whimpered beneath our feet — the feet of an American botanist, a Chinaman, two Tibetan ponies. We had crept through clefts whose walls had sent back the howlings of the Ephthalites, the White Huns who had sapped the strength of these same proud Sassanids until at last both fell before the Turks.

Over the highways and byways of Persia’s glory, Persia’s shame and Persia’s death we four — two men, two beasts — had passed. For a fortnight we had met no human soul, seen no sign of human habitation.

Game had been plentiful — green things Chiu–Ming might lack for his cooking, but meat never. About us was a welter of mighty summits. We were, I knew, somewhere within the blending of the Hindu–Kush with the Trans–Himalayas.

That morning we had come out of a ragged defile into this valley of enchantment, and here, though it had been so early, I had pitched my tent, determining to go no farther till the morrow.

It was a Phocean vale; a gigantic cup filled with tranquillity. A spirit brooded over it, serene, majestic, immutable — like the untroubled calm which rests, the Burmese believe, over every place which has guarded the Buddha, sleeping.

At its eastern end towered the colossal scarp of the unnamed peak through one of whose gorges we had crept. On his head was a cap of silver set with pale emeralds — the snow fields and glaciers that crowned him. Far to the west another gray and ochreous giant reared its bulk, closing the vale. North and south, the horizon was a chaotic sky land of pinnacles, spired and minareted, steepled and turreted and domed, each diademed with its green and argent of eternal ice and snow.

And all the valley was carpeted with the blue poppies in wide, unbroken fields, luminous as the morning skies of mid-June; they rippled mile after mile over the path we had followed, over the still untrodden path which we must take. They nodded, they leaned toward each other, they seemed to whisper — then to lift their heads and look up like crowding swarms of little azure fays, half impudently, wholly trustfully, into the faces of the jeweled giants standing guard over them. And when the little breeze walked upon them it was as though they bent beneath the soft tread and were brushed by the sweeping skirts of unseen, hastening Presences.

Like a vast prayer-rug, sapphire and silken, the poppies stretched to the gray feet of the mountain. Between their southern edge and the clustering summits a row of faded brown, low hills knelt — like brown-robed, withered and weary old men, backs bent, faces hidden between outstretched arms, palms to the earth and brows touching earth within them — in the East’s immemorial attitude of worship.

I half expected them to rise — and as I watched a man appeared on one of the bowed, rocky shoulders, abruptly, with the ever-startling suddenness which in the strange light of these latitudes objects spring into vision. As he stood scanning my camp there arose beside him a laden pony, and at its head a Tibetan peasant. The first figure waved its hand; came striding down the hill.

As he approached I took stock of him. A young giant, three good inches over six feet, a vigorous head with unruly clustering black hair; a clean-cut, clean-shaven American face.

“I’m Dick Drake,” he said, holding out his hand. “Richard Keen Drake, recently with Uncle’s engineers in France.”

“My name is Goodwin.” I took his hand, shook it warmly. “Dr. Walter T. Goodwin.”

“Goodwin the botanist —? Then I know you!” he exclaimed. “Know all about you, that is. My father admired your work greatly. You knew him — Professor Alvin Drake.”

I nodded. So he was Alvin Drake’s son. Alvin, I knew, had died about a year before I had started on this journey. But what was his son doing in this wilderness?

“Wondering where I came from?” he answered my unspoken question. “Short story. War ended. Felt an irresistible desire for something different. Couldn’t think of anything more different from Tibet — always wanted to go there anyway. Went. Decided to strike over toward Turkestan. And here I am.”

I felt at once a strong liking for this young giant. No doubt, subconsciously, I had been feeling the need of companionship with my own kind. I even wondered, as I led the way into my little camp, whether he would care to join fortunes with me in my journeyings.

His father’s work I knew well, and although this stalwart lad was unlike what one would have expected Alvin Drake — a trifle dried, precise, wholly abstracted with his experiments — to beget, still, I reflected, heredity like the Lord sometimes works in mysterious ways its wonders to perform.

It was almost with awe that he listened to me instruct Chiu–Ming as to just how I wanted supper prepared, and his gaze dwelt fondly upon the Chinese busy among his pots and pans.

We talked a little, desultorily, as the meal was prepared — fragments of traveler’s news and gossip, as is the habit of journeyers who come upon each other in the silent places. Ever the speculation grew in his face as he made away with Chiu–Ming’s artful concoctions.

Drake sighed, drawing out his pipe.

“A cook, a marvel of a cook. Where did you get him?”

Briefly I told him.

Then a silence fell upon us. Suddenly the sun dipped down behind the flank of the stone giant guarding the valley’s western gate; the whole vale swiftly darkened — a flood of crystal-clear shadows poured within it. It was the prelude to that miracle of unearthly beauty seen nowhere else on this earth — the sunset of Tibet.

We turned expectant eyes to the west. A little, cool breeze raced down from the watching steeps like a messenger, whispered to the nodding poppies, sighed and was gone. The poppies were still. High overhead a homing kite whistled, mellowly.

As if it were a signal there sprang out in the pale azure of the western sky row upon row of cirrus cloudlets, rank upon rank of them, thrusting their heads into the path of the setting sun. They changed from mottled silver into faint rose, deepened to crimson.

“The dragons of the sky drink the blood of the sunset,” said Chiu–Ming.

As though a gigantic globe of crystal had dropped upon the heavens, their blue turned swiftly to a clear and glowing amber — then as abruptly shifted to a luminous violet A soft green light pulsed through the valley.

Under it, like hills ensorcelled, the rocky walls about it seemed to flatten. They glowed and all at once pressed forward like gigantic slices of palest emerald jade, translucent, illumined, as though by a circlet of little suns shining behind them.

The light faded, robes of deepest amethyst dropped around the mountain’s mighty shoulders. And then from every snow and glacier-crowned peak, from minaret and pinnacle and towering turret, leaped forth a confusion of soft peacock flames, a host of irised prismatic gleamings, an ordered chaos of rainbows.

Great and small, interlacing and shifting, they ringed the valley with an incredible glory — as if some god of light itself had touched the eternal rocks and bidden radiant souls stand forth.

Through the darkening sky swept a rosy pencil of living light; that utterly strange, pure beam whose coming never fails to clutch the throat of the beholder with the hand of ecstasy, the ray which the Tibetans name the Ting–Pa. For a moment this rosy finger pointed to the east, then arched itself, divided slowly into six shining, rosy bands; began to creep downward toward the eastern horizon where a nebulous, pulsing splendor arose to meet it.

And as we watched I heard a gasp from Drake. And it was echoed by my own.

For the six beams were swaying, moving with ever swifter motion from side to side in ever-widening sweep, as though the hidden orb from which they sprang were swaying like a pendulum.

Faster and faster the six high-flung beams swayed — and then broke — broke as though a gigantic, unseen hand had reached up and snapped them!

An instant the severed ends ribboned aimlessly, then bent, turned down and darted earthward into the welter of clustered summits at the north and swiftly were gone, while down upon the valley fell night.

“Good God!” whispered Drake. “It was as though something reached up, broke those rays and drew them down — like threads.”

“I saw it.” I struggled with bewilderment. “I saw it. But I never saw anything like it before,” I ended, most inadequately.

“It was PURPOSEFUL,” he whispered. “It was DELIBERATE. As though something reached up, juggled with the rays, broke them, and drew them down like willow withes.”

“The devils that dwell here!” quavered Chiu–Ming.

“Some magnetic phenomenon.” I was half angry at myself for my own touch of panic. “Light can be deflected by passage through a magnetic field. Of course that’s it. Certainly.”

“I don’t know.” Drake’s tone was doubtful indeed. “It would take a whale of a magnetic field to have done THAT— it’s inconceivable.” He harked back to his first idea. “It was so — so DAMNED deliberate,” he repeated.

“Devils —” muttered the frightened Chinese.

“What’s that?” Drake gripped my arm and pointed to the north. A deeper blackness had grown there while we had been talking, a pool of darkness against which the mountain summits stood out, blade-sharp edges faintly luminous.

A gigantic lance of misty green fire darted from the blackness and thrust its point into the heart of the zenith; following it, leaped into the sky a host of the sparkling spears of light, and now the blackness was like an ebon hand, brandishing a thousand javelins of tinseled flame.

“The aurora,” I said.

“It ought to be a good one,” mused Drake, gaze intent upon it. “Did you notice the big sun spot?”

I shook my head.

“The biggest I ever saw. Noticed it first at dawn this morning. Some little aurora lighter — that spot. I told you — look at that!” he cried.

The green lances had fallen back. The blackness gathered itself together — then from it began to pulse billows of radiance, spangled with infinite darting swarms of flashing corpuscles like uncounted hosts of dancing fireflies.

Higher the waves rolled — phosphorescent green and iridescent violet, weird copperous yellows and metallic saffrons and a shimmer of glittering ash of rose — then wavered, split and formed into gigantic, sparkling, marching curtains of splendor.

A vast circle of light sprang out upon the folds of the flickering, rushing curtains. Misty at first, its edges sharpened until they rested upon the blazing glory of the northern sky like a pale ring of cold flame. And about it the aurora began to churn, to heap itself, to revolve.

Toward the ring from every side raced the majestic folds, drew themselves together, circled, seethed around it like foam of fire about the lip of a cauldron, and poured through the shining circle as though it were the mouth of that fabled cavern where old Aeolus sits blowing forth and breathing back the winds that sweep the earth.

Yes — into the ring’s mouth the aurora flew, cascading in a columned stream to earth. Then swiftly, a mist swept over all the heavens, veiled that incredible cataract.

“Magnetism?” muttered Drake. “I guess NOT!”

“It struck about where the Ting–Pa was broken and seemed drawn down like the rays,” I said.

“Purposeful,” Drake said. “And devilish. It hit on all my nerves like a — like a metal claw. Purposeful and deliberate. There was intelligence behind that.”

“Intelligence? Drake — what intelligence could break the rays of the setting sun and suck down the aurora?”

“I don’t know,” he answered.

“Devils,” croaked Chiu–Ming. “The devils that defied Buddha — and have grown strong —”

“Like a metal claw!” breathed Drake.

Far to the west a sound came to us; first a whisper, then a wild rushing, a prolonged wailing, a crackling. A great light flashed through the mist, glowed about us and faded. Again the wailing, the vast rushing, the retreating whisper.

Then silence and darkness dropped embraced upon the valley of the blue poppies.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58