A VAST, circular chamber, lofty as the rotunda of some mighty cathedral, vaporous with ever-rising whirls of pale mist, made visible only by the livid effulgence which sprang from a strange luminous expanse that was its floor.
Having reached this place in his quest for carelessly stored wealth, Archer Kennedy halted — and shrank back.
Through the black curtains he had come into a series of passages, lighted by hanging lamps like those in that outer room. In the polished white walls of these passages there had been no doors, and he had followed on, growing more doubtful with each step, yet driven still by that powerful desire of his, till he came down a flight of stairs that led to a lofty arch where he now stood, peering into the far loftier chamber to which it was the entrance.
He had been seeking gold and jewels. Gold and jewels were here. Round the outer rim of the rotunda at floor level ran a ledge or walk, set at brief intervals with throne-like chairs, and every chair of them carved from virgin gold. In the white, curving wall behind them their reflections gleamed, like gold drowned in milk.
High above the wall lifted an enormous dome, and through the vapors its vault glowed with sullen fires, scarlet, green, and azure — the glowing eyes of a million jewels set there — opals all, those most living and unfortunate of gems.
But Kennedy, lover of gold and seeker of jewels, gave their splendors hardly a glance. Wealth is very well, but a man must have life to enjoy it. There was that here which might well rend Kennedy’s from him.
The place was shaped like a cathedral rotunda, but it was floored like — like nothing on earth that he had ever seen.
A sort of unnatural marsh, or fen it was, where pale, slimy rushes grew thick out of steaming mire, and globular fungi shone with a livid, phosphorescent light. From its surface mist-wraiths rose continually, in twisting whirls and spirals, and the breath of it was dank in Kennedy’s nostrils.
Like a marsh in a dream it was, and its reality was the reality of a nightmare. But it was not that which Kennedy thought of in the first moment.
Let a man, walking through the corridors of a public building, come suddenly upon the open gate of hell, alive with its demons, and his first emotion may well be dread of those demons, rather than wonder that hell should open there.
The pale rushes and luminous globes were strange and repulsive as some new, dank circle of the inferno. But among them moved living shapes that crept and lurked — wolf-like, savage shapes that would have been snow-white save for the mire that plastered their silk fur. He had met shapes like those before. On that first night in the pass only chance and his companion’s stubborn effort at protection had saved him from being torn to pieces by such as these.
“The white hounds of the Guardians — here!” muttered Kennedy, and saw that around the marsh where they prowled there was no barrier.
Like any common dogs, they had been instantly aware of his presence. Three of them came splashing and floundering to the very edge of the reeds, and meeting the savage hunger of their eyes, he expected the rush that would end him. But it did not come. He stood quiet, not from courage, but because he feared that at the first sign of flight the beasts would pursue.
But as seconds passed and the white brutes kept inside the marsh’s boundaries, nor made any effort to cross them, physical terror was engulfed by another sort fear. The intolerable strangeness of his discovery swept Kennedy like a flood.
What place in Nature had this domed-in, coldly steaming marsh, with its pale growth of rushes, its luminous fungoids, and wallowing wolf-like inhabitants?
The very character of the beasts was an anomaly. Had they been reptiles, saurians, creatures of mire by birthright — they might have been terrible but in a comprehensive manner. But — dogs! White hounds. In a sane world hounds are neither bred nor kenneled in a marsh!
Yet there they splashed and prowled, swaying the rushes, emerging to glare with fierce, unfriendly eyes, or wallowing their silky coats anew in the softer mire around some giant, isolated fungus, that was like a pale sphere of light.
And those thrones! What inhuman sort of spectators were wont to sit there, and for the enaction of what incredible spectacle?
Taken by themselves one can tolerate a white dog, a white reed, or a phosphorescent fungus. Assemble them in mire, multiply them, surround them with golden thrones, and roof them with a jewel-lined dome, and the combination becomes — suspiciously weird.
Suddenly the man knew that he had seen too much.
He had feared the hounds and not dared to run from them. Now once more he feared a thought, and from that inescapable pursuer he did run, though not very far.
Half way up the stairs he halted and crouched, listening intently.
From beyond the arch came only an occasional splash or swishing of the reeds.
Yet somewhere a sound dissimilar to those had begun — the first he had heard since leaving the alley of their former prison.
It was a kind of slap, slap, shuffle, slap — a blurred, commingled noise, that to Kennedy was anything but welcome. It meant that along these passages he had so stealthily traversed, many sandaled feet were approaching.
He straightened stiffly, elbows bent, hands clenched, and trembling like a man with the ague. He was caught. What would be the penalty he did not know — something vague and terrible — those folk were no longer to him “just buck Indians of a particularly light-hued type.” They were the white people of Tlapallan — the mystic people who in a sane material universe had no place.
Crushed between two dreads, Kennedy stood still and shivered.
slap — slap — shuffle. They were very near now. They were coming, solemn and slow. The very leisureliness of their approach seemed inimical They knew he was here! They knew that he could not escape them! They knew ——
Turning suddenly he plunged back down the stairs. His one instinct was to hide.
Back through the arch he sprang. This side of the marsh there was no possible concealment, unless he should have chosen to join the wallowing hounds among the rushes. That scarcely appealed to him, and he ran on round the curving rim, following the narrow path that intervened between the line of thrones and the mire.
To his dismay several of the marsh-hounds tried to follow. Had they leaped out on the stone rim, they could have outrun him easily enough, but not one attempted to do that. Floundering, splashing they pursued in heavy, mud-hindered bounds, with ferocious eyes fixed always on the fugitive.
He could not doubt that those silent, snarling jaws longed to rend his flesh. There seemed no barrier to prevent their reaching him. And yet his flight had half-encircled the rotunda and still not a paw had been set on the path he followed.
Though seeking a place to hide, the terror of those lurching pursuers had kept his attention on the marsh. In consequence he collided heavily with some large object that blocked the way, and the breath was so thoroughly knocked out of him that he clung there a moment, gasping. Then he saw what from the rotunda’s far side had been obscured by the vapors.
Here the white marble ledge broadened before what seemed to be a deep, narrow niche. On the broadened ledge outside this recess, ranged not carelessly but in a decorous regularity of order, were many more such golden vessels as he had seen in the outer room. The thing he had run against was another golden font, with its three nearly life-size cougars, and its basin long as the body of a man. Two other fonts, identical in appearance with the first, stood, just beyond, and beyond them again the line of thrones was renewed and continued.
On either side of the niche itself two great candelabra raised their golden branches, five to each, that bore tall candles like those set to burn by the bier of the dead. The candles, however, were not lighted, and the depths of the niche they guarded were very dark. The rotunda was walled with blank, white marble, but this recess in it had been built of stone, dead-black as unpolished ebony. The radiance of the fungi, diffused and made uncertain by mist wreaths, hardly penetrated the black niche at all.
Now, having looked for a place to hide, it seemed possible that he had found one, and yet he shrank oddly from exploring those dead-black depths.
Without reason he felt convinced that there was something in there — something that lived.
As has been hinted earlier, curiosity in Archer Kennedy was, as a rule, sternly subordinated to more practical considerations. Curiosity about a living something that lurked darkly behind a livid, unnatural marsh, he found so easy to suppress that not even panic could at first drive him to investigation.
The white hounds had ceased to give him any attention, and looking for them he found that he had this side of the marsh to himself. The uncertain light and the vapors prevented his seeing across it, but he heard the brutes splashing around beyond. They were making back toward the entrance and he guessed why. Dogs ignore neither enemy nor friend, and even from where he stood there was audible again the steady shuffle of many approaching sandals.
Again the fugitive looked to the niche, vainly trying to pierce its impenetrable gloom. As on the stairway, fear was driving him whither fear had shrunk from going, and — after all, how could there be anything alive in that niche? No sound of motion or breathing came out of it.
Cursing himself for an imaginative fool, Kenny tautened his nerves and made the forward step that set one foot on the black floor where it joined the ledge’s whiteness. Then he stopped dead.
No light was reflected from the depths. He had been very sure of that, and yet, in the instant when his foot crossed the line, he began to see. Unless there is black light as well as white, perceive may be the better term, but whatever the faculty so abruptly acquired, it at least gave the sense of vision and after an extremely vivid fashion. By it he learned that he had cursed his imagination unjustly, for something did really lurk in the narrow niche. It was a face.
Though, black as its environing gloom, it appeared to reflect no light, to Kennedy every feature of that dark countenance grew unforgettably distinct.
It was not a good face. No evil, indeed, could have been too vile for its ugliness to grin at. A toad’s mouth is wide, ugly — and rather funny., The mouth of this face was toad-like in width and narrowness of lip, but the grin of it was in no sense funny. A tense, cruel grin it was, that had never heard of humor. Cruel and monstrously alert. Alert stealth was in the very distention of the nostrils above it. The eyes were slits, but they were watchful slits.
The whole face gave the impression of being thrust forward by a neck strained with eagerness, but the threat of it was not the clean threat of death. Had it witnessed torture, not the victim but the tormentor would have held its avid attention. Not pain, but cruelty, not vice but viciousness — and the corruption of all mankind could hardly have sated its ambition, nor the evil of a world-wide race of demons have quenched the desire behind its narrowed lids.
Poised rigid, Kennedy confronted it eye to eye. His gaze seemed so fixed that it might never waver through eternity, and yet, without glancing downward, he became gradually aware that beneath the face was a body. He knew that the thing squatted naked, and that the fingers clasped about its drawn-up knees were long, and stealthy, and treacherous.
But for once Archer Kennedy felt neither dread nor the impulse to flee. Of what the face meant those fingers were only another adequate symbol — and the face drew him.
In the natures of different men there are, as one might say, certain empty spaces. Voids that long to be filled. So one craves beauty, and another love, a third goodness, and a fourth, perhaps, mere lust of the senses.
Meeting these, the emptiness is filled and the man is happy. So, Kennedy. He had craved gold, but bade of that desire was another and deeper lack — an emptiness unknown and unacknowledged, even by himself. The face filled it.
Like a devout Buddhist, withdrawing his soul from earthly distractions, absorbed in contemplation of the mystic jewel in the lotus, so Archer Kennedy would have wished to stand there a long, long time, content, while the unguessed emptiness of him was filled at last.
But following the rotunda’s marble rim many feet were approaching, and in another moment the vapors would no longer shield him from discovery.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00