Nightmare, by Francis Stevens

Chapter 6

“THAT, my friend,” cried Sergius, turning a beaming face, “that was a good landing, no? Coming down in such unknown country something is always liable to break, but we have better fortune.”

“What funny-looking trees!” exclaimed Mr. Jones, paying no heed to the Russian’s self-congratulations. “Why, they look like — like cabbages! And what a horrible smell!”

The word “horrible” was none too strong to describe the intolerable odor which permeated the air. Descending as they had done from the clear, clean, fresh upper atmosphere, it seemed at first almost impossible to breathe at all. It was a sort of concentrated, well-nigh visible stench, suggesting nothing less than decayed slaughter-houses or open graveyards. Even the prince lost his smile after the first moment of delight over his successful landing.

The “trees” to which Mr. Jones had referred, were indeed not trees at all, but some sort of vegetable growth entirely unfamiliar to either of the men. If they had really been the cabbages they resembled, they would have made the everlasting fortune of the market-gardener who grew them, for the smallest was as large as a fair-sized hen-house, and some of the larger ones must have measured at least a hundred feet from root to crest, with a diameter at least one fourth as great. They were a dark purple in color, shading upward into a sickly green. None of them grew very close together, and the spaces between were filled with an astonishing variety of mushroomlike things, whose vivid coloring, red, yellow, violet, and orange, jarred upon the eye in a disharmony of which nature is very seldom guilty.

Like a giant’s vegetable garden, these monstrous growths entirely surrounded the glade where they had alighted. But even though they towered so high over the heads of the aeronauts, they caught glimpses between and above them of other and different growths, yet higher.

There was no wind in the glade. The sun beat down and the stench rose up. Mr. Jones had a strong feeling that if they did not get out of the place in a short time he was going to be very ill indeed.

“This is awful,” he said appealingly. “Can’t we go up again?”

The Russian, who had been looking about with much interest, shook his head. “Of what use to rise now when we have just made such a very nice landing? Another time we might not be so lucky. The odor is certainly unpleasant, but after all it is only a smell. It is only the vegetation. I knew that here in the crater valley we would find some very peculiar things. We must not be too easily deterred. Let us penetrate past these vegetables and find what lies beyond.”

Sergius undoubtedly had the final say so in regard to their leaving or remaining, so his companion followed his example, unstrapped himself from his seat in the monoplane, and descended to earth. The prince handed him a rifle and cartridge belt and took one himself. They discarded their coats and hoods and advanced toward the nearest passage between the “cabbages.”

As they approached the dreadful charnel odor became more intense, if that were possible. Shoulders thrown forward, eyes half-shut and smarting, they pushed through it as through some tangible obstruction.

Then the first of the many-hued mushrooms were crunching beneath their feet. They crushed and squelched, with a semiliquid sound, sending up a sort of acid gas into the faces of the two adventurers, somewhat like the fumes of hydrochloric acid. The prince took out his handkerchief and bound it over his mouth and nose, signaling to Jones to do likewise, for both of them were past speaking. With these improvised and inadequate gas-masks, they waded doggedly on through the fungi.

They were within fifteen feet of one of the smaller cabbages, when with a sort of swishing sound it began to move. Its outer sheath of purple and green leaves, twenty-five feet long and five broad, began to open out and descend.

Jones caught a glimpse between them of a huge, scarlet, writhing mass, and tried to turn and run. The crushed mushroom things held his feet. It was like trying to leap or run in a quicksand.

Then the rough, thick, sawlike edge of the nearest leaf struck him a glancing blow on the shoulder, And he was down in the mess of fungi. A long, writhing, bright-red thing, like a nightmare fishingworm, lashed out above him, curled back and encircled his neck in a strangling grip.

“Help!” he tried to shout. “Sergius — help!”

Then his shoulder was seized and he was being pulled away from the giant cabbage. The tentacle which held him straightened out and actually stretched as if it had been made of india-rubber. A knife flashed over him, severing the tentacle, and a moment later he was out of reach of a dozen more which were shooting after him. That was the last thing he remembered until he came to under the shadow of the plane, to look up into the anxious face of Sergius Petrofsky, who was fanning him with a handkerchief.

Mr. Jones sat up and felt of his neck gingerly. Luckily his collar had somewhat protected it, but it felt very stiff and sore.

“I thought you were gone, my friend,” said Sergius, standing up and wiping his perspiring face with the handkerchief.

“So did I. What I can’t understand is why the thing didn’t get you, too. Look at it now — ugh, the horrible, nasty, writhing beast!”

The “death cabbage” (as they afterward named the interesting vegetables) had not closed its outer sheath, and its inner hideousness stood fully exposed to the sun. Straight up from the center sprang a sort of slimy, blue-black stalk, terminating some twenty-five feet above the ground in a wide plume of green fronds. Surrounding this stalk was a dense, intertwined mass of the long, scarlet tentacles which had nearly dragged Mr. Jones to his doom. To be eaten by a vegetable — and such a vegetable! Jones shuddered and looked away, feeling very sick and disgusted.

“Look!” cried the nihilist. “It is twisting itself about like a thing in agony. I wonder if the brute has eyes and sees us here and still hungers after its prey? But that is curious. See, it is becoming of a bright orange color!”

Jones looked again, rather unwittingly, but what the Russian said was quite true. The wriggling scarlet mass was rapidly changing to orange, and from orange it faded to a sickly yellow. Moreover it was wriggling more and more feebly. The outstretched sheath-leaves lifted themselves spasmodically two or three times, then wilted limply among the fungi at its base. The central stalk began to droop over to one side, and the green fronds hung dispiritedly down. At the end of five minutes all motion had ceased. Even the now pale tentacles writhed no more. The death cabbage was itself dead.

“Do you suppose it perished of a broken heart?” asked Sergius whimsically. “‘You resisted its ardent caresses, and it died of disappointment But rather, I think, it possible that another than either of us has killed this monster, my friend.”

“What do you mean? Have you seen anybody else?”

Sergius pointed upward solemnly.

“I mean him,” he said, and he was pointing at the sun. “There is but one explanation. These are creatures of the night, and they get their — their food in the night, whatever it may be. They are not accustomed to grasp their prey by daylight. This one was tempted, and he opened his protecting sheath, and he was slain by the sun! But he would have killed us first, if I had not been able to spring back more quickly than you, my friend, and escape his first gropings.”

“I owe you my life,” said Jones earnestly. “I never knew anybody before who would have had the courage to throw himself within reach of that — that thing, and drag another man away from it.”

“It is nothing,” Sergius demurred, looking very much pleased nevertheless. “Now we will be comrades, indeed — no? I think, however, that we have done and seen enough for one day. Mount again to your seat and we will leave this valley of death. But we will return tomorrow and alight in some more favorable spot.”

“I’m with you,” Mr. Jones assented joyfully.

But first they cleaned themselves as well as they could of the pulpy fungoids with which they were both plastered; Jones from head-to foot. Then they started to put on their heavy coats. Mr. Jones was buttoning his and Sergius had just slipped his arms into the sleeves, when a voice behind them said sharply: “Stand perfectly still, please! If either one of you moves a finger I’ll kill you first, Prince Sergius Petrofsky!”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00