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Chapter 1. THE SEANCE
Chapter 2. IN THE STREET
Chapter 3. STARKNESS
Chapter 4. THE VOICE
Chapter 5. THE NIGHT OF DEPARTURE
Chapter 6. JOIWIND
Chapter 7. PANAWE
Chapter 8. THE LUSION PLAIN
Chapter 9. OCEAXE
Chapter 10. TYDOMIN
Chapter 11. ON DISSCOURN
Chapter 12. SPADEVIL
Chapter 13. THE WOMBFLASH FOREST
Chapter 14. POLECRAB
Chapter 15. SWALONE’S ISLAND
Chapter 16. LEEHALLFAE
Chapter 17. CORPANG
Chapter 18. HAUNTE
Chapter 19. SULLENBODE
Chapter 20. BAREY
Chapter 21. MUSPEL
The three men gathered in the street outside the house. The night was slightly frosty, but particularly clear, with an east wind blowing. The multitude of blazing stars caused the sky to appear like a vast scroll of hieroglyphic symbols. Maskull felt oddly excited; he had a sense that something extraordinary was about to happen “What brought you to this house tonight, Krag, and what made you do what you did? How are we understand that apparition?”
“ That must have been Crystalman’s expression on face,” muttered Nightspore.
“ We have discussed that, haven’t we, Maskull? Maskull is anxious to behold that rare fruit in its native wilds.”
Maskull looked at Krag carefully, trying to analyse his own feelings toward him. He was distinctly repelled by the man’s personality, yet side by side with this aversion a savage, living energy seemed to spring up in his heart that in some strange fashion was attributable to Krag.
“ Why do you insist on this simile?” he asked.
“ Because it is apropos. Nightspore’s quite right. That was Crystalman’s face, and we are going to Crystalman’s country.”
“ And where is this mysterious country?”
“ That’s a quaint name. But where is it?”
Krag grinned, showing his yellow teeth in the light of the street lamp.
“ It is the residential suburb of Arcturus.”
“ What is he talking about, Nightspore?... Do you mean the star of that name?” he went on, to Krag.
“ Which you have in front of you at this very minute,” said Krag, pointing a thick finger toward the brightest star in the south-eastern sky. “There you see Arcturus, and Tormance is its one inhabited planet.”
Maskull looked at the heavy, gleaning star, and again at Krag. Then he pulled out a pipe, and began to fill it.
“ You must have cultivated a new form of humour, Krag.”
“ I am glad if I can amuse you, Maskull, if only for a few days.”
“ I meant to ask you—how do you know my name?”
“ It would be odd if I didn’t, seeing that I only came here on your account. As a matter of fact, Nightspore and I are old friends.”
Maskull paused with his suspended match. “You came here on my account?”
“ Surely. On your account and Nightspore’s. We three are to be fellow travellers.”
Maskull now lit his pipe and puffed away coolly for a few moments.
“ I’m sorry, Krag, but I must assume you are mad.”
Krag threw his head back, and gave a scraping laugh. “Am I mad, Nightspore?”
“ Has Surtur gone to Tormance?” ejaculated Nightspore in a strangled voice, fixing his eyes on Krag’s face.
“ Yes, and he requires that we follow him at once.”
Maskull’s heart began to beat strangely. It all sounded to him like a dream conversation.
“ And since how long, Krag, have I been required to do things by a total stranger.... Besides, who is this individual?”
“ Krag’s chief,” said Nightspore, turning his head away.
“ The riddle is too elaborate for me. I give up.”
“ You are looking for mysteries,” said Krag, “so naturally you are finding them. Try and simplify your ideas, my friend. The affair is plain and serious.”
Maskull stared hard at him and smoked rapidly.
“ Where have you come from now?” demanded Nightspore suddenly.
“ From the old observatory at Starkness.... Have you heard of the famous Starkness Observatory, Maskull?”
“ No. Where is it?”
“ On the north-east coast of Scotland. Curious discoveries are made there from time to time.”
“ As, for example, how to make voyages to the stars. So this Surtur turns out to be an astronomer. And you too, presumably?”
Krag grinned again. “How long will it take you to wind up your affairs? When can you be ready to start?”
“ You are too considerate,” said Maskull, laughing outright. “I was beginning to fear that I would be hauled away at once.... However, I have neither wife, land, nor profession, so there’s nothing to wait for.... What is the itinerary?”
“ You are a fortunate man. A bold, daring heart, and no encumbrances.” Krag’s features became suddenly grave and rigid. “Don’t be a fool, and refuse a gift of luck. A gift declined is not offered a second time.”
“ Krag,” replied Maskull simply, returning his pipe to his pocket. “I ask you to put yourself in my place. Even if were a man sick for adventures, how could I listen seriously to such an insane proposition as this? What do I know about you, or your past record? You may be a practical joker, or you may have come out of a madhouse—I know nothing about it. If you claim to be an exceptional man, and want my cooperation, you must offer me exceptional proofs.”
“ And what proofs would you consider adequate, Maskull?”
As he spoke he gripped Maskull’s arm. A sharp, chilling pain immediately passed through the latter’s body and at the same moment his brain caught fire. A light burst in upon him like the rising of the sun. He asked himself for the first time if this fantastic conversation could by any chance refer to real things.
“ Listen, Krag,” he said slowly, while peculiar images and conceptions started to travel in rich disorder through his mind. “You talk about a certain journey. Well, if that journey were a possible one, and I were given the chance of making it, I would be willing never to come back. For twenty-four hours on that Arcturian planet, I would give my life. That is my attitude toward that journey.... Now prove to me that you’re not talking nonsense. Produce your credentials.”
Krag stared at him all the time he was speaking, his face gradually resuming its jesting expression.
“ Oh, you will get your twenty-four hours, and perhaps longer, but not much longer. You’re an audacious fellow, Maskull, but this trip will prove a little strenuous, even for you.... And so, like the unbelievers of old, you want a sign from heaven?”
Maskull frowned. “But the whole thing is ridiculous. Our brains are overexcited by what took place in there. Let us go home, and sleep it off.”
Krag detained him with one hand, while groping in his breast pocket with the other. He presently fished out what resembled a small folding lens. The diameter of the glass did not exceed two inches.
“ First take a peep at Arcturus through this, Maskull. It may serve as a provisional sign. It’s the best I can do, unfortunately. I am not a travelling magician.... Be very careful not to drop it. It’s somewhat heavy.”
Maskull took the lens in his hand, struggled with it for a minute, and then looked at Krag in amazement. The little object weighed at least twenty pounds, though it was not much bigger than a crown piece.
“ What stuff can this be, Krag?”
“ Look through it, my good friend. That’s what I gave it to you for.”
Maskull held it up with difficulty, directed it toward the gleaming Arcturus, and snatched as long and as steady a glance at the star as the muscles of his arm would permit. What he saw was this. The star, which to the naked eye appeared as a single yellow point of light, now became clearly split into two bright but minute suns, the larger of which was still yellow, while its smaller companion was a beautiful blue. But this was not all. Apparently circulating around the yellow sun was a comparatively small and hardly distinguishable satellite, which seemed to shine, not by its own, but by reflected light.... Maskull lowered and raised his arm repeatedly. The same spectacle revealed itself again and again, but he was able to see nothing else. Then he passed back the lens to Krag, without a word, and stood chewing his underlip.
“ You take a glimpse too,” scraped Krag, proffering the glass to Nightspore.
Nightspore turned his back and began to pace up an down. Krag laughed sardonically, and returned the lens to his pocket. “Well, Maskull, are you satisfied?”
“ Arcturus, then, is a double sun. And is that third point the planet Tormance?”
“ Our future home, Maskull.”
Maskull continued to ponder. “You inquire if I am satisfied. I don’t know, Krag. It’s miraculous, and that’s all I can say about it.... But I’m satisfied of one thing. There must be very wonderful astronomers at Starkness and if you invite me to your observatory I will surely come.”
“ I do invite you. We set off from there.”
“ And you, Nightspore?” demanded Maskull.
“ The journey has to be made,” answered his friend in indistinct tones, “though I don’t see what will come of it.”
Krag shot a penetrating glance at him. “More remarkable adventures than this would need to be arranged before we could excite Nightspore.”
“ Yet he is coming.”
“ But not con amore. He is coming merely to bear you company.”
Maskull again sought the heavy, sombre star, gleaming in solitary might, in the south-eastern heavens, and, as he gazed, his heart swelled with grand and painful longings, for which, however, he was unable to account to his own intellect. He felt that his destiny was in some way bound up with this gigantic, far-distant sun. But still he did not dare to admit to himself Krag’s seriousness.
He heard his parting remarks in deep abstraction, and only after the lapse of several minutes, when, alone with Nightspore, did he realise that they referred to such mundane matters as travelling routes and times of trains.
“ Does Krag travel north with us, Nightspore? I didn’t catch that.”
“ No. We go on first, and he joins us at Starkness on the evening of the day after tomorrow.”
Maskull remained thoughtful. “What am I to think of that man?”
“ For your information,” replied Nightspore wearily, “I have never known him to lie.”
A couple of days later, at two o’clock in the afternoon, Maskull and Nightspore arrived at Starkness Observatory, having covered the seven miles from Haillar Station on foot. The road, very wild and lonely, ran for the greater part of the way near the edge of rather lofty cliffs, within sight of the North Sea. The sun shone, but a brisk east wind was blowing and the air was salt and cold. The dark green waves were flecked with white. Throughout the walk, they were accompanied by the plaintive, beautiful crying of the gulls.
The observatory presented itself to their eyes as a self-contained little community, without neighbours, and perched on the extreme end of the land. There were three buildings: a small, stone-built dwelling house, a low workshop, and, about two hundred yards farther north, a square tower of granite masonry, seventy feet in height.
The house and the shop were separated by an open yard, littered with waste. A single stone wall surrounded both, except on the side facing the sea, where the house itself formed a continuation of the cliff. No one appeared. The windows were all closed, and Maskull could have sworn that the whole establishment was shut up and deserted.
He passed through the open gate, followed by Nightspore, and knocked vigorously at the front door. The knocker was thick with dust and had obviously not been used for a long time. He put his ear to the door, but could hear no movements inside the house. He then tried the handle; the door was looked.
They walked around the house, looking for another entrance, but there was only the one door.
“ This isn’t promising,” growled Maskull “There’s no one here..... Now you try the shed, while I go over to that tower.”
Nightspore, who had not spoken half a dozen words since leaving the train, complied in silence, and started off across the yard. Maskull passed out of the gate again. When he arrived at the foot of the tower, which stood some way back from the cliff, he found the door heavily padlocked. Gazing up, he saw six windows, one above the other at equal distances, all on the east face—that is, overlooking the sea. Realising that no satisfaction was to be gained here, he came away again, still more irritated than before. When he rejoined his friend, Nightspore reported that the workshop was also locked.
“ Did we, or did we not, receive an invitation?” demanded Maskull energetically.
“ The house is empty,” replied Nightspore, biting his nails. “Better break a window.”
“ I certainly don’t mean to camp out till Krag condescends to come.”
He picked up an old iron bolt from the yard and, retreating to a safe distance, hurled it against a sash window on the ground floor. The lower pane was completely shattered. Carefully avoiding the broken glass, Maskull thrust his hand through the aperture and pushed back the frame fastening. A minute later they had climbed through and were standing inside the house.
The room, which was a kitchen, was in an indescribably filthy and neglected condition. The furniture scarcely held together, broken utensils and rubbish lay on the floor instead of on the dust heap, everything was covered with a deep deposit of dust. The atmosphere was so foul that Maskull judged that no fresh air had passed into the room for several months. Insects were crawling on the walls.
They went into the other rooms on the lower floor—a scullery, a barely furnished dining room, and a storing place for lumber. The same dirt, mustiness, and neglect met their eyes. At least half a year must have elapsed since these rooms were last touched, or even entered.
“ Does your faith in Krag still hold?” asked Maskull. “I confess mine is at vanishing point. If this affair isn’t one big practical joke, it has every promise of being one. Krag never lived here in his life.”
“ Come upstairs first,” said Nightspore.
The upstairs rooms proved to consist of a library and three bedrooms. All the windows were tightly closed, and the air was insufferable. The beds had been slept in, evidently a long time ago, and had never been made since. The tumbled, discoloured bed linen actually preserved the impressions of the sleepers. There was no doubt that these impressions were ancient, for all sorts of floating dirt had accumulated on the sheets and coverlets.
“ Who could have slept here, do you think?” interrogated Maskull. “The observatory staff?”
“ More likely travellers like ourselves. They left suddenly.”
Maskull flung the windows wide open in every room he came to, and held his breath until he had done so. Two of the bedrooms faced the sea; the third, the library, the upward-sloping moorland. This library was now the only room left unvisited, and unless they discovered signs of recent occupation here Maskull made up his mind to regard the whole business as a gigantic hoax.
But the library, like all the other rooms, was foul with stale air and dust-laden. Maskull, having flung the window up and down, fell heavily into an armchair and looked disgustedly at his friend.
“ Now what is your opinion of Krag?”
Nightspore sat on the edge of the table which stood before the window. “He may still have left a message for us.”
“ What message? Why? Do you mean in this room?—I see no message.”
Nightspore’s eyes wandered about the room, finally seeming to linger upon a glass-fronted wall cupboard, which contained a few old bottles on one of the shelves and nothing else. Maskull glanced at him and at the cupboard. Then, without a word, he got up to examine the bottles.
There were four altogether, one of which was larger than the rest. The smaller ones were about eight inches long. All were torpedo-shaped, but had flattened bottoms, which enabled them to stand upright. Two of the smaller ones were empty and unstoppered, the others contained a colourless liquid, and possessed queer-looking, nozzle-like stoppers that were connected by a thin metal rod with a catch halfway down the side of the bottle. They were labelled, but the labels were yellow with age and the writing was nearly undecipherable. Maskull carried the filled bottles with him to the table in front of the window, in order to get better light. Nightspore moved away to make room for him.
He now made out on the larger bottle the words “Solar Back Rays”; and on the other one, after some doubt, he thought that he could distinguish something like “Arcturian Back Rays.”
He looked up, to stare curiously at his friend. “Have you been here before, Nightspore?”
“ I guessed Krag would leave a message.”
“ Well, I don’t know—it may be a message, but it means nothing to us, or at all events to me. What are ‘back rays’?”
“ Light that goes back to its source,” muttered Nightspore.
“ And what kind of light would that be?”
Nightspore seemed unwilling to answer, but, finding Maskull’s eyes still fixed on him, he brought out: “Unless light pulled, as well as pushed, how would flowers contrive to twist their heads around after the sun?”
“ I don’t know. But the point is, what are these bottles for?”
While he was still talking, with his hand on the smaller bottle, the other, which was lying on its side, accidentally rolled over in such a manner that the metal caught against the table. He made a movement to stop it, his hand was actually descending, when—the bottle suddenly disappeared before his eyes. It had not rolled off the table, but had really vanished—it was nowhere at all.
Maskull stared at the table. After a minute he raised his brows, and turned to Nightspore with a smile. “The message grows more intricate.”
Nightspore looked bored. “The valve became unfastened. The contents have escaped through the open window toward the sun, carrying the bottle with them. But the bottle will be burned up by the earth’s atmosphere, and the contents will dissipate, and will not reach the sun.”
Maskull listened attentively, and his smile faded. “Does anything prevent us from experimenting with this other bottle?”
“ Replace it in the cupboard,” said Nightspore. “Arcturus is still below the horizon, and you would succeed only in wrecking the house.”
Maskull remained standing before the window, pensively gazing out at the sunlit moors.
“ Krag treats me like a child,” he remarked presently. “And perhaps I really am a child.... My cynicism must seem most amusing to Krag. But why does he leave me to find out all this by myself—for I don’t include you, Nightspore.... But what time will Krag be here?”
“ Not before dark, I expect,” his friend replied.
It was by this time past three o’clock. Feeling hungry, for they had eaten nothing since early morning, Maskull went downstairs to forage, but without much hope of finding anything in the shape of food. In a safe in the kitchen he discovered a bag of mouldy oatmeal, which was untouchable, a quantity of quite good tea in an airtight caddy, and an unopened can of ox tongue. Best of all, in the dining-room cupboard he came across an uncorked bottle of first-class Scotch whisky. He at once made preparations for a scratch meal.
A pump in the yard ran clear after a good deal of hard working at it, and he washed out and filled the antique kettle. For firewood, one of the kitchen chairs was broken up with a chopper. The light, dusty wood made a good blaze in the grate, the kettle was boiled, and cups were procured and washed. Ten minutes later the friends were dining in the library.
Nightspore ate and drank little, but Maskull sat down with good appetite. There being no milk, whisky took the place of it; the nearly black tea was mixed with an equal quantity of the spirit. Of this concoction Maskull drank cup after cup, and long after the tongue had disappeared he was still imbibing.
Nightspore looked at him queerly. “Do you intend to finish the bottle before Krag comes?”
“ Krag won’t want any, and one must do something. I feel restless.”
“ Let us take a look at the country.”
The cup, which was on its way to Maskull’s lips, remained poised in the air. “Have you anything in view, Nightspore?”
“ Let us walk out to the Gap of Sorgie.”
“ What’s that?”
“ A showplace,” answered Nightspore, biting his lip.
Maskull finished off the cup, and rose to his feet. “Walking is better than soaking at any time, and especially on a day like this.... How far is it?”
“ Three or four miles each way.”
“ You probably mean something,” said Maskull, “for I’m beginning to regard you as a second Krag. But if so, so much the better. I am growing nervous, and need incidents.”
They left the house by the door, which they left ajar, and immediately found themselves again on the moorland road that had brought them from Haillar. This time they continued along it, past the tower.
Maskull, as they went by, regarded the erection with puzzled interest. “What is that tower, Nightspore?”
“ We sail from the platform on the top.”
“ Tonight?”—throwing him a quick look.
Maskull smiled, but his eyes were grave. “Then we are looking at the gateway of Arcturus, and Krag is now travelling north to unlock it.”
“ You no longer think it impossible, I fancy,” mumbled Nightspore.
After a mile or two, the road parted from the sea coast and swerved sharply inland, across the hills. With Nightspore as guide, they left it and took to the grass. A faint sheep path marked the way along the cliff edge for some distance, but at the end of another mile it vanished. The two men then had some rough walking up and down hillsides and across deep gullies. The sun disappeared behind the hills, and twilight imperceptibly came on. They soon reached a spot where further progress appeared impossible. The buttress of a mountain descended at a steep angle to the very edge of the cliff, forming an impassable slope of slippery grass. Maskull halted, stroked his beard, and wondered what the next step was to be.
“ There’s a little scrambling here,” said Nightspore. “We are both used to climbing, and there is not much in it.”
He indicated a narrow ledge, winding along the face of the precipice a few yards beneath where they were standing. It averaged from fifteen to thirty inches in width. Without waiting for Maskull’s consent to the undertaking, he instantly swung himself down and started walking along this ledge at a rapid pace. Maskull, seeing that there was no help for it, followed him. The shelf did not extend for above a quarter of a mile, but its passage was somewhat unnerving; there was a sheer drop to the sea, four hundred feet below. In a few places they had to sidle along without placing one foot before another. The sound of the breakers came up to them in a low, threatening roar.
Upon rounding a corner, the ledge broadened out into a fair-sized platform of rock and came to a sudden end. A narrow inlet of the sea separated them from the continuation of the cliffs beyond.
“ As we can’t get any further,” said Maskull, “I presume this is your Gap of Sorgie?”
“ Yes,” answered his friend, first dropping on his knees and then lying at full length, face downward. He drew his head and shoulders over the edge and began to stare straight down at the water.
“ What is there interesting down there, Nightspore?”
Receiving no reply, however, he followed his friend’s example, and the next minute was looking for himself. Nothing was to be seen; the gloom had deepened, and the sea was nearly invisible. But, while he was ineffectually gazing, he heard what sounded like the beating of a drum on the narrow strip of shore below. It was very faint, but quite distinct. The beats were in four-four time, with the third beat slightly accented. He now continued to hear the noise all the time he was lying there. The beats were in no way drowned by the far louder sound of the surf, but seemed somehow to belong to a different world....
When they were on their feet again, he questioned Nightspore. “We came here solely to hear that?”
Nightspore cast one of his odd looks at him. “It’s called locally ‘The Drum Taps of Sorgie.’ You will not hear that name again, but perhaps you will hear the sound again.”
“ And if I do, what will it imply?” demanded Maskull in amazement.
“ It bears its own message. Only try always to hear it more and more distinctly.... Now it’s growing dark, and we must get back.”
Maskull pulled out his watch automatically, and looked at the time. It was past six.... But he was thinking of Nightspore’s words, and not of the time.
Night had already fallen by the time they regained the tower. The black sky was glorious with liquid stars. Arcturus was a little way above the sea, directly opposite them, in the east. As they were passing the base of the tower, Maskull observed with a sudden shock that the gate was open. He caught hold of Nightspore’s arm violently. “Look! Krag is back.”
“ Yes, we must make haste to the house.”
“ And why not the tower? He’s probably in there, since the gate is open. I’m going up to look.”
Nightspore grunted, but made no opposition.
All was pitch-black inside the gate. Maskull struck a match, and the flickering light disclosed the lower end of a circular flight of stone steps. “Are you coming up?” he asked.
“ No, I’ll wait here.”
Maskull immediately began the ascent. Hardly had he mounted half a dozen steps, however, before he was compelled to pause, to gain breath. He seemed to be carrying upstairs not one Maskull, but three. As he proceeded, the sensation of crushing weight, so far from diminishing, grew worse and worse. It was nearly physically impossible to go on; his lungs could not take in enough oxygen, while his heart thumped like a ship’s engine. Sweat coursed down his face. At the twentieth step he completed the first revolution of the tower and came face to face with the first window, which was set in a high embrasure.
Realising that he could go no higher, he struck another match, and climbed into the embrasure, in order that he might at all events see something from the tower. The flame died, and he stared through the window at the stars. Then, to his astonishment, he discovered that it was not a window at all but a lens.... The sky was not a wide expanse of space containing a multitude of stars, but a blurred darkness, focused only in one part, where two very bright stars, like small moons in size, appeared in close conjunction; and near them a more minute planetary object, as brilliant as Venus and with an observable disk. One of the suns shone with a glaring white light; the other was a weird and awful blue. Their light, though almost solar in intensity, did not illuminate the interior of the tower.
Maskull knew at once that the system of spheres at which he was gazing was what is known to astronomy as the star Arcturus.... He had seen the sight before, through Krag’s glass, but then the scale had been smaller, the colors of the twin suns had not appeared in their naked reality.... These colors seemed to him most marvellous, as if, in seeing them through earth eyes, he was not seeing them correctly.... But it was at Tormance that he stared the longest and the most earnestly. On that mysterious and terrible earth, countless millions of miles distant, it had been promised him that he would set foot, even though he might leave his bones there. The strange creatures that he was to behold and touch were already living, at this very moment.
A low, sighing whisper sounded in his ear, from not more than a yard away. “Don’t you understand, Maskull, that you are only an instrument, to be used and then broken? Nightspore is asleep now, but when he wakes you must die. You will go, but he will return.”
Maskull hastily struck another match, with trembling fingers. No one was in sight, and all was quiet as the tomb.
The voice did not sound again. After waiting a few minutes, he redescended to the foot of the tower. On gaining the open air, his sensation of weight was instantly removed, but he continued panting and palpitating, like a man who has lifted a far too heavy load.
Nightspore’s dark form came forward. “Was Krag there?”
“ If he was. I didn’t see him. But I heard someone speak.”
“ Was it Krag?”
“ It was not Krag—but a voice warned me against you.”
“ Yes, you will hear these voices too,” said Nightspore enigmatically.
When they returned to the house, the windows were all in darkness and the door was ajar, just as they had left it; Krag presumably was not there. Maskull went all over the house, striking matches in every room—at the end of the examination he was ready to swear that the man they were expecting had not even stuck his nose inside the premises. Groping their way into the library, they sat down in the total darkness to wait, for nothing else remained to be done. Maskull lit his pipe, and began to drink the remainder of the whisky. Through the open window sounded in their ears the trainlike grinding of the sea at the foot of the cliffs.
“ Krag must be in the tower after all,” remarked Maskull, breaking the silence.
“ Yes, he is getting ready.”
“ I hope he doesn’t expect us to join him there. It was beyond my powers—but why, heaven knows. The stairs must have a magnetic pull of some sort.”
“ It is Tormantic gravity,” muttered Nightspore.
“ I understand you—or, rather, I don’t—but it doesn’t matter.”