The Face in the Abyss
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by A. Merritt
Category: Fantasy/Science Fiction
Description: First Ever Unabridged reprinting of Classic Fantasy! A. Merritt is "a genius" whose work is "unique, eerie and compelling" according to the Saturday Review of Literature. The Science Fiction Encyclopedia justly says Merritt was "The greatest of American horror-writers. His stories carry within them the true note of fear the dread of the unknown ... [and] grow, like the unfolding of an evil flower whose deadly fragrence is both overpoweringly sweet and hateful to the senses, to a terrific climax." When a party of gold-hunters stumbles on a young woman whose ornaments are of gold, leading a llama carrying a basket full of gold through the Andean Jungle, the lust for wealth wipes all other thoughts from their minds. She is captured and brutally forced to lead the party to the source of the gold. Only Nicholas Graydon manages to cling to sanity, held back from gold-madness by his love for the woman, Suarra. Soon he finds himself traveling far ahead of the rest of the party in what seems a dream to the remote valley where Suarra's people dwell. There he is brought face-to-face with a trio of near-immortals whose miraculous powers may derive from magic or lost superscience. They are led by a strange being of giant, shimmering serpentine coils and a human torso known as the Snake Mother, who historian-critic Sam Moskowitz calls "the best rounded, most sympathetic, most memorable character" Merritt ever created. Back in his own body, Graydon and his companions complete the journey to Suarra's land, a strange world where the forms of man and beast have mingled and the descendents of Atlantis hold sway, and where the source of the gold is a gigantic golden Face that sweats liquid gold and looms over a vast abyss. It is a Face of pure evil and unearthly beauty and may be that of a captured god or some ancient relief sculpted of some mysterious, radioactive substance. There Graydon and the rest of the gold-hunters will meet the greatest test and danger ever devised for mortal men. One no human has survived for tens of thousands of years. Yet, the Snake Mother holds out one hope to Graydon, telling him there is only one force more powerful than the Face, if Graydon can discover what it is... The Face in the Abyss, as Moskowitz writes, is a "marvelous blend of action, superb characterization, philosophy, and poetic prose." Cut in half when it was added to a sequel, The Snake Mother, for hardcover publication, this special eBook edition represents the first-ever unabridged reprinting of the text of the original novella, The Face in the Abyss, since its original publication over eighty years ago.
eBook Publisher: Renaissance E Books/PageTurner, 2005
eBookwise Release Date: July 2005
8 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [149 KB]
Reading time: 97-136 min.
CHAPTER I OUT OF THE HAUNTED HILLS
It has been three years since I met Nicholas Graydon in the little Andean village of Chupan, high on the eastern slopes of the Peruvian uplands. I had stopped there to renew my supplies, expecting to stay not more than a day or two, but after my arrieros had unlimbered my luggage from the two burros, and I entered the unusually clean and commodious posada, its keeper told me another North American was stopping there.
He would be very glad to see me, since he was ill and there were no other Americanos in the hamlet. Yes, he was so ill that he was, to tell the truth, certain to die, and it would, beyond doubt, comfort him much to have a fellow countryman with him when that sad moment came. That is, he added, if he were able to recognize a fellow countryman, since all the time the señor had been at the posada he had been out of his mind with fever, and would probably pass away so.
Then with a curiously intense anxiety he implored me to stay on until death did come; a matter, he assured me, that would be one of only a few days--maybe hours.
I bluntly asked him whether his desire for me to remain was through solicitude for my ailing countryman or through fear for himself. After a little hesitation he answered that it was both. The señor had come to the village a week before, with one burro and neither guides nor arrieros. He had been very weak, as though from privations and long journeying. But weaker far from a wound on his neck which had become badly infected. The wound seemed to have been made by either an arrow or a spear. The señor had been taken care of as well as the limited knowledge of the cura and himself permitted. His burro had been looked after and his saddlebags kept scrupulously closed. But I could understand that questions might be raised after the señor's death. If I remained I could report to the authorities that everything possible had been done for the señor's comfort and testify that none in Chupan was responsible for his injuries.
This did not sound very convincing to me, and I said so. Then the worthy innkeeper revealed what actually was in his mind. The señor, he said, had spoken in his ravings, of dreadful things, both accursed and devilish. What were they? Well--he crossed himself--if I remain I would no doubt hear for myself. But they had even greatly disturbed the good cura, despite that he was under the direct protection of God. The señor had come, so his ravings indicated, from a haunted place--no less a place, the inn-keeper whispered crossing himself again, than the shunned Cordillera de Carabaya, which everyone knew was filled with evil spirits. Yes, evil spirits which would not lightly give up anyone who had once been in their power!
And, in fine, the idea seemed to be that some of these demons of the Cordillera--about which, as a matter of fact, I had heard some strange tales--might come at any time for the sick man. If they did, they would be more apt to wreak their fury on one of the señor's own countrymen--especially if he was in the same room. The keeper of the posada did not put it that way, of course; he said one of his own people was better qualified to protect the señor in such case than any strangers were. Nevertheless, the theory plainly was that if I stayed I would act as a lightning rod for any levin of hell that might strike!
I went to the room of the sick man. At first glance, I saw that here was no anderine, no mountain vagabond. Neither fever nor scrub beard could hide the fineness, the sensitivity, the intelligence of the face on which I looked. He was, I judged, about thirty, and he was an ill man indeed. His temperature showed 105.6. At the moment he was in delirium.
My first shock of surprise came when I examined his wound. It seemed to me more like the stab of some great bird beak than the work of a spear or arrow. It was a puncture--or better, perhaps, a punch--clear through the muscles of the back and left shoulder and base of the neck. It had missed the arteries of the last by the narrowest of margins. I knew of no bird that could make such a wound as this, yet the closer I looked and probed, the more sure I was it had been inflicted by no weapon of man.
That night, after I had arranged my own matters and had him sleeping under a hypodermic, I opened his saddlebags. Papers in them showed his name to be Nicholas Graydon, a mining engineer, a graduate of the Harvard School of Mines, his birthplace, Philadelphia. There was a diary that revealed so much of him truly likable, that had I not already made up my mind to stop on with him it would have impelled me to do so. Its last entry was about a month before and ran:
"Two weeks now since our arrieros deserted us, and we seem to be pretty thoroughly lost. Effects upon the three are curious. Sterrett manages to keep himself evenly drunk all the time. That spare burro of his must be loaded with nothing but that Indian hell-brew. Dancre is moody and sullen. Soames seems to have developed a morbid suspicion of all of us. Strange how the wilderness, the jungle, the desert, bring out the latent man in all of us. In Quito, none of the three was half-bad. But now, well, the luckiest thing for me will be for us to find no treasure. If we do, my throat will probably be the first to be cut."
Further down the bag were two parcels, each most carefully and securely wrapped. Opening the first, I found a long black feather oddly marked with white. I did not recognize the plume as belonging to any bird I knew. Its shaft was inlaid with little bands of gold, altogether a curiously delicate bit of goldsmith's work.
The contents of the second package made me gasp in amazement. It was a golden bracelet, clearly, exceedingly ancient, the band an inch broad and expanding into an oval disk perhaps three inches long by two wide. The disk held in high relief the most extraordinary bit of carving I had ever seen. Four monsters held on uplifted paws, a bowl on which laid coiled a serpent with a woman's face and woman's breasts. Nor had I ever beheld such suggestion of united wisdom and weirdness as the maker had stamped upon the snake woman's face.
Yet, it was not that which called forth the full measure of my wonder; no. There are certain pictures, sculptures, works of art which carry to their beholders' conviction that no fantasy or imagination went into their making, that they are careful, accurate copies of something seen by those who made them. This bit of golden carving carried that conviction.
The four monsters which held up the snake woman were dinosaurs!
There was no mistaking them. I had examined too many of the reconstructions made by scientists from the fossil bones of these gigantic, monstrous reptilian creatures to be in error, but these giants were supposed to have died off millions of years before man first appeared on earth! Yet here they were, carved with such fidelity to detail, such impress of photographic accuracy, that it was impossible to believe that the ancient goldsmith who made this thing had not had before him living models!
Marveling, I held the bracelet closer to the light, and as I did so, I thought I heard, far away in the blackness of the mountains and high in air, a sound like a tiny bugle. In that note was something profoundly, alienly weird. I went to the window and listened, but the sound did not come again. I turned to find the eyes of Graydon open and regarding me. For a moment he had slipped from the thrall of the fever--and the thought came to me, it had been the elfin bugling which had awakened him.
It was six weeks before I had Graydon well out of danger. In that time he told me, bit by bit, the well nigh incredible experience of his in the haunted hills of the Cordillera de Carabaya and what it was that sent him so far down into the valley of the shadow.
Three years it has been since then. Three years and I have heard nothing of him. Three years and he has not returned from his journey back to the Cordillera de Carabaya where he went to seek mystery, ancient beyond all memory of man, he believed was hidden there. But more than that--to seek Suarra.
"If you don't hear from me in three years, tell the story and let the people who knew me know what became of me," he said, as I left him at the beginning of that strange trail he had determined to retrace.
And so I tell it, reconstructing it from his reticences as well as his confidences, since only so, may a full measure of judgment of that story he gained. * * * * CHAPTER II SUARRA OF THE GOLDEN SPEARS
Graydon had run into Sterrett in Quito. Or, rather, Sterrett sought him out there. Graydon often heard of the giant West Coast adventurer, but their trails had never crossed. It was with a lively curiosity, then, that he opened the door of his room to his visitor.
He rather liked Sterrett. There was a bluff directness about the big man that made him overlook a certain cruelty of eye and a touch of brutality about mouth and jaw.
Sterrett came to the point at once. Graydon had no doubt heard the story of the treasure train which had been bringing to Pizarro the ransom of the Inca Atahualpa? Learning of the murder of that monarch, had turned back and buried the treasure somewhere in the Peruvian wilderness? Graydon had heard of it, hundreds of times, and, like every other adventurer in the Andes, spent a little time himself searching for those countless millions in jewels and gold.
"I know how to find it," he said.
Graydon had laughed. How many had told him that they, too, knew where lay hidden the hoard of Atahualpa the Inca!
In the end, Sterrett convinced him; convinced him at least that there was something more solid than usual in the story, something decidedly worth looking into.
There would be two others in the expedition, Sterrett told him, both men long associated with him. One was Dancre, a Frenchman, the other an American named Soames. These two had been with Sterrett when he got hold of the old parchment with its alleged map of the treasure trail, and its carefully drawn signs that purported to be copies of those along that trail; signs cut by its makers to guide those who one day, when the Spaniard was gone, would set out to recover the hidden hoard.
Graydon asked why they wanted him. Sterrett bluntly enough told him--because he was an American; because they knew he could be trusted; because he could afford to pay half the expenses of the expedition. He, Dancre, and Soames would pay the other half. They would all share equally if the treasure was found. Still another reason, Graydon was a mining engineer and his special knowledge might be essential when it came to recovering the stuff. Furthermore, if the treasure was not found, the region where they were going was full of minerals. He might make some valuable discoveries. In which event all would share equally as before.
There were no calls on Graydon at the time. It was true he could well afford the cost. At the worst there would be adventure and some pleasant excitement. He met Dancre and Soames, the first a cynical, but amusing little bunch of wires and nerves, the second a lanky, saturnine, hard-bitten Yankee. They had gone down by rail to Cerro de Pasco for their outfit that, being the town of any size closest to where, according to the map, their trail into the wilderness began. A week later, with eight burros and six arrieros or packmen, they were well within the welter of peaks through which the old map indicated their road lay.
They found the signs cut in the rocks exactly as the parchment had promised. Gay, spirits high with anticipation, three of them at least spending in advance their share of the treasure, they followed the symbols. They were steadily led into the uncharted wilderness.
At last the arrieros began to murmur. They were approaching, they said, a region that was accursed, the Cordillera de Carabaya, where demons dwelt and only fierce Aymaras, their servants, lived. Promises of more money, threats, pleadings, took them along a little farther.
One morning the four awoke to find the arrieros gone, and with them half the burros and a portion of their supplies.
They pressed on, then suddenly, the signs had failed them. Either they had lost the trail, or there were no more carven symbols and the parchment which had led them truthfully so far, had lied at the last. Or was it possible the signs had been obliterated--cut away?
The country into which they had penetrated was a strangely deserted one. They saw no signs of Indians--had seen none indeed since more than a week before, when they had stopped at a Quincha village and Sterrett got mad drunk on the fiery spirit the Quichas distill. Food, too, was curiously hard to find, there were few animals and fewer birds.
Worst of all was the change that came over his companions. As high as they had been lifted by their certainty of success, just so deep were they now cast into despair. The wilderness, the loneliness of it, their disappointment, had brought out the real man that lies hidden beneath the veneer we all carry. Sterrett kept himself at a steady level of drunkenness, alternately quarrelsome and noisy, or sunk in a sullen mood of brooding, brutal rage. Dancre had become silent and irritable. Soames seemed to have reached the conclusion that Graydon, Sterrett, and the Frenchman had combined against him; that they either deliberately missed the trail or had erased the signs. Only when the two of them joined Sterrett and drank with him the Quicha hell-brew did either of them relax. At such times Graydon had an uneasy feeling they were holding the failure against him and that his life might be hanging on a thin thread.
On the day his adventure really began--the strange adventure to which all that had passed before had been prelude. Graydon was coming back to the camp. He had been hunting since morning. Dancre and Soames had gone off together on another desperate search for the missing symbols that would lead them to the treasure trail again.
Cut off in mid-flight, the girl's cry came to him as the answer to all his apprehensions; materialization of the menace toward which his vague fears had been groping, ever since he had left Sterrett alone at the camp hours ago. He sensed some culminating misfortune close--and here it was! He knew it; how, he did not stop himself to ask: he was sure. He broke into a run, stumbling up the slope to the group of gray green algarroba trees where the tent was pitched. * * * *
What had the drunken fool done? Graydon warned them all that their situation was perilous: that if Indians came they must try to make friends with them--that they must be superlatively careful in their treatment of any Indian women.
He reached the algarrobas; crashed through the light undergrowth to the little clearing. Why didn't the girl cry out again, he wondered. There was a sickness at his heart. A low chuckle reached him, thick, satyr toned. Then Sterrett's voice, cruel, mocking!
"No more fight in you, eh? Well, what'll it be, pretty lady--the way to the gold or you? And by Heaven--I guess it'll be you--first!"
For an instant Graydon paused. He saw that Sterrett, half-crouching, was holding the girl bow fashion over one knee. A thick arm was clinched about her neck the fingers clutching her mouth brutally, silencing her; his right hand fettered her slender wrists; her knees were caught in the vise of his bent right leg.
She was helpless; but as Graydon sprang forward he caught a flash of wide black eyes, wrath-filled and defiant, staring fearlessly into those leering so close.
He caught Sterrett by the hair, locked an arm under his chin, drawing his head sharply back.
"Drop her!" he ordered. "Drop her--quick!"
Sterrett hurled himself to his feet, dropping the girl as he rose.
"What the hell are you butting in for?" he snarled. His hand struck down toward his pistol. While the fingers were tightening around the butt, Graydon's fist shot out and caught him on the point of the hairy jaw. The clutching fingers loosened, the half-drawn pistol slipped to the ground, and the great body quivered and toppled over. Long before it fell the girl had leaped up and away.
Graydon did not look after her. She had gone, no doubt, to bring down upon them her people, some tribe of the fierce Aymaras that even the Incas of old had never quite conquered, and who would avenge her--in ways Graydon did not like to visualize.
He bent down over Sterrett. His heart was beating; feebly it was true--but beating. The reek of drink was sickening. Graydon's hand touched the fallen pistol. He picked it up and looked speculatively at the fallen man's rifle. Sterrett, between the blow and the drink, would probably be out of the running for hours. He wished Dancre and Soames would get back soon to camp. The three of them could put up a good fight at any rate; might even have a chance for escape. So ran his thoughts, but Dancre and Soames would have to return quickly. The girl would soon be there--with the avengers; no doubt at this very moment she was telling them of her wrongs. He turned. She stood there; looking at him!
Drinking in her loveliness, Graydon forgot the man at his feet; forgot all, and was content to let his soul sit undisturbed within his eyes and take its delight in her.
Her skin was palest ivory. It gleamed translucent through the rent of the soft amber fabric, like the thickest silk that swathed her. Her eyes were deep velvety pools, oval, a little tilted; Egyptian in the wide midnight of their irises. The features were classic cameo; the nose small and straight, the brows level and black, almost melting above it! Her hair was cloudy jet, misty and shadowed, and a narrow fillet of gold bound the broad, low forehead. In it, like a diamond, were entwined the sable and silver feathers of the caraquenque, the bird whose plumage in lost centuries was sacred to the princesses of the Incas alone. Above her dimpled elbows golden bracelets twined, reaching to the slender shoulders. The little, high-arched feet were shod with high buskins of deerskin.
She was light and slender as the Willow Maid who waits on Kwannon when she passes into the World of Trees to pour into them new fire of green life, and like the Willow Maid green fire of tree and jungle and flame of woman gleamed within her.
Nothing so exquisite, so beautiful had ever Graydon beheld. Here was no Aymara, no daughter of any tribe of the Cordilleras, no descendant of Incas. Nor was she Spanish. There were bruises on her cheeks--the marks of Sterrett's cruel fingers. Her long, slim hands touched them. The red lips opened. She spoke in the Aymara tongue.
"Is he dead?" she asked. Her voice was low, a faint chime as of little bells ringing through it.
"No," Graydon answered.
In the depths of the midnight eyes a small hot flame flared; he could have sworn it was of gladness; it vanished as swiftly as it had come.
"That is well," she said. "I would not have him die..." the voice became meditative, "so!"
"Who are you?" Graydon asked wonderingly. She looked at him for a long moment enigmatically.
"Call me--Suarra," she answered at last.
Sterrett stirred, groaned. The girl gazed down upon him. The slim hand touched once more the bruises on her cheek.
"He is very strong," she murmured.
Graydon thought there was admiration in the voice; wondered whether all that delectable beauty was after all but a mask for primitive woman, worshipping brute strength; looked into the eyes scanning Sterrett's bulk, noted the curious speculation within them, and knew that whatever the reason for her comment it was not that which his fleeting thought had whispered. She looked at him, questioningly.
"Are you his enemy?" she asked.
"No," said Graydon, "we travel together."
"Then why," she pointed to the outstretched figure, "why did you do this to him? Why did you not let him have his way with me?"
Graydon flushed, uncomfortably. The question, with all its subtle implications, cut. What kind of a beast did she think him? His defense of her had been elementary--as well be asked to explain why he did not stand by and watch idly while a child was being murdered!
"What do you think I am?" His voice shook with half-shamed wrath. "No man stands by and lets a thing like that go on." She looked at him, curiously; but her eyes had softened.
"No?" she asked. "No man does? Then what is he?" Graydon found no answer. She took a step closer to him, her slim fingers again touching the bruises on her cheek.
"Do you not wonder," she said, "why I do not call my people to deal him the punishment he has earned?"
"I do wonder," Graydon's perplexity was frank. "I wonder indeed. Why do you not call them, if they are close enough to hear?"
"And what would you do were they to come?" she whispered.
"I would not let them have him alive," he answered. "Nor me!"
"Perhaps," she said, slowly, "knowing that is why I do not call them!"
Suddenly she smiled, and it was as though a draught of wild sweet wine had been lifted to his lips. He took a swift step toward her. She drew up to her slim lithe height, thrust out a warning hand.
"I am Suarra," she said; then "and I am--Death"'