The People of the Pit
by A. Merritt
NORTH OF us a shaft of light shot half way to the zenith. It came
from behind the five peaks. The beam drove up through a column of blue
haze whose edges were marked as sharply as the rain that streams from
the edges of a thunder cloud. It was like the flash of a searchlight
through an azure mist. It cast no shadows.
As it struck upward the summits were outlined hard and black and I
saw that the whole mountain was shaped like a hand. As the light
silhouetted it, the gigantic fingers stretched, the hand seemed to
thrust itself forward. It was exactly as though it moved to push
something back. The shining beam held steady for a moment; then broke
into myriads of little luminous globes that swung to and fro and
dropped gently. They seemed to be searching.
The forest had become very still. Every wood noise held its breath.
I felt the dogs pressing against my legs. They too were silent; but
every muscle in their bodies trembled, their hair was stiff along their
backs and thier eyes, fixed on the falling lights, were filmed with the
I looked at Anderson. He was staring at the North where once more
the beam had pulsed upward.
“It can't be the aurora,” I spoke without moving my lips. My mouth
was as dry as though Lao T'zai had poured his fear dust down my throat.
“If it is I never saw one like it,” he answered in the same tone.
“Besides who ever heard of an aurora at this time of the year?”
He voiced the thought that was in my own mind.
“It makes me think something is being hunted up there,” he said, “an
unholy sort of hunt—it's well for us to be out of range.”
“The mountain seems to move each time the shaft shoots up,” I said.
“What's it keeping back, Starr? It makes me think of the frozen hand of
cloud that Shan Nadour set before the Gate of Ghouls to keep them in
the lairs that Eblis cut for them.”
He raised a hand—listening.
From the North and high overhead there came a whispering. It was not
the rustling of the aurora, that rushing, crackling sound like the
ghosts of winds that blew at Creation racing through the skeleton
leaves of ancient trees that sheltered Lilith. It was a whispering that
held in it a demand. It was eager. It called us to come up where the
beam was flashing. It drew. There was in it a note of inexorable
insistence. It touched my heart with a thousand tiny fear-tipped
fingers and it filled me with a vast longing to race on and merge
myself in the light. It must have been so that Ulysses felt when he
strained at the mast and strove to obey the crystal sweet singing of
The whispering grew louder.
“What the hell's the matter with those dogs?” cried Anderson
savagely. “Look at them!”
The malemutes, whining, were racing away toward the light. We saw
them disappear among the trees. There came back to us a mournful
howling. Then that too died away and left nothing but the insistent
The glade we had camped in looked straight to the North. We had
reached I suppose three hundred mile
above the first great bend of the Koskokwim toward the Yukon.
Certainly we were in an untrodden part of the wilderness. We had pushed
through from Dawson at the breaking of the Spring, on a fair lead to
the lost five peaks between which, so the Athabasean medicine man had
told us, the gold streams out like putty from a clenched fist. Not an
Indian were we able to get to go with us. The land of the Hand Mountain
was accursed they said. We had sighted the peaks the night before,
their tops faintly outlined against a pulsing glow. And now we saw the
light that had led us to them.
Anderson stiffened. Through the whispering had broken a curious
pad-pad and a rustling. It sounded as though a small bear were moving
towards us. I threw a pile of wood on the fire and, as it blazed up,
saw something break through the bushes. It walked on all fours, but it
did not walk like a bear. All at once it flashed upon me—it was like a
baby crawling upstairs. The forepaws lifted themselves in grotesquely
infantile fashion. It was grotesque but it was—terrible. It grew
closer. We reached for our guns—and dropped them. Suddenly we knew
that this crawling thing was a man!
It was a man. Still with the high climbing pad-pad he swayed to the
fire. He stopped.
“Safe,” whispered the crawling man, in a voice that was an echo of
the murmur overhead. “Quite safe here. They can't get out of the blue,
you know. They can't get you—unless you go to them——”
He fell over on his side. We ran to him. Anderson knelt.
“God's love!” he said. “Frank, look at this!” He pointed to the
hands. The wrists were covered with torn rags of a heavy shirt. The
hands themselves were stumps! The fingers had been bent into the palms
and the flesh had been worn to the bone. They looked like .the feet of
a little black elephant! My eyes traveled down the body. Around the
waist was a heavy band of yellow metal. From it fell a ring and a dozen
links of shining white chain!
“What is he? Where did he come from?” said Anderson. “Look, he's
fast asleep—yet even in his sleep his arms try to climb and his feet
draw themselves up one after the other! And his knees—how in God's
name was he ever able to move on them?”
It was even as he said. In the deep sleep that had come upon the
crawler arms and legs kept raising in a deliberate, dreadful climbing
motion. It was as though they had a life of their own—they kept their
movement independently of the motionless body. They were semaphoric
motions. If you have ever stood at the back of a train and had watched
the semaphores rise and fall you will know exactly what I mean.
Abruptly the overhead whispering ceased. The shaft of light dropped
and did not rise again. The crawling man became still. A gentle glow
began to grow around us. It was dawn, and the short Alaskan summer
night was over. Anderson rubbed his eyes and turned to me a haggard
“Man!” he exclaimed. “You look as though you have been through a
spell of sickness!”
“No more than you, Starr,” I said. “What do you make of it all?”
“I'm thinking our only answer lies there,” he answered, pointing to
the figure that lay so motionless under the blankets we had thrown over
him. “Whatever it was—that's what it was after. There was no aurora
about that light, Frank. It was like the flaring up of some queer hell
the preacher folk never frightened us with.”
“We'll go no further today,” I said. “I wouldn't wake him for all
the gold that runs between the fingers of the five peaks—nor for all
the devils that may be behind them.”
The crawling man lay in a sleep as deep as the Styx. We bathed and
bandaged the pads that had been his hands. Arms and legs were as rigid
as though they were crutches. He did not move while we worked over him.
He lay as he had fallen, the arms a trifle raised, the knees bent.
“Why did he crawl?” whispered Anderson. “Why didn't he walk?”
I was filing the band about the waist. It was gold, but it was like
no gold I had ever handled. Pure gold is soft. This was soft, but it
had an unclean, viscid life of its own. It clung to the file. I gashed
through it, bent it away from the body and hurled it far off. It was—
All that day he slept. Darkness came and still he slept That night
there was no shaft of light, no questing globe, no whispering. Some
spell of horror seemed lifted from the land. It was noon when the
crawling man awoke. I jumped as the pleasant drawling voice sounded.
“How long have I slept?” he asked. His pale blue eyes grew quizzical
as I stared at him. A night—and almost two days,” I said. “Was there
any light up there last night?” He nodded to the North eagerly. “Any
“Neither,” I answered. His head fell back and he stared up at the
“They've given it up, then?” he said at last.
“Who have given it up?” asked Anderson.
“Why, the people of the pit,” replied the crawling man quietly.
We stared at him. “The people of the pit,” he said. “Things that the
Devil made before the Flood and that somehow have escaped God's
vengeance. You weren't in any danger from them—unless you had followed
their call. They can't get any further than the blue haze. I was their
prisoner,” he added simply. “They were trying to whisper me back to
Anderson and I looked at each other, the same thought in both our
“You're wrong,” said the crawling man. “I'm not insane. Give me a
very little to drink. I'm going to die soon, but I want you to take me
as far South as you can before I die, and afterwards I want you to
build a big fire and burn me. I want to be in such shape that no
infernal spell of theirs can drag my body back to them. You'll do it
too, when I've told you about them——” he hesitated. “I think their
chain is off me?” he said.
“I cut it off,” I answered shortly.
“Thank God for that too,” whispered the crawling man.
He drank the brandy and water we lifted to his lips.
“Arms and legs quite dead,” he said. “Dead as I'll be soon. Well,
they did well for me. Now I'll tell you what's up there behind that
“Now listen. My name is Stanton—Sinclair Stanton. Class 1900, Yale.
Explorer. I started away from Dawson last year to hunt for five peaks
that rise like a hand in a haunted country and run pure gold between
them. Same thing you were after? I thought so. Late last fall my
comrade sickened. Sent him back with some Indians. Little later all my
Indians ran away from me. I decided I'd stick, built a cabin, stocked
myself with food and lay down to winter it. In the Spring I started off
again. Little less than two weeks ago I sighted the five peaks. Not
from this side though—the other. Give me some more brandy.
“I'd made too wide a detour,” he went on. “I'd gotten too far North.
I beat back. From this side you see nothing but forest straight up to
the base of the Hand Mountain. Over on the other side——”
He was silent for a moment.
“Over there is forest too. But it doesn't reach so far. No! I came
out of it. Stretching miles in front of me was a level plain. It was as
worn and ancient looking as the desert around the ruins of Babylon. At
its end rose the peaks. Between me and them—far off—was what looked
like a low dike of rocks. Then—I ran across the road!
“The road!” cried Anderson incredulously.
“The road,” said the crawling man. “A fine smooth Stone road. It ran
straight on to the mountain. Oh, it was road all right—and worn as
though millions and millions of feet had passed over it for thousands
of years. On each side of it were sand and heaps of stones. After while
I began to notice these stones. They were cut, and the shape of the
heaps somehow gave me the idea that a hundred thousand years ago they
might have been houses. I sensed man about them and at the same time
they smelled of immemorial antiquity. Well——
“The peaks grew closer. The heaps of ruins thicker. Something
inexpressibly desolate hovered over them; something reached from them
that struck my heart like the touch of ghosts so old that they could be
only the ghosts of ghosts. I went on.
“And now I saw that what I had thought to be the low rock range at
the base of the peaks was a thicker litter of ruins. The Hand Mountain
was really much farther off. The road passed between two high rocks
that raised themselves like a gateway.”
The crawling man paused.
“They were a gateway,” he said. “I reached them. I went between
them. And then I sprawled and clutched the earth in sheer awe! I was on
a broad stone platform. Before me was—sheer space! Imagine the Grand
Canyon five times as wide and with the bottom dropped out. That is what
I was looking into. It was like peeping over the edge of a cleft world
down into the infinity where the planets roll! On the far side stood
the five peaks. They looked like a gigantic warning hand stretched up
to the sky. The lip of the abyss curved away on each side of me.
“I could see down perhaps a thousand feet. Then a thick blue haze
shut out the eye. It was like the blue you see gather on the high hills
at dusk. And the pit— it was awesome; awesome as the Maori Gulf of
Ranalak, that sinks between the living and the dead and that only the
freshly released soul has strength to leap—but never strength to cross
“I crept back from the verge and stood up, weak. My hand rested
against one of the pillars of the gateway. There was carving upon it.
It bore in still sharp outlines the heroic figure of a man. His back
was turned. His arms were outstretched. There was an odd peaked
headdress upon him. I looked at the opposite pillar. It bore a figure
exactly similar. The pillars were triangular and the carvings were on
the side away from the pit. The figures seemed to be holding something
back. I looked closer. Behind the outstretched hands I seemed to see
“I traced them out vaguely. Suddenly I felt unaccountably sick.
There had come to me an impression of enormous upright slugs. Their
swollen bodies were faintly cut—all except the heads which were well
marked globes. They were—unutterably loathsome. I turned from the
gates back to the void. I stretched myself upon the slab and looked
over the edge.
“A stairway led down into the pit!”
“A stairway!” we cried.
“A stairway,” repeated the crawling man as patiently as before, “It
seemed not so much carved out of the rock as built into it. The slabs
were about six feet long and three feet wide. It ran down from the
platform and vanished into the blue haze.”
“But who could build such a stairway as that?” I said. “A stairway
built into the wall of a precipice and leading down into a bottomless
“Not bottomless,” said the crawling man quietly. “There was a
bottom. I reached it!”
“Reached it?” we repeated.
“Yes, by the stairway,” answered the crawling man. “You see—I went
“Yes,” he said. “I went down the stairway. But not that day. I made
my camp back of the gates. At dawn I filled my knapsack with food, my
two canteens with water from a spring that wells up there by the
gateway, walked between the carved monoliths and stepped over the edge
of the pit.
“The steps ran along the side of the rock at a forty degree pitch.
As I went down and down I studied them. They were of a greenish rock
quite different from the granitic porphyry that formed the wall of the
precipice. At first I thought that the builders had taken advantage of
an outcropping stratum, and had carved from it their gigantic flight.
But the regularity of the angle at which it fell made me doubtful of
“After I had gone perhaps half a mile I stepped out upon a landing.
From this landing the stairs made a V shaped turn and ran on downward,
clinging to the cliff at the same angle as the first flight; it was a
zig-zag, and after I had made three of these turns I knew that the
steps dropped straight down in a succession of such angles. No strata
could be so regular as that. No, the stairway was built by hands! But
whose? The answer is in those ruins around the edge, I think—never to
“By noon I had lost sight of the five peaks and the lip of the
abyss. Above me, below me, was nothing but the blue haze. Beside me,
too, was nothingness, for the further breast of rock had long since
vanished. I felt no dizziness, and any trace of fear was swallowed in a
vast curiosity. What was I to discover? Some ancient and wonderful
civilization that had ruled when the Poles were tropical gardens?
Nothing living, I felt sure—all was too old for life. Still, a
stairway so wonderful must lead to something quite as wonderful I knew.
What was it? I went on.
“At regular intervals I had passed the mouths of small caves. There
would be two thousand steps and then an opening, two thousand more
steps and an opening—and so on and on. Late that afternoon I stopped
before one of these clefts. I suppose I had gone then three miles down
the pit, although the angles were such that I had walked in all fully
ten miles. I examined the entrance. On each side were carved the
figures of the great portal above, only now they were standing face
forward, the arms outstretched as though to hold something back from
the outer depths. Their faces were covered with veils. There were no
hideous shapes behind them. I went inside. The fissure ran back for
twenty yards like a burrow. It was dry and perfectly light. Outside I
could see the blue haze rising upward like a column, its edges clearly
marked. I felt an extraordinary sense of security, although I had not
been conscious of any fear. I felt that the figures at the entrance
were guardians—but against what?
“The blue haze thickened and grew faintly luminescent. I fancied
that it was dusk above. I ate and drank a little and slept. When I
awoke the blue had lightened again, and I fancied it was dawn above. I
went on. I forgot the gulf yawning at my side. I felt no fatigue and
little hunger or thirst, although I had drunk and eaten sparingly. That
night I spent within another of the caves, and at dawn I descended
“It was late that day when I first saw the city——.”
He was silent for a time.
“The city,” he said at last, “there is a city you know. But not such
a city as you have ever seen—nor any other man who has lived to tell
of it. The pit, I think, is shaped like a bottle; the opening before
the five peaks is the neck. But how wide the bottom is I do not know
—thousands of miles maybe. I had begun to catch little glints of light
far down in the blue. Then I saw the tops of—trees, I suppose they
are. But not our kind of trees —unpleasant, snaky kind of trees. They
reared themselves on high thin trunks and their tops were nests of
thick tendrils with ugly little leaves like arrow heads. The trees were
red, a vivid angry red. Here and there I glimpsed spots of shining
yellow. I knew these were water because I could see things breaking
through their surface—or at least I could see the splash and ripple,
but what it was that disturbed them I never saw.
“Straight beneath me was the—city. I looked down upon mile after
mile of closely packed cylinders. They lay upon their sides in pyramids
of three, of five—of dozens—piled upon each other. It is hard to make
you see what that city is like—look, suppose you have water pipes of a
certain length and first you lay three of them side by side and on top
of them you place two and on these two one; or suppose you take five
for a foundation and place on these four and then three, then two and
then one. Do you see? That was the way (hey looked. But they were
topped by towers, by minarets, by flares, by fans, and twisted
monstrosities. They gleamed as though coated with pale rose flame.
Beside them the venomous red trees raised themselves like the heads of
hydras guarding nests of gigantic, jeweled and sleeping worms!
“A few feet beneath me the stairway jutted out into a Titanic arch,
unearthly as the span that bridges Hell and leads to Asgard. It curved
out and down straight through the top of the highest pile of carven
cylinders and then it vanished through it. It was appalling—it was
The crawling man stopped. His eyes rolled up into his head. He
trembled and his arms and legs began their horrible crawling movement.
From his lips came a whispering. It was an echo of the high murmuring
we had heard the night he came to us. I put my hands over his eyes. He
“The Things Accursed!” he said. “The People of the Pit! Did I
whisper. Yes—but they can't get me now— they can't!”
After a time he began as quietly as before.
“I crossed the span. I went down through the top of that—building.
Blue darkness shrouded me for a moment and I felt the steps twist into
a spiral. I wound down and then—I was standing high up in—I can't
tell you in what, I'll have to call it a room. We have no images for
what is in the pit. A hundred feet below me was the floor. The walls
sloped down and out from where I stood in a series of widening
crescents. The place was colossal—and it was filled with a curious
mottled red light. It was like the light inside a green and gold
flecked fire opal. I went down to the last step. Far in front of me
rose a high, columned altar. Its pillars were carved in monstrous
scrolls—like mad octopuses with a thousand drunken tentacles; they
rested on the backs of shapeless monstrosities carved in crimson stone.
The altar front was a gigantic slab of purple covered with carvings.
“I can't describe these carvings! No human being could—the human
eye cannot grasp them any more than it can grasp the shapes that haunt
the fourth dimension. Only a subtle sense in the back of the brain
sensed them vaguely. They were formless things that gave no conscious
image, yet pressed into the mind like small hot seals—ideas of
hate—of combats between unthinkable monstrous things—victories in a
nebulous hell of steaming, obscene jungles—aspirations and ideals
“And as I stood I grew aware of something that lay behind the lip of
the altar fifty feet above me. I knew it was there—I felt it with
every hair and every tiny bit of my skin. Something infinitely
malignant, infinitely horrible, infinitely ancient. It lurked, it
brooded, it threatened and it—was invisible!
“Behind me was a circle of blue light. I ran for it. Something urged
me to turn back, to climb the stairs and make away. It was impossible.
Repulsion for that unseen Thing raced me onward as though a current had
my feet. I passed through the circle. I was out on a street that
stretched on into dim distance between rows of the carven cylinders.
“Here and there the red trees arose. Between them rolled the stone
burrows. And now I could take in the amazing ornamentation that clothed
them. They were like the trunks of smooth skinned trees that had fallen
and had been clothed with high reaching noxious orchids. Yes—those
cylinders were like that—and more. They should have gone out with the
dinosaurs. They were—monstrous. They struck the eyes like a blow and
they passed across the nerves like a rasp. And nowhere was there sight
or sound of living thing.
“There were circular openings in the cylinders like the circle in
the Temple of the Stairway. I passed through one of them. I was in a
long, bare vaulted room whose curving sides half closed twenty feet
over my head, leaving a wide slit that opened into another vaulted
chamber above. There was absolutely nothing in the room save the same
mottled reddish light that I had seen in the Temple. I stumbled. I
still could see nothing, but there was something on the floor over
which I had tripped. I reached down—and my hand touched a thing cold
and smooth—that moved under it—I turned and ran out of that place—I
was filled with a loathing that had in it something of madness—I ran
on and on blindly—wringing my hands—weeping with horror——
“When I came to myself I was still among the stone cylinders and red
trees. I tried to retrace my steps; to find the Temple. I was more than
afraid. I was like a new loosed soul panic-stricken with the first
terrors of hell. I could not find the Temple! Then the haze began to
thicken and glow; the cylinders to shine more brightly. I knew that it
was dusk in the world above and I felt that with dusk my time of peril
had come; that the thickening of the haze was the signal for the
awakening of whatever things lived in this pit.
“I scrambled up the sides of one of the burrows. I hid behind a
twisted nightmare of stone. Perhaps, I thought, there was a chance of
remaining hidden until the blue lightened? and the peril passed. There
began to grow around me a murmur. It was everywhere—and it grew and
grew into a great whispering. I peeped from the side of the stone down
into the street. I saw lights passing and repassing. More and more
lights—they swam out of the circular doorways and they thronged the
street. The highest were eight feet above the pave; the lowest perhaps
two. They hurried, they sauntered, they bowed, they stopped and
whispered—and there was nothing under them!”
“Nothing under them!” breathed Anderson.
“No,” he went on, “that was the terrible part of it— there was
nothing under them. Yet certainly the lights were living things. They
had consciousness, volition, thought—what else I did not know. They
were nearly two feet across—the largest. Their center was a bright
nucleus—red, blue, green. This nucleus faded off, gradually, into a
misty glow that did not end abruptly. It too seemed to fade off into
nothingness—but a nothingness that had under it a somethingness. I
strained my eyes trying to grasp this body into which the lights merged
and which one could only feel was there, but could not see.
“And all at once I grew rigid. Something cold, and thin like a whip,
had touched my face. I turned my head. Close behind were three of the
lights. They were a pale blue. They looked at me—if you can imagine
lights that are eyes. Another whiplash gripped my shoulder. Under the
closest light came a shrill whispering. I shrieked. Abruptly the
murmuring in the street ceased. I dragged my eyes from the pale blue
globe that held them and looked out—the lights in the streets were
rising by myriads to the level of where I stood! There they stopped and
peered at me. They crowded and jostled as though they were a crowd of
curious people— on Broadway. I felt a score of the lashes touch me——
“When I came to myself I was again in the great Place of the
Stairway, lying at the foot of the altar. All was silent. There were no
lights—only the mottled red glow. I jumped to my feet and ran toward
the steps. Something jerked me back to my knees. And then I saw that
around my waist had been fastened a yellow ring of metal. From it hung
a chain and this chain passed up over the lip of the high ledge. I was
chained to the altar!
“I reached into my pockets for my knife to cut through the ring. It
was not there! I had been stripped of everything except one of the
canteens that I had hung around my neck and which I suppose They had
thought was—part of me. I tried to break the ring. It seemed alive. It
writhed in my hands and it drew itself closer around me! I pulled at
the chain. It was immovable. There came to me the consciousness of the
unseen Thing above the altar. I groveled at the foot of the slab and
wept. Think—alone in that place of strange light with the brooding
ancient Horror above me—a monstrous Thing, a Thing unthinkable—an
unseen Thing that poured forth horror———
“After awhile I gripped myself. Then I saw beside one of the pillars
a yellow bowl filled with a thick white liquid. I drank it. If it
killed I did not care. But its taste was pleasant and as I drank my
strength came back to me with a rush. Clearly I was not to be starved.
The lights, whatever they were, had a conception of human needs.
“And now the reddish mottled gleam began to deepen. Outside arose
the humming and through the circle that was the entrance came streaming
the globes, They ranged themselves in ranks until they filled the
Temple. Their whispering grew into a chant, a cadenced whispering chant
that rose and fell, rose and fell, while to its rhythm the globes
lifted and sank, lifted and sank
“All that night the lights came and went—and all that night the
chant sounded as they rose and fell. At the last I felt myself only an
atom of consciousness in a sea of cadenced whispering; an atom that
rose and fell with the bowing globes. I tell you that even my heart
pulsed in unison with them! The red glow faded, the lights streamed
out; the whispering died. I was again alone and I knew that once again
day had broken in my own world.
“I slept. When I awoke I found beside the pillar more of the white
liquid. I scrutinized the chain that held me to the altar. I began to
rub two of the links together. I did this for hours. When the red began
to thicken there was a ridge worn in the links. Hope rushed up within
me. There was, then, a chance to escape.
“With the thickening the lights came again. All through that night
the whispering chant sounded, and the globes rose and fell. The chant
seized me. It pulsed through me until every nerve and muscle quivered
to it. My lips began to quiver. They strove like a man trying to cry
out on a nightmare. And at last they too were whispering the chant of
the people of the pit. My body bowed in unison with the lights—I was,
in movement and sound, one with the nameless things while my soul sank
back sick with horror and powerless. While I whispered I—saw Them!”
“Saw the lights?” I asked stupidly.
“Saw the Things under the lights,” he answered. “Great transparent
snail-like bodies—dozens of waving tentacles stretching from
them—round gaping mouths under the luminous seeing globes. They were
like the ghosts of inconceivably monstrous slugs! I could see through
them. And as I stared, still bowing and whispering, the dawn came and
they streamed to and through the entrance. They did not crawl or walk—
they floated! They floated and were—gone!
“I did not sleep. I worked all that day at my chain. By the
thickening of the red I had worn it a sixth through. And all that night
I whispered and bowed with the pit people, joining in their chant to
the Thing that brooded above me!
“Twice again the red thickened and the chant held me—then on the
morning of the fifth day I broke through the worn links of the chain. I
was free! I drank from the bowl of white liquid and poured what was
left in my flask. I ran to the Stairway. I rushed up and past.that
unseen Horror behind the altar ledge and was out upon the Bridge. I
raced across the span and up the Stairway.
“Can you think what it is to climb straight up the verge of a
cleft-world—with hell behind you? Hell was behind me and terror rode
me. The city had long been lost in the blue haze before I knew that I
could climb no more. My heart beat upon my ears like a sledge. I fell
before one of the little caves feeling that here at last was sanctuary.
I crept far back within it and waited for the haze to thicken. Almost
at once it did so. From far below me came a vast and angry murmur. At
the mouth of the rift I saw a light pulse up through the blue; die down
and as it dimmed I saw myriads of the globes that are the eyes of the
pit people swing downward into the abyss. Again and again the light
pulsed and the globes fell. They were hunting .me. The whispering grew
louder, more insistent.
“There grew in me the dreadful desire to join in the whispering as I
had done in the Temple. I bit my lips through and through to still
them. All that night the beam shot up through the abyss, the globes
swung and the whispering sounded—and now I knew the purpose of the
caves and of the sculptured figures that still had power to guard them.
But what were the people who had carved them? Why had they built their
city around the verge and why had they set that Stairway in the pit?
What had they been to those Things that dwelt at the bottom and what
use had the Things been to them that they should live beside their
dwelling place? That there had been some purpose was certain. No work
so prodigious as the Stairway would have been undertaken otherwise. But
what was the purpose? And why was it that those who had dwelt about the
abyss had passed away ages gone, and the dwellers in the abyss still
lived? I could find no answer—nor can I find any now. I have not the
shred of a theory.
“Dawn came as I wondered and with it silence. I drank what was left
of the liquid in my canteen, crept from the cave and began to climb
again. That afternoon my legs gave out. I tore off my shirt, made from
it pads for my knees and coverings for my hands. I crawled upward. I
crawled up and up. And again I crept into one of the caves and waited
until again the blue thickened, the shaft of light shot through it and
the whispering came.
“But now there was a new note in the whispering. It was no longer
threatening. It called and coaxed. It drew.
A new terror gripped me. There had come upon me a mighty desire to
leave the cave and go out where the lights swung; to let them do with
me as they pleased, carry me where they wished. The desire grew. It
gained fresh impulse with every rise of the beam until at last I
vibrated with the desire as I had vibrated to the chant in the Temple.
My body was a pendulum. Up would go the beam and I would swing toward
it! Only my soul kept steady. It held me fast to the floor of the cave;
And all that night it fought with my body against the spell of the pit
“Dawn came. Again I crept from the cave and faced the Stairway. I
could not rise. My hands were torn and bleeding; my knees an agony. I
forced myself upward step by step. After a while my hands became numb,
the pain left my knees. They deadened. Step by step my will drove my
body upward upon them.
“And then—a nightmare of crawling up infinite stretches of
steps—memories of dull horror while hidden within caves with the
lights pulsing without and whisperings that called and called
me—memory of a time when I awoke to find that my body was obeying the
call and had carried me half way out between the guardians of the
portals while thousands of gleaming globes rested in the blue haze and
Glimpses of bitter fights against sleep and always, always—a climb
up and up along infinite distances of steps that led from Abaddon to a
Paradise of blue sky and open world!
“At last a consciousness of the clear sky close above me, the lip of
the pit before me—memory of passing between the great portals of the
pit and of steady withdrawal from it—dreams of giant men with strange
peaked crowns and veiled faces who pushed me onward and onward and held
back Roman Candle globules of light that sought to draw me back to a
gulf wherein planets swam between the branches of red trees that had
snakes for crowns.
“And then a long, long sleep—how long God alone knows—in a cleft
of rocks; an awakening to see far in the North the beam still rising
and falling, the lights still hunting, the whispering high above me
“Again crawling on dead arms and legs that moved— that moved—-like
the Ancient Mariner's ship—without volition of mine, but that carried
me from a haunted place. And then—your fire—and this—safety!”
The crawling man smiled at us for a moment. Then swiftly life faded
from his face. He slept.
That afternoon we struck camp and carrying the crawling man started
back South. For three days we carried him and still he slept. And on
the third day, still sleeping, he died. We built a great pile of wood
and we burned his body as he had asked. We scattered his ashes about
the forest with the ashes of the trees that had consumed him. It must
be a great magic indeed that could disentangle those ashes and draw him
back in a rushing cloud to the pit he called Accursed. I do not think
that even the People of the Pit have such a spell. No.
But we did not return to the five peaks to see.