or, a brace of .45s against an Elder God doesn’t work as well as an advocate of the .45 as the be-all-and-end-all-of-personal-weapons might think.
Actually, I’m just being snarky; you’ll like how the character with the .45s uses them in this story, and he’s not so stupid as to try to down Nyarlathotep with a pair of handguns.
Seriously, David Drake’s “Than Curse the Darkness” is one of my favorite Lovecraftian tales (my absolute favorite being Fritz Leiber’s “The Terror from the Depths”). One all-too-rare feature in this sort of fiction is the writer’s respectful treatment of the firearms in the story. Plus, I do love double-action .45s.
THAN CURSE THE DARKNESS by David Drake
“What of unknown Africa?” â€”H. P. Lovecraft
The trees of the rain forest lowered huge and black above the village, dwarfing it and the group of men in its center. The man being tied to the whipping post there was gray-skinned and underfed, panting with his struggles but no match for the pair of burly Forest Guards who held him. Ten more Guards, Baenga cannibals from far to the west near the mouth of the Congo, stood by with spears or Albini rifles. They joked and chattered and watched the huts hoping the villagers would burst out to try to free their fellow. Then killing would be all right . . . .
There was little chance of that. All the men healthy enough to work were in the forest, searching for more trees to slash in a parody of rubber gathering. The Law said that each adult male would bring four kilograms of latex a week to the agents of King Leopold; the Law did not say that the agents would teach the natives how to drain the sap without killing the trees it came from. When the trees died, the villagers would miss their quotas and die themselves, because that too was the Lawâ€”though an unwritten one.
There were still many untouched villages further up the river.
“If you cannot learn to be out in the forest working,” said a Baenga who finished knotting the victim to the post with a jerk that itself cut flesh, “we can teach you not to lie down for many weeks.”
The Forest Guards wore no uniforms, but in the Congo Basin their good health and sneering pride marked them more surely than clothing could have. The pair who had tied the victim stepped back, nodding to their companion with the chicotte. That one grinned, twitching the wooden handle to unfurl the ten-foot lash of square-cut hippopotamus hide. He had already measured the distance.
A naked seven-year-old slipped from the nearest hut. The askaris were turned to catch the expression on the victim’s face at the first bite of the chicotte, so they did not see the boy. His father jerked upright at the whipping post and screamed, “Samba!” just as the feathery hiss-crack! of the whip opened an eight-inch cut beneath his shoulder blades.
Samba screamed also. He was small even for a forest child, spindly and monkey-faced. He was monkey quick, too, darting among the Guards as they spun. Before anyone could grab him he had wrapped himself around the waist of the man with the whip.
“Wau!” shouted the Guard in surprise and chopped down with the teak whip handle. The angle was awkward. One of his companions helped with a roundhouse swing of his Albini. The steel butt-plate thudded like a mallet on a tent stake, ripping off the boy’s left ear and deforming the whole side of his skull. It did not tear him loose from the man he held. Two Forest Guards edged closer, holding their spears near the heads so as not to hit their fellow when they thrust.
The whipped man grunted. One of the chuckling riflemen turned in time to see him break away from the post. The rough cord had cut his wrists before it parted. Blood spattered as he took two steps and clubbed his hands against the whip-wielder’s neck.
The rifleman shot him through the body.
The Albini bullet was big and slow and had the punch of a medicine ball. The father spun backward and knocked one of the Baengas down with him. Despite the wound he stood again and staggered forward toward Samba. A pink coil of intestine was wagging behind him from the bullet’s exit hole. Both the remaining rifles went off. This time, when the shots had sledged him down, five of the spearmen ran to the body and began stabbing.
The Baenga with the whip got up, leaving Samba on the ground. The boy’s eyes were open and utterly empty. Lt. Trouville stepped over him to shout, “Cease, you idiots!” at the bellowing knot of spearmen. They parted immediately. Trouville wore a waxed moustache and a white linen suit that looked crisp save for the sweat stains under his arms, but the revolver at his belt was not for show. He had once pistoled a Guard who, drunk with arrogance and palm wine, had started to burn a village which was still producing rubber.
Now the slim Belgian stared at the corpse and grimaced.”Idiots,” he repeated to the shame-faced Baengas. “Three bullets to account for, when there was no need at all to fire. Does the Quartermaster charge us for spear-thrusts as well as bullets?”
The askaris looked at the ground, pretending to be solely concerned with the silent huts or with scratching their insect bites. The man with the chicotte coiled it and knelt with his dagger to cut off the dead man’s right ear. A thong around his neck carried a dozen others already, brown and crinkled. They would be turned in at Boma to justify the tally of expended cartridges.
“Take the boy’s too,” Trouville snapped. “He started it, after all. And we’ll still be one short.”
The patrol marched off, subdued in the face of their lieutenant’s wrath. Trouville was muttering, “Like children. No sense at all.”After they were gone, a woman stole from the nearest hut and cradled her son. Both of them moaned softly.
Time passed, and in the forest a drum began to beat.
In London, Dame Alice Kilrea bent over a desk in her library and opened the book a messenger had just brought her from Vienna. Her hair was gathered in a mousy bun from which middle age had stripped all but a hint of auburn. She tugged abstractedly at an escaped lock of it as she turned pages, squinting down her prominent nose.
In the middle of the volume she paused. The German heading gave instructions, stating that the formula there given was a means of separating death from the semblance of life. The remainder of the page and the three that followed it were in phonetic transliteration from a language few scholars would have recognized. Dame Alice did not mouth any of those phrases. A premonition of great trees and a thing greater than the trees shadowed her consciousness as she read silently down the page.
It would be eighteen years before she spoke any part of the formula aloud.
Sergeant Osterman drank palm wine in the shade of a baobab as usual while Baloko oversaw the weighing of the village’s rubber. This time the Baenga had ordered M’fini, the chief, to wait for all the other males to be taken first. There was an ominous silence among the villagers as the wiry old man came forward to the table at which Baloko sat, flanked by his fellow Forest Guards.
“Ho, M’fini,” Baloko said jovially, “what do you bring us?”
Without speaking, the chief handed over his gray-white sheets of latex. They were layered with plantain leaves. Baloko set the rubber on one pan of his scales, watched it easily overbalance the four-kilogram weight in the other pan. Instead of setting the rubber on the pile gathered by the other villagers and paying M’fini in brass wire, Baloko smiled.”Do you remember, M’fini,” the Baenga asked, “what I told you last week when you said to me that your third wife T’sini would never sleep with another man while you lived?”
The chief was trembling. Baloko stood and with his forefinger flicked M’fini’s latex out of the weighing pan to the ground.”Bad rubber,” he said, and grinned. “Stones, trash hidden in it to bring it to the weight. An old man like you, M’fini, must spend too much time trying to satisfy your wives when you should be finding rubber for the King.”
“I swear, I swear by the god Iwa who is death,” cried M’fini, on his knees and clutching the flapping bulk of rubber as though it were his firstborn, “it is good rubber, all smooth and clean as milk itself!”
Two of the askaris seized M’fini by the elbows and drew him upright. Baloko stepped around the weighing table, drawing his iron-bladed knife as he did so. “I will help you, M’fini, so that you will have more time to find good rubber for King Leopold.”
Sergeant Osterman ignored the first of the screams, but when they went on and on he swigged down the last of his calabash and sauntered over to the group around the scales. He was a big man, swarthy and scarred across the forehead by a Tuareg lance while serving with the French in Algeria.
Baloko anticipated the question by grinning and pointing to M’fini. The chief writhed on the ground, his eyes screwed shut and both hands clutched to his groin. Blood welling from between his fingers streaked black the dust he thrashed over. “Him big man, bring no-good rubber,” Baloko said. Osterman knew little Bantu, so communication between him and the Guards was generally in pidgin. “Me make him no-good man, bring big rubber now.”
The burly Fleming laughed. Baloko moved closer, nudged him in the ribs.”Him wife T’sini, him no need more,” the Baenga said.”You, me, all along Guardsâ€”we make T’sini happy wife, yes?”
Osterman scanned the encircling villagers whom curiosity had forced to watch and fear now kept from dispersing. In the line, a girl staggered and her neighbors edged away quickly as if her touch might be lethal. Her hair was wound high with brass wire in the fashion of a dignitary’s wife, and her body had the slim delight of a willow shoot. Even in the lush heat of the equator, twelve-year-olds look to be girls rather than women.
Osterman, still chuckling, moved toward T’sini. Baloko was at his side.
Time passed. From deep in the forest came rumblings that were neither of man or of Earth.
In a London study, the bay window was curtained against frost and the gray slush quivering over the streets. The coal fire hissed as Dame Alice Kilrea, fingers tented, dictated to her male amanuensis. Her dress was of good linen but two buttons were missing, unnoticed, from the placket, and the lace front showed signs of lunch bolted in the library . . . . “and, thanks to your intervention, the curator of the Special Reading Room allowed me to handle Alhazred myself instead of having a steward turn the pages at my request. I opened the volume three times at random and read the passage on which my index finger fell.
“Before, I had been concerned; now I am certain and terrified. All the lots were congruent, referring to aspects of the Messenger.” She looked down at the amanuensis and said, “Capital on ‘Messenger’, John.” He nodded.
“Your support has been of untold help; now my need for it is doubled. Somewhere in the jungles of that dark continent the crawling chaos grows and gathers strength. I am armed against it with the formulas that Spiedel found in the library of Kloster-Neuburg just before his death; but that will do us no good unless they can be applied in time. You know, as I do, that only the most exalted influence will pass me into the zone of disruption at the crucial time. That time may yet be years to come, but they are years of the utmost significance to Mankind. Thus I beg your unstinting support not in my name or that of our kinship, but on behalf of life itself.
“Paragraph, John. As for the rest, I am ready to act as others have acted in the past. Personal risk has ever been the coin paid for knowledge of the truth.”
The amanuensis wrote with quick, firm strokes. He was angry both with himself and with Dame Alice. Her letter had driven out of his mind thoughts of the boy whom he intended to seduce that evening in Kettners. He had known for some time that he would have to find another situation. The problem was not that Dame Alice was mad. All women were mad, after all. But her madness had such an insidious plausibility that he was starting to believe it himself.
As presumably her present correspondent did. And the letter to him would be addressed to “His Royal Highness. . . . ”
In most places the trees grew down to the water edge, denser for being able to take sunlight from the side as well as from above. The margins of the shallow backwaters spread after each rain into sheets thick with vegetable richness and as black as the skins of those who lived along them. In drier hours there were sand banks and easy expanses on which to trade with the forest folk.
Gomes’ dugout had already slid back into the slough, leaving in the sand the straight gouge of its keel centered in the blur of bare footprints. A score of natives still clustered around Kaminski’s similar craft, fondling his bolts of bright-patterned cloth or chatting with his paddlers. Then the steamship swung into sight around the wooded headland.
The trees had acted as a perfect muffler for the chuffing engine. With a haste little short of panic, the forest dwellers melted back into concealment. The swarthy Portuguese gave an angry order and his crew shipped their paddles. Emptied of its cargo, the dugout drew only a few inches of water and could, had there been enough warning, have slid up among the tree roots where the two-decked steamer could never have followed.
Throttled down to the point its stern wheel made only an occasional slapping, the government craft edged closer to Gomes. On the Upper Kasai it was a battleship, although its beamy twenty-four meters would have aroused little interest in a more civilized part of the world. Awnings protected the hundreds of askaris overburdening the side rails. The captain was European, a blond, soft-looking man in a Belgian army uniform. The only other white man visible was the noncom behind the Hotchkiss swivel-mounted at the bow.
“Messieurs Gomes and Kaminski, perhaps?”called the officer as the steamship swung to, a dozen yards from the canoe. He was smiling, using his fingertips to balance his weight on the starboard bridge rail.
“You know who we are, de Vrinyâ€”damn you,” Gomes shot back. “We have our patent to trade and we pay our portion to your Societe Cosmpolite. Now leave us!”
“Pay your portion, yes,” deVriny purred.”Gold dust and gold nuggets. Where do you get such gold, my fine mongrel friends?”
“Carlos, it’s all right,” called Kaminski, standing in his grounded boat. “Don’t become angryâ€”the gentleman is doing his duty to protect trade, that is all.” Beneath the sombrero which he had learned to wear in the American Southwest, sweat was boiling off Kaminski. He knew his friend’s volcanic temper, knew also the reputation of the blond man who was goading them. Not now! Not on the brink of the success that would gain them entree to any society in the world!
“Trade?” Gomes was shouting. “What do they know about trade?” He shook his fist at de Vriny and made the canoe rock nervously, so that the plump Angolan woman he had married a dozen years before put a calming hand on his leg. “You hold a rifle to the head of some poor black, pay him a ha’penny for rubber you sell in Paris for a shilling fourpence. Trade? There would be no gold coming out of this forest if the tribes didn’t trust us and get a fair value for the dust they bring!”
“Well, we’ll have to explore that,” grinned the Belgian.”You see, your patent to trade was issued in errorâ€”it seems it was meant for some Gomez who spelled his name with a ‘z’â€”and I have orders to escort you both back to Boma until the matter can be resolved.”
Gomes’ broad face went saffron. He began to slump like a snow figure on a sunny day. “They couldn’t take away our patent because of a spelling mistake their own clerks made?” he whined, but his words were more of a sick apostrophe than a real question.
The Belgian answered it anyway. “You think not? Don’t you know who appoints the judges of our Congo oh-so-Free State? Not Jews or nigger-wenching Portu-gees, I assure you.”
Gomes was probably bracing his sagging bulk against the thwart, though he could indeed have been reaching for the Mauser lying across the pack in front of him. Presumably that was what the Baenga thought when he fired the first shot and blew Gomes into the water. Every Forest Guard with a rifle followed in a ragged volley that turned the canoe into a chip dancing on an ornamental fountain. Jets of wood and water and blood spouted upward.
“Christ’s blood, you fools!” de Vriny cried. Then, “Well, get the rest of them too!”
Kaminski screamed and tried to follow his paddlers in a race for the tree line, but he was a corpulent man whose boots punched ankle-deep into the soft sand. The natives had no chance either. The Hotchkiss stuttered, knocking down a pair of them as the gunner checked his range. Then, spewing empty cases that hissed as they bounced into the water, the machine gun hosed bullets across the other running men. Kaminski half turned as the black in front of him pitched forward hemorrhaging bright blood from mouth and nose. That desire to see his death coming preserved the trader from it: the bullet that would otherwise have exited through his forehead instead drilled through both upper maxillary bones. Kaminski’s eyes popped out as neatly as oysters into a gourmet’s silver spoon. His body slapped hard enough to ripple the sand in which it came to rest face up.
The firing stopped. Capsized and sinking, Gomes’ shattered dugout was drifting past the bow of the steamer.”I want their packs raised,” deVriny ordered. “Even if you have to dive for them all day. The same with the packs on shoreâ€”then burn the canoes.”
“And the bodies, master?” asked his Baenga headman.
“Faugh,” spat the Belgian. “Why else did the good Lord put crocodiles in this river?”
They did not take Kaminski’s ear because it was white and that would attract comment. Even in Boma.
Time passed. Deep in the forest the ground spurted upward like a grapefruit hit by a rifle bullet. Something thicker than a tree bole surged, caught at a nearby human and flung the body, no longer distinguishable as to sex or race, a quarter mile through the canopy of trees. The earth subsided then, but in places the surface continued to bubble as if made of heated tar.
Five thousand miles away, Dame Alice Kilrea stepped briskly out of her solicitors’ office, having executed her will, and ordered her driver on to the Nord Deutscher-Lloyd Dock. Travelling with her in the carriage was a valise containing one ancient book and a bundle of documents thick with wax, ribbons, and gold foilâ€”those trappings and the royal signatures beneath. On the seat across from her was the American servant she had engaged only the week before as she closed her London house and discharged the remainder of her establishment. The servant, Sparrow, was a weaselly man with tanned skin and eyes the frosty color of lead cast in too hot a mold. He said little but glanced around frequently; and his fingers writhed as if with separate life.
Occasionally chance would merge the rhythm of mauls and axes splitting wood in a dozen parts of the forest. Then the thunk-thunk-THUNK would boom out like a beast approaching from the darkness. Around their fire the officers would pause. The Baengas would chuckle at the joke of it and let the pounding die away. Little by little it would reappear at each separate group of woodsmen, finally to repeat its crescendo.
“Like children,” Colonel Trouville said to Dame Alice. The engineer and two sergeants were still aboard the Archiduchesse Stephanie, dining apart from the other whites. Color was not the only measure of class, even in the Congo Basin. “They’ll be cutting woodâ€”and drinking their malafou, wretched stuff, to call it palm wine is to insult the word ‘wine’â€”they’ll be at it almost till dawn. After a time you’ll get used to it. There’s nothing, really, to be done, since we can only carry a day’s supply of fuel on the steamer. While they of course could find and cut enough dry wood by a reasonable hour each night, when one is dealing with the native ‘mind’. . . . ”
De Vriny and Osterman joined in their Colonel’s deprecating laughter. Dame Alice managed only a preoccupied smile. During the day, steaming upriver from the Stanley Pool, she had stared at the terrain in which her battle would be joined: heavy forest, here mostly a narrow belt fringing the watercourse but later to become a sprawling, barely penetrable expanse. The trees climbed to the edge of the water and mushroomed over the banks. Dame Alice could imagine that where the stream was less than the Congo’s present mile breadth the branches would meet above in laced blackness.
Now at night, blackness was complete even on the lower river. It chilled her soul. The equatorial sunset was not a curtain of ever-thickening gauze but a knifeblade that separated the hemispheres. On this side was death, and neither the laughter of the Baenga askaris nor the goblets of Portuguese wine being drunk around Trouville’s campfire could change that.
Captain de Vriny swigged and eyed the circle. He was a man of middle height with the roundedness of a bear, a seeming softness which tended to mask the cruelty beneath. Across from him, Sparrow dragged on the cigarette he had rolled and lit his face orange. The captain smiled. Only because his mistress, the mad noblewoman, had demanded it, did Sparrow sit with the officers. He wore a cheap blue-cotton shirt, buttoned at the cuffs, and denim trousers held up by suspenders. Short and narrow-chested, Sparrow would have looked foolish even without the waist belt and the pair of huge double-action revolvers hanging from it.
Dame Alice was unarmed by contrast. Like the men she wore trousers, hers tucked into low-heeled boots. De Vriny looked at her and, shaping his mocking smile into an expression of friendly interest, said, “It surprises me, Dame Alice, that a woman as well-born and, I am sure, delicate as yourself would want to accompany an expedition against some of the most vicious sub-men on the globe.”
Dame Alice lifted the faintly bulbous tip of her nose and said, “It’s no matter of wanting, Captain.”She eyed deVriny with mild distaste.”I don’t suppose you want to come yourselfâ€”unless you like to shoot niggers for lack of better sport? One does unpleasant things because someone must. One has a duty.”
“What the Captain is suggesting,” put in Trouville, “is that there are no lines of battle fixed in this jungle. A spearman may step from around the next tree and snick, end all your plansâ€”learned though we are sure they must be.”
“Quite,” agreed Dame Alice, “and so I brought Sparrow hereâ€”” she nodded to her servantâ€””instead of trusting to chance.”
All heads turned again toward the little American.
In French, though the conversation had previously been in English to include Sparrow, deVriny said, “I hope he never falls overboard. The load of iron-mongery he carries will sink him twenty meters through the bottom muck before anyone knows he’s gone.”
Again the Belgians laughed. In a voice as flat and hard as the bottom of a skillet. Sparrow said, “Captain, I’d surely appreciate a look at your nice pistol there.”
De Vriny blinked, uncertain whether the question was chance or if the American had understood the joke of which he had been made the butt. Deliberately, his composure never more than dented, the Belgian unhooked the flap of his patent-leather holster and handed over the Browning pistol. It was small and oblong, its blued finish gleaming like wet sealskin in the firelight.
Sparrow rotated the weapon, giving its exterior a brief scrutiny. He thumbed the catch in the grip and stripped out the magazine, holding it so that the light fell on the uppermost of its stack of small brass cartridges.
“You are familiar with automatic pistols, then?” asked Trouville in some surprise at the American’s quick understanding of a weapon rarely encountered on his native continent.
“Naw,” Sparrow said, slipping the magazine back home. His fingers moved like those of a pianist doing scales. “It’s a gun, though. I can generally figure how a gun works.”
“You should get one like it,” de Vriny said, smiling as he took the weapon back from Sparrow. “You would find it far more comfortable to carry than thoseâ€”yours.”
“Carry a toy like that?” the gunman asked. His voice parodied amazement. “Not me, Captain. When I shoot a man, I want him dead. I want a gun what’ll do the job if I do mine, and these .45s do me jist fine, every time I use’um.” Sparrow grinned then, for the first time. De Vriny felt his own hands fumble as they tried to reholster the Browning. Suddenly he knew why the askaris gave Sparrow so wide a berth.
Dame Alice coughed. The sound shattered the ice that had been settling over the men. Without moving, Sparrow faded into the background to become an insignificant man with narrow shoulders and pistols too heavy for his frame.
“Tell me what you know about the rebellion,” the Irishwoman asked quietly in a liquid, attractive voice. Her features led one to expect a nasal whinny. Across the fire came snores from Osterman, a lieutenant by courtesy but in no other respect an officer. He had ignored the wine for the natives’ own malafou. The third calabash had slipped from his numb fingers, dribbling only a stain onto the ground as the bearded Fleming lolled back in his camp chair.
Trouville exchanged glances with de Vriny, then shrugged and said, “What is there ever to know about a native rebellion? Every once in a while a few of them shoot at our steamers, perhaps chop a concessionaire or two when he comes to collect the rubber and ivory. Then we get the call”â€”the Colonel’s gesture embraced the invisible Archiduchesse Stephanie and the dozen Baenga canoes drawn up on the bank beside her. “We surround the village, shoot the niggers we catch, and burn the huts. End of rebellion.”
“And what about their gods?” Dame Alice pressed, bobbing her head like a long-necked diving bird.
The Colonel laughed. De Vriny patted his holster and said, “We are God in the Maranga Concession.”
They laughed again and Dame Alice shivered. Osterman snorted awake, blew his nose loudly on the blue sleeve of his uniform coat. “There’s a new god back in the bush, yes,” the Fleming muttered.
The others stared at him as if he were a frog declaiming Shakespeare. “How would you know?”de Vriny demanded in irritation.”The only Bantu words you know are ‘drink’ and ‘woman’.”
“I can talk to B’loko, can’t I?” the lieutenant retorted in a voice that managed to be offended despite its slurring.”Good ol’Baloko, we been together long time, long time. Better fella than some white bastards I could name. . . . ”
Dame Alice leaned forward, the firelight bright in her eyes.”Tell me about the new god,” she demanded. “Tell me its name.”
“Don’ remember the name,” Osterman muttered, shaking his head. He was waking up now, surprised and a little concerned to find himself center of the attention not only of his superiors but also of the foreigner who had come to them in Boma as they readied their troops. Trouville had tried to shrug Dame Alice aside, but the Irishwoman had displayed a patent signed by King Leopold himself . . . .”Baloko said it but I forget,” he continued, “and he was drunk too, or I don’ think he would have said. He’s afraid of that one.”
“What’s that?”Trouville interrupted. He was a practical man, willing to accept and use the apparent fact that Osterman’s piggish habits had made him a confidant of the askaris. “One of our Baenga headmen is afraid of a Bakongo god?”
Osterman shook his graying head again. Increasingly embarrassed but determined to explain, he said, “Not their god, not like that. The Bakongos, they live along the river, they got their fetishes just like any niggers. But back in the bush, there’s another village. Not a tribe; a few men from here, a few women from there. Been getting together one at a time, a couple a year, for Christ . . . maybe twenty years. They got the new god, they’re the ones who started the trouble.
“They say you don’ have to pay your rubber to the white men, you don’ have to pray to any fetish. Their god gonna come along and eat up everything. Any day now.”
Osterman rubbed his eyes blearily, then shouted, “Boy! Malafou!”
A Krooman in breeches and swallow-tailed coat scurried over with another calabash. Osterman slurped down the sweet, brain-stunning fluid in three great gulps. He began humming something meaningless to himself. The empty container fell, and after a time the Fleming began to snore again.
The other men looked at one another.”Do you suppose he’s right?”the Captain asked Trouville.
“He could be, “the slim Colonel admitted with a shrug.”They might well have told him all that. He’s not much better than a nigger himself despite the color of his skin.”
“He’s right,” said Dame Alice, looking at the fire and not at her companions. Ash crumbled in its heart and a knot of sparks clawed toward the forest canopy. “Except for one thing. Their god isn’t new, it isn’t new at all. Back when the world was fresh and steaming and the reptiles flew above the swamps, it wasn’t new either. The Bakongo name for it is Ahtu. Alhazred called it Nyarlathotep when he wrote twelve hundred years ago.” She paused, staring down at her hands tented above the thin yellow wine left in her goblet.
“Oh, then you are a missionary,” de Vriny exclaimed, glad to find a category for the puzzling woman. Her disgusted glance was her reply. “Or a student of religions?” de Vriny tried again.
“I study religions only as a doctor studies diseases,” Dame Alice said. She looked at her companions. Their eyes were uncomprehending.”I . . . ” she began, but how did she explain her life to men who had no conception of devotion to an ideal? Her childhood had been turned inward to dreams and the books lining the cold library of the Grange. Inward, because her outward body was that of an ugly duckling whom everyone knew had no chance of becoming a swan. And from her dreams and a few of the very oldest books had come hints of what it is that nibbles at the minds of all men in the darkness. Her father could not answer or even understand her questions, nor could the Vicar. She had grown from a persistent child into an iron-willed woman who lavished on her fancy energies which her relatives felt would have been better spent on the Church . . . or, perhaps, on breeding spaniels.
And as she had grown, she had met others who felt and knew what she did.
She looked around again. “Captain,” she said simply, “I have been studying certainâ€”mythsâ€”for most of my life. I’ve come to believe that some of them contain truths or hints of truths. There are powers in the universe. When you know the truth of those powers, you have the choice of joining them and working to bring about their comingâ€”for they are unstoppableâ€”or you can fight, knowing there is no ultimate hope for your cause and going ahead anyway. Mine was the second choice.” Drawing herself even more rigidly straight, she added, “Someone has always been willing to stand between mankind and Chaos. As long as there have been men.”
De Vriny snickered audibly. Trouville gave him a dreadful scowl and said to Dame Alice, “And you are searching for the god these rebels pray to?”
“Yes. The one they call Ahtu.”
* * *
From the score of firelit glades around them came the thunk-thunk-THUNK of axe and wedge, then the booming native laughter.
“Osterman and de Vriny should have their men in position by now,” said the Colonel, pattering his fingertips on the bridge rail as he scanned the wooded shore line. “It’s about time for me to land, too.”
“Us to land,” Dame Alice said. She squinted, straining forward to see the village the Belgian force was preparing to assault.”Where are the huts?”she finally asked.
“Oh, they’re set back from the shore some hundreds of meters,” Trouville explained offhandedly.”The trees hide them, but the fish weirsâ€””he pointed out the lines of upright sticks rippling foam tracks down the currentâ€” “are a good enough guide. We’ve stayed anchored here in the stream so that the villagers would be watching us while the forces from the canoes downriver surrounded them.”
Muffled but unmistakable, a shot thudded in the forest. A volley followed, drawing with it faint screams.
“Bring us in,” ordered the Colonel, tugging at the left half of his moustache in his only sign of nervousness.
The Archiduchesse grated as her bow nuzzled into the trees, but there was no time now for delicacy. Forest Guards streamed past the Hotchkiss and down the gangplank into the jungle. The gunner was crouched behind the metal shield that protected him only from the front. Tree boles and their shadows now encircled him on three sides.
“I suppose it will be safe enough on the shore,” said Trouville, adjusting his harness as if for parade instead of battle.”You can accompany me if you wishâ€”and if you stay close by.”
“All right,” said Dame Alice as if she would not have come without his permission. Her hand clutched not a pistol but an old black-bound book. “If we’re where you think, though, you’ll need me very badly before you’re through here. Especially if it takes till sunset.” She swung down the companionway behind Trouville. Last of all from the bridge came Sparrow, grimy and small and deadly as a shark.
The track that wound among the trunks was a narrow line hammered into the loam by horny feet. It differed from a game trail only in that shoulders had cleared the foliage to greater height. The Baengas strode it with some discomfortâ€”they were a Lower Congo tribe, never quite at home in the upriver jungles. Trouville’s step was deliberately nonchalant, while Dame Alice tramped gracelessly and gave an accurate impression of disinterest in her physical surroundings. Sparrow’s eyes twitched around him as they always did. He carried his hands waist-high and over his belted revolvers.
The clearing was an anticlimax. The score of huts in the center had been protected by a palisade of sorts, but the first rush of the encircling Baengas had smashed great gaps in it. Three bodies, all of them women, lay spilled in the millet fields outside. Within the palisade were more bodies, one of them a naskari with a long iron spearhead crosswise through his rib cage. About a hundred villagers, quavering but alive, had been forced together in the compound in front of the chief’s beehive hut by the time the force from the steamer arrived. Several huts were already burning, sending up shuddering columns of black smoke.
Trouville stared at the mass of prisoners, solidified by fear into the terrible, stinking apathy of sheep in the slaughtering chute.”Yes . . . “he murmured appreciatively. His eyes had already taken in the fact that the fetishes which normally stood to the right or left of a well-to-do family’s doorway were absent in this village. “Now,” he asked, “who will tell me about the new god you worship?”
As black against a darkness, so the new fear rippling across faces already terrified. Near the Belgian stood an old man, face knobbed by a pattern of ritual scarring. He was certainly a priest, though without a priest’s usual trappings of feathers and cowrie shells. Haltingly he said, “Lord, l-lord, we have no new gods.”
“You lie!” cried Trouville. His gloved fingertip sprang out like a fang. “You worship Ahtu, you lower-than-the-apes, and he is a poor weak god whom our medicine will break like a stick!”
The crowd moaned and surged backwards from the Colonel. The old priest made no sound at all, only began to tremble violently. Trouville looked at the sky.”Lieutenant Osterman,” he called to his burly subordinate, “we have an hour or so till sunset. I trust you can get this carrionâ€”” he pointed to the priestâ€” “to talk by then. He seems to know something. As for the rest . . . de Vriny, take charge of getting the irons on them. We’ll decide what to do with them later.”
The grinning Fleming slapped Baloko on the back. Each seized one of the priest’s arms and began to drag him toward the shade of a baobab tree. Osterman started to detail the items he needed from the steamer and Baloko, enthusiastic as a child helping his father to fix a machine, rattled the list off in translation to a nearby askari.
The evening breeze brought a hint of relief from the heat and the odors, the oily scent of fear and the others more easily identified. Osterman had set an overturned bucket over the plate of burning sulphur to smother it out when it was no longer needed. Reminded by Trouville, he had also covered the brush of twigs he had been using to spread the gluey flames over the priest’s genitals. Then, his work done, he and Baloko had strolled away to add a bowl of malafou to the chill. “Thank you, Lieutenant,” which was all the praise Trouville had offered for their success.
The subject of their ministrationsâ€”eyes closed, wrists and ankles staked to the groundâ€”was talking. “They come, we let them,” he said, so softly and quickly that Trouville had to strain to mutter out a crude translation for Dame Alice. “They live in forest, they not bother our fish. Forest here evil, we think. We feel god there, we not understand, not know him. All right that anybody want, wants to live in forest.”
The native paused, turning his head to hawk phlegm into the vomit already pooled beside him. Dame Alice squatted on the ground and riffled the pages of her book unconsciously. She had refused to use the down-turned bucket for a stool. Sparrow paid only scant attention to the prisoner. His eyes kept picking across the clearing, thick and raucous now with Baengas and their leg-shackled prisoners; the men and the trees beyond them. Sparrow’s face shone with the frustrated intensity of a man certain of an ambush but unable to forestall it. Shadows were beginning to turn the dust the color of the noses of his bullets.
The priest continued. The rhythms of his own language were rich and firm, reminding Dame Alice that behind Trouville’s choppy French were the words of a man of dignity and powerâ€”before they had brought him down. “All of them are cut men. First come boy, no have ears. His head look me, like melon that is dropped. Him, he hear god Ahtu calling do what god tell him.
“One man, he not have, uh, manhood. God orders, boy tells him . . . he, uh, he quickens the ground where Ahtu sleeps.
“One man, he only half face, no eyes . . . him sees, he sees Ahtu, he tells what becoming, uh, is coming. Heâ€””
The priest’s voice rose into a shrill tirade that drowned out the translation. Trouville dispassionately slapped him to silence, then used a rag of bark cloth in his gloved hand to wipe blood and spittle from the fellows mouth. “There are only three rebels in the forest?” he asked. If he realized that the priest had claimed the third man was white, he was ignoring it completely.
“No, no . . . many men, a ten of tens, maybe more. Before we not see, not see cut men only now and now, uh, again, in the forest. Now god is ripe and, uh, his messengers . . . . ”
Only a knife edge of sun could have lain across the horizon, for the whole clearing was darkening to burnt umber where it had color at all. The ground shuddered. The native pegged to it began to scream.
“Earthquake?”Trouville blurted in surprise and concern. Rain forest trees have no deep tap roots to keep them upright, so a strong wind or an earth tremor will scatter giants like straw in the threshing yard.
Dame Alice’s face showed concern not far from panic, but she wholly ignored the baobab tottering above them. Her book was open and she was rolling out syllables from it. She paused, turned so that the pages opened to the fading sun; but her voice stumbled again, and the earth pitched. It was sucking in under the priest whose fear so gripped him that, having screamed out his breath, he was unable to draw another one.
“Light!”Dame Alice cried.”For Jesus’ sake, light!”If Trouville heard the demand against the litany of fear rising from the blacks, guards and prisoners alike, he did not understand. Sparrow, his face a bone mask, dipped into his shirt pocket and came out with a match which he struck alight with the thumb of the hand that held it. The blue flame pulsed above the page, steady as the ground’s motion would let the gunman keep it. Its light painted Dame Alice’s tight bun as she began again to cry words of no meaning to any of her human audience.
The ground gathered itself into a tentacle that spewed up from beneath the prisoner and hurled him skyward in its embrace. One hand and wrist, still tied to a deep stake, remained behind.
Two hundred feet above the heads of the others, the tentacle stopped and exploded as if it had struck a plate of lightning. Dame Alice had fallen backward when the ground surged, but though the book dropped from her hands she had been able to shout out the last words of what was necessary. The blast that struck the limb of earth shattered also the baobab. Sparrow, the only man able to stand on the bucking earth, was knocked off his feet by the shock wave. He hit and rolled, still gripping the two handguns he had leveled at the afterimage of the light-shot tentacle.
Afterwards they decided that the burned-meat odor must have been the priest, because no one else was injured or missing. Nothing but a track of sandy loam remained of the tentacle, spilled about the rope of green glass formed of it by the false lightning’s heat.
Colonel Trouville rose, coughing at the stench of ozone as sharp as that of the sulphur it had displaced. “De Vriny!” he called. “Get us one of these devil-bred swine who can guide us to the rebel settlement!”
“And who’ll you be finding to guide you, having seen this?” demanded the Irishwoman, kneeling now and brushing dirt from the fallen volume as if more than life depended on her care.
“Seen?” repeated Trouville. “And what have they seen?” The fury in his voice briefly stilled the nightbirds. “They will not guide us because one of them was crushed, pulled apart, burned? And have I not done as much myself a hundred times? If we need to feed twenty of them their own livers, faugh! the twenty-first will lead usâ€”or the one after him will. This rebellion must end!”
“So it must,” whispered Dame Alice, rising like a champion who has won a skirmish but knows the real test is close at hand. She no longer appeared frail. “So it must, if there’s to be men on this earth in a month’s time.”
The ground shuddered a little.
Nothing moved in the forest but the shadows flung by the dancers around the fire. The flames spread them capering across the leaves and tree trunks, distorted and misshapen by the flickering.
They were no more misshapen than the dancers themselves as the light displayed them.
From a high, quivering scaffold of njogicane, three men overlooked the dance. They were naked so that their varied mutilations were utterly apparent. De Vriny started at the sight of the one whose pale body gleamed red and orange in the firelight; but he was a faceless thing, unrecognizable. Besides, he was much thinner than the plump trader the Belgian had once known.
The clearing was a quarter-mile depression in the jungle. Huts, mere shanties of withe-framed leaves rather than the beehives of a normal village, huddled against one edge of it. If all had gone well, Trouville’s askaris were deployed beyond the hut with Osterman’s group closing the third segment of the ring. All should be ready to charge at the signal. There would not even be a fence to delay the spearmen.
Nor were there crops of any kind. The floor of the clearing was smooth and hard, trampled into that consistency by thousands of ritual patterns like the one now being woven around the fire. In, out, and aroundâ€”crop-limbed men and women who hobbled if they had but one foot; who staggered, hunched and twisted from the whippings that had left bones glaring out of knots of scar tissue; who followed by touch the motions of the dancers ahead of them if their own eye-sockets were blank holes.
There was no music, but the voices of those who had tongues drummed in a ceaseless chant: “Ahtu! Ahtu!”
“The scum of the earth,” whispered deVriny.”Low foreheads, thick jaws; skin the color of a monkey’s under its hair. Your Mr. Darwin was right about Man’s descent from the apes, Dame Aliceâ€”if these brutes are, in fact, kin to Man.”
“Not my Mr. Darwin,” the Irishwoman replied.
The Krooman steward, in loincloth now instead of tailcoat, was behind the three whites with a hissing bull’s-eye lantern. Dame Alice feared to raise its shutter yet, though, and instead ran her fingers nervously along the margins of her open book. Three other blacks, armed only with knives, stood by de Vriny as couriers in case the whistle signals were not enough. The rest of the Captain’s force was invisible, spread to either side of him along the margin of the trees.
“Don’t like this,” Sparrow said, shifting his revolvers a millimeter in their holsters to make sure they were free in the leather. “Too many niggers around. Some of ’em are apt to be part of the mob down there, coming back late from a hunt or something. Any nigger comes running up in the dark and I’m gonna let ‘im hold one.”
“You’ll shoot no one without my order,” deVriny snapped.”The Colonel may be sending orders, Osterman may need helpâ€”this business is going to be dangerous enough without some fool killing our own messengers. Do you hear me?”
“I hear you talking.”A stray glimmer of firelight caught the throbbing vein in Sparrow’s temple.
Rather than retort, the Belgian turned back to the clearing. After a moment he said, “I don’t see this god you’re looking for.”
Dame Alice’s mouth quirked.”You mean you don’t see a fetish,” she said. “You won’t. Ahtu isn’t a fetish.”
“Well, what kind of damned god is he then?” de Vriny asked in irritation.
The Irishwoman considered the question seriously, then said, “Maybe they aren’t gods at all, him and the others . . . it and the others Alhazred wrote of. Call them cancers, spewed down on Earth ages ago. Not life, surely, not even thingsâ€”but able to shape, to misshape things into a semblance of life and to grow and to grow and to grow.”
“But grow into what, madame?” de Vriny pressed.
“Into what?” Dame Alice echoed sharply. Her eyes flashed with the sudden arrogance of her bandit ancestors, sure of themselves if of nothing else in the world. “Into this earth, this very planet, if unchecked. And we here will know tonight whether they can be checked yet again.”
“Then you seriously believe,” de Vriny began, sucking at his florid moustache to find a less offensive phrasing.”You believe that the Bakongos are worshipping a creature which would, will, begin to rule the world if you don’t stop it?”
Dame Alice looked at him.”Not ‘rule’ the world,” she corrected. “Rather become the world. This thing, this seed awakened in the jungle by the actions of men more depraved and foolish than I can easily believe . . . this existence, unchecked, would permeate our world like mold through a loaf of bread, until the very planet became a ball of viscid slime hurtling around the sun and stretching tentacles toward Mars. Yes, I believe that, Captain. Didn’t you see what was happening last night in the village?”
The Belgian only scowled in perplexity.
A silver note sang from across the broad clearing. De Vriny grunted, then put his long bosun’s pipe to his lips and sounded his reply even as Osterman’s signal joined it.
The dance broke apart as the once-solid earth began to dimple beneath men’s weight.
The Forest Guards burst out of the tree line with cries punctuated by the boom of Albini rifles. “Light!” ordered Dame Alice in a crackling alto, and the lantern threw its bright fan across the book she held. The scaffolding moved, seemed to sink straight into ground turned fluid as water. At the last instant the three figures on it linked hands and shouted, “Ahtu!” in triumph. Then they were gone.
In waves as complex as the sutures of a skull, motion began to extend through the soil of the clearing. A shrieking Baenga, spear raised to thrust into the nearest dancer, ran across one of the quivering lines. It rose across his body like the breaking surf and he shrieked again in a different tone. For a moment his black-headed spear bobbled on the surface. Then it, too, was engulfed with a faint plop that left behind only a slick of blood.
Dame Alice started chanting in a singsong, molding a tongue meant for liquid Irish to a language not meant for tongues at all. A tremor in the earth drove toward her and those about her. It had the hideous certainty of a torpedo track. Sparrow’s hands flexed. De Vriny stood stupefied, the whistle still at his lips and his pistol drawn but forgotten.
The three couriers looked at the oncoming movement, looked at each other . . . disappeared among the trees. Eyeballs white, the Krooman dropped his lantern and followed them. Quicker even than Sparrow, Dame Alice knelt and righted the lantern with her foot. She acted without missing a syllable of the formula stamped into her memory by long repetition.
Three meters away, a saw-blade of white fire ripped a cross the death advancing through the soil. The weaving trail blasted back toward the center of the clearing like an ant run blown by carbon disulphide.
De Vriny turned in amazement to the woman crouched so that the lantern glow would fall across the black-lettered pages of her book.”You did it!”he cried. “You stopped the thing!”
The middle of the clearing raised itself toward the night sky, raining down fragments of the bonfire that crowned it. Humans screamedâ€”some at the touch of the fire, others as tendrils extruding from the towering center wrapped about them.
Dame Alice continued to chant.
The undergrowth whispered. “Behind you, Captain,” Sparrow said. His face had a thin smile. De Vriny turned, calling a challenge. The brush parted and a few feet in front of him were seven armed natives. The nearest walked on one foot and a stump. His left hand gripped the stock of a Winchester carbine; its barrel was supported by his right wrist since there was a knob of ancient scar tissue where the hand should have been attached.
De Vriny raised his Browning and slapped three shots into the native’s chest. Bloodspots sprang out against the dark skin like additional nipples. The black coughed and jerked the trigger of his own weapon. The carbine was so close to the Belgian’s chest that its muzzle flash ignited the linen of his shirt as it blew him backwards.
Sparrow giggled and shot the native through the bridge of his nose, snapping his head around as if a horse had kicked him in the face. The other blacks moved. Sparrow killed them all in a ripple of fire that would have done justice to a Gatling gun. The big revolvers slammed alternately, Sparrow using each orange muzzle flash to light a target for his other hand. He stopped shooting only when there was nothing left before his guns; nothing save a writhing tangle of bodies too freshly dead to be still. The air was thick with white smoke and the fecal stench of death. Behind the laughing gunman, Dame Alice Kilrea continued to chant.
Pulsing, rising, higher already than the giants of the forest ringing it, the fifty-foot-thick column of what had been earth dominated the night. A spear of false lightning jabbed and glanced off, freezing the chaos below for the eyes of any watchers. From the base of the main neck had sprouted a ring of tendrils, ruddy and golden and glittering over all with inclusions of quartz. They snaked among the combatants as flexible as silk; when they closed, they ground together like millstones and spattered blood a dozen yards up the sides of the central column. The tendrils made no distinction between Forest Guards and the others who had danced for Ahtu.
Dame Alice stopped. The column surged and bent against the sky, its peak questing like the muzzle of a hunting dinosaur. Sparrow hissed, “For the love of God, bitch!” and raised a revolver he knew would be useless.
Dame Alice spoke five more words and flung her book down. The ground exploded in gouts of cauterizing flame.
It was not a hasty thing. Sparks roared and blazed as if the clearing were a cauldron into which gods poured furnaces of molten steel. The black column that was Ahtu twisted hugely, a cobra pinned to a bonfire. There was no heat, but the light itself seared the eyes and made bare flesh crawl.
With the suddenness of a torn puffball, Ahtu sucked inward. The earth sagged as though in losing its ability to move it had also lost all rigidity. At first the clearing had been slightly depressed. Now the center of it gaped like a drained boil, a twisted cylinder fed by the collapsing veins it had earlier shot through the earth.
When the blast came it was the more stunning for having followed a relative silence. There was a rending crash as something deep in the ground gave way; then a thousand tons of rock and soil blew skyward with volcanic power behind them. Where the earth had trembled with counterfeit life, filaments jerked along after the main mass. In some places they ripped the surface as much as a mile into the forest. After a time, dust and gravel began to sprinkle down on the trees, the lighter particles marking the canopy with a long flume downwind while larger rocks pattered through layer after layer of the hindering leaves. But it was only dirt, no different than the soil for hundreds of miles around into which trees thrust their roots and drew life from what was lifeless.
“God damn if you didn’t kill it,” Sparrow whispered, gazing in wonderment at the new crater. There was no longer any light but that of the hooked moon to silver the carnage and the surprising number of Forest Guards straggling back from the jungle to which they had fled. Some were beginning to joke as they picked among the bodies of their comrades and the dancers.
“I didn’t kill anything,” Dame Alice said. Her voice was hoarse, muffled besides by the fact that she was cradling her head on her knees. “Surgeons don’t kill cancers. They cut out what they can find, knowing that there’s always a little left to grow and spread again . . . .”
She raised her head. From across the clearing, Colonel Trouville was stepping toward them. He was as dapper and cool as always, skirting the gouge in the center, skirting also the group of Baengas with a two-year-old they must have found in one of the huts. One was holding the child by the ankles to drain all the blood through its slit throat while his companions gathered firewood.
“But without the ones who worshipped it,” Dame Alice went on, “without the ones who drew the kernel up to a growth that would have been . . . the end of Man, the end of Life here in any sense you or Iâ€”or those out thereâ€”would have recognized it. . . . It’ll be more than our lifetimes before Ahtu returns. I wonder why those ones gave themselves so wholly to an evil that would have destroyed them first?”
Sparrow giggled again. Dame Alice turned from the approaching Belgian to see if the source of the humor showed on the gunman’s face.
“It’s like this,” Sparrow said. “If they was evil, I guess that makes us good. I’d never thought of that before, is all.”
He continued to giggle. The laughter of the Baengas echoed him from the clearing as they thrust the child down on a rough spit. Their teeth had been filed to points which the moonlight turned to jewels.