The Mountain of Fears/The Mountain of Fears
THE MOUNTAIN OF FEARS
DOCTOR," said my shipmate, Dr. Leyden, "have you ever made any especial study of nervous diseases—central nervous diseases—morbid conditions resulting from a derangement of the central cells?"
I told him that I had done only such work in this branch as a general practice would require, but that I had observed some few cases of especial interest during a military surgical service in the East, and proceeded to cite one or two instances of mental vagaries resulting from gunshot wounds in the head.
Leyden leaned both elbows on the taffrail and listened restlessly. Our little ship swashed through the short sling of the Spanish Main, the Pole star gleaming ahead, the Southern Cross blazing astern, and all about the white, flashing crests of the phosphorescent sea. Usually Leyden was a good listener, but this night he seemed impatient, restive, to such an extent that I finally paused, annoyed, for nothing is so irritating as lack of attention to a solicited reply.
"Ach! but those cases are in the line of the ordinary!" he exclaimed.
"Pardon me," I replied, "but the last case I have given was distinctly out of the ordinary."
"I am awkward, Doctor," said Leyden, apologetically. "I mean that the relations of cause and effect follow the usual course—the histological changes in the cell produced impaired function of the organ and these primary changes were the result of trauma. But have you ever had occasion to observe the reverse of this condition—the action of the organ on the center—like a nightmare, where one has the liver poisoning the central cells——"
I interrupted in my turn. Leyden was no doubt a skilled naturalist, a close observer and a man of deep power of thought and analysis, but he was not a physician, had never made a regular study of physiological chemistry, and was, therefore, scarcely in a position to argue with a person who had.
"Such cases are not infrequent," I answered. "The ancient Greeks understood that much, as we see from their terms. 'Hypochondria'; under the ribs the liver probably poisoning the brain, if you like; then there is the condition of hysteria often accompanying a movable kidney; the action of certain drugs on special centers——"
"Such as cannabis indica?" interrupted Leyden, "which affects the sense of elapsed time and makes the subject happy—or—what is that principle, Doctor, which produces xanthopsia, or yellow vision, and makes one sluggish and depressed?"
"Xanthopsia is an early symptom of santonin poisoning," I answered. "The alkaloid is obtained from the unexpanded flower-heads of the——"
"Artemisia maritima—yes—I know the plant but the active principle might occur elsewhere?"
"It is wonderful," mused Leyden, in the self-communicative tone that was often difficult to follow—"the microscopic filament that makes or unmakes a man; the minute neurons which carry such a potent impulse—like the flash crossing a continent on a tiny wire to send two great nations to war. The wire is short-circuited, the nation disgraced; the neuron short-circuited, the individual disgraced. Such a thing once happened to me, Doctor.
"This was in Papua, an awesome country which holds in its dark recesses many of the things one wants—and most of those which one does not. I had gone there with two other white men to look for gold. It is a marvelous country, Doctor; I do not think there is any other like it; such a country as was pictured in the old imaginative school of painting; a valley, through which winds a mist river flowing intangibly from a mirage through a canyon bridged by a rainbow; travelers' palms, tree-ferns, lianas, dream-trees heavy with strange fruits and brilliant blossoms, in the distance mystic mountains rising as they recede, green yet forbidding, the homes of genii; their summits fantastic—the whole a beautiful, impossible, frightfully fascinating fairyland. This was that place where we went to look for gold.
"My two companions were failures—most gold-seekers are. I was not old enough to be a failure myself. No matter what the faults of these others, one did not deny their virtues. One was a Hollander, Vinckers, an engineer, a brilliant man, but one ready to step over the edge of heaven in sheer restlessness and a desire to see what was held by the abyss; the other was a Scotchman, disagreeable, mo rose, taciturn, harsh of speech and visage. Both held hearts of steel; they were the most quietly courageous men that I have ever known. I ask you to remember this, Doctor, in consideration of what came later. Their courage had been tried and proved in many desperate situations . . . Ach!" Leyden began to mutter again, shaping his thoughts with his tongue until I could with difficulty catch this thought—"the filament—the neuron—cut the sympathetic nerve in the neck of a horse and the animal begins to sweat upon the affected side; puncture the floor of the fourth ventricle of a dog—diabetes." He raised his voice. "There is a little center of thermogenesis, is there not, Doctor, the irritation of which will raise the temperature——
"We wandered through this shadow-land, this illusory place of promise whose inhabitants were ofttimes starving. Cannibals?—yes; many white men have been that through acute starvation; chronic only tends to confirm the vice. They were a strange, shy, kindly people to us, who understood such. The 'Barbary Coast' in San Francisco, the parks in Melbourne, or the water-front in Hong Kong, are all more dangerous than Papua. "We wandered through these people, accompanied by kindness, a whole tribe sometimes bearing our burdens until they reached a district dangerous to them, but where we made new friends. We wandered through this dreamland unmolested, walked with its fantastic peoples, black and brown and piebald; strayed in and out to the click-click-click of our little hammers, meeting dangers, it is true—the dangers which might confront a child walking blindfolded through a botanical garden filled with perils to its ignorance—and we tap-tap-tapped with our little hammers right up to the slopes of the Malang-o-mor the 'Mountain of Fears'—and we tap-tap-tapped on its slopes of quartz and basalt, little thinking that we knocked at the door of an evil spirit."
The bluff bows of our little ship smashed the short seas into a flat track of phosphoresence, and against the pale background I saw a tremor of some sort shake Leyden's square shoulders, and it seemed to me that his voice was slightly breathless.
"'The Mountain of Fears,' so our Papuans called it, and threw down their burdens at the edge of the stream and refused point-blank to stir another step; more than that, they implored us to go no farther ourselves, and a girl given to MacFarlane by a chief threw her arms around the knees of the rough old Gael and wailed like a stricken soul. An odd thing, that, Doctor, this cannibal girl given to the Scotchman a month before by this chief, to whom MacFarlane had given a harmonica on which he had first rendered 'The Bonnie, Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond' in a manner which should, by right, have got him speared. The girl had fancied him, slaved for him, followed him everywhere like a dog, and had ended by softening him to—such an extent that he ceased to curse and his manner was less harsh—the elevating effect of a cannibal upon a Covenanter!—another inversion in this hallucinating country where the only actuality seemed the rapping of our little hammers.
"This girl, as I say, implored MacFarlane not to go on; for Vinckers and me she did not care; none of the women had much fancied us, while MacFarlane's lack of comeliness was almost bizarre; they were obedient, of course—but that was about all.
"MacFarlane leered up at the great forbidding mountain as it thrust against the dome of the sky its summit of snowy quartz, a-glisten in the bright sunlight thirteen thousand feet above the level of the sea.
"'A cauld slope yon—too cauld for a lass in naething but a kiltie. Ye'd best bide here 'til I come.' He spoke to her in the vernacular, with which we were all three familiar, and told her to await his return.
"It was hot in that valley—a stewpan, withering, stifling with the equatorial reek which wilts one to the bone; the nights stunk of fever. It was the southeast slope of the mountain which presented to us; and as we gazed up toward it from the little nest of trees where we had made our camp, the late sun blazed against its worn flank, and suddenly the broad, barren belt between the forest and the formation of quartz above the timber belt seemed to burst into flame and shone and sparkled and glittered as if flecked with scales of gold.
"'An omen!' cried Vinckers. 'The Mountain of Hope—not the Mountain of Fears! Something tells me that we shall find gold there—veins of it, knuckles of it—perhaps the bones of the mountain are solid gold; why not, in such a country as this?'
"The sun dropped behind the high hills to the westward, swiftly, as it does on the equator, and even more swiftly the gray shadow ran from the foot to the summit of the great mountain. It was as if one saw the color fade in the face of a dying man, and it seemed to me that a cold draught struck down from the heights.
"'The Mountain of Fears,' said I—'the Mountain of Fears,' and as I stared at the monster on whose bristling hide we planned to crawl, parasites, searching for a spot to lodge our stings, the first shadow of foreboding swept over my spirits, just as the swift shadow had risen to throw its cold, blue light across the snowy quartz-field.
"In the valley we found the first signs of plenty; there were fruit and game and a sort of wild yam in abundance; and here we decided to rest for several days on the edge of the stream, for MacFarlane had a suppurating heel where he had trod upon a thorn, and Vinckers was suffering from a great nettle-rash upon his body. All three of us were hungry and our blood ran too thin to encounter the cold nights higher up the slope.
"We camped in a grove of trees which looked like the papaya and bore a fruit unlike any I have ever seen. It was shaped like an avacado, had a pulp like wax, or bone-marrow, which was greasy to the touch, oily, and held a faint flavor of sandal-wood. At first we tried it with caution, for our native friends would not eat anything which grew in the shadow of the Malang-o-mor; neither would they sleep in the narrow valley, but retired each evening to the edge of the forest on the farther slope.
"We rested and we slept, and we ate of the fruit, which I called myela, because I did not think that it had ever been described, and I called it so from its resemblance to marrow; also, we drank of the stream, which was a deep ruby, spring-cooled and fragrant, but of which none of the Papuans would drink excepting the girl, Tomba, given to MacFarlane by the chief. She ate and drank and shuddered and watched her lord narrowly, as if waiting for the curse to fall and wishful to avert it.
"In the early morning we hunted the game or clicked with our little hammers on the crumbling quartz through which the river gnawed its way. There was gold in the country, gold in the stream; one could pan enough dust in a light day's work to pay highly for the labor. But we wanted more than dust—we wanted the pure metal which none doubted we should find on the virgin breast of the mountain, and our fancy saw us winding back to the sea with our native tribe deep-laden with the wealth of buccaneers winding out through defiles of mountain and forest, heavy with the plunder of the dread Malang-o-mor.
"Odd, Doctor; gold and dreams and sweat and death how they all mixed together to strike the average which maintains the trim of the world——" Leyden's voice had sunk to muttering again, and he shivered, despite the humid warmth of the night.
"Daytimes we dwelt in Paradise and at night lay down to sleep, having first drunk of the stream, which we christened 'Lethe,' because on its banks we forgot the hardship and hunger of our long journey to the valley.
A Lethe it must have been, because each morning, when the late sun looked over the shoulder of the mountain and whipped up the blanket of mist stretched like a tent from the slope to the hills beyond, we forgot the miasmas of the night and the fetid fever smells and spores that spawned through the hours of hot darkness, and all of the while we ate more of the fat, oily fruit and less of other and more whole some things, for this fruit of itself appeared to satisfy all needs, and we looked at each other and laughed at the physical changes of the few days, for we were growing fat and flabby as paretics. We slept a great deal, too, days as well as nights, and the sleep was at first of that delicious kind which one enjoys in the moments between waking and rising—a conscious sleep, in which one feels the myriad renovative changes of tissue, when each little cell seems to stretch and tingle and feed against the waste of the coming day. Feed they did, for the flesh came back, full and soft, to our gaunt frames, and we looked at one another and laughed fat, gurgling laughs, and lay and smoked with our heads in the laps of the girls, and the tapping of our little hammers was heard but seldom on the flinty foot of the Mountain of Fears.
"The tribe had camped, as I have said, across the valley on the edge of the forest, but each day they came to see us, and we laughed at their surprise when they saw that all was well. We held them with beads and baubles and food and friendliness—chiefly the latter, for natives, like dogs, love to place allegiance with the higher mentality. One was puzzled that physical need had not run counter to superstition, for despite the plenty of the valley we found no trace of other inhabitants.
"Perhaps, we had been three weeks in the valley, when one night I awoke dripping with perspiration and with a sense of nameless ill. 'A nightmare,' thought I, 'of which the color is lost and only the depression remains.' It held me broad awake—and then for the first time I fully realized the nauseous reek of the fever-fog. One smelled odors which seemed to emanate from the entrails of the earth. You know, Doctor, the nauseous, charnel stench of rotting insects and vegetation, with the fetid breath of the flower that issues from the mouth of a great, carnivorous plant? You have seen these trap-like flowers, if one may call them such, which grow in the botanical gardens of Demerara? Br'r'r'rgh! And as I lay, hot and cold and clammy, with a heavy weight upon my chest, and thought of how we had lain and breathed that thin effluvium, the vehicle for myriad infusoria and plasmodiæ, this hypochrondriac fear became reasonable, and I marveled that we were still alive.
"Vinckers and MacFarlane slept heavily, torpidly, and their breathing was the stertorous gasping of drunkards. "We lay in hammocks of plaited grass under a shelter of thatch; the girl's hammock was beside MacFarlane; and as I lay there, broad awake and still depressed, my lungs half drowned in the dense humor of the valley and my ears ringing from the clamorous insect mob without, I heard a stifled, whimpering cry—the moan of a little child who has been whipped for inheriting nerves. It struck a chill—there was a great deal that was chill in that place of hot fears, cold passions, joyless content and light-hearted sloth a place where one's skin crept clammily while the bones were burning.
"'Who is that!' I asked, quite loudly, for I did not care if the others awoke.
"There came in answer the whimper of one too frightened to speak. Did you ever, as a child, Doctor, waken with the nightmare, afraid to cry out, afraid to move, tortured by the whimpers wrung out in reasonless terror? It was that kind of a sound.
"'What is it !' I asked.
" 'It is Tomba.'
" 'What is the matter with you?' said I.
" 'I am afraid.'
" 'And what are you afraid of of?'
"She found her voice then and began to tell me, but there my limited knowledge of the dialect failed, for I had no such linguistic scope as to-day, when one dialect more or less is simply a matter of ear and comparison. There was something in her speech of devils and death, and she kept repeating this and I do not know what besides—and then, as I was trying to reassure her as one might a child or a horse, less through the reason than the senses, the soothing of primitive sounds, a startling thing occurred. MacFarlane, whose breathing had become more labored, like that of a man rapidly climbing the ladder of consciousness from deep oblivion, gasped once or twice and awoke with a scream. Vinckers, roused with the echo ringing in his ears, awoke with a muffled shout—a strangled, bleating shout such as might come from a slaughtered animal. MacFarlane, but half awake, screamed again. At this Tomba's breathless terror found outlet in a shriek that swept out under the low mist, struck the mountain-side and quavered away in count less reverberations.
"Vinckers shouted again and leaped from his hammock.
"'Be still, you fool!' I cried, roughly.
"'Wha—wha—wha——' quavered MacFarlane.
" 'What's the matter with you?' I cried, impatiently. 'Are you a couple of girls just out of a convent?'
" 'What is the matter?' asked Vinckers, thickly. Tomba was sobbing hysterically.
" 'MacFarlane wakes up with a nightmare!' said I, 'and sets you howling like a maniac. 'My own fright made me irritable.
" 'Odd,' muttered Vinckers; 'odd I had a nightmare, too.'
"'Ye hag-ridden fule,' snarled MacFarlane, 'bawlin' and yammerin' like a bull! I had no nightmare mysel'!' He rolled heavily in his hammock. 'Fetch me a drink o' water, lass—water!' he added, in the vernacular.
"Vinckers sat up in his hammock, let his feet hang over the side and, dropping his head between his heavy shoulders, stared down the valley. There was a moon somewhere behind the mist; this mist, diaphanous, vague, of any depth, yet lifted well above our heads, shone, not white, or colorless, as a vapor should, but a golden yellow; everything seemed golden, was becoming more golden daily the longer we stayed in that place of mockeries, and the reason of this was based on something more solid than a sentiment. What was the name of that drug, Doctor, which when ingested gives the yellow tinge to the vision? Santonica?—yes, perhaps that was it; perhaps its alkaloids were contained in that fatty fruit; perhaps it was only that the moon was one of those ripe, luscious, golden moons one sees on the equator. At any rate, the light came not pale and ghastly, as it should have been, but a luscious golden yellow; and that made it the more unearthly, as it illumined and gave a golden color to these dream objects the fan-palms, the vague rock-heaps, the vistas between which should have been ethereal, but, because of this succulent, sickly yellow light, were too material; and the aroma, which should have been dank, no doubt, but elusive, was a physical stench. Ach! a witch-fire would have burned in that place like a fat pine torch; one would have scorched one's hands near a feu-follet; there was a ponderosity to this place of ghosts. Can you conceive a fat ghost, Doctor—a fat, unclean ghost, who has clanked around, dragging his ball and chain until the sweat pours down his fat face—a malodorous sweat—a sweat that physically offends while it frightens? Once in my youth, in Leipsic, I went into the anatomical laboratory, and there was on the table a fat subject—a woman—and she still wore some gold-washed rings and had some baubles in her ears of too mean value to appeal to the cupidity of whoever had fetched her there. Br'r'r'rgh! She was pathetic, of course, but I was not old enough to feel that then. I can never forget how much more awful she was to me than were the thin, meager, attenuated subjects who were consistent with the place. It was such a ripe, rotten ghastliness as this that was held in that valley which glimmered away at the foot of the Mountain of Fears."
Leyden paused, quivering, shuddering. One did not need to see him silhouetted against the phosphorescence to see that he shuddered; he was in a tremor, and the light from the rook kamer striking his strong, keen, nervous face showed that it was damp, wet, viscid with a moisture other than the humor of the Gulf Stream. He was living the thing over again with all of his high-strung, Teuton nervousness; and suddenly it struck me that it was hardly decent to let him go on—that it was my duty to interrupt him, just as it has been my duty at times to interrupt the unpleasant indulgences of other morbid impulses. But, on the other hand, speech is the safety valve of the mind; also, it is just to sit passively and watch for the symptom which states the case.
"Vinckers observed this thing," continued Leyden. "Vinckers was an unimaginative man, and consequently the impression on him was as it would have been upon a dry plate, or the tracings of a seismograph, or any other machine which records automatically without contributing anything of its own. Vinckers was rather low in the animal scale—by low I mean primitive; as a man he was a splendid specimen, but he was animal enough to get rather more from his instincts than from his reasoning—like most women. He watched this thing, this yellow light coming through the mist and touching with its sickly yellow tinge all of the fantastic objects in the picture that belonged to the imaginative school of painting. He looked quite steadily at the dream-trees, too symmetrical to be real; the fantastic rock shapes, too fancifully grotesque to be the work of nature; he observed the yellow light upon the sluggish stream, which flowed like molasses, and looked rather like it, too; the fringe of the forest—in fact, all of the component parts of the picture just as some morbid painting genius would have placed them—and Vinckers growled like a dog who sees something moving about the camp-fire invisible to his master."
Leyden turned to me insistently, claiming my corroboration of all this that he had worked out through hypertrophied recollection. "Is it not true, Doctor, that logic supplants instinct; that as soon as we learned how to tell by deduction where the person we sought had gone we were no longer able to lay our noses to the ground and decide the matter?" He began to maunder again—his auto-philosophy which was so hard to follow. "There are plenty of plants in nature which would poison the animals of the section if in stinct did not prompt them to avoid these; a man will often eat of something and subsequently wonder at the cause of his derangement; the animal will know and avoid this thing. At that time I was conscious of a morbid physical condition, but was unable to trace its source. Vinckers, lacking imagination, knew at once. 'Heaven,' I heard him mutter, 'was there ever such a mockery! We come to look for gold and we land in—quarantine!' It struck me as a new idea and I almost laughed. Gold and death, sickness and disease! How appropriate that they should be unichromatic! But it was Vinckers' next words which struck me. 'It is that accursed corpse-wax!' he muttered, 'that greasy stuff that we have been growing fat on!' Ugh! You see, Doctor, he was able to link physically cause and effect.
"MacFarlane began to mutter. Tomba brought him some water and he drank thirstily, swallowing with the audible gulps of a horse.
"'I'm feverish,' he said, panting from the long draught, 'verra nervous and feverish. 'Tis a feverish place, this.'
"'It's rotten with fever!' growled Vinckers, who, like myself, spoke English better than the Scotchman. 'It stinks of fever—smell it! We were fools to stay here so long.'
" 'We are a pack of lotus-eaters,' said I. 'You are right, Vinckers; it is this accursed stuff we have been eating—this adiposcere! We will get out of here to-morrow.'
" 'Do you feel as if your inside was filled with lead, Leyden?' asked Vinckers.
"'It is worse than that,' said I—'molten lead.'
"You see, Doctor, we had been living on this rich, fatty stuff, which certainly contained a great deal of oil and I do not know what else besides—narcotics, no doubt. You know the richness of an avocado? They will tell you in some places that this fruit produces biliousness, but I have never heard that it had a soporific effect, as undoubtedly had the myela fruit. Then we had taken no exercise.
"I think that night was hotter than most; we could not sleep, so up we got and smoked and discussed our plans for the future—at least, we started to discuss them, but even as we argued a lethargy came over us, and one by one we fell asleep, though dreading to do so and striving to keep awake through fear of another nightmare. An odd condition, Doctor, this drowsy fearsomeness; no doubt like a patient narcotized before an operation; dread fighting a drug until the latter triumphs and the patient whimpers off into fear-filled somnolence.
"The sun came to suck away the fever-mist and with it much of our dread. We laughed at the fears of the night and awaited the coming of the Papuans, but awaited in vain. I think, Doctor, that Tomba's scream had floated across the valley, telephonic be neath the mist to reach the listeners in the hills. At any rate, no human thing came near us that day. Later, when the shadows began to lengthen again, we wandered out, Vinckers and I, prospecting towards the native camp—I with a rifle, watchful for game, Vinckers humming to himself an old Dutch tune, careless in the full force of the sunlight, wandering behind me and clicking on the rocks with his little hammer.
"I was strangely lacking in breath as I climbed the hillside; as for Vinckers, he halted at the end of a hundred steps and would go up no further. Back at our camp MacFarlane lay smoking, with his head in the lap of the girl. I alone toiled up the slope, soft in heart and fibre, the sweat pouring from me in streams, sodden, with the spring gone out of my ankles and everything about me of a strange, sickly yellow hue which darkened as my breath came faster.
"I found the Papuans departed, so back I went, blubbering with breathlessness, muttering, fatigued, depressed, sluggish with sleep. yinckers I found with his back against a rock, sleeping heavily. As I bent to rouse him my eyes fell upon a specimen which lay between his knees, and I saw that the little hammer had cleft it open to lay bare a thick band of virgin gold. Vinckers had tapped at the door of Fortune and she had opened, and Vinckers had looked within and—fallen asleep! Had the goddess ever a more loutish lover? He was sweating, too, in his sleep, and I saw where the sweat had left a yellow stain upon his neckerchief, and as the late sun struck him it seemed to me that his skin also was of a chromish tint. You know the flabby pallor of the clay-eater? It was like that, fat and flabby, but yellow rather than pale.
"Back we went to the camp, where MacFarlane still lay and smoked or slept with his ugly, shaggy head in the lap of Tomba.
"'Gold!' I said, 'the mountain is full of it. 'If it lies about loose here on the hillside, think of what it must be yonder where the mountain springs have done our hydraulic mining and washing in the same formation!' I pointed above us to the flank of the Malang-o-mor; the late sun struck it aslant, throwing sharp, purple shadows into the numberless seams and fissures eroded in the crumbling crust; it flashed as it had each evening and glowed redly; high above, as the sun sank lower, the quartz beds threw back the deepening azure of the sky.
"'Perhaps it is gold,' said I, 'that bright stuff which glitters so; at any rate there is gold to be had for the taking, while we lie here and bloat and rot and waken screaming in the night. To-morrow we must go up.'
" 'I'm no fit mysel', lad,' said MacFarlane. 'I hae the fever; I maun rest.'
"'You will rest here through eternity,' said I, 'if you do not come away at once. You are yellow as a Chinaman and there's not a line left in your face.' And with the aid of the girl I set about preparing a meal."
Leyden sucked in his breath sharply—filled his deep lungs like a man coming out of the dense, polluted atmosphere of a crowded car or clinic.
"That night I awoke thrice, and each time a cold terror was clamping my heart, until I seemed to shrivel in the utter obliteration of all else. The dread was featureless; there was no dream, only this crushing, numbing, withering fear which froze sound and motion; and I lay and listened to the quick, faint tick-tick-tick of my heart-beats and waited to die—and, instead, I slept again, even while sweating with fear. The last time I remained awake; and as conscience dawned fuller this fear sat upon the distorted objects of the place, the swinging bulks of my companions, the dark roof, and as I looked out into the lambent, mellow-lighted valley fear walked beneath the vague, symmetrical palms and the shimmering umbrella-trees and lurked in the recesses of the fantastic rocks. Fear walked on the water of the oily, sluggish river that flowed with the sheen of molten gold through raw, eroded banks where the lips of the rocks protruded like the ragged edge of an ulcer.
"I lay inert, paralyzed, and presently heard a faint, shuddering sigh; presently a moan, deep, hopeless, almost expiring.
"'Are you awake, Vinckers?' I managed to whisper, and my tongue could hardly articulate the words.
" 'Yes—are you, MacFarlane?'
" 'Ou aye, ou aye—what is it—oh, what is it, man?'
"'Have you had the nightmare?' I asked.
" 'Yes—without the dream—only the fear—what is it?'
" 'Ou, lads, we maun leave this place as soon as 'tis light——'
" 'Hush! ah, hush!' whispered Vinckers. 'I am burning up—come over here, Leyden—I am afraid to move—I was never afraid before—never in my life—ah—what was that!'
"'Ah, tush, man!' MacFarlane's rough voice choked. 'D'ye want to drive the heart of a man from his body? Tomba, lass, Tomba!' There was no reply.
"'Tomba!' said I, sharply. 'Tomba—Tomba!'
"'Hush!—ah, hush!' whispered Vinckers.
" 'Why shall I hush!' said I, and my voice was shaking. 'Waken her, MacFarlane.'
"The Scotchman thrust out his great arm slowly, and in the faint yellow light I saw him snatch it quickly away; heard the choking rattle in his throat; felt my own heart flickering like a candle burned low.
"'Hush—hush—s'h'hh!' whispered Vinckers.
"And then, Doctor" Leyden's voice had sunk until one scarce caught the bitter mockery—"I did the bravest act of my life. I slid out of my hammock." Leyden laughed in a way that sent a chill through me.
"Can you understand, Doctor? Do you know what fear is? Did you ever awake suddenly from a dreamless sleep with a devitalizing fear crushing the very blood out of your heart? No dream no recollection only the fear sometimes hung like a black mantle over the nearest object, no matter how familiar. Purely reasonless—the organ acting on the cell; an inversion of effect on cause. In our own case, if one presumed that our diet, or water, or the fever, or any other extrinsic cause had deranged the organ—perhaps the liver—and thus poisoned the cell—the single center of Fear—as some drugs affect other centers—murderous—erotic as Charcot, I believe it is, demonstrates that the odor of certain perfumes will throw the hypnotized patient into paroxysms of fear——
"I never did a thing so difficult as to get on my feet and walk to the hammock of that poor girl. She was quite dead and the wet frost of the fear which had killed her lay moist and chill on face and breast. I did not dare to light a match to look at her; there is a limit, Doctor, to the courage of every man. I was never really frightened before; I can never remember being really frightened since; and my profession is one of countless risks to life. This was something far, far worse the reason stampeding with the will——
"Then the lethargy crept on again. I crawled back to my hammock and, still fighting the fear, fell asleep. The others slept before I—and I could hear them whining and whimpering like young puppies taken from the litter.
"I was the first to awaken when the light came. My fear was gone and I lay drenched in perspiration, yet comfortable, unwilling to rouse myself.
"'Oh, the awfu' nicht!' moaned MacFarlane, and covered his face with his gnarled hands. Vinckers did not speak, but shouldered his kit.
" 'Let us go,' he said, and we filed away from the place without looking back at the cannibal girl in the plaited hammock, her drawn face covered with the Scotchman's only neckerchief.
"We wandered down the valley looking for a place to ford the stream and begin the ascent. We had no carriers, no goods, no especial hopes, but these things did not trouble us. We wandered along the banks of the dream-river and beneath the symmetrical trees, and filed between the fantastic rocks, which, from habit alone, we tapped with our little hammers; and still the sun had not looked over the edge of the eastern rampart of the valley, and we journeyed in the shadow of the Mountain of Fears. The Mountain of Fears—the Mountain of Fears—and nothing but peace on every hand! Nothing of harm—no danger of man or beast, nothing of heat, nothing of cold—a misty, dreamy peace; the dreads of the night supplanted by an apathetic shame which forbade discussion of these things. As for Tomba—why, she died of fever, poor girl—what else?
"We wandered down the valley and soon we came to a ford; there we crossed and toiled on up the slope of the mountain—up, up, up, panting, sweating, breathless, not clear as to purpose, but struggling to get up because—we did not know! As we climbed we tapped at the stones, because we were used to tapping and chipping with our little hammers, and when we halted for the night we were high up on a wooded plateau, and the air was fine and thin and sweet with healthy odors of moss and fern and clean flowers. We were on the hip of the Mountain of Fears.
"We crouched on the edge of the precipice and peered down into the valley as the sun slipped over the crest of the opposite hills and drew after it the curtain of mist which hid the greasy river and the unreal trees and the jumping rocks, which from above looked like Titan children frozen at play. The mist hid all of these things, but now we were above in stead of beneath it. Before it grew denser it formed a thin, flat pale through which one might look and see these objects, symmetrical and bizarre, fantastic and uncouth, which lay beneath, as one looks down through the thin water-line of a clear but stagnant pool and sees the fairy-like structures of an alien element. 'To-night,' thought I, 'we shall not slumber in that cistern.' It seemed to me in that thin, bracing air, that we had wriggled to the surface like the larvae of mosquitoes, and, after incessantly gyrating up and down, had crawled clear and grown our wings in the drier medium. But even while thinking these things the sun slipped down behind the opposite hills, the mist thickened, a cold draught sucked around the side of the mountain, and I heard Vinckers let out his breath with a shudder. I had noticed that each evening we grew depressed as soon as the sun was gone.
"'What is the matter?' I asked.
" 'Oh, God!' he shuddered. 'Don't you see that it is all getting yellow again—a nasty, greenish yellow?'
"'Ou aye,' said MacFarlane, 'but it has been yellow all day!'
"It had a yellowish tinge to me, Doctor, but I had tried to persuade myself that it was something in the spectrum of that equatorial sun and the vivid greens which filled the valley. There was no denying that as the sunrays left the air the yellows came out with frightful intensity, and to my imagination it seemed as if we were cursed with the curse of Midas—a curse because we had profaned the Malang-o-mor, except that it was not necessary to touch a thing to turn it into gold. Of course, at that time I knew nothing of such things as xanthopsia, and my mind rebelled at aught of a superstitious character. The result was that I became worried and confused—like a dog listening at the receiver of a telephone to a sourceless voice. With Vinckers and MacFarlane it was different; they were of the unimaginative type which goes at one leap from stubborn disbelief to frenzied superstition—and just because everything was turning yellow they would not raise their voices above a whisper.
"We had practically nothing wherewith to camp; in fact, we had come to wandering through that dream-country with only dream-needs the needs of an opium-eater or any other slave of the lamp. Of course, we had some of the fruit—the stuff that grew on the Mountain of Fears—I have never seen it anywhere else. We made a shelter and crept in to sleep.
"I suppose that it was hot enough, but for a month we had dwelt in the steam-room of a Turkish bath. Being younger and stronger, I had given my poncho to Vinckers, who had felt the chill of the higher air. Perhaps it was this circumstance which brought me through the night with my reason, for the cold wakened me before that moment of low-ebbing vitality which comes between midnight and dawn. I awoke shivering, dew-damp with the terror of the night before, and as I lay there waiting I heard the other two twitching and muttering. I suppose that I should have awakened them.
"The moonlight, which should have been clear on the mountain, was yellow as in the valley below; the moon was still high, and we lay in the shadow, but as I waited it passed the zenith and began its swift descent, and soon the lower rim was cut by the edge of our leafy roof. For an hour no sound had come from the others, no stir; they had lain like dead men; and in my abject nervelessness I was afraid to investigate, but waited until the moon should sink lower and look directly into the place. MacFarlane was nearest me, and as the moon sank lower the yellow light crept up his body, which was motionless, as if carved in stone. It reached a hand lying palm downward on his thigh, and I saw that the back glistened with moisture. The sharp, golden moon-ray crept higher, and I watched breathlessly for his face, my own still in the shadow. His straggling beard turned golden; I saw his yellow teeth gleaming, the bristling lips drawn up and the breath hissing between in quick gasps. 'He is having the nightmare,' I thought, and might have found courage to awaken him, but at that moment the light shone full in his face, and I saw that his eyes were wide open, fixed, staring, brimming with an anguish of dread before which my soul shrank. He was staring straight in front of him at Vinckers, who was stretched out at his side, and as I watched, the moonlight fell on his face and showed his eyes also wide open and staring straight into those of MacFarlane.
"For perhaps five minutes—five hours it seemed to me—these two lay inert, stricken paralytic from dread, gazing each one into the crazed eyes of the other, motionless, soundless—while I, watching from the shadow, saw the water trickle down their yellow faces in little, golden drops. Then, with a consciousness of the danger of this thing, I tried to break the spell—and did!
"'Vinckers!' I croaked, and before the sound of my voice had died away Vinckers screamed—a rasping, throat-splitting scream, straight into MacFarlane's face. MacFarlane gurgled and his eyes opened and shut rapidly. Vinckers screamed again—and at this something inside me which I was striving to hold in check, some irresistible impulse, seemed suddenly to tear away—and sweep my will before it—at least, this is a nice way of putting it, Doctor——"
Into Leyden's voice there had crept again that biting mockery which was almost jaunty in tone.
"It is so," he continued, "that one autoanalytic—a student of psychology—his own—might refer to these subjective symptoms. The brutal stranger watching this phenomenon would spell it in five letters—p-a-n-i-c—an elemental emotion which can be the source of much learned argumentation—and stamp the lives out of women and little children—and grab all of the lifeboats—and has! Yet it is an emotion quite common to certain low types of humanity, the kind who do their thinking with their spinal cord—and it is one of those lovely primitive, primordial, brutal, unregenerate and degraded emotions of which certain others of its type, such as ungoverned lust and anger and revenge, are much admired by many modern devotees, the bestial primitive—to my mind all of these things sweep together through the same sluice."
There are no words which will convey the bitterness of Leyden's tone; mockery soared high in comparison.
"B'r'r'rrgh! how I loathe all such unicellular impulses in a man—a finished animal product! And that night on that mountain I yelped and howled in fear with those other two hairy animals—and I think that we fought and bit and struggled, for the next morning we were masses of minor wounds. Yet so far had we harked back on the trail of our savage forbears, driven screaming before that primitive and degraded passion of fear, that none of us was badly hurt!—which was even more shameful. I suppose, Doctor, that our terror was too elemental and reasonless to lead us to use weapons, whereas our limbs lacked the strength to enable us to kill each other with our naked hands; so that, instead of digging out each other's hearts with our finger-nails, we suffered most from skin-scratches, upon which the flies settled. Ach!—I should like to say an obscene word, Doctor! Let's smoke!—let's have a drink!
"Oh, yes—we all came away the next day. Nothing happened to us—just as there was nothing to be afraid of. Please tell me that it was all due to a toxic action on the center of Fear—that is what I tell myself—and what a savant of Leipsic was good enough to tell me. Nevertheless, when I met MacFarlane in Sydney four years ago I crossed to the other side of the street—and he looked once and then away. There are some things in a man's past difficult to face; most difficult in mine is that last night on the broad hip of the Mountain of Fears."