The Dead Valley
I have a friend, Olof Ehrensvaerd, a Swede by birth, who yet, by reason
of a strange and melancholy mischance of his early boyhood, has thrown
his lot with that of the New World. It is a curious story of a
headstrong boy and a proud and relentless family: the details do not
matter here, but they are sufficient to weave a web of romance around
the tall yellow-bearded man with the sad eyes and the voice that gives
itself perfectly to plaintive little Swedish songs remembered out of
childhood. In the winter evenings we play chess together, he and I, and
after some close, fierce battle has been fought to a finish--usually
with my own defeat--we fill our pipes again, and Ehrensvaerd tells me
stories of the far, half-remembered days in the fatherland, before he
went to sea: stories that grow very strange and incredible as the night
deepens and the fire falls together, but stories that, nevertheless, I
One of them made a strong impression on me, so I set it down here, only
regretting that I cannot reproduce the curiously perfect English and the
delicate accent which to me increased the fascination of the tale. Yet,
as best I can remember it, here it is.
"I never told you how Nils and I went over the hills to Hallsberg, and
how we found the Dead Valley, did I? Well, this is the way it happened.
I must have been about twelve years old, and Nils Sjoeberg, whose
father's estate joined ours, was a few months younger. We were
inseparable just at that time, and whatever we did, we did together.
"Once a week it was market day in Engelholm, and Nils and I went always
there to see the strange sights that the market gathered from all the
surrounding country. One day we quite lost our hearts, for an old man
from across the Elfborg had brought a little dog to sell, that seemed to
us the most beautiful dog in all the world. He was a round, woolly
puppy, so funny that Nils and I sat down on the ground and laughed at
him, until he came and played with us in so jolly a way that we felt
that there was only one really desirable thing in life, and that was the
little dog of the old man from across the hills. But alas! we had not
half money enough wherewith to buy him, so we were forced to beg the old
man not to sell him before the next market day, promising that we would
bring the money for him then. He gave us his word, and we ran home very
fast and implored our mothers to give us money for the little dog.
"We got the money, but we could not wait for the next market day.
Suppose the puppy should be sold! The thought frightened us so that we
begged and implored that we might be allowed to go over the hills to
Hallsberg where the old man lived, and get the little dog ourselves, and
at last they told us we might go. By starting early in the morning we
should reach Hallsberg by three o'clock, and it was arranged that we
should stay there that night with Nils's aunt, and, leaving by noon the
next day, be home again by sunset.
"Soon after sunrise we were on our way, after having received minute
instructions as to just what we should do in all possible and
impossible circumstances, and finally a repeated injunction that we
should start for home at the same hour the next day, so that we might
get safely back before nightfall.
"For us, it was magnificent sport, and we started off with our rifles,
full of the sense of our very great importance: yet the journey was
simple enough, along a good road, across the big hills we knew so well,
for Nils and I had shot over half the territory this side of the
dividing ridge of the Elfborg. Back of Engelholm lay a long valley, from
which rose the low mountains, and we had to cross this, and then follow
the road along the side of the hills for three or four miles, before a
narrow path branched off to the left, leading up through the pass.
"Nothing occurred of interest on the way over, and we reached Hallsberg
in due season, found to our inexpressible joy that the little dog was
not sold, secured him, and so went to the house of Nils's aunt to spend
"Why we did not leave early on the following day, I can't quite
remember; at all events, I know we stopped at a shooting range just
outside of the town, where most attractive pasteboard pigs were sliding
slowly through painted foliage, serving so as beautiful marks. The
result was that we did not get fairly started for home until afternoon,
and as we found ourselves at last pushing up the side of the mountain
with the sun dangerously near their summits, I think we were a little
scared at the prospect of the examination and possible punishment that
awaited us when we got home at midnight.
"Therefore we hurried as fast as possible up the mountain side, while
the blue dusk closed in about us, and the light died in the purple sky.
At first we had talked hilariously, and the little dog had leaped ahead
of us with the utmost joy. Latterly, however, a curious oppression came
on us; we did not speak or even whistle, while the dog fell behind,
following us with hesitation in every muscle.
"We had passed through the foothills and the low spurs of the mountains,
and were almost at the top of the main range, when life seemed to go out
of everything, leaving the world dead, so suddenly silent the forest
became, so stagnant the air. Instinctively we halted to listen.
"Perfect silence,--the crushing silence of deep forests at night; and
more, for always, even in the most impenetrable fastnesses of the wooded
mountains, is the multitudinous murmur of little lives, awakened by the
darkness, exaggerated and intensified by the stillness of the air and
the great dark: but here and now the silence seemed unbroken even by the
turn of a leaf, the movement of a twig, the note of night bird or
insect. I could hear the blood beat through my veins; and the crushing
of the grass under our feet as we advanced with hesitating steps sounded
like the falling of trees.
"And the air was stagnant,--dead. The atmosphere seemed to lie upon the
body like the weight of sea on a diver who has ventured too far into its
awful depths. What we usually call silence seems so only in relation to
the din of ordinary experience. This was silence in the absolute, and it
crushed the mind while it intensified the senses, bringing down the
awful weight of inextinguishable fear.
"I know that Nils and I stared towards each other in abject terror,
listening to our quick, heavy breathing, that sounded to our acute
senses like the fitful rush of waters. And the poor little dog we were
leading justified our terror. The black oppression seemed to crush him
even as it did us. He lay close on the ground, moaning feebly, and
dragging himself painfully and slowly closer to Nils's feet. I think
this exhibition of utter animal fear was the last touch, and must
inevitably have blasted our reason--mine anyway; but just then, as we
stood quaking on the bounds of madness, came a sound, so awful, so
ghastly, so horrible, that it seemed to rouse us from the dead spell
that was on us.
"In the depth of the silence came a cry, beginning as a low, sorrowful
moan, rising to a tremulous shriek, culminating in a yell that seemed to
tear the night in sunder and rend the world as by a cataclysm. So
fearful was it that I could not believe it had actual existence: it
passed previous experience, the powers of belief, and for a moment I
thought it the result of my own animal terror, an hallucination born of
"A glance at Nils dispelled this thought in a flash. In the pale light
of the high stars he was the embodiment of all possible human fear,
quaking with an ague, his jaw fallen, his tongue out, his eyes
protruding like those of a hanged man. Without a word we fled, the
panic of fear giving us strength, and together, the little dog caught
close in Nils's arms, we sped down the side of the cursed
mountains,--anywhere, goal was of no account: we had but one impulse--to
get away from that place.
"So under the black trees and the far white stars that flashed through
the still leaves overhead, we leaped down the mountain side, regardless
of path or landmark, straight through the tangled underbrush, across
mountain streams, through fens and copses, anywhere, so only that our
course was downward.
"How long we ran thus, I have no idea, but by and by the forest fell
behind, and we found ourselves among the foothills, and fell exhausted
on the dry short grass, panting like tired dogs.
"It was lighter here in the open, and presently we looked around to see
where we were, and how we were to strike out in order to find the path
that would lead us home. We looked in vain for a familiar sign. Behind
us rose the great wall of black forest on the flank of the mountain:
before us lay the undulating mounds of low foothills, unbroken by trees
or rocks, and beyond, only the fall of black sky bright with
multitudinous stars that turned its velvet depth to a luminous gray.
"As I remember, we did not speak to each other once: the terror was too
heavy on us for that, but by and by we rose simultaneously and started
out across the hills.
"Still the same silence, the same dead, motionless air--air that was at
once sultry and chilling: a heavy heat struck through with an icy chill
that felt almost like the burning of frozen steel. Still carrying the
helpless dog, Nils pressed on through the hills, and I followed close
behind. At last, in front of us, rose a slope of moor touching the white
stars. We climbed it wearily, reached the top, and found ourselves
gazing down into a great, smooth valley, filled half way to the brim
"As far as the eye could see stretched a level plain of ashy white,
faintly phosphorescent, a sea of velvet fog that lay like motionless
water, or rather like a floor of alabaster, so dense did it appear, so
seemingly capable of sustaining weight. If it were possible, I think
that sea of dead white mist struck even greater terror into my soul
than the heavy silence or the deadly cry--so ominous was it, so utterly
unreal, so phantasmal, so impossible, as it lay there like a dead ocean
under the steady stars. Yet through that mist we must go! there seemed
no other way home, and, shattered with abject fear, mad with the one
desire to get back, we started down the slope to where the sea of milky
mist ceased, sharp and distinct around the stems of the rough grass.
"I put one foot into the ghostly fog. A chill as of death struck through
me, stopping my heart, and I threw myself backward on the slope. At that
instant came again the shriek, close, close, right in our ears, in
ourselves, and far out across that damnable sea I saw the cold fog lift
like a water-spout and toss itself high in writhing convolutions towards
the sky. The stars began to grow dim as thick vapor swept across them,
and in the growing dark I saw a great, watery moon lift itself slowly
above the palpitating sea, vast and vague in the gathering mist.
"This was enough: we turned and fled along the margin of the white sea
that throbbed now with fitful motion below us, rising, rising, slowly
and steadily, driving us higher and higher up the side of the foothills.
"It was a race for life; that we knew. How we kept it up I cannot
understand, but we did, and at last we saw the white sea fall behind us
as we staggered up the end of the valley, and then down into a region
that we knew, and so into the old path. The last thing I remember was
hearing a strange voice, that of Nils, but horribly changed, stammer
brokenly, 'The dog is dead!' and then the whole world turned around
twice, slowly and resistlessly, and consciousness went out with a crash.
"It was some three weeks later, as I remember, that I awoke in my own
room, and found my mother sitting beside the bed. I could not think very
well at first, but as I slowly grew strong again, vague flashes of
recollection began to come to me, and little by little the whole
sequence of events of that awful night in the Dead Valley came back. All
that I could gain from what was told me was that three weeks before I
had been found in my own bed, raging sick, and that my illness grew fast
into brain fever. I tried to speak of the dread things that had happened
to me, but I saw at once that no one looked on them save as the
hauntings of a dying frenzy, and so I closed my mouth and kept my own
"I must see Nils, however, and so I asked for him. My mother told me
that he also had been ill with a strange fever, but that he was now
quite well again. Presently they brought him in, and when we were alone
I began to speak to him of the night on the mountain. I shall never
forget the shock that struck me down on my pillow when the boy denied
everything: denied having gone with me, ever having heard the cry,
having seen the valley, or feeling the deadly chill of the ghostly fog.
Nothing would shake his determined ignorance, and in spite of myself I
was forced to admit that his denials came from no policy of concealment,
but from blank oblivion.
"My weakened brain was in a turmoil. Was it all but the floating
phantasm of delirium? Or had the horror of the real thing blotted Nils's
mind into blankness so far as the events of the night in the Dead Valley
were concerned? The latter explanation seemed the only one, else how
explain the sudden illness which in a night had struck us both down? I
said nothing more, either to Nils or to my own people, but waited, with
a growing determination that, once well again, I would find that valley
if it really existed.
"It was some weeks before I was really well enough to go, but finally,
late in September, I chose a bright, warm, still day, the last smile of
the dying summer, and started early in the morning along the path that
led to Hallsberg. I was sure I knew where the trail struck off to the
right, down which we had come from the valley of dead water, for a great
tree grew by the Hallsberg path at the point where, with a sense of
salvation, we had found the home road. Presently I saw it to the right,
a little distance ahead.
"I think the bright sunlight and the clear air had worked as a tonic to
me, for by the time I came to the foot of the great pine, I had quite
lost faith in the verity of the vision that haunted me, believing at
last that it was indeed but the nightmare of madness. Nevertheless, I
turned sharply to the right, at the base of the tree, into a narrow path
that led through a dense thicket. As I did so I tripped over something.
A swarm of flies sung into the air around me, and looking down I saw
the matted fleece, with the poor little bones thrusting through, of the
dog we had bought in Hallsberg.
"Then my courage went out with a puff, and I knew that it all was true,
and that now I was frightened. Pride and the desire for adventure urged
me on, however, and I pressed into the close thicket that barred my way.
The path was hardly visible: merely the worn road of some small beasts,
for, though it showed in the crisp grass, the bushes above grew thick
and hardly penetrable. The land rose slowly, and rising grew clearer,
until at last I came out on a great slope of hill, unbroken by trees or
shrubs, very like my memory of that rise of land we had topped in order
that we might find the dead valley and the icy fog. I looked at the sun;
it was bright and clear, and all around insects were humming in the
autumn air, and birds were darting to and fro. Surely there was no
danger, not until nightfall at least; so I began to whistle, and with a
rush mounted the last crest of brown hill.
"There lay the Dead Valley! A great oval basin, almost as smooth and
regular as though made by man. On all sides the grass crept over the
brink of the encircling hills, dusty green on the crests, then fading
into ashy brown, and so to a deadly white, this last color forming a
thin ring, running in a long line around the slope. And then? Nothing.
Bare, brown, hard earth, glittering with grains of alkali, but otherwise
dead and barren. Not a tuft of grass, not a stick of brushwood, not even
a stone, but only the vast expanse of beaten clay.
"In the midst of the basin, perhaps a mile and a half away, the level
expanse was broken by a great dead tree, rising leafless and gaunt into
the air. Without a moment's hesitation I started down into the valley
and made for this goal. Every particle of fear seemed to have left me,
and even the valley itself did not look so very terrifying. At all
events, I was driven by an overwhelming curiosity, and there seemed to
be but one thing in the world to do,--to get to that Tree! As I trudged
along over the hard earth, I noticed that the multitudinous voices of
birds and insects had died away. No bee or butterfly hovered through the
air, no insects leaped or crept over the dull earth. The very air itself
"As I drew near the skeleton tree, I noticed the glint of sunlight on a
kind of white mound around its roots, and I wondered curiously. It was
not until I had come close that I saw its nature.
"All around the roots and barkless trunk was heaped a wilderness of
little bones. Tiny skulls of rodents and of birds, thousands of them,
rising about the dead tree and streaming off for several yards in all
directions, until the dreadful pile ended in isolated skulls and
scattered skeletons. Here and there a larger bone appeared,--the thigh
of a sheep, the hoofs of a horse, and to one side, grinning slowly, a
"I stood quite still, staring with all my eyes, when suddenly the dense
silence was broken by a faint, forlorn cry high over my head. I looked
up and saw a great falcon turning and sailing downward just over the
tree. In a moment more she fell motionless on the bleaching bones.
"Horror struck me, and I rushed for home, my brain whirling, a strange
numbness growing in me. I ran steadily, on and on. At last I glanced up.
Where was the rise of hill? I looked around wildly. Close before me was
the dead tree with its pile of bones. I had circled it round and round,
and the valley wall was still a mile and a half away.
"I stood dazed and frozen. The sun was sinking, red and dull, towards
the line of hills. In the east the dark was growing fast. Was there
still time? Time! It was not that I wanted, it was will! My feet
seemed clogged as in a nightmare. I could hardly drag them over the
barren earth. And then I felt the slow chill creeping through me. I
looked down. Out of the earth a thin mist was rising, collecting in
little pools that grew ever larger until they joined here and there,
their currents swirling slowly like thin blue smoke. The western hills
halved the copper sun. When it was dark I should hear that shriek again,
and then I should die. I knew that, and with every remaining atom of
will I staggered towards the red west through the writhing mist that
crept clammily around my ankles, retarding my steps.
"And as I fought my way off from the Tree, the horror grew, until at
last I thought I was going to die. The silence pursued me like dumb
ghosts, the still air held my breath, the hellish fog caught at my feet
like cold hands.
"But I won! though not a moment too soon. As I crawled on my hands and
knees up the brown slope, I heard, far away and high in the air, the cry
that already had almost bereft me of reason. It was faint and vague, but
unmistakable in its horrible intensity. I glanced behind. The fog was
dense and pallid, heaving undulously up the brown slope. The sky was
gold under the setting sun, but below was the ashy gray of death. I
stood for a moment on the brink of this sea of hell, and then leaped
down the slope. The sunset opened before me, the night closed behind,
and as I crawled home weak and tired, darkness shut down on the Dead
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