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

fully believe.



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

the night.



"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

tottering reason.



"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

with--what?



"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

counsel.



"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

was stagnant.



"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

human skull.



"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

Valley."





The Dead Man And Anatomical Professor The Death Bogle Of The Cross Roads And The Inextinguishable Candle Of The Old White House Pitlochry facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Feedback