THE MOON POOL (7)
August 14, 2021
HiLoBooks is pleased to serialize A. Merritt’s 1919 proto-sf novel The Moon Pool for HILOBROW’s readers. Often cited as an influence on Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, it was first published in All-Story Weekly (1918–19) as two short stories.
“The Shining Devil Took Them!”
My colleagues of the Association, and you others who may read this my narrative, for what I did and did not when full realization returned I must offer here, briefly as I can, an explanation; a defense—if you will.
My first act was to spring to the open port. The coma had lasted hours, for the moon was now low in the west! I ran to the door to sound the alarm. It resisted under my frantic hands; would not open. Something fell tinkling to the floor. It was the key and I remembered then that Throckmartin had turned it before we began our vigil. With memory a hope died that I had not known was in me, the hope that he had escaped from the cabin, found refuge elsewhere on the ship.
And as I stooped, fumbling with shaking fingers for the key, a thought came to me that drove again the blood from my heart, held me rigid. I could sound no alarm on the Southern Queen for Throckmartin!
Conviction of my appalling helplessness was complete. The ensemble of the vessel from captain to cabin boy was, to put it conservatively, average. None, I knew, save Throckmartin and myself had seen the first apparition of the Dweller. Had they witnessed the second? I did not know, nor could I risk speaking, not knowing. And not seeing, how could they believe? They would have thought me insane—or worse; even, it might be, his murderer.
I snapped off the electrics; waited and listened; opened the door with infinite caution and slipped, unseen, into my own stateroom. The hours until the dawn were eternities of waking nightmare. Reason, resuming sway at last, steadied me. Even had I spoken and been believed where in these wastes after all the hours could we search for Throckmartin? Certainly the captain would not turn back to Port Moresby. And even if he did, of what use for me to set forth for the Nan-Matal without the equipment which Throckmartin himself had decided was necessary if one hoped to cope with the mystery that lurked there?
There was but one thing to do—follow his instructions; get the paraphernalia in Melbourne or Sydney if it were possible; if not sail to America as swiftly as might be, secure it there and as swiftly return to Ponape. And this I determined to do.
Calmness came back to me after I had made this decision. And when I went up on deck I knew that I had been right. They had not seen the Dweller. They were still discussing the darkening of the ship, talking of dynamos burned out, wires short circuited, a half dozen explanations of the extinguishment. Not until noon was Throckmartin’s absence discovered. I told the captain that I had left him early in the evening; that, indeed, I knew him but slightly, after all. It occurred to none to doubt me, or to question me minutely. Why should it have? His strangeness had been noted, commented upon; all who had met him had thought him half mad. I did little to discourage the impression. And so it came naturally that on the log it was entered that he had fallen or leaped from the vessel some time during the night.
A report to this effect was made when we entered Melbourne. I slipped quietly ashore and in the press of the war news Throckmartin’s supposed fate won only a few lines in the newspapers; my own presence on the ship and in the city passed unnoticed.
I was fortunate in securing at Melbourne everything I needed except a set of Becquerel ray condensers—but these were the very keystone of my equipment. Pursuing my search to Sydney I was doubly fortunate in finding a firm who were expecting these very articles in a consignment due them from the States within a fortnight. I settled down in strictest seclusion to await their arrival.
And now it will occur to you to ask why I did not cable, during this period of waiting, to the Association; demand aid from it. Or why I did not call upon members of the University staffs of either Melbourne or Sydney for assistance. At the least, why I did not gather, as Throckmartin had hoped to do, a little force of strong men to go with me to the Nan-Matal.
To the first two questions I answer frankly—I did not dare. And this reluctance, this inhibition, every man jealous of his scientific reputation will understand. The story of Throckmartin, the happenings I had myself witnessed, were incredible, abnormal, outside the facts of all known science. I shrank from the inevitable disbelief, perhaps ridicule—nay, perhaps even the graver suspicion that had caused me to seal my lips while on the ship. Why I myself could only half believe! How then could I hope to convince others?
And as for the third question—I could not take men into the range of such a peril without first warning them of what they might encounter; and if I did warn them—
It was checkmate! If it also was cowardice—well, I have atoned for it. But I do not hold it so; my conscience is clear.
That fortnight and the greater part of another passed before the ship I awaited steamed into port. By that time, between my straining anxiety to be after Throckmartin, the despairing thought that every moment of delay might be vital to him and his, and my intensely eager desire to know whether that shining, glorious horror on the moon path did exist or had been hallucination, I was worn almost to the edge of madness.
At last the condensers were in my hands. It was more than a week later, however, before I could secure passage back to Port Moresby and it was another week still before I started north on the Suwarna, a swift little sloop with a fifty-horsepower auxiliary, heading straight for Ponape and the Nan-Matal.
We sighted the Brunhilda some five hundred miles south of the Carolines. The wind had fallen soon after Papua had dropped astern. The Suwarna’s ability to make her twelve knots an hour without it had made me very fully forgive her for not being as fragrant as the Javan flower for which she was named. Da Costa, her captain, was a garrulous Portuguese; his mate was a Canton man with all the marks of long and able service on some pirate junk; his engineer was a half-breed China-Malay who had picked up his knowledge of power plants, Heaven alone knew where, and, I had reason to believe, had transferred all his religious impulses to the American built deity of mechanism he so faithfully served. The crew was made up of six huge, chattering Tonga boys.
The Suwarna had cut through Finschafen Huon Gulf to the protection of the Bismarcks. She had threaded the maze of the archipelago tranquilly, and we were then rolling over the thousand-mile stretch of open ocean with New Hanover far behind us and our boat’s bow pointed straight toward Nukuor of the Monte Verdes. After we had rounded Nukuor we should, barring accident, reach Ponape in not more than sixty hours.
It was late afternoon, and on the demure little breeze that marched behind us came far-flung sighs of spice-trees and nutmeg flowers. The slow prodigious swells of the Pacific lifted us in gentle, giant hands and sent us as gently down the long, blue wave slopes to the next broad, upward slope. There was a spell of peace over the ocean, stilling even the Portuguese captain who stood dreamily at the wheel, slowly swaying to the rhythmic lift and fall of the sloop.
There came a whining hail from the Tonga boy lookout draped lazily over the bow.
“Sail he b’long port side!”
Da Costa straightened and gazed while I raised my glass. The vessel was a scant mile away, and must have been visible long before the sleepy watcher had seen her. She was a sloop about the size of the Suwarna, without power. All sails set, even to a spinnaker she carried, she was making the best of the little breeze. I tried to read her name, but the vessel jibed sharply as though the hands of the man at the wheel had suddenly dropped the helm—and then with equal abruptness swung back to her course. The stern came in sight, and on it I read Brunhilda.
I shifted my glasses to the man at wheel. He was crouching down over the spokes in a helpless, huddled sort of way, and even as I looked the vessel veered again, abruptly as before. I saw the helmsman straighten up and bring the wheel about with a vicious jerk.
He stood so for a moment, looking straight ahead, entirely oblivious of us, and then seemed again to sink down within himself. It came to me that his was the action of a man striving vainly against a weariness unutterable. I swept the deck with my glasses. There was no other sign of life. I turned to find the Portuguese staring intently and with puzzled air at the sloop, now separated from us by a scant half mile.
“Something veree wrong I think there, sair,” he said in his curious English. “The man on deck I know. He is captain and owner of the Br-rwun’ild. His name Olaf Huldricksson, what you say—Norwegian. He is eithair veree sick or veree tired—but I do not undweerstand where is the crew and the starb’d boat is gone—”
He shouted an order to the engineer and as he did so the faint breeze failed and the sails of the Brunhilda flapped down inert. We were now nearly abreast and a scant hundred yards away. The engine of the Suwarna died and the Tonga boys leaped to one of the boats.
“You Olaf Huldricksson!” shouted Da Costa. “What’s a matter wit’ you?”
The man at the wheel turned toward us. He was a giant; his shoulders enormous, thick chested, strength in every line of him, he towered like a viking of old at the rudder bar of his shark ship.
I raised the glass again; his face sprang into the lens and never have I seen a visage lined and marked as though by ages of unsleeping misery as was that of Olaf Huldricksson!
The Tonga boys had the boat alongside and were waiting at the oars. The little captain was dropping into it.
“Wait!” I cried. I ran into my cabin, grasped my emergency medical kit and climbed down the rope ladder. The Tonga boys bent to the oars. We reached the side and Da Costa and I each seized a lanyard dangling from the stays and swung ourselves on board. Da Costa approached Huldricksson softly.
“What’s the matter, Olaf?” he began—and then was silent, looking down at the wheel. The hands of Huldricksson were lashed fast to the spokes by thongs of thin, strong cord; they were swollen and black and the thongs had bitten into the sinewy wrists till they were hidden in the outraged flesh, cutting so deeply that blood fell, slow drop by drop, at his feet! We sprang toward him, reaching out hands to his fetters to loose them. Even as we touched them, Huldricksson aimed a vicious kick at me and then another at Da Costa which sent the Portuguese tumbling into the scuppers.
“Let be!” croaked Huldricksson; his voice was thick and lifeless as though forced from a dead throat; his lips were cracked and dry and his parched tongue was black. “Let be! Go! Let be!”
The Portuguese had picked himself up, whimpering with rage and knife in hand, but as Huldricksson’s voice reached him he stopped. Amazement crept into his eyes and as he thrust the blade back into his belt they softened with pity.
“Something veree wrong wit’ Olaf,” he murmured to me. “I think he crazee!” And then Olaf Huldricksson began to curse us. He did not speak—he howled from that hideously dry mouth his imprecations. And all the time his red eyes roamed the seas and his hands, clenched and rigid on the wheel, dropped blood.
“I go below,” said Da Costa nervously. “His wife, his daughter—” he darted down the companionway and was gone.
Huldricksson, silent once more, had slumped down over the wheel.
Da Costa’s head appeared at the top of the companion steps.
“There is nobody, nobody,” he paused—then—”nobody—nowhere!” His hands flew out in a gesture of hopeless incomprehension. “I do not understan’.”
Then Olaf Huldricksson opened his dry lips and as he spoke a chill ran through me, checking my heart.
“The sparkling devil took them!” croaked Olaf Huldricksson, “the sparkling devil took them! Took my Helma and my little Freda! The sparkling devil came down from the moon and took them!”
He swayed; tears dripped down his cheeks. Da Costa moved toward him again and again Huldricksson watched him, alertly, wickedly, from his bloodshot eyes.
I took a hypodermic from my case and filled it with morphine. I drew Da Costa to me.
“Get to the side of him,” I whispered, “talk to him.” He moved over toward the wheel.
“Where is your Helma and Freda, Olaf?” he said.
Huldricksson turned his head toward him. “The shining devil took them,” he croaked. “The moon devil that spark—”
A yell broke from him. I had thrust the needle into his arm just above one swollen wrist and had quickly shot the drug through. He struggled to release himself and then began to rock drunkenly. The morphine, taking him in his weakness, worked quickly. Soon over his face a peace dropped. The pupils of the staring eyes contracted. Once, twice, he swayed and then, his bleeding, prisoned hands held high and still gripping the wheel, he crumpled to the deck.
With utmost difficulty we loosed the thongs, but at last it was done. We rigged a little swing and the Tonga boys slung the great inert body over the side into the dory. Soon we had Huldricksson in my bunk. Da Costa sent half his crew over to the sloop in charge of the Cantonese. They took in all sail, stripping Huldricksson’s boat to the masts and then with the Brunhilda nosing quietly along after us at the end of a long hawser, one of the Tonga boys at her wheel, we resumed the way so enigmatically interrupted.
I cleansed and bandaged the Norseman’s lacerated wrists and sponged the blackened, parched mouth with warm water and a mild antiseptic.
Suddenly I was aware of Da Costa’s presence and turned. His unease was manifest and held, it seemed to me, a queer, furtive anxiety.
“What you think of Olaf, sair?” he asked. I shrugged my shoulders. “You think he killed his woman and his babee?” He went on. “You think he crazee and killed all?”
“Nonsense, Da Costa,” I answered. “You saw the boat was gone. Most probably his crew mutinied and to torture him tied him up the way you saw. They did the same thing with Hilton of the Coral Lady; you’ll remember.”
“No,” he said. “No. The crew did not. Nobody there on board when Olaf was tied.”
“What!” I cried, startled. “What do you mean?”
“I mean,” he said slowly, “that Olaf tie himself!”
“Wait!” he went on at my incredulous gesture of dissent. “Wait, I show you.” He had been standing with hands behind his back and now I saw that he held in them the cut thongs that had bound Huldricksson. They were blood-stained and each ended in a broad leather tip skilfully spliced into the cord. “Look,” he said, pointing to these leather ends. I looked and saw in them deep indentations of teeth. I snatched one of the thongs and opened the mouth of the unconscious man on the bunk. Carefully I placed the leather within it and gently forced the jaws shut on it. It was true. Those marks were where Olaf Huldricksson’s jaws had gripped.
“Wait!” Da Costa repeated, “I show you.” He took other cords and rested his hands on the supports of a chair back. Rapidly he twisted one of the thongs around his left hand, drew a loose knot, shifted the cord up toward his elbow. This left wrist and hand still free and with them he twisted the other cord around the right wrist; drew a similar knot. His hands were now in the exact position that Huldricksson’s had been on the Brunhilda but with cords and knots hanging loose. Then Da Costa reached down his head, took a leather end in his teeth and with a jerk drew the thong that noosed his left hand tight; similarly he drew tight the second.
He strained at his fetters. There before my eyes he had pinioned himself so that without aid he could not release himself. And he was exactly as Huldricksson had been!
“You will have to cut me loose, sair,” he said. “I cannot move them. It is an old trick on these seas. Sometimes it is necessary that a man stand at the wheel many hours without help, and he does this so that if he sleep the wheel wake him, yes, sair.”
I looked from him to the man on the bed.
“But why, sair,” said Da Costa slowly, “did Olaf have to tie his hands?”
I looked at him, uneasily.
“I don’t know,” I answered. “Do you?”
He fidgeted, avoided my eyes, and then rapidly, almost surreptitiously crossed himself.
“No,” he replied. “I know nothing. Some things I have heard—but they tell many tales on these seas.”
He started for the door. Before he reached it he turned. “But this I do know,” he half whispered, “I am damned glad there is no full moon tonight.” And passed out, leaving me staring after him in amazement. What did the Portuguese know?
I bent over the sleeper. On his face was no trace of that unholy mingling of opposites the Dweller stamped upon its victims.
And yet—what was it the Norseman had said?
“The sparkling devil took them!” Nay, he had been even more explicit—”The sparkling devil that came down from the moon!”
Could it be that the Dweller had swept upon the Brunhilda, drawing down the moon path Olaf Huldricksson’s wife and babe even as it had drawn Throckmartin?
As I sat thinking the cabin grew suddenly dark and from above came a shouting and patter of feet. Down upon us swept one of the abrupt, violent squalls that are met with in those latitudes. I lashed Huldricksson fast in the berth and ran up on deck.
The long, peaceful swells had changed into angry, choppy waves from the tops of which the spindrift streamed in long stinging lashes.
A half-hour passed; the squall died as quickly as it had arisen. The sea quieted. Over in the west, from beneath the tattered, flying edge of the storm, dropped the red globe of the setting sun; dropped slowly until it touched the sea rim.
I watched it—and rubbed my eyes and stared again. For over its flaming portal something huge and black moved, like a gigantic beckoning finger!
Da Costa had seen it, too, and he turned the Suwarna straight toward the descending orb and its strange shadow. As we approached we saw it was a little mass of wreckage and that the beckoning finger was a wing of canvas, sticking up and swaying with the motion of the waves. On the highest point of the wreckage sat a tall figure calmly smoking a cigarette.
We brought the Suwarna to, dropped a boat, and with myself as coxswain pulled toward a wrecked hydroairplane. Its occupant took a long puff at his cigarette, waved a cheerful hand, shouted a greeting. And just as he did so a great wave raised itself up behind him, took the wreckage, tossed it high in a swelter of foam, and passed on. When we had steadied our boat, where wreck and man had been was—nothing.
There came a tug at the side—, two muscular brown hands gripped it close to my left, and a sleek, black, wet head showed its top between them. Two bright, blue eyes that held deep within them a laughing deviltry looked into mine, and a long, lithe body drew itself gently over the thwart and seated its dripping self at my feet.
“Much obliged,” said this man from the sea. “I knew somebody was sure to come along when the O’Keefe banshee didn’t show up.”
“The what?” I asked in amazement.
“The O’Keefe banshee—I’m Larry O’Keefe. It’s a far way from Ireland, but not too far for the O’Keefe banshee to travel if the O’Keefe was going to click in.”
I looked again at my astonishing rescue. He seemed perfectly serious.
“Have you a cigarette? Mine went out,” he said with a grin, as he reached a moist hand out for the little cylinder, took it, lighted it.
I saw a lean, intelligent face whose fighting jaw was softened by the wistfulness of the clean-cut lips and the honesty that lay side by side with the deviltry in the laughing blue eyes; nose of a thoroughbred with the suspicion of a tilt; long, well-knit, slender figure that I knew must have all the strength of fine steel; the uniform of a lieutenant in the Royal Flying Corps of Britain’s navy.
He laughed, stretched out a firm hand, and gripped mine.
“Thank you really ever so much, old man,” he said.
I liked Larry O’Keefe from the beginning—but I did not dream as the Tonga boys pulled us back to the Suwarna bow that liking was to be forged into man’s strong love for man by fires which souls such as his and mine—and yours who read this—could never dream.
Larry! Larry O’Keefe, where are you now with your leprechauns and banshee, your heart of a child, your laughing blue eyes, and your fearless soul? Shall I ever see you again, Larry O’Keefe, dear to me as some best beloved younger brother? Larry!
RADIUM AGE PROTO-SF: “Radium Age” is Josh Glenn’s name for the nascent sf genre’s c. 1900–1935 era, a period which saw the discovery of radioactivity, i.e., the revelation that matter itself is constantly in movement — a fitting metaphor for the first decades of the 20th century, during which old scientific, religious, political, and social certainties were shattered. More info here.
SERIALIZED BY HILOBOOKS: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague | Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”) | Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt | H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook | Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins | William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land | J.D. Beresford’s Goslings | E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man | Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage | Muriel Jaeger’s The Man With Six Senses | Jack London’s “The Red One” | Philip Francis Nowlan’s Armageddon 2419 A.D. | Homer Eon Flint’s The Devolutionist | W.E.B. DuBois’s “The Comet” | Edgar Rice Burroughs’s The Moon Men | Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland | Sax Rohmer’s “The Zayat Kiss” | Eimar O’Duffy’s King Goshawk and the Birds | Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Lost Prince | Morley Roberts’s The Fugitives | Helen MacInnes’s The Unconquerable |
Geoffrey Household’s Watcher in the Shadows | William Haggard’s The High Wire | Hammond Innes’s Air Bridge | James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen | John Buchan’s “No Man’s Land” | John Russell’s “The Fourth Man” | E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” | John Buchan’s Huntingtower | Arthur Conan Doyle’s When the World Screamed | Victor Bridges’ A Rogue By Compulsion | Jack London’s The Iron Heel | H. De Vere Stacpoole’s The Man Who Lost Himself | P.G. Wodehouse’s Leave It to Psmith | Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” | Houdini and Lovecraft’s “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” | Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Sussex Vampire” | Francis Stevens’s “Friend Island” | George C. Wallis’s “The Last Days of Earth” | Frank L. Pollock’s “Finis” | A. Merritt’s The Moon Pool | E. Nesbit’s “The Third Drug” | George Allan England’s “The Thing from — ‘Outside'” | Booth Tarkington’s “The Veiled Feminists of Atlantis” | H.G. Wells’s “The Land Ironclads” | J.D. Beresford’s The Hampdenshire Wonder | Valery Bryusov’s “The Republic of the Southern Cross” | Algernon Blackwood’s “A Victim of Higher Space” | A. Merritt’s “The People of the Pit” | Max Brand’s The Untamed | Julian Huxley’s “The Tissue-Culture King” | Clare Winger Harris’s “A Runaway World” | Francis Stevens’s “Thomas Dunbar” | George Gurdjieff’s “Beelzebub’s Tales” | Robert W. Chambers’s “The Harbor-Master”.