On the last day of every month, at the same hour, the same visitor would mount the steps of the narrow house on the west edge of Clock Tower Hill. In summer it would be sunset, and all the normal phantasmagoria of dragons, galleons, and burning towers would be on display in the sky. In winter the dark was well set, the stars above the hill dimmer than the street lamps, perhaps a light snow falling. In autumn, there was the magical dusk as now, when Monsieur Mercile, immaculate and apparently stern, would stand on the top step and ring the bell. And it would be evident that the dusk's magic was quite lost on Monsieur Mercile, that he felt no pang, just as he rarely noted the stars, the dragons, and towers, of winter and summer. This was custom, his visit to the narrow house, not unmixed with duty. He was a man of the world, understood its rules, had kept them, and prospered. But the one he visited, he was different.
In answer to the bell, a servant woman came, compact and elderly, a being from an earlier era, where she had completely stayed in all but body.
Monsieur Mercile acknowledged her, and passed into the house.
The rooms of the visit were on the floor above. The first was a sort of pleasant alcove, lined with books, a kind of library, having padded easy chairs by the fire, and on a highly polished stand a globe in ebony. Through the open doors of the alcove was a dining room, an oval table perched with candles, and a sideboard of sparkling decanters; here too a fire burned gently, cheerfully.
The comfortable rooms showed nothing of a woman's touch: Beyond the meticulous servant and one careful girl, no woman ever had access to them. They were graced with bachelor things, and Monsieur Mercile might have felt happiness and security in them, but he was never quite able to do so, here; here there was always a demand on him. The demand was implicit in his friend, Oberand, who now stood up before the library fire.
The two men greeted each other as if they had not met for a year, and yet with the sort of offhand sidelong glances of the eye that evidence usualness. They asked each other how they went on and mentioned the weather, and a certain cognac was produced, which they both settled to like pigeons to a familiar roof.
Oberand, like Mercile, was slim and upright, and in his fifties, but where Mercile's waist had slightly thickened, Oberand was only a little stooped at the shoulders. Oberand's hair receded, where Mercile's had retreated altogether. Oberand's eyes were larger, brighter, lacking glasses, and fraught with thin lines of pain, perhaps physical, but perhaps of something older, deeper, more difficult to bear. Mercile had no mark like this. His hands had stiffened with a trace of rheumatism, but his heart was light. What of Oberand's heart?
After their brandy, and their introductory conversation, they went into the dining room, and here soon appeared an extremely tasty, ordinary dinner. There were too a trio of excellent wines. It was all very good, orderly, and pleasing, redolent of the male satisfactions and luxuries often used in literature as the preface to a ghost story.
And Monsieur Mercile warmed like wax, lost a certain hardness of contour he had had, seemed to be thinking, Now this isn't so bad. You see, there's nothing to dread .
Then they took their cigarettes and wine to the fire in the library, and Oberand paused to lay one finger on the ebony globe.
Here it comes! thought Mercile, and braced himself.
The stroking of the globe was an omen as constant and unfortuitous as a comet.
«I took out the small map again,» said Oberand softly, as if they were conspirators, as if they had waited only for this moment to begin—and probably this was true of Oberand; Mercile thought so. «I mean Eshlo's map. I sat up over it until three this morning. After a time, I began to seem to connect a particular ridge with a description in the geographia. I took out the two other maps of Klein's. There is one distinct formation, to the south. Eshlo marks this as the Mountains of the White Moon—I love that name, so evocative, so unhelpful, and yet…so alluring.
«Yes,» said Mercile, «it is a marvelous name.»
«It's possible to pinpoint this geography. The first of Klein's maps relates it to the Charda region, as you know. But then, I wonder with Klein if there isn't some game involved, if some of his assertions aren't meant to be misleading.»
«That might be likely.»
«And does he offer any reward for struggle? But my struggling attention seems to bear fruit.»
Mercile could not quite bring himself to answer, but naturally Oberand did not take this gap for disapproval. Oberand trusted Mercile, had done so for more than ten years. It was incumbent upon Mercile, now, to be trusted.
As always happened, every month, the floodgate of Oberand's obsession had opened as it did before no other one, since no other could be trusted save only Mercile. The waters roared and poured forth, as vehement and strong as they had been a decade ago, stronger probably. And Mercile listened, as he always did, every month, with a great patience blunted even as it had been honed, threadbare even as it was perfected. Every visit to Oberand concluded in this way, in two or three hours of Oberand's obsession (until Mercile escaped)—Oberand's maps, his notions, discoveries, dismissals, the throbbing violence, only just held in, of what he believed and knew and could not prove, and for which he had been mocked and laughed from eminence, squashed into the gutter, discarded by everyone.
For Oberand had been reckoned a genius, at the start. He was not merely a literary figure of reckoned worth, a bright star elevated at an age supposed precociously early, but also a scholar. Among the countries of manuscript he was thought an explorer. For Oberand had translated screeds previously declared inaccessible, he had unearthed, paying terrifying prices for them, obscure treatises and scripts—of the Romans, from Egypt, and further back and farther off. He had dealt in a murky underworld of the esoteric as other men had trafficked in bodies. And by that he made of himself a creature fabulous, permitted only in the glaring light of its own cleverness. And then it happened that Oberand, thirty-eight years of age and corruscating brightly, came on the work of Eshlo, an explorer out of the countries of landscape. And, too (doubtless), a liar and romancer.
But Oberand believed the words of Eshlo; they caught his fancy and fascinated him.
There had never been in the life of Oberand anything but his work, the pen and the page. He had never, except perhaps briefly in adolescence, felt anything special for a woman, he had not itched, let alone ached through love. The pursuit, the conquest, the culmination were intellectual, and he knew them regularly.
Now, as with a mighty philanderer, for whom love had been always too easy, there must come an elusive quarry, one that did not consent, succumb. In a space of weeks Oberand left everything he had in hand to search after that which Eshlo proffered, to hunt down the clues and keys of which there were hundreds, spurious though they might be, ridiculous though they might be. In doing this, Oberand uncovered Klein, a scholar so obscure he was almost invisible, but Oberand lifted him up on high, to the very pedestal where he had placed Eshlo, and lit before them a flaming torch for all to see. From the hilltop Oberand bellowed. He had been given an unlicensed and uncensored voice, he had been made a darling of that most dangerous fraternity, the mature, wise, cunning, erudite, and cruel. They will worship heroes, then at a stumble tear them to pieces in their teeth. And Oberand had stumbled. What a distance he had to fall.
Eshlo had traveled widely, in the Indies, and in Africa. His accounts were exotic, combining the information of facts with flights of elaboration having a logical wildness resembling the development of inspired symphonies. Was it the logic that had misled Oberand? If so, only at a single juncture. Many of Eshlo's claims he had amusedly sloughed. But one story, the very wildest, he had defended as if he had been present at its inception.
For Eshlo claimed to have come upon a pocket of incredible land, a freak valley locked inside a mountain wall unscalable, and penetrated by him via a secret entry that, even in his documents, he had omitted to describe, referring to it only as the Hidden Door, and marking it only in this way on his maps. The valley, when reached, was of an appalling beauty. It was a land from the prehistoric dawn, a place of giant plants, carbon swamps, and a sea like sweat, and inhabited by monsters, huge beasts, and flying things that stormed and raged and were , in defiance of time.
Like an echo, Klein backed up this wonder, claiming himself not to have witnessed such a place but from innumerable sources to have heard legends of it. The natives of that area, which Klein posited with imaginative flirtatiousness, avoided the mountain slopes for fear accidentally of being precipitated to their doom in the valley of monsters. (Eshlo, who had refused the secret of his entry, also denied readers the means of his exit.) Several of the indigenous populace of hutments and villages had been lost in this manner, Klein avowed, stipulating a cave or hole through which they descended. A god was propitiated in the region, a god said to be white, and of abnormal size, a giant like the plants and beasts of the valley. Klein quoted many passages, both in their original language and in adequate translation, but the oddity of sections of syntax pretranslated instantly led a critic to deduce that Klein had himself invented these paragraphs of Latin, Greek, Graeco-Persian, and the Egyptian hieroglyphs with which his essays on the subject were scattered—for the Egyptians also had heard of the monsters of the valley, which they had at first named in terms of a coffin of the day's fall, a land of shadow through which Ra the sun must pass each night, overcoming what rampaged there in order to return into the world.
The maps of Klein's related to Africa as he had known it from travelers' tales and the official reports of colonial officers. Everything was second or third hand, but he too, though never having met with Eshlo, never having himself gone farther than the hills above the City of Paradys, had caught the fantasy that Eshlo exhaled, had been poisoned by it. As, in turn, was Oberand.
To make matters worse (perhaps), both Eshlo and Klein were long dead by the hour of Oberand's first discovery of the Valley of God, as Eshlo, next Klein, had called it. Oberand could not, no one could, question the perpetrators of this nightmare-dream. Alone, he impaled himself on the hook, and presently was nailed up, crucified, by those who until then had sung his paean and encouraged him in everything.
Possibly his eccentricity alone would not have alienated them. If he had kept a measure of lightness, and so of light. If he could have chuckled, smiled at his own enthrallment, if he could have said: Well, I may be wrong . But Oberand was accustomed by then to be right. And such was his passion that he shouted, argued, insulted, twice came to blows.
No one would believe in his belief. His brilliance and innocence went bitter and rotted on the boughs of his mind.
Inside three years he had shut himself away. He reformed his life to an insistent search, a scientific chiseling and scalpeling, of the truth as he had found it. He amassed further material, he dissected and quantified that material he had.
Sometimes he wrote a little. But always, in some however subtle way, it was tainted with his obsession. He was published as a curiosity, and then he was not published. The lecture halls and palaces of books did not any more clamor for him. He was cut. He was forgotten. It was as if a solid figure of iron had faded into mist.
And yet, this stooped man, fifty-two years of age, seared with a hot-cold life, a dreadful fire that could not be put out. And it was this Mercile confronted, this intolerable and pointless, relentlessly gouging fire, howling on inside the unobliterated shell. Confronted tonight again, also, for the thousandth time, or maybe the thousandth-and-tenth. For Oberand could not keep it down. Mercile was the only one left to him, the only one who had never scorned, never ridiculed, always apparently tacitly accepting the veracity of Eshlo's valley, listening to the facts of it over and over, never quibbling, offering only sympathetic assent, the occasional partial challenge by which Oberand might fuel himself further for his burning. Mercile had never let him down, not once, not in fourteen years.
And to Oberand this had been because Mercile credited the truth of the Valley of God. But it was not that. It was only the valiant loyalty of friendship. Something as deep, and as shallow— as useless—as that.
An hour passed. Mercile knew this for he had begun to glance surreptitiously at the clock on the mantelpiece. It was terrible, the slow passage of time now, for decently he could not yet absent himself. Calm and unequivocal, Mercile felt building within him, as always, an unspecified urge to flight, or worse, to choke Oberand to silence.
The maps were now spread on the table, the geographia had been brought. Animated, like a boy, Oberand went about the display. He discoursed on the potential of Klein's frivolity, of Eshlo's secretiveness. «No one is meant to find this place. Yet we are invited to it. Irresistibly we are seduced.»
He dreamed of the valley. Mercile knew this, for Oberand had told him, now and then. Oberand already had gone there, had wandered the jungle forests, stared into the pools of salt, and heard the trampling of the vast feet of things that elsewhere had left only bones under the rocks of centuries.
«I feel the moment has come to collate these disparate works, to publish my own conclusions,» said Oberand suddenly. The clock ticked. Oberand said, «Don't you agree, some reorganization of the treatise is in order?»
«But,» said Mercile, slowly, «your publishers—«
«No, I must approach others. Perhaps I'll need to put up the money myself. I realize perfectly the low esteem in which I'm held, as if by tongs.»
«But,» said Mercile, «further efforts with this work— What else can be said of it?»
«Very much,» said Oberand. «I can speak volumes.»
«You should not,» said Mercile.
«Oh, my friend, don't worry on my behalf. What else can they do to me or say of me?»
Mercile felt the knife rise in him, its handle toward his hand. He had never understood it was a knife that had been forged by the years of patience and listening, the boredom . He tried to evade. He said, «But why expose yourself to more of the vicious attacks that—«
«Why?» Oberand cried, his eyes giving off a flash from the flames of the hearth and the spirit. «Because the truth must be spoken at whatever cost.»
«You must face it,» said Mercile abruptly, «this truth is doubtful. For God's sake, give it up.»
And now the clock ticked more loudly, and the fire cracked like gunshot. Little sounds in the street, a whisper of wind, a distant song, came up and filled the room, thickening its air until it was nearly unbreathable.
«But I thought,» said Oberand, «that you, of all of them—« He stopped, and Mercile hung his head. Inside him was an awesome sadness, as if Oberand had just told him he, Oberand, was near death.
«Pardon me,» said Mercile humbly, at last. «I've tried very hard.»
«No, I don't pardon you,» said Oberand. «You should not have tried. Or you should have tried much harder. Did you only wait all these years to make a fool out of me tonight?»
«Oberand, my faith in you is unimpaired. Only I believe that your trust in this thing—is preposterous, ill-founded. I should have said so long before.»
«You must leave my house,» said Oberand. «You must go at once. There's nothing to say.»
Mercile was shocked, yet not surprised. The knife had glittered in his hand, he had used it. What did he expect now? With an exhausted relief strongly enhanced by automatic regret, he rose, shaking his head in an effort at normalcy.
«Then I shall leave, at once. I'm very sorry.»
Oberand said nothing. His face was blank, wiped of everything. He had been stabbed in the back, of course, what else?
Mercile went down, donned his greatcoat, stepped into the street. Below, he glanced at the house, wondering if he would enter it again, aware he would not, then turned into the night of lamps and leaves. He felt a satisfaction. It was terrible. He nearly laughed as he walked homeward; certainly he could not keep back a smile.