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Strange Things






Part of: WILD ENGLAND
From: After London

The thought struck Felix that perhaps he might find a spring somewhere
in the island, and he started at once up over the hill. At the top he
paused. The sun had not sunk, but had disappeared as a disk. In its
place was a billow of blood, for so it looked, a vast up-heaved billow
of glowing blood surging on the horizon. Over it flickered a tint of
palest blue, like that seen in fire. The black waters reflected the
glow, and the yellow vapour around was suffused with it. Though
momentarily startled, Felix did not much heed these appearances; he was
still dazed and heavy from his sleep.

He went on, looking for a spring, sometimes walking on firm ground,
sometimes sinking to the ankle in a friable soil like black sand. The
ground looked, indeed, as if it had been burnt, but there were no
charred stumps of timber such as he had seen on the sites of forest
fires. The extreme dreariness seemed to oppress his spirits, and he went
on and on in a heavy waking dream. Descending into a plain, he lost
sight of the flaming sunset and the black waters. In the level plain the
desolation was yet more marked; there was not a grass-blade or plant;
the surface was hard, black, and burned, resembling iron, and indeed in
places it resounded to his feet, though he supposed that was the echo
from hollow passages beneath.

Several times he shook himself, straightened himself up, and endeavoured
to throw off the sense of drowsy weight which increased upon him. He
could not do so; he walked with bent back, and crept, as it were, over
the iron land which radiated heat. A shimmer like that of water appeared
in front; he quickened his pace, but could not get to it, and realized
presently that it was a mirage which receded as he advanced. There was
no pleasant summer twilight; the sunset was succeeded by an indefinite
gloom, and while this shadow hung overhead the yellow vapour around was
faintly radiant. Felix suddenly stopped, having stepped, as he thought,
on a skeleton.

Another glance, however, showed that it was merely the impression of
one, the actual bones had long since disappeared. The ribs, the skull,
and limbs were drawn on the black ground in white lines as if it had
been done with a broad piece of chalk. Close by he found three or four
more, intertangled and superimposed as if the unhappy beings had fallen
partly across each other, and in that position had mouldered away
leaving nothing but their outline. From among a variety of objects that
were scattered about Felix picked up something that shone; it was a
diamond bracelet of one large stone, and a small square of blue china
tile with a curious heraldic animal drawn on it. Evidently these had
belonged to one or other of the party who had perished.

Though startled at the first sight, it was curious that Felix felt so
little horror; the idea did not occur to him that he was in danger as
these had been. Inhaling the gaseous emanations from the soil and
contained in the yellow vapour, he had become narcotized, and moved as
if under the influence of opium, while wide awake, and capable of
rational conduct. His senses were deadened, and did not carry the usual
vivid impression to the mind; he saw things as if they were afar off.
Accidentally looking back, he found that his footmarks, as far as he
could see, shone with a phosphoric light like that of "touchwood" in the
dark. Near at hand they did not shine; the appearance did not come till
some few minutes had elapsed. His track was visible behind till the
vapour hid it. As the evening drew on the vapour became more luminous,
and somewhat resembled an aurora.

Still anxious for water, he proceeded as straight ahead as he could, and
shortly became conscious of an indefinite cloud which kept pace with him
on either side. When he turned to look at either of the clouds, the one
looked at disappeared. It was not condensed enough to be visible to
direct vision, yet he was aware of it from the corner of his eye.
Shapeless and threatening, the gloomy thickness of the air floated
beside him like the vague monster of a dream. Sometimes he fancied that
he saw an arm or a limb among the folds of the cloud, or an approach to
a face; the instant he looked it vanished. Marching at each hand these
vapours bore him horrible company.

His brain became unsteady, and flickering things moved about him; yet,
though alarmed, he was not afraid; his senses were not acute enough for
fear. The heat increased; his hands were intolerably hot as if he had
been in a fever, he panted; but did not perspire. A dry heat like an
oven burned his blood in his veins. His head felt enlarged, and his eyes
seemed alight; he could see these two globes of phosphoric light under
his brows. They seemed to stand out so that he could see them. He
thought his path straight, it was really curved; nor did he know that he
staggered as he walked.

Presently a white object appeared ahead; and on coming to it, he found
it was a wall, white as snow, with some kind of crystal. He touched it,
when the wall fell immediately, with a crushing sound as if pulverised,
and disappeared in a vast cavern at his feet. Beyond this chasm he came
to more walls like those of houses, such as would be left if the roofs
fell in. He carefully avoided touching them, for they seemed as brittle
as glass, and merely a white powder having no consistency at all. As he
advanced these remnants of buildings increased in number, so that he had
to wind in and out round them. In some places the crystallized wall had
fallen of itself, and he could see down into the cavern; for the house
had either been built partly underground, or, which was more probable,
the ground had risen. Whether the walls had been of bricks or stone or
other material he could not tell; they were now like salt.

Soon wearying of winding round these walls, Felix returned and retraced
his steps till he was outside the place, and then went on towards the
left. Not long after, as he still walked in a dream and without feeling
his feet, he descended a slight slope and found the ground change in
colour from black to a dull red. In his dazed state he had taken several
steps into this red before he noticed that it was liquid, unctuous and
slimy, like a thick oil. It deepened rapidly and was already over his
shoes; he returned to the black shore and stood looking out over the
water, if such it could be called.

The luminous yellow vapour had now risen a height of ten or fifteen
feet, and formed a roof both over the land and over the red water, under
which it was possible to see for a great distance. The surface of the
red oil or viscid liquid was perfectly smooth, and, indeed, it did not
seem as if any wind could rouse a wave on it, much less that a swell
should be left after the gale had gone down. Disappointed in his search
for water to drink, Felix mechanically turned to go back.

He followed his luminous footmarks, which he could see a long way before
him. His trail curved so much that he made many short cuts across the
winding line he had left. His weariness was now so intense that all
feeling had departed. His feet, his limbs, his arms, and hands were
numbed. The subtle poison of the emanations from the earth had begun to
deaden his nerves. It seemed a full hour or more to him till he reached
the spot where the skeletons were drawn in white upon the ground.

He passed a few yards to one side of them, and stumbled over a heap of
something which he did not observe, as it was black like the level
ground. It emitted a metallic sound, and looking he saw that he had
kicked his foot against a great heap of money. The coins were black as
ink; he picked up a handful and went on. Hitherto Felix had accepted all
that he saw as something so strange as to be unaccountable. During his
advance into this region in the canoe he had in fact become slowly
stupefied by the poisonous vapour he had inhaled. His mind was partly in
abeyance; it acted, but only after some time had elapsed. He now at last
began to realize his position; the finding of the heap of blackened
money touched a chord of memory. These skeletons were the miserable
relics of men who had ventured, in search of ancient treasures, into the
deadly marshes over the site of the mightiest city of former days. The
deserted and utterly extinct city of London was under his feet.

He had penetrated into the midst of that dreadful place, of which he had
heard many a tradition: how the earth was poison, the water poison, the
air poison, the very light of heaven, falling through such an
atmosphere, poison. There were said to be places where the earth was on
fire and belched forth sulphurous fumes, supposed to be from the
combustion of the enormous stores of strange and unknown chemicals
collected by the wonderful people of those times. Upon the surface of
the water there was a greenish-yellow oil, to touch which was death to
any creature; it was the very essence of corruption. Sometimes it
floated before the wind, and fragments became attached to reeds or flags
far from the place itself. If a moorhen or duck chanced to rub the reed,
and but one drop stuck to its feathers, it forthwith died. Of the red
water he had not heard, nor of the black, into which he had unwittingly
sailed.

Ghastly beings haunted the site of so many crimes, shapeless monsters,
hovering by night, and weaving a fearful dance. Frequently they caught
fire, as it seemed, and burned as they flew or floated in the air.
Remembering these stories, which in part, at least, now seemed to be
true, Felix glanced aside, where the cloud still kept pace with him, and
involuntarily put his hands to his ears lest the darkness of the air
should whisper some horror of old times. The earth on which he walked,
the black earth, leaving phosphoric footmarks behind him, was composed
of the mouldered bodies of millions of men who had passed away in the
centuries during which the city existed. He shuddered as he moved; he
hastened, yet could not go fast, his numbed limbs would not permit him.

He dreaded lest he should fall and sleep, and wake no more, like the
searchers after treasure; treasure which they had found only to lose for
ever. He looked around, supposing that he might see the gleaming head
and shoulders of the half-buried giant, of which he recollected he had
been told. The giant was punished for some crime by being buried to the
chest in the earth; fire incessantly consumed his head and played about
it, yet it was not destroyed. The learned thought, if such a thing
really existed, that it must be the upper part of an ancient brazen
statue, kept bright by the action of acid in the atmosphere, and shining
with reflected light. Felix did not see it, and shortly afterwards
surmounted the hill, and looked down upon his canoe. It was on fire!





Next: Fiery Vapours

Previous: Discoveries



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