ERB'S EMBRYONIC JOURNEY:
THE TRIMESTERS OF CASPAK
Woodrow Edgar Nichols, Jr.
(Dedicated to George McWhorter)
OUT OF TIME'S ABYSS
Bradley is in a hopeless situation as he is led to the innermost
part of the temple of the Wieroos. Of course, this is the kind of dilemma
ERB loved to throw at his heroes to keep them on their toes. It directly
reflects his philosophy that as long as you live there is always hope in
spite of all evidence to the contrary. I imagine this is the attitude that
kept most Holocaust survivors alive during their horrible ordeal.
“The farther the group progressed, the
more barbaric and the more sumptuous became the decorations. Hides of leopard
and tiger predominated, apparently because of their more beautiful markings,
and decorative skulls became more and more numerous. Many of the latter
were mounted in precious metals and set with colored stones and priceless
gems, while thick upon the hides that covered the walls were golden ornaments
similar to those worn by the girl and those which had filled the chests
he had examined in the storeroom of Fosbal-soj, leading the Englishman
to the conviction that all were such spoils of war or theft, since each
piece seemed made for personal adornment, while in so far as he had seen,
no Wieroo wore ornaments of any sort.
These Wieroos crack me up. They may believe that they are the highest form
of life on Caspak, but they fall for deception like a pack of eager suckers
for a Ponzi scheme. And that English humor again. He Who Speaks for Luata
sure learned the hard way the secret of life and death; he held it in his
hand all the time.
“And also as they advanced the more numerous
became the Wieroo moving hither and thither within the temple. Many now
were the solid red robes and those that were slashed with blue – a veritable
hive of murderers.
“At last the party halted in a room in which
were many Wieroos who gathered around Bradley questioning his captors and
examining him and his apparel. One of the party accompanying the Englishman
spoke to a Wieroo that stood beside a door leading from the room. ‘Tell
Him Who Speaks for Luata,’ he said, ‘that Fosh-bal-soj we could not find;
but that in returning we found this creature within the temple, hiding.
It must be the same that Fosh-bal-soj captured in the Sto-lu country during
the last darkness. Doubtless He Who Speaks for Luata would wish to see
and question this strange thing.’
“The creature addressed turned and slipped through
the doorway, closing the door after it, but first depositing its curved
blade upon the floor without. Its post was immediately taken by another,
and Bradley now saw that at least twenty such guards loitered in the immediate
vicinity. The doorkeeper was gone but for a moment, and when he returned,
he signified that Bradley’s party was to enter the next chamber; but first
each of the Wieroos removed his curved weapon and laid it upon the floor.
The door swung open, and the party, now reduced to Bradley and five Wieroos,
was ushered across the threshold into a large, irregularly shaped room
in which a single, giant Wieroo whose robe was solid blue sat upon a raised
“The creature’s face was white with the whiteness
of a corpse, its dead eyes entirely expressionless, its cruel, thin lips
tight-drawn against yellow teeth in a perpetual grimace. Upon either side
of it lay an enormous, curved sword, similar to those which some of the
other Wieroos had been armed, but larger and heavier. Constantly its claw-like
fingers played with one or the other of these weapons.
“The walls of the chamber as well as the floor
were entirely hidden by skins and woven fabrics. Blue predominated in all
the colorations. Fastened against the hides were many pairs of Wieroo wings,
mounted so that they resembled long, black shields. Upon the ceiling were
painted in blue characters a bewildering series of hieroglyphics and upon
pedestals set against the walls or standing out well within the room were
many human skulls.
“As the Wieroos approached the figure upon the
dais, they leaned far forward, raising their wings above their heads and
stretching their necks as though offering them to the sharp swords of the
grim and hideous creature.
“‘O Thou Who Speakest for Luata!’ exclaimed one
of the party. ‘We bring you this strange creature that Fosh-bal-soj captured
and brought thither at thy command.’
“So this then was the godlike figure that spoke
for divinity! This archmurderer was the Caspakian representative of God
on Earth! His blue robe announced him the one and the seeming humility
of his minions the other. For a long minute he glared at Bradley. Then
he began to question him – from whence he came and how, the name and description
of his native country, and a hundred other queries.
“‘Are you cos-ata-lu?’ the creature asked.
“Bradley replied that he was and that all his
kind were, as well as every living thing in his part of the world.
“‘Can you tell me the secret?’ asked the creature.
“Bradley hesitated and then, thinking to gain
time, replied in the affirmative.
“‘What is it?’ demanded the Wieroo, leaning far
forward and exhibiting every evidence of excited interest.
“Bradley leaned forward and whispered: ‘It is
for your ears alone; I will not divulge it to others, and then only on
condition that you carry me and the girl I saw in the place of the yellow
door near to that of Fosh-bal-soj back to her own country.’
“The thing rose in wrath, holding one of its
swords above its head.
“‘Who are you to make terms for Him Who Speaks
for Luata?’ it shrilled. ‘Tell me the secret or die where you stand!’
“‘And if I die now, the secret goes with me,’
Bradley reminded him. ‘Never again will you get the opportunity to question
another of my kind who knows the secret.’ Anything to gain time, to get
the rest of the Wieroos from the room, that he might plan some scheme for
escape and put it into effect.
“The creature turned upon the leader of the party
that had brought Bradley.
“‘Is the thing with weapons?’ it asked.
“‘No,’ was the response.
“‘Then go; but tell the guard to remain close
by,’ commanded the high one.
“The Wieroos salaamed and withdrew, closing the
door behind them. He Who Speaks for Luata grasped a sword nervously in
his right hand. At his left side lay the second weapon. It was evident
that he lived in constant dread of being assassinated. The fact that he
permitted none with weapons within his presence and that he always kept
two swords at his side pointed to this.
“Bradley was racking his brain to find some suggestion
of a plan whereby he might turn the situation to his own account. His eyes
wandered past the weird figure before him; they played about the walls
of the apartment as though hoping to draw inspiration from the dead skulls
and the hides and the wings, and then they came back to the face of the
Wieroo god, now working in anger.
“‘Quick!’ screamed the thing. ‘The secret!’
“‘Will you give me and the girl our freedom?’
“For an instant the thing hesitated, and then
it grumbled ‘Yes.’ At the same instant Bradley saw two hides upon the wall
directly back of the dais separate and a face appear in the opening. No
change of expression upon the Englishman’s countenance betrayed that he
had seen aught to surprise him, though surprised he was for the face in
the aperture was that of the girl he had but just left hidden beneath the
hides in another chamber. A white and shapely arm now pushed past the face
into the room, and in the hand, tightly clutched, was the curved blade,
smeared with blood, that Bradley had dropped beneath the hides at the moment
he had been discovered and drawn from his concealment.
“‘Listen, then,’ said Bradley in a low voice
to the Wieroo. ‘You shall know the secret of cos-ata-lu as well as do I;
but none other may hear it. Lean close – I will whisper it into your ear.’
“He moved forward and stepped upon the dais.
The creature raised its sword ready to strike at the first indication of
treachery, and Bradley stooped beneath the blade and put his ear close
to the gruesome face. As he did so, he rested his weight upon his hands,
one upon either side of the Wieroo’s body, his right hand upon the hilt
of the spare sword lying at the left of Him Who Speaks for Luata.
“‘This then is the secret of both life and death,’
he whispered, and at the same instant he grasped the Wieroo by the right
wrist and with his own right hand swung the extra blade in a sudden vicious
blow against the creature’s neck before the thing could give even a single
cry of alarm; then without waiting an instant Bradley leaped past the dead
god and vanished behind the hides that had hidden the girl.” (OTA/4.)
“Wide-eyed and panting the girl seized
his arm. ‘Oh, what have you done?’ she cried. ‘He Who Speaks for Luata
will be avenged by Luata. Now indeed you must die. There is no escape,
for even though we reached my own country Luata can find you out.’
Although Ben Gunn didn’t die on Treasure Island, his fate back home in
England was just as grim. His religious conversion was short-lived, and
he resorted to the old life of the pirate, squandering what money he had
on wine and women until he was in the end but a poor beggar in rags.
“‘Bosh!’ exclaimed Bradley, and then: ‘But you
were going to knife him yourself.’
“‘Then I alone would have died,’ she replied.
“Bradley scratched his head. ‘Neither of us is
going to die,’ he said; ‘at least not at the hands of any god. If we don’t
get out of here though, we’ll die right enough. Can you find your way back
to the room where I first came upon you in the temple?’
“‘I know the way,’ replied the girl; ‘but I doubt
if we can go back without being seen. I came hither because I only met
Wieroos who knew that I am supposed now to be in the temple; but you could
go elsewhere without being discovered.’
“Bradley’s ingenuity had come up against a stone
wall. There seemed no possibility of escape. He looked about him. They
were in a small room where lay a litter of rubbish – torn bits of cloth,
old hides, pieces of fiber rope. In the center of the room was a cylindrical
shaft with an opening in its face. Bradley knew it for what it was. Here
the arch-fiend dragged his victims and cast their bodies into the river
of death far below. The floor about the opening in the shaft and the sides
of the shaft were clotted thick with a dried, dark brown substance that
the Englishman knew had once been blood. The place had the appearance of
having been a veritable shambles. An odor of decaying flesh permeated the
“The Englishman crossed to the shaft and peered
into the opening. All below was dark as pitch; but at the bottom he knew
was the river. Suddenly an inspiration and a bold scheme leaped to his
mind. Turning quickly he hunted about the room until he found what he sought
– a quantity of the rope that lay strewn here and there. With rapid fingers
he unsnarled the different lengths, the girl helping him, and then he tied
the ends together until he had three ropes about seventy-five feet in length.
He fastened these together at each end and without a word secured one of
the ends about the girl’s body beneath her arms.
“‘Don’t be frightened,’ he said at length, as
he led her toward the opening in the shaft. ‘I’m going to lower you to
the river, and then I’m coming after you. When you are safe below, give
two quick jerks upon the rope. If there is danger there and you want me
to draw you up into the shaft, jerk once. Don’t be afraid – it is the only
“‘I am not afraid,’ replied the girl, rather
haughtily Bradley thought, and herself climbed through the aperture and
hung by her hands waiting for Bradley to lower her.
“As rapidly as was consistent with safety, the
man paid out the rope. When it was about half out, he heard loud cries
and wails suddenly arise within the room they had just quitted. The slaying
of their god had been discovered by the Wieroos. A search for the slayer
would begin at once.
“Lord! Would the girl never reach the river?
At last, just as he was positive that searchers were already entering the
room behind him, there came two quick tugs at the rope. Instantly Bradley
made the rest of the strands fast about the shaft, slipped into the black
tube and began a hurried descent toward the river. An instant later he
stood waist deep in water beside the girl. Impulsively she reached toward
him and grasped his arm. A strange thrill ran through him at the contact;
but he only cut the rope from about her body and lifted her to the little
shelf at the river’s side.
“‘How can we leave here?’ she asked.
“‘By the river,’ he replied; ‘but first I must
go back to the Blue Place of Seven Skulls and get the poor devil I left
there. I’ll have to wait until after dark, though, as I cannot pass through
the open stretch of river in the temple gardens by day.’
“‘There is another way,’ said the girl. ‘I have
never seen it; but often I have heard them speak of it – a corridor that
runs beside the river from one end of the city to the other. Through the
gardens it is below ground. If we could find an entrance to it, we could
leave here at once. It is not safe here, for they will search every inch
of the temple and the grounds.’
“‘Come,’ said Bradley. ‘We’ll have a look for
it, anyway.’ And so saying he approached one of the doors that opened onto
the skull-paved shelf.
“They found the corridor easily, for it paralleled
the river, separated from it only by a single wall. It took them beneath
the gardens and the city, always through inky darkness. After they had
reached the other side of the gardens, Bradley counted his steps until
he had retraced as many as he had taken coming down the stream; but though
they had to grope their way along, it was a much more rapid trip than the
“When he thought he was about opposite the point
at which he had descended from the Blue Place of Seven Skulls, he sought
and found a doorway leading out onto the river; and then, still in the
blackest darkness, he lowered himself into the stream and felt up and down
upon the opposite side for the little shelf and the ladder. Ten yards from
where he had emerged he found them, while the girl waited upon the opposite
“To ascend to the secret panel was the work of
but a minute. Here he paused and listened lest a Wieroo might be visiting
the prison in search of him or the other inmate; but no sound came from
the gloomy interior. Bradley could not but muse upon the joy of the man
on the opposite side when he should drop down to him with food and a new
hope for escape. Then he opened the panel and looked into the room. The
faint light from the grating above revealed the pile of rags in one corner;
but the man lay beneath them, he made no response to Bradley’s low greeting.
“The Englishman lowered himself to the floor
of the room and approached the rags. Stooping he lifted a corner of them.
Yes, there was the man asleep. Bradley shook him – there was no response.
He stooped lower and in the dim light examined An-Tak; then he stood up
with a sigh. A rat leaped from beneath the coverings and scurried away.
‘Poor devil!’ muttered Bradley.
“He crossed the room to swing himself to the
perch preparatory to quitting the Blue Place of Seven Skulls forever. Beneath
the perch he paused. ‘I’ll not give them the satisfaction,’ he growled.
‘Let them believe that he escaped.’
“Returning to the pile of rags he gathered the
man into his arms. It was difficult work raising him to the high perch
and dragging him through the small opening and thus down the ladder; but
presently it was done, and Bradley had lowered the body into the river
and cast it off. ‘Good-bye, old top!’ he whispered.” (OTA/4.)
“A moment later he had rejoined the girl
and hand in hand they were following the dark corridor upstream toward
the farther end of the city. She told him that the Wieroos seldom frequented
these lower passages, as the air here was too chill for them; but occasionally
they came, and as they could see quite as well by night as by day, they
would be sure to discover Bradley and the girl.
Whew! Well, that’s enough Wieroo history for one day. We will complete
Chapter 4 in our next installment.
Until then, may the tas-ad be with you.
“‘If they come close enough,’ she said, ‘we can
see their eyes shining in the dark – they resemble dull splotches of light.
They glow, but do not blaze like the eyes of the tiger or the lion.’
“The man could not but note the very evident
horror with which she mentioned the creatures. To him they were uncanny;
but she had been used to them for a year almost, and probably all her life
she had either seen or heard of them constantly.
“‘Why do you fear them so?’ he asked. ‘It seems
more than any ordinary fear of the harm they can do you.’
“She tried to explain; but the nearest he could
gather was that she looked upon the Wieroo almost as supernatural beings.
‘There is a legend current among my people that once the Wieroo were unlike
us only in that they possessed rudimentary wings. They lived in villages
in the Galu country, and while the two peoples often warred, they held
no hatred for one another. In those days each race came up from the beginning
and there was great rivalry as to which was the higher in the scale of
evolution. The Wieroo developed the first cos-ata-lu; but they commenced
to develop certain attributes of the mind which, they considered, placed
them upon a a still higher level and which gave them many advantages over
us, seeing which they thought only of mental development – their minds
became like the stars and the rivers, moving always in the same manner,
never varying. They called this tas-ad, which means doing everything the
right way, or, in other words, the Wieroo way. If foe or friend, right
or wrong, stood in the way of tas-ad, then it must be crushed.
“‘Soon the Galus and the lesser races of men
came to hate and fear them. It was then that the Wieroo decided to carry
tas-ad into every part of the world. They were very warlike and very numerous,
although they had long since adopted the policy of slaying all those among
them whose wings did not show advanced development.
“‘It took ages for all this to happen – very
slowly came the different changes; but at last the Wieroos had wings they
could use. But by reason of always making war upon their neighbors they
were hated by every creature of Caspak, for no one wanted their tas-ad,
and so they used their wings to fly to this island when the other races
turned against them and threatened to kill them all. So cruel had they
become and so bloodthirsty that they no longer had hearts that beat with
love or sympathy; but their very cruelty and wickedness kept them from
conquering the other races, since they were also cruel and wicked to one
another, so that no Wieroo trusted another.
“‘Always they were slaying those above them that
they might rise in power and posssessions, until at last came the more
powerful than the others with a tasad all his own. He gathered about him
a few of the most terrible Wieroos, and among them they made laws which
took from all but these few Wieroos every weapon they possessed.
“‘Now their tas-ad has reached a high plane among
them. They make many wonderful things that we cannot make. They think great
thoughts, no doubt, and still dream of greatness to come, but their thoughts
and their acts are regulated by ages of custom – they are all alike – and
they are most unhappy.’” (OTA/4.)
(Continued in Part Twenty-Five)