Atravesamos la llanura, y, al cabo, aquella música, peligrosa y hechicera, llegó al alcance de nuestros oídos. Advertí a Ebbonly que se llenase los oídos con tapones de algodón, pero él se negó.
—No quiero apagar ninguna sensación nueva que pueda experimentar —comentó.
Entramos en la ciudad. Mi compañero sintió un auténtico rapto de placer artístico al contemplar los enormes edificios y las gentes. Podía ver, además, que la música le había dominado: su expresión pronto se volvió tan rígida y soñadora como la de un comedor de opio.
Al principio, hizo muchos comentarios sobre la arquitectura y los distintos seres que pasaban a nuestro lado, y me llamaba la atención sobre detalles en los que no me había fijado antes. Sin embargo, mientras nos acercamos al templo de la llama, su interés en observar pareció aflojarse, y fue sustituido por una concentración interior cada vez más placentera. Sus comentarios disminuyeron en número y se hicieron más breves; y ni siquiera parecía oír mis preguntas. Era evidente que el sonido le había fascinado y hechizado por completo.
Al igual que durante mi visita anterior, había muchos peregrinos dirigiéndose al santuario..., y pocos alejándose de este. La mayoría de éstos pertenecía a tipos de evolución que había visto antes. Entre ellos había uno que resultaba nuevo para mí; recuerdo una espléndida criatura de alas cerúleas y doradas como las de un lepidóptero gigante, y ojos temblorosos como joyas que deberían haber sido diseñados para reflejar las glorias de un mundo semejante al Edén.
Yo también sentí, como antes, el engañoso dominio y el embrujo, la perversión, insidiosa y gradual, del pensamiento y del instinto, como sí la música estuviese actuando sobre mi cerebro como algún sutil alcaloide. Dado que había adoptado mi precaución acostumbrada, mi sumisión a su influencia era menos completa que la de Ebbonly; pero, sin embargo, era suficiente como para hacerme olvidar cierto número de cosas..., entre ellas, la preocupación inicial que había sentido cuando mi compañero se había negado a utilizar el mismo modo de protección que yo. Ya no pensaba en su peligro, ni en el mío, sino como en algo muy distante e inmaterial.
Las calles eran como el laberinto, prolongado y sorprendente, de una pesadilla. Pero la música nos conducía directamente; y siempre había otros peregrinos. Como hombres a quienes arrastra una corriente poderosa, éramos conducidos hacia nuestro destino.
Mientras atravesábamos el salón de columnas gigantescas y nos acercábamos a la morada de la fuente ardiente, una idea de nuestro peligro se solidificó momentáneamente en mi cerebro, e intenté advertir a Ebbonly una vez más. Pero todas mis protestas y admoniciones fueron inútiles: estaba tan sordo como una máquina, y completamente ajeno a nada que no fuese la música letal.
Su expresión y sus movimientos eran los de un sonámbulo. Incluso cuando le agarré y le agite con tanta fuerza como pude reunir, permaneció ajeno a mi presencia.
La multitud de los adoradores era mayor que durante mi primera visita. El chorro de llama, pura e incandescente, estaba aumentando progresivamente mientras entrábamos, y cantaba con el blanco ardor y el éxtasis de una estrella sola en el espacio. De nuevo, con tonos inefables, me habló del placer de morir como una polilla en su altiva elevación, de la alegría y el triunfo de una unión momentánea con su esencia elemental.
La llama alcanzó su punto de mayor elevación; e, incluso para mí, la atracción mesmérica era prácticamente irresistible. Muchos de nuestros acompañantes sucumbieron, y el primero en inmolarse a sí mismo fue el lepidóptero gigante. Otros cuatro, pertenecientes a diferentes tipos evolutivos, siguieron en una sucesión terriblemente rápida.
Dada mi propia sujeción parcial a la música, sumido en mi esfuerzo para resistirme a su mortífera esclavización, casi me había olvidado de la misma presencia de Ebbonly. Cuando él corrió adelante dando una serie de saltos que eran solemnes y alocados a un tiempo, como el principio de algún baile sacerdotal, era demasiado tarde como para pensar en detenerle, y se arrojó de cabeza en la llama. El fuego le envolvió, ardió durante un instante con una verdosidad más cegadora; y eso fue todo.
Lentamente, como desde centros cerebrales atontados, el horror se apoderó de mi mente consciente, y ayudó a anular el peligroso mesmerismo. Me di la vuelta, mientras otros muchos seguían el ejemplo de Ebbonly, y escapé del santuario y de la ciudad. Pero, de alguna manera, el horror disminuyó mientras me alejaba; y me encontré a mí mismo envidiando, más y más, el destino de mi compañero, y preguntándome cuáles habrían sido las sensaciones que experimentó durante el momento de disolución ardiente...
Ahora, mientras escribo esto, me pregunto por qué regresé al mundo humano. Las palabras son inútiles para describir lo que he visto y experimentado, y el cambio que me ha sobrevenido como resultado de la acción de fuerzas incalculables en un mundo que ningún otro hombre mortal conoce. La literatura no es más que la sombra de una sombra; y la vida, con su extendida acumulación de días, monótonos y reiterativos, es ahora irreal y carece de sentido en comparación con la espléndida muerte que podría haber sufrido..., la gloriosa condena que aún me aguarda. Ya no me queda fuerza de voluntad para luchar contra la música, siempre insistente, que escucho en mi memoria. Y... no parece que haya razón alguna por la cual deba luchar contra ella. Mañana regresaré a la ciudad.
The City of the Singing Flame, Fecha: 15 de enero de 1931.
Primera publicación: Wonderstories, enero de 1931.
Antología original: Out of Space and Time, Arkham House, Sauk City,
Wisconsin, agosto de 1942.
Primer título: Tbe Journal of Giles Angarth
The Chain of Aforgomon
Clark Ashton Smith It is indeed strange that John Milwarp and his writings should have fallen so speedily into semi-oblivion. His books, treating of Oriental life in a somewhat flowery, romantic style, were popular a few months ago. But now, in spite of their range and penetration, their pervasive verbal sorcery, they are seldom mentioned; and they seem to have vanished unaccountably from the shelves of book-stores and libraries.
Even the mystery of Milwarp's death, baffling to both law and science, has evoked but a passing interest, an excitement quickly lulled and forgotten.
I was well acquainted with Milwarp over a term of years. But my recollection of the man is becoming strangely blurred, like an image in a misted mirror. His dark, half-alien personality, his preoccupation with the occult, his immense knowledge of Eastern life and lore, are things I remember with such effort and vagueness as attends the recovery of a dream. Sometimes I almost doubt that he ever existed. It is as if the man, and all that pertains to him, were being erased from human record by some mysterious acceleration of the common process of obliteration.
In his will, he appointed me his executor. I have vainly tried to interest publishers in the novel he left among his papers: a novel surely not inferior to anything he ever wrote. They say that his vogue has passed. Now I am publishing as a magazine story the contents of the diary kept by Milwarp for a period preceding his demise.
Perhaps, for the open-minded, this diary will explain the enigma of his death. It would seem that the circumstances of that death are virtually forgotten, and I repeat them here as part of my endeavor to revive and perpetuate Milwarp's memory.
Milwarp had returned to his house in San Francisco after a long sojourn in Indo-China. We who knew him gathered that he had gone into places seldom visited by Occidentals. At the time of his demise he had just finished correcting the typescript of a novel which dealt with the more romantic and mysterious aspects of Burma.
On the morning of April 2nd, 1933, his housekeeper, a middle-aged woman, was startled by a glare of brilliant light which issued from the half-open door of Milwarp's study. It was as if the whole room were in flames. Horrified, the woman hastened to investigate. Entering the study, she saw her master sitting in an armchair at the table, wearing the rich, somber robes of Chinese brocade which he affected as a dressing-gown. He sat stiffly erect, a pen clutched unmoving in his fingers on the open pages of a manuscript volume. About him, in a sort of nimbus, glowed and flickered the strange light; and her only thought was that his garments were on fire.
She ran toward him, crying out a warning. At that moment the weird nimbus brightened intolerably, and the wan early dayshine, the electric bulbs that still burned to attest the night's labor, were alike blotted out. It seemed to the housekeeper that something had gone wrong with the room itself; for the walls and table vanished, and a great, luminous gulf opened before her; and on the verge of the gulf, in a seat that was not his cushioned armchair but a huge and rough-hewn seat of stone, she beheld her master stark and rigid. His heavy brocaded robes were gone, and about him, from head to foot, were blinding coils of pure white fire, in the form of linked chains. She could not endure the brilliance of the chains, and cowering back, she shielded her eyes with her hands. When she dared to look again, the weird glowing had faded, the room was as usual; and Milwarp's motionless figure was seated at the table in the posture of writing.
Shaken and terrified as she was, the woman found courage to approach her master. A hideous smell of burnt flesh arose from beneath his garments, which were wholly intact and without visible trace of fire. He was dead, his fingers clenched on the pen and his features frozen in a stare of tetanic agony. His neck and wrists were completely encircled by frightful burns that had charred them deeply. The coroner, in his examination, found that these burns, preserving an outline as of heavy links, were extended in long unbroken spirals around the arms and legs and torso. The burning was apparently the cause of Milwarp's death: it was as if iron chains, heated to incandescence, had been wrapped about him.
Small credit was given to the housekeeper's story of what she had seen. No one, however, could suggest an acceptable explanation of the bizarre mystery. There was, at the time, much aimless discussion; but, as I have hinted, people soon turned to other matters. The efforts made to solve the riddle were somewhat perfunctory. Chemists tried to determine the nature of a queer drug, in the form of a gray powder with pearly granules, to whose use Milwarp had become addicted. But their tests merely revealed the presence of an alkaloid whose source and attributes were obscure to Western science.
Day by day, the whole incredible business lapsed from public attention; and those who had known Milwarp began to display the forgetfulness that was no less unaccountable than his weird doom. The housekeeper, who had held steadfastly in the beginning to her story, came at length to share the common dubiety. Her account, with repetition, became vague and contradictory; detail by detail, she seemed to forget the abnormal circumstances that she had witnessed with overwhelming horror.
The manuscript volume, in which Milwarp had apparently been writing at the time of death, was given into my charge with his other papers. It proved to be a diary, its last entry breaking off abruptly. Since reading the diary, I have hastened to transcribe it in my own hand, because, for some mysterious reason, the ink of the original is already fading and has become almost illegible in places.
The reader will note certain lacunae, due to passages written in an alphabet which neither I nor any scholar of my acquaintance can transliterate. These passages seem to form an integral part of the narrative, and they occur mainly toward the end, as if the writer had turned more and more to a language remembered from his ancient avatar. To the same mental reversion one must attribute the singular dating, in which Milwarp, still employing English script, appears to pass from our contemporary notation to that of some premundane world.
I give hereunder the entire diary, which begins with an undated footnote:
This book, unless I have been misinformed concerning the qualities of the drug souvara, will be the record of my former life in a lost cycle. I have had the drug in my possession for seven months, but fear has prevented me from using it. Now, by certain tokens, I perceive that the longing for knowledge will soon overcome the fear. Ever since my earliest childhood I have been troubled by intimations, dim, unplaceable, that seemed to argue a forgotten existence. These intimations partook of the nature of feelings rather than ideas or images: they were like the wraiths of dead memories. In the background of my mind there has lurked a sentiment of formless, melancholy desire for some nameless beauty long perished out of time. And, coincidentally, I have been haunted by an equally formless dread, an apprehension as of some bygone but still imminent doom.
Such feelings have persisted, undiminished, throughout my youth and maturity, but nowhere have I found any clue to their causation. My travels in the mystic Orient, my delvings into occultism have merely convinced me that these shadowy intuitions pertain to some incarnation buried under the wreck of remotest cycles.
Many times, in my wanderings through Buddhistic lands, I had heard of the drug souvara, which is believed to restore, even for the uninitiate, the memory of other lives. And at last, after many vain efforts, I managed to procure a supply of the drug. The manner in which I obtained it is a tale sufficiently remarkable in itself, but of no special relevance here. So far — perhaps because of that apprehension which I have hinted — I have not dared to use the drug.
March 9th, 1933. This morning I took souvara for the first time, dissolving the proper amount in pure distilled water as I had been instructed to do. Afterward I leaned back easily in my chair, breathing with a slow, regular rhythm. I had no preconceived idea of the sensations that would mark the drug's initial effect, since these were said to vary prodigiously with the temperament of the users; but I composed myself to await them with tranquility, after formulating clearly in my mind the purpose of the experinent. For a while there was no change in my awareness. I noticed a slight quickening of the pulse, and modulated my breathing in conformity with this. Then, by slow degrees, I experienced a sharpening of visual perception. The Chinese rugs on the floor, the backs of the serried volumes in my bookcases, the very wood of chairs, table and shelves, began to exhibit new and unimagined colors. At the same time there were curious alterations of outline, every object seeming to extend itself in a hitherto unsuspected fashion. Following this, my surroundings became semi-transparent, like molded shapes of mist. I found that I could see through the marbled cover the illustrations in a volume of John Martin's edition of Paradise Lost, which lay before me on the table.
All this, I knew, was a mere extension of ordinary physical vision. It was only a prelude to those apperceptions of occult realms which I sought through souvara. Fixing my mind once more on the goal of the experiment, I became aware that the misty walls had vanished like a drawn arras. About me, like reflections in rippled water, dim sceneries wavered and shifted, erasing one another from instant to instant. I seemed to hear a vague but ever-present sound, more musical than the murmurs of air, water or fire, which was a property of the unknown element that environed me.
With a sense of troublous familiarity, I beheld the blurred unstable pictures which flowed past me upon this never-resting medium. Orient temples, flashing with sun-struck bronze and gold; the sharp, crowded gables and spires of medieval cities; tropic and northern forests; the costumes and physiognomies of the Levant, of Persia, of old Rome and Carthage, went by like blown, flying mirages. Each succeeding tableau belonged to a more ancient period than the one before it — and I knew that each was a scene from some former existence of my own.
Still tethered, as it were, to my present self, I reviewed these visible memories, which took on tri-dimensional depth and clarity. I saw myself as warrior and troubadour, as noble and merchant and mendicant. I trembled with dead fears, I thrilled with lost hopes and raptures, and was drawn by ties that death and Lethe had broken. Yet never did I fully identify myself with those other avatars: for I knew well that the memory I sought pertained to some incarnation of older epochs.
Still the fantasmagoria streamed on, and I turned giddy with vertigo ineffable before the vastness and diuturnity of the cycles of being. It seemed that I, the watcher, was lost in a gray land where the homeless ghosts of all dead ages went fleeing from oblivion to oblivion.
The walls of Nineveh, the columns and towers of unnamed cities, rose before me and were swept away. I saw the luxuriant plains that are now the Gobi desert. The sealost capitals of Atlantis were drawn to the light in unquenched glory. I gazed on lush and cloudy scenes from the first continents of Earth. Briefly I relived the beginnings of terrestrial man — and knew that the secret I would learn was ancienter even than these.
My visions faded into black voidness — and yet, in that void, through fathomless eons, it seemed that I existed still like a blind atom in the space between the worlds. About me was the darkness and repose of that night which antedated the Earth's creation. Time flowed backward with the silence of dreamless sleep....
The illumination, when it came, was instant and complete. I stood in the full, fervid blaze of day amid royally towering blossoms in a deep garden, beyond whose lofty, vine-clad walls I heard the confused murmuring of the great city called Kalood. Above me, at their vernal zenith, were the four small suns that illumed the planet Hestan. Jewel-colored insects fluttered about me, lighting without fear on the rich habiliments of gold and black, enwrought with astronomic symbols, in which I was attired. Beside me was a dial-shaped altar of zoned agate, carved with the same symbols, which were those of the dreadful omnipotent time-god, Aforgomon, whom I served as a priest.
I had not even the slightest memory of myself as John Milwarp, and the long pageant of my terrestrial lives was as something that had never been — or was yet to be. Sorrow and desolation choked my heart as ashes fill some urn consecrated to the dead; and all the hues and perfumes of the garden about me were redolent only of the bitterness of death. Gazing darkly upon the altar, I muttered blasphemy against Aforgomon, who, in his inexorable course, had taken away my beloved and had sent no solace for my grief. Separately I cursed the signs upon the altar: the stars, the worlds, the suns, the moons, that meted and fulfilled the processes of time. Belthoris, my betrothed, had died at the end of the previous autumn: and so, with double maledictions, I cursed the stars and planets presiding over that season.
I became aware that a shadow had fallen beside my own on the altar, and knew that the dark sage and sorcerer Atmox had obeyed my summons. Fearfully but not without hope I turned toward him, noting first of all that he bore under his arm a heavy, sinister-looking volume with covers of black steel and hasps of adamant. Only when I had made sure of this did I lift my eyes to his face, which was little less somber and forbidding than the tome he carried.
"Greeting, O Calaspa," he said harshly. "I have come against my own will and judgment. The lore that you request is in this volume; and since you saved me in former years from the inquisitorial wrath of the time-god's priests, I cannot refuse to share it with you. But understand well that even I, who have called upon names that are dreadful to utter, and have evoked forbidden presences, shall never dare to assist you in this conjuration. Gladly would I help you to hold converse with the shadow of Belthoris, or to animate her still unwithered body and draw it forth from the tomb. But that which you purpose is another matter. You alone must perform the ordained rites, must speak the necessary words: for the consequences of this thing will be direr than you deem.'
"I care not for the consequences," I replied eagerly, "if it be possible to bring back the lost hours which I shared with Belthoris. Think you that I could content myself with her shadow, wandering thinly back from the Borderland? Or that I could take pleasure in the fair clay that the breath of necromancy has troubled and has made to arise and walk without mind or soul? Nay, the Belthoris I would summon is she on whom the shadow of death has never yet fallen!
It seemed that Atmox, the master of doubtful arts, the vassal of umbrageous powers, recoiled and blenched before my vehement declaration.
"Bethink you," he said with minatory sternness, "that this thing will constitute a breach of the sacred logic of time and a blasphemy against Aforgomon, god of the minutes and the cycles. Moreover, there is little to be gained: for not in its entirety may you bring back the season of your love, but only one single hour, torn with infinite violence from its rightful period in time.... Refrain, I adjure you, and content yourself with a lesser sorcery."
"Give me the book," I demanded. "My service to Aforgomon is forfeit. With due reverence and devotion I have worshipped the time-god, and have done in his honor the rites ordained from eternity; and for all this the god has betrayed me."
Then, in that high-climbing, luxuriant garden beneath the four suns, Atmox opened the adamantine clasps of the steel-bound volume; and, turning to a certain page, he laid the book reluctantly in my hands. The page, like its fellows, was of some unholy parchment streaked with musty discolorations and blackening at the margin with sheer antiquity; but upon it shone unquenchably the dread characters a primal age had written with an ink bright as the newshed ichor of demons. Above this page I bent in my madness, conning it over and over till I was dazzled by the fiery runes; and, shutting my eyes, I saw them burn on a red darkness, still legible, and writhing like hellish worms.
Hollowly, like the sound of a far bell, I heard the voice of Atmox: "You have learned, O Calaspa, the unutterable name of that One whose assistance can alone restore the fled hours. And you have learned the incantation that will rouse that hidden power, and the sacrifice needed for its propitiation. Knowing these things, is your heart still strong and your purpose firm?"
The name I had read in the wizard volume was that of the chief cosmic power antagonistic to Aforgomon; the incantation and the required offering were those of a foul demonolatry. Nevertheless, I did not hesitate, but gave resolute affirmative answer to the somber query of Atmox.
Perceiving that I was inflexible, he bowed his head, trying no more to dissuade me. Then, as the flame-runed volume had bade me do, I defiled the altar of Aforgomon, blotting certain of its prime symbols with dust and spittle.
While Atmox looked on in silence, I wounded my right arm to its deepest vein on the sharp-tipped gnomon of the dial; and, letting the blood drip from zone to zone, from orb to orb on the graven agate, I made unlawful sacrifice, and intoned aloud, in the name of the Lurking Chaos, Xexanoth, an abominable ritual composed by a backward repetition and jumbling of litanies sacred to the time-god.
Even as I chanted the incantation, it seemed that webs of shadow were woven foully athwart the suns; and the ground shook a little, as if colossal demons trod the world's rim, striding stupendously from abysses beyond. The garden walls and trees wavered like a wind-blown reflection in a pool; and I grew faint with the loss of that life-blood I had poured out in demonolatrous offering. Then, in my flesh and in my brain, I felt the intolerable racking of a vibration like the long-drawn shock of cities riven by earthquake, and coasts crumbling before some chaotic sea; and my flesh was torn and harrowed, and my brain shuddered with the toneless discords sweeping through me from deep to deep.