Friday Flotsam – Psych Issues and I Get a Review!

1. First and foremost, my appalling ego requires me to advise you all to hop over to A Song of Joy for a review of my first published book: The Wisdom of Walt Disney. It’s also the first review of that book that I’ve received. To say more would be unpardonably self-aggrandizing.

2. In celebration of this fact, I offer the accompanying video tribute to Mr. Disney that I made to go along with an updated release of the book a few years back. All the films shown in the video are discussed in the book.

3. As I’ve noted before, I suffer from what I’ve been calling ‘Depression’. Now, the thing to keep in mind is that psychological issues are different from diseases. In a typical disease (at least, most of them) you have an objective constant in the form of the micro-organism that is causing it: the Smallpox virus or the pneumonia bacteria are species of organism that have certain characteristics and behave a certain way. But psychological issues don’t really have this; the brain begins acting in a particular way which may or may not stem from one of several causes and which may or may not follow the pattern of other brains under similar circumstances. In any case, when it comes to the brain, we only have the symptoms: there is no ‘depression virus’ where we can say ‘Ah, there’s the constant!’ In other words, as far as we know (at least from what I understand), a bodily illness is a substance – an objective thing – while a mental illness is an accident – a pattern.

Yes, I know that we have brain chemistry, but the thing is that 1. there’s a chicken-and-egg problem with that: do the chemicals cause the thoughts or the thoughts release the chemicals? The fact that we can direct our thoughts and recognize them as rational or irrational suggests the latter, at least in part. 2. Neurochemistry is such a new field that I wouldn’t hazard anything upon it that isn’t backed up by more established knowledge (brain scans have gotten results from dead salmon, so something’s not quite right there) and 3. Whether we call the symptoms thoughts or brain chemicals doesn’t really change the question: it’s still something that is happening in or being done by the brain, not, as far as we know, an objective entity that is reacting with it.

Which means that there is no real limit to the form of the pattern. The Bubonic Plague always acts within a certain range of behaviors because the Plague is only a particular bacteria. But theoretically there could be as many mental illnesses as there are potential unwanted connections in the brain.

4. Anyway, long story short, after being frustrated by various different approaches for recovery I’m working on developing my own. My particular issues seem to be an odd cocktail of depression, anxiety, a dash of OCD, and maybe a few other things (not that these ‘official’ diseases aren’t often found together), all tumbled together with a base character that’s fairly out-of-the-ordinary to begin with. So I’m trying to draw whatever seems useful from a bunch of different approaches designed to combat these various constituent issues and work out something tailor-made to my own situation.

Just starting off, in the ‘gathering info’ stage, but so far there have been some interesting results. At the moment I’m working through ‘Brain Lock’ by Jeffry M. Schwartz, which details a self-directed therapy for combating OCD. I’d definitely recommend it, even if you don’t think you have OCD, since I believe the approach could easily be modified to other issues: it’s simple, but makes sense and the methods advised have a solid pedigree, such as the insight that behavior changes thought, so that the key to change is to act contrary to inclinations: a fact embodied in the practice of ritual and objective moral law. Seeking to alter unwanted thoughts by recognizing their irrationality, dwelling upon the truth and acting accordingly is essentially just “you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.”

In short, your feelings are secondary: your actions and your beliefs are primary.

I tend to trust insights and advice that A). recur across multiple different books from different authors dealing with different problems – the ‘action reinforces thought and thought directs action and both trump feelings’ insight keeps coming back again and again – and B). harmonize with traditional philosophical and religious thought: that is, with the ideas of the people who actually built functioning societies rather than the people who parasite off of them.

I’ll probably share more of this as time goes on.

The Temple of the Night

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“Magnificent!”

The young Englishwoman gazed out over the deep, mist-filled gorge. The mountains crowded in on all sides, their grey flanks dyed red in the rising sun, while the valley below was so deep and so narrow that what little could be seen through the breaks in the blanket of mists was lost in shadow. It was as though she were looking down upon a second sky.

She stood a moment upon the edge of the cliff, as still as if the light had turned her into a carved figure of ivory. Then with the quick, precise movements of a bird gathering its treasure, she swung the heavy pack off of her shoulders and pulled out a sketchbook and some pencils. Seating herself crosslegged upon a rock at the very edge of the precipice, she began to draw the scene, seemingly heedless of the thousand-foot drop immediately before her.

This – though perhaps few of her acquaintances in London would have believed it – was Lady Emma Worthing, and she looked as out of place sitting on a rock on a mountain deep in the Peruvian jungle as it was possible for a person to look. Every line, curve, and tone of her spoke of fashion, society, and elegance, from her perfectly fitted, custom-made clothing to her upright, well-trained posture.

She was tall and graceful with a fine figure. Her face was aristocratic, with a Roman nose (one she thought a trifle too big) and large eyes that glittered like opals whenever she was eager or excited. Down her back ran a long, tapering line of braided hair that was so deeply black as to appear blue in places.

Her clothing was entirely done in varying shades of white, save for the black of her hiking boots (now sadly scuffed from many days of walking), and she wore a white pleated skirt in lieu of trousers. This had raised many eyebrows and several people, including her hired guide, had tried strenuously to talk her out of it. But she would hear none of it.

“A lady must always look her best, whether in society or the jungle,” she’d insisted.

When Lady Emma sat down to commence her sketch, the two men accompanying her took off their own packs and stood waiting for her to finish. By now this had become quite a routine. During the course of their three day trek through the jungle, Lady Emma had already stopped at least a dozen times to make sketches and notes for paintings she might like to make once she had the chance. That she should do so even now, just as they had reached their destination, was only to be expected.

One of the two was an elderly, upright figure with heavy jowls and a fringe of perfectly white hair under the rim of his hat. The other was young, handsome, and with the lean, lithe air of a wolf about him. He smiled rather fixedly on the young woman as she sat sketching.

“Do I take it you came all the way to the Sombra Gorge merely to draw it, Senorita?” he asked

“One might do worse,” she answered carelessly. “Though as it happens, I have something else in mind. But do be quiet; I want to catch this light. One must be quick about such things.”

The Peruvian cast an expressive look at the old man, who did not return it.

“As you wish,” said Malveda, with a shrug. He leaned back against a tree and began to roll a cigarette, watching the young woman as she drew. Truth be told, he didn’t much mind the interludes. He still had no idea what had possessed this English lady to insist on being brought all the way here to this little known and less visited formation in the mountains, but she had money, and as long he was being paid, he wasn’t about to complain. Besides, a man might have to go a long way to see a woman better worth looking at.

The other man was George Nicholson, butler to the Worthing estate. He had watched over Lady Emma from the time when she had been young enough to believe his name was “Nibbles’em,” and he accompanied his charge wherever she went, always as straight-backed and dependable as he had been as a young batman to her father in Burma some forty years before.

Emma’s pencils flew over the paper. She wished, as she always did in such cases, that she had more time. There were always details she was missing, always some element of the scene that didn’t quite come out. But then, that was the nature of beauty: one never could quite catch it all.

At last she decided the sketch would have to do. She put the last stroke to it, packed up her pencils, and stowed the whole apparatus back into her pack.

“There we are,” she said, producing a small compact mirror and examining her face. “Oh, bother this humidity….”

“Now that we are here, senorita….” Malveda began.

“Yes, yes; I did promise to explain once we reached the gorge, did I not?” she replied, brushing some dirt from her forehead and shaking her head at her own reflection. She snapped the mirror shut and tucked it into her pocket. “It isn’t anything especially exciting, I’m afraid. You see, I am something of an amateur antiquarian. It is a hobby of mine to recover rare and lost pieces of art.”

“Is that so?” he answered. “And you think you will find such a thing in the Sombra Gorge?”

“More or less,” she said as she unfolded a compact, single-strap bag from the large backpack she had been carrying. “Nibs, be a dear and get this ready for me, will you?”

“As you wish, your ladyship,” Nicholson answered. He wore a look of faint disapproval, but his charge seemed not to notice it as she checked the knife and the revolver buckled around her waist.

“It is said that no one has ever entered the Sombra Gorge alive,” Malveda said.

“I should think leaving it alive would be the tricky part,” Emma answered, peering into the depths. “But I do not intend to go all the way in. If my information is correct, there is a small cave in the cliff wall a short ways from here, around the other side of this hill.”

She nodded at the looming side of the mountain that overshadowed their little shelf to the north, forming one wall of the narrow, doubtful pass they had traversed to find the gorge.

“I don’t suppose you’ve heard of the Javias people? They occupied these mountains many centuries ago and were conquered by the Incas. It’s said they had a certain temple that they kept an absolute secret, and then when the Spanish came….”

Malvedas’s whole attitude changed abruptly. He stiffened, like a dog that had caught a scent and look sharply at his employer.

“The Temple of the Night? The cursed idol of Yectclo? That is what you seek?”

“Oh, you have heard of it,” Emma said, drawing a long coil of rope from one of the packs and slinging it over her shoulder. “Yes, that’s the one.”

“Who in these mountains has not heard that legend? But…but what makes you think it is here?”

“That’s rather a long story, but the short version is I came across some notes by a Professor Luis Rondon, who pieced together the information back in the 1890s. He, unfortunately, never returned from the jungle, but I think his reasoning was sound. I’m merely following his footsteps.”

A hungry, wolfish look slowly spread upon Malvedas’s handsome features, like the dawning of some evil sun.

“And the idol,” he said. “Is it true what they say, that it is as a valuable as a mountain of gold?”

“It is supposedly an absolutely unique piece of ancient artistry,” she answered. “One can’t really put a monetary value on that, though certainly I would pay a good deal for it. In fact, I would say I am doing so,” she added ruefully, wiping the sweat from her face. “Sacrificing my poor, poor complexion in the name of preserving art. Are we ready, Nibs?”

Nicholson handed her the bag.

“May have a word with you, your Ladyship?”

“Of course. Malvedas, will you see to the tents? Back a ways from the cliff, if you don’t mind.”

Malvedas nodded, his eyes still gleaming wolfishly as he carried the packs a little ways down the trail.

“Are you quite certain of your plan, Lady Emma?” Nicholson asked once they were alone.

“I hardly would have gone through the discomfort of the past few days if I hadn’t been sure enough,” she answered, slinging the bag over her shoulders. “Do you have something to say, Nibs? If so, please do so. I’m in rather a hurry to get started.”

Nicholson hesitated, his jowls growing perhaps a trifle more pronounced as he frowned at her.

“Only this,” he said. “Do please, please be careful, your ladyship.”

“I am always careful.”

“With respect, you certainly are not,” he answered. “You are, if you will permit me, far too reckless. I have said it before and I shall repeat myself now: there was no reason whatever for you to undertake this expedition on your own.”

“If you mean I should have invited Lord Peter to come and hog all the credit….”

“I mean that you take far too many unnecessary risks, and late though it is, I must beg you to promise me that you will not take any such during this endeavor of yours.”

Emma gave a slight, musical laugh.

“How can I promise such a thing, Nibs? I don’t even know fully what the risks will be!”

“And how shall I ever face your father when my time comes if any harm comes to you?”

Emma’s smile vanished and she blinked in some surprise. Just for a moment a breath of guilt swept through her heart. Nicholson had promised her father on his deathbed that he would keep her safe. Now she was about to go and risk her life where he couldn’t be there to make good on that promise.

The feeling passed almost as quick as it came, leaving nothing but a slight chill. Her smile returned, warmer than before, and she hugged him.

“Nibs, dear, you’re doing all you need to. And for your sake I will promise to at least not run any unnecessary risks. But really, if you didn’t let me enjoy a little danger now and then I should die of boredom. I really should. Now don’t you worry any more of those lovely white hairs away: you’ve not got many left to spare.”

He did not look mollified, but his face softened a little.

“Just be sure you come back safe,” he ordered.

“Naturally,” she said. And with that she set off along the edge of the cliff, following the curve of the mountain.

Professor Rondon, following God alone knew what ancient sources, had pieced together a detailed supposition of the temple’s position and layout. In the Javias mythology, the night god was the master of magic, divination, and other mysterious arts which only the initiate were permitted to know. Therefore, his temple, where the mystery rites were performed, was hidden where none could find it and only the bravest could approach.

The summit of the mountain was only a few hundred feet above the pass where they were making their camp, and Emma was able to circumvent it fairly easily, keeping as far from the sheer drop as she could. On the far side there were several stout young trees growing near the cliff’s edge. Emma took hold of one of these and against leaned out over the cliff to peer down into the gloom.

Just as she had hoped. About forty feet down from where she stood there was a very narrow ledge, no more than two or three feet wide if that. Harsh grasses and small plants eked out a grim existence in its soil. It ran along the line of the cliff to where the side of the mountain curved around in a kind of oxbow, forming a narrow bay between its steep grey walls. There, barely to be seen beneath an overhang of the cliff, was a cave.

That cave was her destination, and the only way to reach it was the ledge. For here the mountains became so steep as to be impassible, and no one but a mountain goat could have found his way up and around to a spot directly above the secret cave.

Emma took the rope from her shoulder and made it fast about the tree, tested it, and swung out over the thousand-foot drop. She climbed down, hand-over-hand, her feet braced against the cliff-face. She was an excellent climber and soon set her feet upon the narrow, downward-sloping ledge.

Even as she stood with one hand on the rope, trying once more to squint down into the gloom to catch a glimpse of the ravine floor that it was said no living man had ever set foot upon, she was uncomfortably conscious of the tug of gravity pulling her feet towards the edge and seemingly endless empty space below. With its covering of mist and unseen bottom, Emma had the suddenly idea that if she fell, she would be falling upwards, into the endless depth of the sky.

The thought thrilled more than terrified her. Emma was not and never could be afraid of heights. From above, everything took on a new aspect and a new loveliness, lending beauty even to things that looked quite commonplace and squalid from the ground. Nothing that did that could ever frighten her.

And besides, as she had told Nicholson more than once, she rather liked danger. All things, life included, had their own proper beauty, and to her mind a dash of peril now and then added just the right texture to life.

She released the rope and keeping one hand on the cliff wall began to walk along the slopping narrow ledge, putting one nimble booted foot ahead of the other. The wind was high here, compressed by the canyon walls and it whipped her skirt about her legs and at times felt as thought it threatened to tear her from the wall. Here and there the ledge narrowed so much that she was obliged to creep along sideways, her back pressed to the wall, her feet half hanging over empty space.

Then came her first real check. About halfway along the cliff she came to a gap of perhaps four or five feet where there was no ledge at all.

Emma paused a moment, considering. The ledge both here and on the other side of the gap was about as wide as it ever was, though it looked to be steeper on the far side. To her left was a solid, sheer wall of rock. To her right was empty air and racing wind.

What was behind her didn’t matter, since she didn’t consider going back for even a moment.

Emma squared her shoulders, lifted her skirt, took three quick steps forward, and jumped. She soared deer-like over the empty shadow and landed lightly and nimbly on the other side. She stumbled for one breathless moment as her feet slid on the inclined surface, then she caught herself on the extreme edge of the precipice, sending several small stones tumbling into the mists below.

She let out a long slow breath, looked back, and gave a satisfied nod. The ballet training she had received as a girl served her well yet again.

The cave drew nearer without appearing to grow much larger. Emma found she had to duck to enter it. As soon as she did so she was conscious of a foul, musty odor. Switching on her electric torch, she played it around the walls of the cavern and soon found the source. At first glance, it looked like a moss-covered rock. But there was something off about the shape. She edged closer and nudged it with her boot.

It was a bag. A very old bag, almost completely rotted in the jungle humidity. Nevertheless, Emma felt obligated to open it, though she shuddered at the touch.

It came apart almost at once and a large number of insects spilled out, agitated by the sudden disruption of their damp home. Emma grave a cry of disgust and stepped back, brushing a few off that had gotten onto her clothing. The bag, it seemed, had once been full of tools and rations, but everything was mildewed, rusted, and molded to the point of being utterly useless.

This, she thought, must be Professor Rondon’s bag. So he had gotten that far at least. But that meant it had been lying there for about ninety years.

And what had happened to its owner?

That Emma felt queasily certain she would soon find out.

At the back of the cavern was a pit, more like a well than anything else. Emma leaned over it, squinting into the deep darkness. She got out a small flare and dropped it. It fell about twenty feet, disturbing a number of bats that came fluttering up and once again caused her to back away in disgust as they flittered about, seeking to escape the light.

Once the bats had departed, Emma secured a rope to a stalagmite that stood not far from the well’s edge and climbed down into the Temple of the Night, the flare casting its red light up at her.

At the bottom, her feet landed not on bare stone, but on a carved floor, unweathered by the many centuries that had come and gone. Emma drew out her torch and looked around her.

Demon eyes glared out from every direction. The light of the flare and torch sent a riot of jagged shadows upon the carved walls, while the jeweled eyes of figures long lost to knowledge gleamed as if alive.

“Gentlemen,” she said in a voice with only a sleight tremor in it. “You will please excuse me: I’m only passing through.”

Emma dusted a few cobwebs off of her shirt (trying not to think of the state that her hair and clothing would be in after this, nor about the possibility of a spider or two having hitched a ride) then examined the chamber she had dropped into. It was fairly small, perhaps ten feet square. The stone was primarily black, or perhaps a dark blue in color, edged here and there in white. A similar coloring prevailed upon the floor.

On three sides the walls were covered in carved geometric imagery, similar in style to that used by the Incas, though in a heavier, more angular style. Between these figures were lines of strange, eerie designs: not exactly writing, but not quite pictures either. They were spiky, almost spidery marks that made the hair on Emma’s neck prickle. She almost thought she could detect human figures among the designs, though what they were meant to be doing she couldn’t begin to conjecture. They were mixed with other, stranger characters that she thought must represent writing, being too odd and too spindly to depict anything that could exist in real life. She resolved, if there was time, to come back after she found the idol and copy some of these images for further study.

The remaining side of the room consisted of an incline leading up to a doorway flanked by stone figures. Both figures were holding their hands up as though in warning.

Emma made straight for the doorway, her sharp eyes alive for any sign of a trap. The legend said that it was death for any but the priests to enter the Temple of the Night, and she had long since learned to pay special heed to such legends.

The doorway seemed to have been carved through about two feet of living rock. On the other side was a rectangular chamber some twelve yards long. Here too the walls were carved in flat, intricate designs, with the same dark colored stone, and here too jeweled eyes gleamed in the torchlight at the invader. The floor was checkered in an intricate pattern of green, blue, and white tile in alternating patterns, so that one row would show red, blue, then white, and the one next to it white, red, and blue. This made a rather kaleidoscopic impression in the narrow light of the torch.

As she entered the chamber, Emma’s foot landed on something hard and round. She stepped back at once, looked down, and clutched her hand to her mouth to stifle a scream of horror. What she had stepped on was the skeletal remains of a human hand!

A skeleton, dry and covered in dust lay before her, its hands outstretched as though reaching for the door. Its skull was crushed and most of its bones broken, its dried up clothes half rotted away. The dead man seemed to have been cut down in the very act of fleeing the room.

Professor Rondon, I presume, she thought. My God, what happened to you?

Slowly, she played her light around the chamber, but saw nothing that looked as if it could have killed him. All was silent and empty, unless you counted the glittering eyes of the carved figures on the walls.

Emma felt a stream of ice run up and down her spine. For a fleeting moment, she wondered whether those stone images had come to life and struck down the man who had dared to trespass in their domain, guarding the secrets of the dark priests even centuries after their disappearance.

She chided herself for thinking such nonsense, but drew her revolver nonetheless. There was some kind of trap here, some protection against thieves. She could feel it. As she crossed the room, Emma kept her keen eyes wide and alert to any sign of danger.

She was not quite careful enough.

She was about halfway across the chamber when she felt a tile sink slightly under her foot. There was a heavy click, and a moment later a low rumbling sound, like a huge mill wheel grinding flower. Emma looked behind her and cried aloud as she beheld a stone door lowering over the entrance from whence she had just come. She turned and darted back, seeking to escape before she sealed in, but she was far too late. The door settled into place even as she reached it and beat the butt of her gun futilely upon it. There was neither handle nor keyhole; it was nothing but a solid block of cold gray stone. Turning around, Emma saw that the exit had similarly been sealed. She was trapped!

Her heart hammered and her breathing came fast. Buried alive, left to suffocate in an airless tomb! That had been the fate of Professor Rondon…or had it?

For she suddenly became aware that the low rumbling that had accompanied the closing of the doors had not ceased. As she puzzled over what it might mean, she felt something drop onto her head. Reaching up, she found it was a little bit of stone or gravel. Then she turned her torch upward.

The ceiling – the vast, solid, stone ceiling, as black as the night sky – was descending slowly, but inexorably over her head. It had been about twelve feet heigh when she’d entered. Now it was closer to ten.

“Oh, my God…”

A flash of panic blazed through Emma’s mind, but only a flash. She caught herself before it could take hold of her. Now, if ever, she needed every ounce of wit she possessed.

Furiously, she tried to think. She examined the edge of the door, but there was not the slightest possibility of her lifting it or breaking through it. Rondon had tried that. He had died clawing at it.

Emma glanced at the crushed remains of her predecessor. Soon, she thought, that would be her fate: smashed to jelly under that massive weight with nothing but the pitiless eyes of those stone devils for company. Left to rot where no one would ever find whatever remained of her body.

And what will this do to poor Nibs….

Suddenly, she caught hold of something in her mind. Rondon had sprung the trap and died beneath it. Yet she had been able to enter the chamber. That meant the trap had somehow reset in the meantime.

Had someone, some hidden guardian of the temple come and restored the chamber? No. Even if that were at all probable, they would have removed the body. That meant – it could only mean – that there was some mechanism for automatically resetting the chamber.

Emma struggled to think while the destroying stone mass continued to descend from overhead. The skeleton was crushed, but not crushed all the way. The narrower bones – the arms and legs – were intact. That meant the trigger, whatever it was, had to be such as to be sprung when the ceiling was perhaps an inch or so off the ground. It have to be some kind of lever or spring that would be pressed when the trap reached a certain point. If she could find it….

Emma began searching along the wall, shining her light upon the floor, looking for anything that seemed to rise above the level of the stone tiles. The thought occurred to her that the trigger may well be somewhere in the upper reaches of the destroying machine, built with God-only-knew-what ancient engineering techniques. She pushed the idea aside and focused all of her considerable powers of concentration upon the search.

Meanwhile the descending stone was now low enough that she could have reached up and touched it.

With a cry of relief, Emma found what she sought: a stone foot belonging to one of the square demons that stuck out perhaps six inches from the wall and three high. A closer examination revealed that it did not rest upon the floor, but sank into it.

Emma dropped to her knees and pressed her full weight upon it. But it didn’t so much as wobble.

For a second, she doubted: might this not be the trigger? Then she came to her senses. Of course, the designers of the trap would have considered the possibility of their victims doing exactly what she was attempting to do. The trigger was built to be moved by the immeasurable weight of the descending stone. But by the time the stone reached it, Emma would certainly be dead.

Unless she could trigger it early. Even just a little early.

She rose to her feet, ducking as her head brushed the descending stone. Throwing off her bag to make herself as thin as possible, she darted back across the chamber to where the skeleton lay. With no time for niceties, she grabbed a handful of his dried up arm and leg bones and scrambled back to the lever. She was now bent almost double: less than five feet to go…

Breathing quickly to try to steady her hands, Emma wrapped the strap of her bag around the bones and braced them upon the lever – if lever it was.

Then there was nothing to do but wait as the descending death closed the final few feet to the topmost bones. From having seemed terrifyingly quick while she was racing about trying to find a means of salvation, it now appeared to her agonizingly slow as waited for it to render a final verdict upon her plan.

The bones were, of course, all different lengths. The longest two, the leg bones, were reached first.

Crack!

They splintered and fell from the mass. Emma lay flat on her front, holding the grisly bundle with all her might. In desperation, she drew her hunting knife with its thick, steel blade and ivory handle and jammed it in alongside the bundle to lend it every bit of strength she could give it.

Crack! Crack! More bones broke away before the destroying roof. There was barely more than a foot of clearance. Emma pressed herself against the floor and whispered a prayer. She felt the cold, heavy stone settle onto her back….

But even as she did, the lever shifted at last. A moment later and there was another heavy click. The ceiling ground to a halt, pressing Emma to the floor. She gritted her teeth, eyes shut tight, unable to move even if she had wanted to, scarcely able to breathe.

Then the rumbling resumed, and her heart skipped a beat. But now the ceiling was ascending, rising as slowly as it had sunk. The terrible weight lifted from her back, and Emma let out a long, slow breath. Only then did she realize that she had been holding it.

She rose to her knees, trembling and trying to catch her breath. That had been much too close, even for her taste!

Once again at liberty to be conscious of what she was holding, she laid the remaining bundle of bones upon the floor with a slight shudder and wiped her hands gingerly against her skirt.

“My apologies, professor,” she said with a deprecatory gesture towards the crushed remains at the front of the chamber. “Under any other circumstances, I would not have dreamt of taking such liberties. I’m sure you understand.”

Then she sheathed her knife (now considerably blunted), holstered her gun, and gathering her pack and torch made her way to the far side of the room. She carefully felt each step as she went to avoid triggering any further traps.

Passing through the far door, Emma found herself in what could only be the holy of holies, the central chamber of the temple. The roof was high overhead, and there was a long, narrow shaft through which a faint ray of sunlight, brought from who knew how far through the side of the mountain cast a dim, twilit glow upon the room.

And there, on a pedestal in the middle of the chamber, was the idol of Yectclo.

It was completely different from any Mezoamerican idol that she had ever seen. In place of the heavy, squared-off shape that so many of those had, this one was more slender, more curved, the form more naturalistic. It was overall in the shape of a human being, though the head was shaped like a crescent moon, curving back over its shoulders like a cresting wave. The features were carved with remarkable skill, the god seeming to gaze upwards in contemplation of the heavens, its slender, almost-stick-lick arms crossed across its chest, its palms held up and outward to either side. From either shoulder the figure bore great, curved wings, like those of a moth, and its legs, which were drawn up to its elbows as though it were squatting, were very long and very thin.

The whole figure was perhaps nine inches high. Even in the dim half-light, it shone silver and bright, as though it were illumined from within, save on the inside of the wings, which appeared to be lined with obsidian and had the same spindly semi-pictorial writing she had seen in the entry chamber carved upon them and inlaid with silver.

Emma approached the figure, awed by its beauty and craftsmanship. Though even this work of art couldn’t quite eclipse the fright she had just had, and she went cautiously nonetheless. But no traps sprung in this chamber, even as she walked straight up to the pedestal and gazed at the statue.

Seen up close, the strangeness and uniqueness of the image increased. She had thought at first that it was made of silver, or more likely of stone or wood lined in silver. But she didn’t think so anymore. The material was not quite the color of silver: its white had more of a pinkish tone to it, and it seemed far too lustrous in the half-light.

Whatever else it was, it was an exquisite work of art.

Carefully, she took hold of it and lifted it gingerly from the pedestal. It was much lighter than she had expected. With a leap of her heart, she stowed it safely in her bag. She had done it!

But even as she slung the bag back over her shoulder, Emma realized that something was wrong.

There was a heavy thud, as though of a great stone gear sliding into place. Then, at the far end of the chamber, the wall buckled suddenly. The stone cracked, and from every fissure rivulets of dirty brown water clawed forth, advanced tendrils of the monster to come.

Emma understood what was happening in an instant and she wasted no more time. Turning like a deer that has scented a predator, she raced from the chamber and back into the trap room. She was halfway across before another terrible roar behind her warned that the wall was giving way.

But she didn’t dare look back, for in the wildly waving light of her torch she saw the stone door was descending once again. In her haste, she must had triggered the trap once more without realizing it. But this time was different. This time she had a head start. She could make it….

A rush of water poured in, half stemmed by the descending door on the far end, but enough to nearly trip her up. She caught herself, saved once again by her excellent balance, and put on a burst of speed. The door was descending rapidly. It was halfway closed, but she was almost there. She dove forward, sliding on her front upon the wet floor beneath the descending stone and into the entrance chamber. She just had time to whip her legs out of the way before the stone settled into place, sealing the chamber once more.

Emma scrambled to her feet, breathing hard. Another much too close call, and now she was soaking wet with badly scrapped arms and, what was more, in absolute darkness, her torch having fallen from her grasp as she dove for safety. But at least the trap chamber would hold the destroying water back for a time. With luck.

She felt her way across the lightless chamber to where the rope still hung and began to climb. A short distance up, then back along the cliff, and it would all be over. Over and successfully done!

Emma pulled herself over the edge of the pit with deep sigh of relief, thankful especially for the faint light coming in through the entrance. She rose to her feet, trying in vain to knock some of the dirt off of her clothes.

As she lifted her head, she was suddenly dazzled in the light from a torch. Squinting and holding her hand up to try to shield her eyes, she realized that she was looking down the barrel of a pistol.

“Hola, Senorita.”

“Malveda!” Emma exclaimed. “What on earth do you….”

“Did you get it?” he demanded.

“What do you mean?”

As her eyes adjusted, Emma saw that the man’s face was flushed and his eyes were gleaming with that wolfish light. He was breathing hard, and the hand holding the gun shook slightly.

“The idol,” he said. “Do not play games with me! Do you have the idol?”

Rapidly, Emma’s mind began to work. She would certainly never be able to draw her own gun in time. Once Malveda had the idol, he might well shoot her anyway. In fact, that would be the only sensible thing for him to do. And she doubted he would believe her if she flat out denied it.

The best play was to stall for as long as possible.

“See for yourself,” she answered. Slowly, so as to give him no reason to fire, she unslung her bag and set it on the floor.

Malveda hesitated, looking from her to the bag as though making up his mind whether it was a trick. Then, before he could decide how to proceed, Emma made her desperate play. In the split second his eyes were off of her, she grabbed at the gun, trying to twist his away from her. There was an ear-shattering bang as the weapon went off. Malveda was far the stronger, but Emma was stronger than he had expected her to be, and that was enough to break the gun from his grasp. It bounced upon the stone floor and clattered away into the pit.

With a snarl of angry Spanish, Malveda drove his body against Emma’s shoving her backwards. She felt the ground disappear beneath her and clutched out for the rope, catching herself about halfway down, crying aloud as the rope burned her hands.

Emma had barely had time to steady herself when she saw the guide looming over the edge, his face appearing almost monstrous in the harsh electric light, his machete in his hand. She had only just enough time to realize what was about to happen before the blade fell and the rope went slack in her hands.

She fell straight down, curling her legs under her to absorb the impact. She landed, rolled, and tucked her head. The experience of landing was no joy, but nothing broke. Trying to catch her breath, she looked up to see Malveda blow her a kiss.

“Adios, senorita!”

Emma cursed him in the strongest language she knew, but he was already gone with the idol, leaving her in total darkness.

After all her work, that precious idol would be sold for mere money like any common trinket. More pressingly, any second now the door would open and a wave of rushing water would sweep through the door and slam her against the rocks. It was certainly possible that she would survive uninjured, perhaps even be able to ride the rising tide up the shaft. But she didn’t intend to risk it, or to spend the time. Not while she still had one more card of her own to play.

Quickly, Emma unbuckled her skirt and slipped out of it. True, her primary reason for insisting upon wearing it even in the jungle had been aesthetic (trousers were simply too drab for words), but it was not wholly impractical, despite what some thought. The skirts she wore on such occasions were all custom made and of her own special design. They were, in fact, not single sheathes of fabric, but rather constructed of row after row of a light, strong material held together by strips of velcro. With a quick tug, the coils of fabric came loose one after another, and with a twist the belt buckle was turned around to form a hook. What she now had, in place of her lovely white skirt, was a long, strong line of cloth with a grapple at one end.

She swung the buckled end around, and with a practiced hand hurled it up to where she knew the stalagmite lay. Her aim, even in the pitch dark, was true. The hook caught. She pulled it tight…

And just then, she heard the grinding of the stone door as it opened, unleashing the many tons of pent-up water upon her.

Emma just had time to get above the level of the initial onrush. The water surged about her, tearing at her boots and causing the rope to swing wildly. The spray drenched her still further, but she was able to keep climbing, hand over hand, as quickly as any acrobat in the circus, heedless of the pain in her hands. The water rose beneath her, but she rose faster.

A moment later she was in the cavern. Her own revolver was in her hand and she rushed to the mouth of the cave.

Malveda had not gotten far. He was still edging his way along the inside of the cliff, the bag slung over his shoulder. He had not yet reached the gap.

“Malveda!” she shouted as she started onto the ledge after him. Her right hand gripped the wall. Her left held her revolver.

He looked back, and his face showed blank shock as he saw her. She shook the damp black hair out of her face and walked toward him, her feet firm on the narrow surface.

“Put down that bag,” she commanded. “I’m willing to forgive a momentary lapse in judgment, but I will not trust you with that artifact.”

“How did you…”

“That is not your concern at present. Put the idol down on the path. Carefully.”

He stared at her. He had lost his own gun, and to rush her with his machete on this narrow pathway would be tantamount to suicide. Even so, he seemed to be calculating his odds.

“You will not shoot me,” he said. “You will not risk its loss.”

“Much as I would hate that, I will risk it if you force me, and be all the gladder to be rid of you,” she answered. “Or do you care to bet your life that I wouldn’t? Put it down.”

As she had done mere minutes before, Malveda seemed to have made his judgment. He crouched over the narrow ledge, unslung Emma’s bag from his shoulders, and placed it upon the path, leaning it safely against the cliff wall.

“Very good,” she said. “Now back away from the idol.”

Malveda took a few steps back, holding tight to the cliff and still watching her.

Lady Emma advanced, one sure, slim foot in front of the other, gripping the cliff with her right hand and covering Malveda with the revolver in her left. The warm jungle wind drove against her, catching at her hair, but she didn’t take her eyes off of him for a moment.

She reached the idol. Slowly, she crouched over it. Now came the difficult part. With great care, she took her right hand off the cliff wall and reached for the bag. Her eyes dropped to look at it.

Malveda struck with the speed of a springing wolf. He seemed to swarm up the path and kicked at the gun. Emma cried out in pain as his foot connected with her hand and the weapon flew free. Instinctively, she snatched the bag up in her right hand and darted back up the path, leaping away from him as advanced, trusting to her nimble feet and superb balance to avoid plunging into nothingness.

The man lunged after her, but as he went his foot landed on a loose stone. He stumbled, tried to grab at the wall, missed, and with a terrible scream he was gone.

***

“Dear Emma!” Nicholson cried as she arrived back at camp, pale, bruised, and bleeding. “What happened? I heard screaming. Where is Malveda? He said he was going to watch for your return.…”

Emma allowed him to pull her into a warm, fatherly hug before attempting to explain.

“He didn’t just wait. He came down after me and…and he fell, I’m afraid.”

Nicholson looked at her sharply and his keen eyes swept over her.

“You are injured.”

“Not badly.”

“Where’s your skirt? And your gun?”

“I…had to use them,” she said with a grimace.

“Did he…hurt you?”

“He tried quite hard to,” she admitted. “But don’t you worry about that: I’m all right and he’s gone to his reward, poor soul.”

Nicholson shook his head.

“I never liked the blighter,” he grunted. “Never trusted him either. Well, too late for that now.”

He seated her firmly upon a stone he had set beside the campfire, draped her in a blanket, and set about bandaging and tending to her many scrapes and cuts.

“Did you…get it after all?” he asked.

Emma smiled, set the plate aside, and lifted the idol out of her bag in triumph.

“Yectclo, god of the night, at your service,” she said. She set it upon the ground, the two of them gazed at it from all sides. The sun had gone behind the clouds, but even so it seem to blaze with cold, silvery fire, its strangely-shaped head fixated upon the sky.

“By George, I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Nicholson.

“Nor I,” she replied. “Nor, I wager, have any mortal eyes for over five hundred years, and very few before that.”

She gently caressed the figure, drinking in the strange, almost eerie effects of color and shape. The more she looked at it, the more unique and precious it seemed to become.

Emma got out some old cloth and wrapped the idol carefully in it. There would be plenty of time to formally examine the piece when they got back to civilization. She had had more than enough excitement for the time being. Now she was looking forward to warm beds, hot baths, and most of all, clean, beautiful clothes.

“My goodness, Nibs,” she said, eying her many bandaged wounds, her soaked, blood-stained shirt, and the bare, scrapped legs beneath her shorts. “Am I glad that you are the only one who can see me! I must look an absolute nightmare. Be a dear and fetch my vanity kit.”

Escape to Some Fantastic Schools

Want to take your mind off things? Pick up a volume or two of Fantastic Schools (now both available in paperback: a nice, thick volume to decorate your shelf and that can’t be digitally taken away from you).

Official Blurb:
Have you ever wanted to go to magic school? To cast spells and brew potions and fly on broomsticks and—perhaps—battle threats both common and supernatural? Come with us into worlds of magic, where students become magicians and teachers do everything in their power to ensure the kids survive long enough to graduate. Welcome to … Fantastic Schools.

Vol. 1
Follow a girl trying desperately to find her place in a school of dark magic, a band of witches desperate to prove they can be as good as the wizards, a school of magical monsters standing between the evil one and ultimate power, a businesswoman discovering the secrets of darkest evil … and what happens when a magical education goes badly wrong.

Vol. 2
Follow a mundane teacher striding into a world of magic, a spy on a mission, a guided tour of a magical school, a school dance for monsters, a dangerous reunion … and many more.

Follow us into worlds different, magical …

… And very human.

My own story, Halloween Dance is the final entry in the second volume. It’s all about the trials and complications of young love, particularly when the boy has a troubled past and is covered in scales, the girl is outgoing, friendly, and gorgeous, but can’t show her face without killing someone, and both are attending a school for monsters where unspeakable evil can strike at any time.

Pick up a copy today and escape into some fantastic schools.

Neptune Rises

Planetary Anthology: Neptune is now available to order in paperback (E-book coming Tuesday)

A collection of stories thematically centered around the planet Neptune, named for the god of the sea. Stories of the sea, of magic, of disillusionment, of wonder. Including one by your humble servant that tells of a pirate captain driven before a mysterious wind into strange waters, where his quest for gold leads him to discover a different kind of treasure…one that is not for the plundering.

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Pick up your copy today and enjoy this and fourteen other stories by a diverse cast of talented authors.

Rising of the Sun: Sol Anthology Live!

Tuscany Bay Books’ Planetary Anthology: Sol is now live!

Featuring thirteen stories centered on the theme of nobility and righteousness, including my own Under the Midnight Sun.

Far in the future, the dying sun has swollen and scorched most of the earth. The last known remnants of humanity dwell about the South Pole, where the sun rises and sets only once a year. There the beautiful, imaginative Gienna cherishes dreams of marrying for love, like the heroines of her favorite stories. By an unexpected chance, she at last meets a man who touches her heart, but who is he really and what secrets does he hide?

The Sun may die, but love, hope, and nobility need not.

(This is what happens when you read The Curse of Capistrano and The Night Land at roughly the same time)

“Oh thou bright orb, ruler of the sky…”

Pick it up today! Enjoy tales of nobility and goodness, and drop a review letting us know what you think! Feedback is always appreciated.

Fantastic Schools Vol. 2 is Live!

Fantastic Schools Volume 2 is now live!

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Well, mostly. We’re still waiting on the paperback. So, think of it as ‘live’ in the sense of Frankenstein’s Monster when he first awoke, but was too disoriented and confused to form any kind of conscious thought or intention. It’ll be a few hours before he can stumble out of the laboratory to look at the Sun for the first time, if you follow me.

But it is available for Kindle purchase as of now, so you can pick it up and enjoy a dozen different stories by massively talented authors, plus my own Halloween Dance, all dealing with the trials and tribulations of life at fantastic schools.

(As you might guess, my own story is pretty seasonally appropriate. Just throwing that out there).

Chapter Five of ‘Perseus Corbett and the Forbidden Valley’

See Chapter One here, Chapter Two here, Chapter Three here, and Chapter Four here

Chapter Five
The End of the Known

“You know I hate, detest, and can’t bear a lie, not because I am straighter than the rest of us, but simply because it appalls me. There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies—which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world—what I want to forget.”
-Marlowe, Heart of Darkness

“It took some convincing,” said Bill. “Quite an unpleasant scene, really. But we won him over in the end. He said, ‘all right, Bill, we shall see how you acquit yourself on this trip. If you give satisfaction and show yourself a man, then you’ll have my consent. If you don’t, then I don’t suppose she’ll care to have you anyway.’”

“A glowing endorsement,” said Martin.

“Well, it’s better than I expected,” Bill replied. “Can’t think why I went and blurted it out like I did. Of course I’ve always had a reckless streak in me; act first, ask questions later, what? Did I tell you how, when I was a boy, I went and jumped off the pier at Brighton? Twelve feet straight down, and April, so the water was damned cold. We were gone to seashore for Easter holiday, see.”

“A curious thing to do. Had you a reason for it?”

“This other boy dared me to do it,” Bill answered. “Just shows, doesn’t it, what an impulsive chap I am. That’s why I have to keep it all bottled up, you see?”

“It is certainly an illustrative incident,” said Martin with a hint a dryness in his tone that Bill, unfamiliar with the Austrian’s moods, missed entirely.

“But I am most impressed,” Martin went on, “that you should show such concern to secure your prospective father-in-law’s approval. Most do not in this day.”

“Frances tells me I’m old fashioned,” Bill agreed with a faint laugh. “But you see, she’s very close to her father; they’ve been a bit of a team ever since her mother died, and I certainly wouldn’t want to create a rift between them, what?”

“Admirable.”

They spoke while sitting in wicker chairs upon the deck of a riverboat making its way up the Amazon. A comfortable passage across the Atlantic had been followed by an almost equally comfortable journey up the Amazon to Manaus, where they had remained a few days while purchasing the rest of their supplies before taking another steamer up the Purus. It was the ‘dry season,’ so to speak, though the air was heavy with moisture and the rains still came almost every day. Great, heavy downpours, with raindrops the size of hailstones lashed down upon the mighty river and its green banks, but they didn’t last long and they certainly didn’t cool anything off. Even simply sitting in the shade upon the deck of their riverboat was enough to make Bill sweat as much as he ever had in his life.

“I say,” he said, fanning himself with his book. “You’ve been all around the world, haven’t you?”

“I have travelled extensively with Mr. Corbett, yes.”

“Is it always this hot?”

Martin looked at him with a faint expression of pity.

“When one is only ten degrees south of the Equator, yes,” he answered. “Though, of course, the humidity contributes.”

“Is it going to be like this the whole way?”

“Unlikely,” said Martin. “In the thick jungle, it will be far worse. There will be no breeze, you see.” 

Elizabeth, meanwhile, stood at the rail and watched the ranches and villages of the Amazon basin pass by. She was soaked with sweat, felt feverish from the heat, and the heavy, damp air seemed to resist being breathed. She was smarting all over from insect bites. All in all, she was extremely uncomfortable, and could not remember ever being happier. She was in the Amazon; that great, untamable ocean of life spread across a third of a continent, where man was not and never could be master. She stood only upon the surface now, but soon she would plunge into those dark depths and then the adventure—oh, what a word that was!—would truly begin.

Overhead, the clouds gathered once again and growled with thunder, making the air feel even heavier.

“I thought this was supposed to be the dry season,” she said to Perseus as he joined her at the rail. “If this is dry, I wonder what the wet one is like.”

“Oh, there’s no such thing as ‘dry’ in the Amazon.,” he said. “The rains don’t alter much; you get a few more downpours per day in the summer than you do in the winter, that’s all. The ‘wet’ season is so because that’s when it rains in the Andes, and all that water washes down here and makes the rivers higher and faster. ‘Flooded’ would be the more proper way to speak of it.”

“I keep forgetting it’s technically winter here,” she said. “The word sounds rather funny doesn’t it?”

They had spent a good deal of time together over the past few days. Sometimes he would tell her tales of his adventures, or they would discuss what they might expect in the coming days when they left all civilization behind, but lately they had mostly spent their time simply standing side by side and watching the banks of the river pass by.

At first, on the Amazon, there had been far more settlements and signs of human activity than Elizabeth had expected; towns, villages, cities even, and innumerable boats passing by. As they drew deeper into the basin, the signs of humanity became fewer and small, though they still floated past pretty often. There were small villages full of people of every hue and color, who paid little attention to the familiar sight of a passing riverboat. Here and there they passed great farms and ranches cut from the living jungle, with big, fine houses, some so grand that they made Elizabeth think of her own family estate. These sometimes sparked architectural discussions as they admired or critiqued the taste of the buildings: “What a hideous monstrosity!” “That one is charming; look at the latticework.” “Now there’s a house; classic Spanish style. Wonder how old it is?” “Good Lord! They brought all that paint this far into the jungle to give it that color scheme?” 

But these became fewer and fewer as they journeyed, and the jungle closed in as a solid wall of green about them. Birds of every color imaginable filled the trees, calling to one another with the sharp cries of the jungle. Monkeys gambled about in the branches, watching the passing boat with disinterested eyes, as though they thought the travelers beneath their notice. The banks of the river were high, with vast expanses of mud crisscrossed with fallen trees, and in many places they saw fat caiman basking in the sun, reminding Elizabeth forcibly of sunbathing tourists, the thought of which made her laugh. At one point they saw a big, long-nosed tapir drinking in the shallows, though it took off into the jungle as they drew close. More often they saw small red deer coming down to the water to drink and watching the passersby with big, innocent eyes.

Professor Illingworth spent most of his time in his cabin, going over books and making notes in his journal. On the occasions he joined them on the deck, he would give dry lectures on the wildlife they saw (“Caiman crocodilus, commonly known as the spectacled caiman or white caiman. There are currently four recognized subspecies…”) Or else he would expound a little on a few pet theories of his own (“The evolutionary history of this region very clearly demonstrates the principle of…”). And, when he had nothing better to do, he would entertain himself by yelling at Bill.  

In this way they proceeded up the Purus for several days until they reached their destination. Here, at the very end of the civilized world, the Brazilian government had long ago established a telegraph station, guarded by a small contingent of soldiers. A trading post naturally grew up around it, along with a church, and farms and so, eventually, the small village of Pordesol was born. Here goods were brought in from down river and sold among the villagers and soldiers, or shipped to the ranchers and rubber men up river. The turn off for the Rio Tardas, from which they would find the outlet of the mysterious Noite, was about three or four miles below the village, and as far as anyone knew, the only men who lived along the Tardas were the Catauxi tribesmen, who were generally friendly enough, but not keen for making contacts.

Perseus had known about Pordesol and its telegraph from an earlier trip he had taken into the interior, though he had never been there. This was how he had come to concoct his story of Colonel Torres. Early on in their plans, however, he was surprised to discover that Elizabeth knew of it as well. An old friend of her father’s, Colonel Newgate, had retired from service and left England shortly after the war and had, through a series of events that she didn’t quite understand, had ended up running the trading post in this little village on the extreme edge of the unknown.

Elizabeth having sent word of their coming ahead up the river, he was ready to greet them when the steamer pulled up to dock and embraced his friend’s daughter with warm affection. Newgate was a muscular man of medium height, with a square, expressive kind of face with a slightly elfish quality about the eyes that suggested an Irish ancestor. His greying hair was beginning to recede a little, and his clothes were simple, but clean. Elizabeth introduced him to her companions, and he greeted them with a well-bred politeness tempered by the ease of a man used to living far from society.

The trading post and general store that he ran fronted upon the docks, and his long, comfortable home extended out the back, running parallel to the riverbank. He gave a few quick orders to the comaradas who were handling the receipt of goods from the steamer, then led the expedition onto a shaded veranda overlooking the Purus. Drinks were provided, and they sat in perfect comfort while the breeze blew in off of the waters.

“I can’t tell you how surprised I was to get your telegram,” he said, leaning back in his chair and looking at Elizabeth with a warm smile. “I really thought my days of receiving old friends were over.”

“I had thought of simply surprising you,” said Elizabeth. “But then I wanted to be sure you were still here.”

“Where else should I be?” he answered. “I fully intend to die out here. It’s a good life; the people are pleasant company, there’s enough work to keep me occupied, and the scenery can’t be beat.”

“What made you decide to come out here in the first place?” asked Illingworth. “Seems a strange place for a British officer to retire to.”

“Not at all,” said Newgate. “After the war, I’d had quite enough of civilization. I looked about for the most isolated place I could go. I considered Tibet for a while, but eventually settled on the Amazon. Here, at least, no one tries to blow each other up, and I’m two weeks behind the times, so by the time I get news of trouble, it’s already been cleared up.”

“Sounds most appealing,” said Perseus. “You don’t find the weather a trial?”

“Yes I do, but it is quite worth it. Now tell me; what are you all doing here? Your telegram didn’t quite say. Some scientific survey, was it?”

“Yes,” she said. “Survey up the Noite. Perseus here says that he met an old colonel from the Empire days who I suppose must have been in this very spot, right?”

“I believe so, yes,” said Perseus. He spoke lightly, but inside he was tense. They had reached the point where the truth would soon have to come out, and he only dreaded its being discovered too soon. It suddenly occurred to him that people who lived at this station likely knew that there had never been a man named ‘Colonel Torres’ here.

Newgate added to his unease by shooting a quick glance at him, but he allowed Elizabeth to continue.

“Supposedly there are some very interesting species to be found along the Noite. We’re going to document them.”

“I see,” he said. “But, forgive me, what are you doing here, Elizabeth?”

“I’m funding the expedition,” she said. “Thought I ought to know what my money was being used for.”

“Really?” he said. “Is that all?”

She smiled a little embarrassedly.

“I confess, no. I’ve always wanted to go on a trip like this, and I didn’t know when I would have another opportunity.”

“I see,” he said, frowning a little. Perseus guessed that, like him, Newgate saw that Elizabeth had no idea what she was in for. But he said no more and instead began inquiring after their mutual friends in England.

After they had sat and chatted for a time, Newgate showed them over his house and store, which was remarkably comfortable and well-furnished for being so remote. He gave them a regular tour; showed them his wares, showed them his comfortable, book-lined rooms, his shining rifles upon the wall, and his photographs of old friends from England, whom Elizabeth wasted no time in examining.

“There’s father, of course,” she said. “That was during the war, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, just outside of Toutencourt. Right before the Somme, I think it was.

“That’s what’s his name, Lieutenant…

“Lieutenant Herbert. Surprised you remember him. He got blown up a few days later.

“I remember father telling me about him…and that’s Colonel Blunt, right? He used to come for shooting parties before the war. You met him, Perseus.”

“Oh, yes; he complimented my flower border. Whatever happened to him?”

“Survived the Somme; died at Passchendaele,” said Newgate.

“Hard luck, that,” said Perseus.

“What about this one?” asked Eliazbeth, pointing to another photo that showed Newgate and a much younger man.

“Don’t suppose you ever heard of him; Sergeant Allenby. Good chap from Birmingham. Invalidated out with shell shock and cut his wrists in hospital.”

“Have all these people died, then?” asked Bill.

“Most of them,” said Newgate sadly. “They’re useful reminders in case I ever get the urge to go back to what is called civilization. I think your father and I, Elizabeth, were the only ones here who survived the war, and then of course that damned motorcar…except this group shot, of course; some of those boys made it, I think. Oh, and you of course.”

Perseus, who had been examining the group shot, turned eagerly to this last photo. He recognized the setting at once: the back porch at Sangral House. There were Newgate and Lord Darrow sitting in wicker chairs, and there, standing beside her father, was Elizabeth, just as he remembered her; all arms and legs and tangled hair, wearing a look of unrestrained happiness with her arm around her father, as though she wanted to show him off.

“I remember when that was taken,” she said. “Just before you all left for the war.”

Then it was only a few months after he had left. He looked at the girl in the photo and smiled to himself. That was how he remembered her; that radiantly expressive, hold-nothing-back kind of smile.

He had yet to see that look on her present face. His eyes shifted from her to the man beside her in the photograph and he thought he might understand why. 

They were treated to a delightful supper on the veranda, while the usual afternoon downpour rattled outside. As they ate, Illingworth turned the conversation back to the purpose of their journey.

“Have you heard any rumor of these supposed strange beasts on the Noite, Colonel?”

Newgate leaned back in his chair and looked out on the misty river and the jungle beyond.

“One hears many strange stories out here,” he said. “The Noite holds a certain reputation among the natives. The Catauxi will not travel upon it, and the other tribes regard it as unlucky.”

“What for?” asked Elizabeth.

“It is said that the river marks the path to an evil place; a forbidden place. Some say it is only a part of the jungle, others say it is a great pit or cave in the earth. The legend goes that it is both the abode of monsters and the treasure house of the gods.”

Perseus flinched a little. They were getting very close to the mark. He wondered suddenly whether word of Professor Applegate’s expedition had reached Newgate’s ears, for surely they must have passed this way.

“Do they say what manner of ‘monsters’?” asked Illingworth.

Newgate smiled.

“Cuangi is said to dwell there.”

The rain seemed momentarily to grow more intense and the sky grumbled with thunder.

“What is ‘Cuangi’?” Elizabeth asked.

“A native superstition,” he said. “Most of the tribes of the southern Amazon have one version of him or other. Some say he’s a spirit, others a great beast, and others something in between. The only common thread is that he’s monstrous and all-powerful.”

The rain rattled upon the roof, and a fork of lightning lit up the sky. The expedition members had fallen silent.

“And he’s said to dwell along the Noite?” asked Perseus.

“Yes, or in that forbidden place I mentioned. One version of the legend has him the guardian of the gods’ treasures. Sort of a demonic watchdog. There’s a story that goes along with it.”

“Oh, tell us,” said Elizabeth.

“Ah, well, I only know the one version,” he said. “But it goes something like this. There once was a great warrior of a certain tribe. He was chief and the mightiest hunter the world had ever seen. He was betrothed to the most beautiful maiden in the tribe and, as is said of many a promising young buck, had everything in his favor.

“One night, while performing the sacred rites, for he was also well-versed in the world of spirits, he received a vision. A great spirit spoke to him from the smoke of the ritual fire. The spirit said ‘thou art great, but shall yet be greater. Take thy betrothed and walk into the forest for seven days and seven nights. Then thou shalt come to a great wall. There thou shalt possess the treasures of the gods.’

“So the chief took his betrothed and walked through the jungle. They didn’t need to fear anything, as he was the greatest hunter in the world, and the jaguars and snakes all knew to fear him. He came to the great wall of stone, and in the wall was a gate, and at that gate stood mighty Cuangi. They bowed and made obeisance before him, and the chief said, ‘Oh, mighty Cuangi, it has been given to me to possess the treasures of the gods.’

“But Cuangi answered and said, ‘None may pass my way without an offering.’ So the chief asked what he would have, and Cuangi said, ‘If thou wouldst possess the treasure of the gods, then thy betrothed is the price. Give her to me, or go back the way ye came.’

“And so the chief took hold of his betrothed and gave her to Cuangi, who ate her in one bite…”

“Wait, he did what?” Elizabeth exclaimed. 

“Not very nice, was it?” said Newgate, laughing. “Our friend is not a hero by English standards. But that is not the end of the story. After he had offered his betrothed to Cuangi, he was permitted to pass and to enter the great treasure house. There he outfitted himself the raiment of the gods, took their treasure for his own, and set off to claim his place among them.

“Only, when he tried to pass through the gate again, Cuangi again prevented him, saying that if he would pass, he must offer a second gift, equal to the first. But of course, he only had one betrothed and had already offered her. He protested and said that he had been promised possession of the gods’ treasures. ‘Yes,’ said Cuangi, ‘Thou wert promised to possess them. But thou dost possess them. Thou wert never promised to be permitted to bear them away.’

“And so, the great chief simply had to sit there in the god’s treasure house, bedecked in marks of power that he could never use to command and holding weapons he could never hunt with, until he grew old and rotted where he sat.”

“Overall,” said Perseus after a brief silence. “That is not an edifying story.”

“I’m glad the chief got his comeuppance at least,” said Elizabeth. “Serves him right!”

“Hear hear!” said Bill.

“Let us not be too harsh in judgment,” said Martin. “He merely did what most of us do.”

“What do you mean?” asked Bill. “You’re not saying most men would feed their fiancée to a monster to get his hands on a lot of treasure.”

“After a fashion, yes,” he answered. “Most of us are all-too quick to sacrifice the real good at hand for the mere promise of a better one.”

“I don’t know,” said Newgate. “I’m more inclined to think men too ready to cling to goods that they know, even it means they and others must suffer for it. We are altogether far too conservative a species.”

“I quite agree with you, Colonel,” said Illingworth. “Surely obscurantism is the greater danger. A certain continuation of the evils of the past must be outweighed by the possibility of a better future.”

“But the evils of the past are known and we can, in a sense, manage them,” Perseus argued. “The potential evils of future novelties must be unknown and, for that reason, must be worse.”

“I think there’s something to be said for both sides,” said Elizabeth. “We can’t stop all progress, even at the cost of losing something we love, but then, we can’t simply throw everything onto the chopping block, or else what would be the point? The trouble is knowing where to draw the line.”

“I certainly hope we all agree that it is somewhere on this side of ‘feeding beautiful young ladies to monsters’,” said Perseus.

“Only beautiful ones?” asked Elizabeth. “What about the plain young ladies?”

He shrugged.

“As you say; we can’t stop all progress.”

She laughed, and so did Bill. Newgate, however, did not laugh. He was watching Perseus with a thoughtful expression.

After dinner he showed them their rooms. The trading post also functioned as an inn for the rare few visitors who came that way, and he had two small, but comfortable spare bedrooms made up. He insisted on giving up his own room for Elizabeth’s use and promised that he would be quite comfortable in his study, as he often slept there when he was obliged to work late.

Before they retired, however, he beckoned Elizabeth to join him on the now-empty veranda. She went willingly, not feeling the least bit sleepy. It was just after sunset, and the forest across the river was like a sharp black shadow against the pink sky, both doubled in the river. The rain had cleared and left the air cooler, and the insects sang from the shadows. Elizabeth once again felt a shiver of delight at the thought of where she was.

Then Newgate began without any preamble.

“Elizabeth, how much do you know of this man, Corbett?”

She looked at him in surprise.

“I’ve told you; he stayed with us for two years before the war.”

“Yes, I know that. Have you had any contact with him since?”

She flinched involuntarily at the reminder.

“No,” she said. “Not until a few weeks ago when we got this all together.”

“I was afraid of that,” he sighed. “Now listen; I am going say something that I know you are not going to like, but I owe it to you, and to the memory of your father. I know men like that; that sort of devil-may-care, vagabond type who travels the world doing this and that and never settling to any honest trade. You see them all the time around here, and there were more than a few the in the army. They’re devilishly charming and handy in a tight spot, but you cannot trust them. They always are after one thing and one thing only; money.”

Elizabeth looked at him in shock.

“Thank you for your concern,” she said slowly. “But you’re quite wrong about him. Perseus isn’t like that at all. He has knocked about the world a good deal, but he isn’t in it for money. Why, just to give you an idea what he’s like, he’s the boy I gave that Charles the First medal to, you remember? He still has it. You can’t tell me a mercenary personality wouldn’t have sold that thing long ago.”

“You’re sure he still has it, are you?” he said.

“I…yes, I’m quite sure. But besides that, he isn’t even charging us! Says he’ll take his salary upon delivery.”

“He is taking you into the jungle and not even asking to be paid?”

“Yes. So that shows, doesn’t it, that he’s acting in good faith. It isn’t the money he cares about; it’s the adventure.”

His face did not relax.

“Why would he need to make such a gesture of good faith?”

“Because we did, after all, only have his word for it. Like I told you, he happened to meet an old colonel from the empire days; Colonel Torres, I think it was, and learned about the Noite from him. So, to prove that he was telling the truth, he volunteered to defer payment until his story was verified.”

Newgate looked at her with something approaching pity.

“Elizabeth,” he said. “This station wasn’t started until after the empire.”

“Oh,” she said, taken a little off guard. “Then it must have been another site. What does it matter?”

“Didn’t you hear what I told you about the Noite, and the legends around it? The treasure house of the gods?”

She felt suddenly uncomfortable as she realized what he was getting at.

“You think that is what is after? But that’s just a legend, isn’t it?”

“All legends have a basis in truth,” he said. “In any case, I can much more readily believe him willing to go after a legendary treasure than I can believe a man like that would have such a disinterested love of science that he would propose and undertake a trip like this simply to discover a few new species of butterfly.”

“No, no,” said Elizabeth. She was beginning to feel faintly desperate as she realized the plausibility of his words and, what was worse, that she had no answer to them. “He…he said that he was only interested in an adventure; the chance to see one of the few unexplored places left on Earth.”

“Of course he would say that,” Newgate sighed. “Just the thing to get you hooked. Elizabeth, he is using you! Can’t you see that? He knows what kind of person you are, so he shows up with just the right story to peak your interest.”

“No, you don’t know him!” she said furiously. “He wouldn’t do that sort of thing. He…he can’t have changed that much.”

“How long has it been since you’ve seen him? Ten years? Fifteen?”

“Fourteen.”

“Fourteen years is a lifetime, especially for the kind of life you say he’s been leading,” he said. “Please, Elizabeth, you know I’m not trying to make you unhappy; I’m only trying to keep you safe. I know something of men like that, and I do not think you ought to go off into the jungle with him.”

Elizabeth was too sensible not to see the reasonableness of his request. It was all horribly plausible, and against it she only had her own knowledge of and affection for a man whom she had not seen in many years. But though her head told her that Newgate was perfectly right, her heart recoiled from the idea that she couldn’t trust Perseus.

“No,” she said. “I don’t care what you say, I know him. And Perseus would never lie to me. I’d swear to that.”  

“All right, all right,” sighed Newgate. “I won’t badger you. But please, Elizabeth, think hard about what you’re doing. This will be your last chance to turn back.”

“I most certainly will not turn back!” she said. She drew a deep breath, summoning all her self-control. “I know, Colonel, that you mean well, and thank you for you concern, but I…I know what I am doing.”

He shook his head.

“I hope so,” he said. “I really do.”

Elizabeth turned away from him. She felt something like hatred for Colonel Newgate; hatred of the fact that he had planted such seeds of doubt in her mind, which she could neither accept nor get rid of. She wanted badly to speak to Perseus, and she was just resolving to go seek him out when he stepped into the hall from the study.

“Elizabeth?” he said. “Can I speak with you a moment? In private?”

“Certainly,” she said, endeavoring to appear as herself. “I was just coming to see you myself.”

“I thought you might be,” he said.

They went into the store, which was closed up and deserted. Elizabeth waited for him to begin.

“I…I have something of a confession to make,” he said. “Which I probably ought to have made earlier, but I beg you to hear me out before you judge me.”

“What do you mean?” she asked. The suspicions so recently and unwilling sown in her mind sharpened. 

“It isn’t easy to have a private conversation in a country where the windows are always open,” he said with a grimace. “I heard what Colonel Newgate and you were saying.”

“Oh!” she said, coloring. “I’m sorry; I hope you didn’t take offense or…”

“No, no, nothing like that,” he said hastily. “Newgate’s an astute man, and he clearly cares for you. My confession is that he is…he is not entirely wrong.”

There was a heavy silence.

“What are you talking about?”

He reached into his shirt and drew out a leather bundle. He unwrapped it and handed her the torn notebook.

True Narrative of Certain Events in the Brazilian Jungle, by Robert Cooper,” she read aloud. “What is this?”

“An account of the Applegate expedition from 1910,” he answered. “Professor Applegate was a naturalist, much like Illingworth, and led a party to this region to study the Noite. They followed a native legend to a place they call the Forbidden Valley. The narrative breaks off before they describe what happened there, but Applegate and several others died, and the survivors considered what they found there to be so startling, so out of the ordinary that they kept it a secret from everyone, except for what is recorded in this book.”

She stared at him.

“Then…that is where you mean to go?”

He nodded.

“Where did you get this?”

“Off of a drunk old man I bumped into in Istanbul. Where he got it, I have no idea. He was being assaulted by a gang of toughs and Martin and I stepped in to try and help. The poor fellow was already done for – stabbed – but he lived long enough to give this to me in gratitude for the effort. I don’t suppose many people ever tried to help him. No longer after, on the way to England, a gentleman tried first to buy it off me, then to have it at gun point. I got the better of him, but from what he let slip I realized that there was some sort of gang after the book. I don’t know how they knew about it, or how they knew I had it, but they were clearly willing to do anything to get their hands on it. So I thought it best to keep its existence a secret and to not let our real destination be known, just in case they were on the lookout. I don’t mind being shot myself, but I hate having my friends shot at.”

She did not smile.

“Then, that story you told us, of the Brazilian colonel…”

“Was just a story,” he admitted. “I needed a plausible alternative that would take us in the same direction. But I tried to make it as true as possible; we are going to an undiscovered ecosystem off of the Noite. I only left out a few details about its nature and location. Probably would have been easier to convince Illingworth if I’d told him everything.”   

“In short,” she said slowly. “You lied to me.”

The words landed like blows.

“I am sorry,” he said. “When I decided on that story, I had no idea you were the one I would telling it to. And only did it to try to keep you safe.”

“You might have told me afterwards,” she said. “You could have trusted me to keep quiet about it, couldn’t you?”

“Oh!” he said. “I…yes, I could have. I…I am afraid I didn’t think of that.”

She looked from him to the book in her hands, then back to him. Her face was very red and her eyes were hard and angry.

“Tell me honestly,” she said. “Do you still have that medal?”

He opened his mouth to say ‘yes,’ but the word seemed to stick in his throat.

“It’s safe,” he said.

“What does that mean?”

“I…we spent the last money we had coming to London. I needed some to start putting this together, and I needed it quickly, owing to those people being after me…”

“You sold it.”

She said it in a quiet, almost a childlike voice. The realization of what he had done seemed to take everything from her.

“Pawned,” he said. “And I’m making him hold it for a year. It’s only temporary, and it’s as safe as can be. I swear to you, I will get it back…”

“What are you really after?” she snapped, cutting him off.

He blinked. “What are you talking about?”

“You didn’t drag us all out here for a mere lark,” she said. “You expect to find something in that valley, don’t you? That’s why you’re so set on it, isn’t it?”

There was a commanding tone in her voice. It was the voice of one who was used to giving orders and having them obeyed. The cheerful, exuberant girl had faded, and the feudal lady of the manor had risen to the surface.

“Yes,” he admitted. He pointed to the wall. “But whatever he says, I am not using you, and I never would!”

“No, you’re just using my money, aren’t you?” she spat. “Like you used my medal.”

“It isn’t like that!”

“Isn’t it?”

He looked at her.

“Do you really think it is?”

A kind of painful cramp was growing in her heart as she met his gaze.

“A few minutes ago, I swore that you would never lie to me,” she said. “Yet here we are. So I don’t know what to think.”  

They looked at each other for several minutes, both breathing rather hard.

“If you don’t think you can trust me,” he said. “Then it probably would be best if you were to return home. We are going to be going into very dangerous territory, and I would much prefer if you were not exposed to it.”

“First you lie to me, now you try to humiliate me,” she said. “Send me home to be jeered at for spending all this money and then running off when it gets difficult?”

Her vehemence took him off guard.

“I would rather have you embarrassed and safe than otherwise,” he said.

“I thank you for your concern,” she said. “Now are there any other lies you’d care to confess?”

He flinched.

“No,” he said. “But Elizabeth, you really ought to take Newgate’s advice and go home.”

“I appreciate that advice, Mr. Corbett,” she said. “And I thank you for at least telling me this now. I only wish that you had done so while there was still time for me to fire you!”

So saying, she turned and marched back into the house, slamming the door behind her. She fairly ran to her own room, threw herself down on the bed, and began to cry.

Chapter Four of ‘Perseus Corbett and the Forbidden Valley’

See Chapter One here, Chapter Two here, and Chapter Three here

Chapter Four
The Unexpected Outcome of a Museum Gala

“Well, we’ve gone and done it, young fellah my lad.”
-Lord John Roxton, The Lost World

On the following evening, Perseus found himself at the Natural History Museum, dressed in a rented suit and tails, with a ticket in hand that had cost almost as much, scanning the crowed of richly dressed guests the way a lion scans a herd of zebras, looking for that one who stands out as a viable target.

Martin had outdone himself. The gala was being held in honor of an expedition to Borneo that had returned in triumph with several new species of insects, reptiles, and birds, one of which – dubbed the silver eagle for its sticking feathers and nocturnal habits – had made rather a sensation. The reception was held in the central hall of the museum, with specimens from the expedition on triumphal display at temporary stands between the pillars of the gothic space (the live specimen of the silver eagle was perched in a large cage in the center of the hall, shooting warning looks at anyone who ventured too close). Virtually all the most important and influential zoological men of the Royal Academy and the major universities were there, along with their patrons, and all, no doubt, were eager for a ‘silver eagle’ of their own. Here if anywhere, he would find what he sought.

He got some champagne and, putting on his best winning manner, the one that he had used to flirt with tourists when he had worked on a riverboat, he selected the elderly Lord Fitzgibbons and his wife (Martin had provided him a list of notable people who would be present) and began making small talk. They were charmed, particularly Lady Fitzgibbon, and a few anecdotes and compliments were enough to establish a rapport.

But just as he was laying the foundations for his attack, there was a momentary lull in the chatter around him and a voice reached his ears from across the hall.

“Tell me, Lady Elizabeth, will you be making another donation to the museum this year?”

That name. Surely not…

In a flash, Perseus forgot everything and whipped around. His eyes found her at once, standing beside the diplodocus skeleton, not twenty feet away from him.

The same, and yet not the same. The skinny, rambunctious girl, all arms and legs, covered in freckles and insect bites, had become a tall, elegant woman; grace and refinement in every limb. The tangled red hair was now smooth and done up in a kind of crown, like a halo of flame. The dirty, torn frocks had been replaced by a green dress trimmed in gold which emphasized her fiery hair, as well as her firm and blooming figure. Her face was much as it had been, yet somehow more. Beautiful, certainly; it was a face made for the open air, for the adoring, obedient eyes of dogs and horses. An open, kind face that looked as though it would be quick to laughter.

But the eyes—the bright, hazel-green eyes, sparkling with life—those hadn’t changed.

Martin hadn’t said a word…perhaps she was a late addition to the guest list? Or had he deliberately kept quiet to ensure Perseus ran into her. He might have to have words with him later.

“I suspect I shall,” Elizabeth was saying without interest. “I always find human knowledge a good investment.”

“I just wondered,” said the other woman, whom Perseus had barely noticed. “As I’d heard you’d purchased yourself a new horse.”

“Apparently to my shame, I have money for both,” said Elizabeth, coloring slightly. “Horses needs homes just like anyone else.”

Perseus disengaged himself from his new acquaintances without noticing what he said and crossed the room.

“Of course,” said the other, making a note. She was evidently a reporter of some kind.

“Oh, bother, you’re going to make that sound horrible, aren’t you? ‘Lady Elizabeth says that she sees people on a level with horses.’”

“That is one possible interpretation of what you said,” the reporter replied with a smile like vinegar. “After all, I can’t help notice that your donations tend to be, how shall I put it? Abstract. Why not give to something more practical, if you really want to put your money to good use?”

“What would you suggest?” asked Elizabeth.

“Say, the League of Women voters? Or the Peace Pledge Union? Something for the immediate benefit of mankind.” 

“Personally,” said Perseus, sliding into the conversation. “I don’t think people are on a level with horses. I think, taking all in all, that horses are far preferable. Particularly compared with the League of Women Voters.”

Elizabeth laughed, looking at him with grateful surprise.

“And, who are you, sir?” asked the reporter.

“Only a barbarian from beyond the sea,” he said with a bow. “Now if you don’t mind, I should like to borrow Lady Elizabeth for a moment.”

Elizabeth nodded at the woman with elaborate politeness and allowed Perseus to draw her aside.

“Thank you for coming to my rescue,” she said. “I’d a hundred times prefer to be abducted by barbarians than preyed upon by reporters.”

“Does she do it so often?”

“Always,” said Elizabeth. “That’s Sarah Manning, society writer for the Guardian. Rather hot on the subject of the aristocracy and how it is ‘a parasitical tumor upon British society,’ I believe is how she put it. I suppose tomorrow I’ll receive a double-dose of venom for your gallantry, but at least I can enjoy the look on her face tonight, and so for that I thank you, Sir Barbarian.”

“My pleasure, your ladyship,” he answered with a bow.

“I didn’t catch your name,” she said. She tilted her head, scrutinizing him closely. “And…pardon me, but have we met before?”

“We have,” he said. “And I am glad to see that at least the sea monster hasn’t gotten you yet.”

Her hazel eyes widened and her jaw dropped. For a moment, all her good breeding and elegant habits were lost in astonishment.

“Perseus?” she said. “Perseus Corbett? I…my goodness, I wouldn’t have recognized you! You have…well, you’ve grown!”

“So have you,” he said. “I suppose it happens over fourteen years, doesn’t it?”

“Yes, yes it does,” she stammered, hardly thinking what she was saying. “But where on Earth have you been? The last I heard you’d gone off to sea.”

“You heard of that?” he said, surprised.

“Of course. I wrote to ask you to come for Christmas, but your mother said you’d gone.”

“Oh,” he said. He felt thrown by the news; it had never occurred to him that she would do such a thing. “I thought your mother didn’t like me.”

“She didn’t frightfully, but I talked her into it. I was so disappointed to find out you weren’t coming.”    

“I…I’m afraid I had to start earning my fortune,” he said.

“Oh, yes,” she said. She seemed suddenly embarrassed and dropped her eyes, fingering her dress. “I mean, of course I realize that now.”

As they spoke, he thought something else about her had changed. The quickness, the colt-like energy that had marked her every move and expression in the past was gone. She seemed…slower. Tireder. The spirited colt had been reined. 

There was a somewhat uncomfortable pause. The things he really wanted to say to her, the things he wanted to ask her, couldn’t be said. He was trying to get a surreptitious look at her left hand, but she was holding them so that he couldn’t see. They were rescued by Lord and Lady Fitzgibbon.

“Lady Elizabeth! Do you know Mr. Corbett?” his Lordship asked.

“Oh, yes, we go way back,” said Elizabeth.

“Old friends,” said Perseus, watching to see what effect that might have on her. She gave no sign of either approval or disapproval.

“I am surprised you never mentioned him!” said her Ladyship. “Such a charming man.”

Was it his imagination, or was there a twinkle in Lady Fitzgibbon’s eyes?

“It’s been some time since we’ve seen each other,” Elizabeth answered.

“That certainly explains your hasty departure, Mr. Corbett,” said his Lordship with a smile. “Say no more! We shall leave you to your bewitching companion.”

They bowed and drifted off.

“When did you become acquainted with them?” she asked

“About five minutes ago.”

“Quick work. You seem to have made your fortune after all, haven’t you?”

“Looks can be deceiving,” he said, glancing down at his suit. “As a matter of fact I’m here on business.”

“How tiresome,” she said. “But tell me, what sort of business is it that you do? Nothing in London, surely.”

“Not usually, no,” he said with a grin. “I have done…well, quite a lot. I was a sailor during the Great War, and a soldier in one or two little ones. I ran a tour boat on the Nile, I tried my hand at ranching for a bit, I’ve hunted and trekked through most of the odd places of the world, and now I’m dabbling in a bit of field science.”

“My goodness! Then you’ve actually done it, haven’t you?” she exclaimed. Her lovely hazel eyes were wide with wonder, and she looked at him the way a child looks at a particularly good magician. “I mean, all those things we talked about as children that we wanted to do.”

“I suppose I have,” he said. “But I’m sure you’ve done some as well, haven’t you?”

“No,” she said. “No, I’m afraid I’ve turned into quite the boring, stay at home sort; the most adventure I have is the occasional hunting trip or riding party. And never farther abroad than Ireland.”

“Really?” he said in genuine surprise. “Has something happened to Sangral?”

“Oh, no; it’s taking in quite as much money as ever, and I’ve made a bit of an investment or two that have paid off handsomely. It isn’t want of resources; more want of opportunity.”

“I see,” he said, though he didn’t. “And how is the old place?”

“Quite the same as ever,” she said. “Tredwell is still treading about, your uncle is still keeping the grounds lovely. Mother sits home in her conservatory most of the time. And…and I’m afraid Father died some years ago; just after the war, in fact.”

“Did he? I am very sorry to hear that,” said Perseus. “I always liked him.”

“Yes, it was rather horrible,” she said in a dull kind of voice that sounded jarring coming from her. “Especially coming just then when we were all thinking we’d gotten through it.”

“Was he ill?”

“No, it was a motorcar. Some drunken fool ran him down.”

She cleared her throat and rallied herself.

“But never mind that. No help for it. Anyway, I don’t suppose you want to waste time hearing all my dreary news. And most of it is dreary; as I say, I’ve turned out frightfully boring.”

“It can’t all be dreary,” he said. “Come now; no good news?”

He braced himself as she considered the question.

“Well, as you heard, I have some charming horses,” she said. “And I have had a bit of a lark funding expeditions to interesting places. I don’t go myself, but at least I hear amusing stories from the people do. As a matter of fact, I put a bit of money toward this trip, though don’t let Ms. Manning hear that; she did a piece last year on how I only do it to keep my name in the papers. As if I want people to write horrible things about me! But there I go being dreary again, and it’s really too dull for me to recite that sort of thing when I want to hear more about you. Oh! do you still have that medal I gave you?”

“Of course!” he said smiling to cover the stab of guilt in his stomach. “I keep it very safe.”

“That’s a relief! I was just thinking that, with your running all over the world, getting into adventures, and being in the war and all it was…not that I’m suggesting you would be reckless with it, just that it is very precious and all.”

“Quite, quite,” he said, hoping she would change the subject. At the same time he noted the nervous, embarrassed edge to the question, with her perceived need to apologize for asking. That again wasn’t like her. Yes, she was definitely less sure of herself than she had been. He wondered what had brought the change.

“So, what is this business you’re here about?” she asked after another somewhat embarrassed pause. 

“Oh, that,” he said. “That is…a little complicated.”

He really didn’t want to have to lie to Elizabeth of all people. Yet here was an opportunity that he could not possibly pass by. He made up his mind in an instant. 

“The long and short of it is,” he said, lowering his voice, “that I’m hoping to get a little expedition together to go take a look at a backwater of the Amazon. I’ve happened to hear rumors of there being unique species in that region. I was rather hopping to convince one of these scientists to take an interest in it.”  

“Oh, is that all!” she said. “Why the whispering, then? I might be able to help you there. I know most of these scientist fellows. And if you need money…”

“I couldn’t ask you to do that!” he said.

“Whyever not?” she said. “I told you, it’s practically a hobby of mine, and I’d just as soon fund something for you as for a stranger.”

“Well…” he said, hesitantly. “I certainly could use the help, I won’t deny; I haven’t been in England since the war.”

“Come along then; we’ll hash it all out,” she said. “But not here; don’t suppose you want to talk with all these people about.”

He shrugged, nodded, and allowed her to lead him away.

“Damn, there’s another reporter; we’ll go this way…”

After a few more turns and detours to avoid certain guests, she had led him out of the central hall and down the corridors. After checking one or two chambers and finding them occupied by other guests who had sought to escape the main party, she at last deposited him in the hall of reptiles beside a case of various snakes.

“Perfect,” she said. “Now wait here a moment; I think I know just the man you want to see…”

She disappeared, leaving Perseus to try to gather his scattered thoughts. A few minutes later, she returned trailing a thin, elderly man behind her.

“Professor Julius Illingworth, may I present my old friend, Mr. Perseus Corbett.

During one of his many adventures, Perseus Corbett had spent some time in a very old house in the southern United States. One room had held numerous taxidermized specimens of deer, bear, and other creatures, but the house had been abandoned for so long that they had dried out and begun to fall in upon themselves.

Professor Illingworth reminded him forcibly of one of those creatures.

He was tall and very thin, with sunken cheeks and grey hair that was rapidly losing its war with the inevitable. He had a drooping kind of mustache and deep-set grey eyes with heavy eyelids that made him look a bit like an old dog. His grey suit appeared a trifle too large for him, as though it had been tailored for him when he had been more filled out and healthy. But the gaze that met his was sharp and cunning, and Perseus guessed that, however desiccated the man may be, he had lost none of his wits. 

“How do you do, sir?” he said, offering a cadaverous hand as he surveyed Perseus with his cold blue eyes. Perseus could almost feel the old man’s gaze as it swept over his tan, his scars, and took the measure of his frame. “I understand that you have some sort of proposition.”

“I do, sir,” he answered. “I’m by way of being an amateur naturalist myself; knocked around the world quite a bit…”

“Have you?” Illingworth interrupted. “Then of course you would have no trouble recognizing that specimen?” He indicated one of the taxidermied snakes under the glass, putting his hand over the label.

“Naturally,” said Perseus smoothly. “Kanburi pit viper. Lovely creature, isn’t it?”

“Magnificent,” said Illingworth in a mechanical tone. “And are you familiar with its cousin, the Stejneger viper?”

“I have made its acquaintance, yes,” said Perseus. “Not quite so attractive as this fellow.”

“Not at all. And you must then have encountered the Carneddau viper in your travels?”

Perseus sensed the trap.

“I have not, I am afraid, nor have I read of that species,” he said. “Some new discovery of your own, perhaps? The name suggests a Welsh variant.”

Illingworth smiled, a thin smile that did not reach his eyes.

“It has been some years since I have been actively involved in field work,” he said. “There is no such creature, to the best of my knowledge. 

“Ah, I see,” said Perseus. “You were attempting to trip me up? To show me as a fraud and imposter?”

“It has been known to happen,” said Illingworth. “Particularly where…” he glanced at Elizabeth. “Money is concerned.”

“So it has. I could tell you a fair few stories from my travels.”

“I am sure you could,” said Illingworth in a dry tone. “Now, what is this proposal of yours?”

“As I was saying, I have been around the world quite a lot. I was in Portugal a short time back where I chanced to meet a retired fellow from the Brazilian army. Left when the empire was overthrown. Anyway, he had done a deal of work in the Amazon; helped get the telegraph started. Living out in the wilds, he got to know the locals quite well, and they told him tales of a certain tributary, way back in the beyond of beyond, supposedly the haunt of monsters. One day he got curious and paid some of the fellows to show him the way. Well, he told me, after a long journey, they started seeing queer things; things he hadn’t seen anywhere else in the jungle.”

“Such as what?” asked Illingworth.

“He had a bit of trouble describing them to me,” said Perseus. “He was a bit far gone, I’ll admit; stumbled a little in his words, but I gather there were great snakes and huge birds, like the moa, you know. And a variety of large mammalian life; like bears, he said.”

“In the jungle?”

“Quite, that is what I thought.”

“What was your friends’ name, may I ask?”

“He said that it was Colonel Torres,” said Perseus. “Though I confess, from things he let drop, I suspect that was an alias. He kept talking of enemies.”  

“This is all very entertaining,” said Illingworth, in a tone that suggested he had never been entertained in his life. “But I still do not grasp what you want from us?”

“I propose an expedition, sir, to travel up this river and document its wildlife.”

“In fact, you wish us to pay you to travel to the Amazon based on the word of a man you yourself describe as a paranoid drunkard, and who, for all I can see, may not even exist?”

“Not at all!” said Perseus. “I want you to send some of your own people to the Amazon, and I offer my services as a guide.”

“It comes to much the same thing, does it not?” asked Illingworth.

“Indeed,” said Perseus with a bow. “You are, professor, a very clever man, I can see. You’ve got me in a nice little corner here. How can I prove my good faith on such a matter? I have no references in this country, save Lady Elizabeth here, and while I’m sure no man could doubt her good will or good sense, what can she really tell you on this matter when this is the first she is hearing of it as well? If I were to summon my partner to vouch for my story, you would only say that he is as much a crook as myself. What, then, do you suggest I do?”

“What indeed?” asked Illingworth.   

“What are you going to do?” asked Elizabeth. She was watching him with keen interest; like a child watching for the magician to pull his trick.

“Nothing simpler,” he answered. “I will venture to forego all payment until the successful completion of the expedition. ‘Satisfaction guaranteed or services free’. How will that do?”  

Elizabeth’s face broke into a radiant grin that nearly upset Perseus’s air of nonchalance.

“That, I should say, will be most satisfactory,” she said. “You might have had a career in advertising.”

Illingworth, however, though he looked surprised, did not look satisfied.

“May I ask, sir, why this is so important to you?”

Perseus tore his eyes off of Elizabeth to look at Illingworth.

“An adventure,” he said. “I am not particularly concerned with money, you see, but I do like a good adventure. This seems a cracking good one: the chance to explore one of the remaining really unknown places on Earth, to see things that few if any men have ever seen before. That is worth more to me than any gold.”

Illingworth surveyed him with dry skepticism.

“That may be so, sir, but I must say that I see no practical benefit to the museum in this proposal.”        

“No benefit?” Elizabeth exclaimed. “A truly unexplored and undocumented ecosystem?”

“In the first place, I have heard nothing to convince me that such a place exists,” said Illingworth. “In the second, I am sure there are many such places in the world today, but an institution such as ours has better things to do with its time and money than go hauling around the world looking for them on bare and uncertain evidence. It would be a great expense with a very small likelihood of a reasonable return. Much as I care for the advancement of knowledge, the discovery of a few new species of butterfly or lizard or even bird would not significantly impact our reputation or income one way or another, despite what the papers may say.”

Elizabeth looked at him with something of expression she might have given if she had caught him burning the Union Jack. Then a mischievous glint came into her eyes, and she shrugged her slender shoulders.

“Oh, well,” she said. “I can certainly respect your feelings on the matter. We shall simply have to ask elsewhere.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Personally, I am convinced of Mr. Corbett’s sincerity and good intentions, and I, for one, mean to see to it that this river is found and documented. And so, if the Natural History Museum is not interested, I will have to go elsewhere.”

Illingworth’s cold, dry manner slipped a little.

“Lady Elizabeth, you surely are not going to waste your money on such a…” he glanced at Perseus. “Uncertain venture?”

“Why not?” she said. “It is my money, after all, despite what some people seem to think. And I don’t know that it is so uncertain. At any rate, I intend to fund this expedition as soon as I find a scientific organization that is more concerned with advancing human knowledge than advancing its reputation.”

Perseus had to bite his lip to hide his grin. He tried not to look at either of them for fear he would lose composure entirely.

“I…as to that…” Illingworth spluttered.

Perseus could almost hear the thought process going on in the old man’s head; Elizabeth was an important patron of the museum. Whatever the costs of the expedition, losing her backing would be worse.

“Not only do I intend to fund it,” she went on. “I intend to accompany it.”

Perseus’s amusement vanished.

“You what?” he said.

She beamed at him.

“Yes, I think, since I am making an investment, I ought to see what my investment will buy for once.”

“Well, yes,” he said. “But, you know, it’s going to be quite dangerous.”

“Of course I realize that.”

She didn’t, he could tell. No one ever really did until they were there. He hadn’t expected this. It was one thing risking himself in a quest for gold; risking Elizabeth was something else entirely. Especially when he had lied about what exactly they were looking for a and why he was going. He felt hot, prickling shame in his stomach and a sensation like coming fever at the back of his throat.

But it was too late now; if he admitted the truth, there would be the end of it.  

“Much as I would love to have you along,” he said. “I strongly, strongly advise against it. We are going to be travelling in very rough country, and there will be jaguars and venomous snakes and insects and disease and many of the tribes are very unfriendly to outsiders, and that isn’t even considering the hardships and lack of privacy and…”

He stopped. The more he spoke, the brighter her eyes became, and he realized he was only making her more determined. He sighed. There was nothing for it.

“But if you really are determined,” he said. “Then I suppose I can’t stop you.”

“No, you can’t,” she answered. “Now all we have to do is to find another museum to provide the necessary scientific…”

“Oh, very well,” said Illingworth. “If you really mean to insist upon this venture, then I shall at least see to it that some good comes of it.”

“You will back the expedition, then?”

“Yes, yes, I shall,” he sighed. “I don’t know what it will do to my reputation, but so be it. When do you propose we start?”

“The sooner the better, I should think,” said Elizabeth.

“Very well. I shall have my assistant begin work on an itinerary. Now, where is that boy? Bill!”

***

While all this was going on, Martin had waited in the eastern wing of the museum, watching the party from the shadow of the portico with keen eyes for any sign of trouble. Underneath his stoic exterior, he was really rather anxious; he didn’t like Perseus’s scheme very much, and had only agreed to it because he hadn’t been able to think of a better plan. But if he could not prevent it, the only thing to do was to be on hand to try to ensure it came off.

At the same time, he had had an impish curiosity to see what happened when Perseus met Lady Elizabeth at last, as well as to see her for himself (it was partly for that reason that he had neglected to inform Perseus that she would be there). For though Perseus had never spoken much about her, Martin knew enough to guess at what he hadn’t said. He observed their conversation closely, unable to hear, but exercising his keen eye to judge their manners. Once they had disappeared into the west wing, Martin withdrew into the quiet corridors to think and to consider what he had observed.

He rather liked what he saw of Lady Elizabeth. She was certainly a beautiful young woman, and what was rarer, she knew how to dress well. She appeared to have perfectly good manners, but without affectation. A thoroughly charming young lady, he concluded, though he detected an air of anxiety about her that he didn’t quite like. He would have to keep an eye on that. 

For all his sophistication, Martin Halritter really had a very simple soul. He was the quintessential servant; no talk of salary or communal service interested him, nor was he any company man, but personal loyalty to one man or one family was the prime mover of his soul. Many there are for whom it is so, and at that time they were already beginning to suffer from the want of such opportunity in a rapidly changing world.

Perseus Corbett was no gentleman, at least not yet, but Martin had seen in him qualities that he thought would make for true nobility. And so, he had attached himself to him. They spoke as equals, and Martin never used the word ‘Sir,’ yet in his mind he was a valet and Perseus was his gentleman. There was between them that deep, abiding love that is sometimes called friendship, other times simply loyalty, but stands in a class of its own; the peculiar love of servant and master that in some ways is akin to that of father and son, save that neither could say which was which.

As he strolled softly up the hall, he became aware of voices coming from the hall of fossils. Curious, he drifted nearer to try to catch what was heard. A combination of the training of a good servant and many years spent in dark and dangerous places had given him the power of moving quite silently when he wished, and he did so now, gliding down the hall to see what was afoot.

Peering around the corner of the entry way, he beheld two young people standing amid the looming skeletons of ancient monsters. One was a big, amiable-looking young man with a thin mustache, the other a slender girl with long dark hair and an attractive, clever kind of face.

“Bill, this is ridiculous,” the girl was saying.  

“No, but really Frances, I do love you…”

“Yes, yes, you have told me many times, but why you dragged me in here to tell me it over again…”

“Why? You think it’s odd that I should want to talk to you alone?”

“No, of course not,” she said. “But why here?”

“So your father shouldn’t catch us.”

“Do you think I would mind terribly if he did?”

“Perhaps not, but I would, seeing as he’s my employer. And how could I marry you without a job?”

“Honestly, Bill, I don’t know that having you constantly worrying about what my father will think is much improvement over a life in the poorhouse.”

“I don’t worry about what he thinks, but I do respect him and…”

“And you are terrified of the idea that he may sack you,” she said.

“I am not terrified!”

“Is that why you haven’t told him yet? Is that why we’re meeting here, in secret, away from everyone else?”

“No, I…well…”

He stumbled, fumbling for a way to deny the obvious. She sighed and shook her head.

“Bill, I do love you, but I don’t know that I can go on like this. You simply have to tell him and take what comes. It’ll do you good.”

“It’s likely to do me in,” he said.

The girl lost patience.

“Perhaps it will, but I don’t know that I care to marry a man who cannot even risk a harsh word from his employer.”

“But Frances, darling…”

“No, listen to me Bill,” she said, recovering her temper. “A comfortable home and a sure income are not all. I need to know that I can rely on you.”

“Surely my judicious caution proves that.”

“No, Bill; what you call ‘judicious caution’ only shows that you can’t stand unpleasantness. You always try to take the easy, safe way, and that makes me wonder whether you will be there for me if it ever becomes difficult. Do you see?” 

He swallowed.

“I…no, you’re perfectly right. I shall prove my courage.”

At this point, Martin heard the quick, soft steps an approaching servant and silently ducked into an alcove as a waiter strode past him into the hall.

“Mr. Little?” he said. “Professor Illingworth is calling for you.”

“Oh, yes; of course,” said Bill, hastily stepping away from Frances. “I-I shall be there directly.”

The waiter bowed and withdrew.

“Will you tell him now?” she asked.

“I…perhaps,” he said. “We’ll see what he wants first.”

He hesitated, then kissed her in a sudden burst of passion before dashing off. Frances stood stunned for a moment, then sighed, shook her head, and followed. Martin remained where he was, stroking his long chin thoughtfully.

Young people were really very silly.

***

“There you are!” Illingworth snapped as a big, round-shouldered boy with sandy brown hair appeared. “I would remind you that you are not here for your personal amusement; this is work.”

“Yes, sir,” said Bill. Perseus thought he gave the distinct impression of a dog. A big, friendly, likable kind of dog; say a Labrador or a retriever, but definitely a subservient character.

“I want you to begin work on an itinerary,” Illingworth ordered. “It seems that I shall going on expedition soon. You will prepare my schedule and be ready with my apologies once the dates are set.”

“Expedition, sir?” asked Bill.  

“Do you mean you’re coming yourself, Professor?” said Elizabeth in surprise.

“I do. Since I shall be taking full responsibility for this…endeavor, I shall at least go along to ensure the work is done properly.”

“Is that…wise, sir?” asked Bill. “At your time of life?”

“Thank you, Bill, but I assure I am quite fit,” said Illingworth sharply. “This will not be my first trip to the Amazon; I know perfectly well what to expect.”

He drew himself up and seemed to flicker momentarily to life, like a dying fire under the bellows.

“It will probably do me good,” he added. “I’ve been cooped up in that drafty office for too long.”

“Yes, sir,” said Bill.

“What is going on?”

A girl joined them. She was short and slender, with long dark hair and wonderfully formed hands. Her pale skin was appealingly contrasted by her black dress.

“Your father is going on expedition to the Amazon, Frances,” said Bill.

“You are?” she said in evident surprise.

“Yes, and don’t you start about my age,” Illingworth said, though in a different and much gentler tone than he had used with Bill.

“I wasn’t about to,” she said. “I think it’s wonderful! It’s been ages since you’ve gotten out and done any real work.”

She glanced at Bill, who colored a little.

“Ah, before we go any further, sir,” he said, clearing his throat. “There is something I…that is to say…”

“Well, what is it?” Illingworth snapped. “Out with it man! There’s work to be done.”

“Only…”

Bill glanced at Frances, then squared his shoulders.

“Only that I should very much like to join you, sir.”

Perseus saw Frances’ face fall from controlled excitement to open disgust. Illingworth, however, merely frowned.

“Would you?” he said. “Have you any experience with field work?”

“No, sir,” he admitted. “But that is just why I would like to come. It would be a boon to my career to be able to say I accompanied you on one of your trips, and I’m sure I would learn more in a few weeks in the field than I would in years in the classroom.”

“That’s true enough,” said Illingworth. “Well, then, you shall come. But I expect no complaints and no shirking of your duties.”

“No, sir. Also, I would like to marry your daughter.”

“You WHAT?!” Illingworth exploded.

“Quick; come away and let’s start planning,” said Elizabeth, seizing Perseus’s hand and dragging him out of the hall. Her face suggested she was holding in her laughter with difficulty and wanted to escape before it broke free Illingworth’s shouts followed them, echoing through the stone halls. Indeed, as soon as they regained the main hall, she burst into quiet, but heartfelt peals of merriment.

“Poor Frances!” she laughed. “What a way to have it come out! But at least now they can get on with it; the silly ass has been wanting to marry her for years.”

Perseus affected to laugh as well. The genuine amusement he felt at the boy’s clumsy proposal at least helped to cover his discomfort.

“Elizabeth,” he said. “About this expedition. Are you going to insist on coming? I’ve been on trips like these before, you know; it’s very different from reading about them. And I…the last thing I’d want is for anything to happen to you.”

“Thank you,” she said. “That is very sweet of you, and gratifying. And I know it will be terribly dangerous and hard and I’m sure I’ll probably to look back more than once and think what a perfect idiot I was to insist on coming. But then, I’m also certain that if I don’t go, I will always look back and wish that I had. It’s not fair that you should have all the adventures, you know; I’d like at least one.”

“As you like,” he sighed. “And I can’t deny that it will be pleasant to have you along for once.”

“Thank you,” she said. “Partners?”

She held out a hand. He swallowed and took it.

“Partners.”

Chapter One of ‘Perseus Corbett and the Forbidden Valley’

[ I’m working on a new book at the moment – well, the idea for it is very old, but all books are new when written – and I thought I’d drop a draft of the first chapter for feedback and to start generating interest. Enjoy! ]

Chapter One
The Kiss

“Pause you who read this, and think for the moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.”
-Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

            It all began with a kiss.

The place was the top of the hill overlooking Sangral House, a magnificent old manor in Kent. The time was a fine spring morning in April 1914. And the principles were a fourteen-year-old boy and a girl of the same age.

The girl belonged to the house, being none other than Lady Elizabeth Darrow. The boy’s name, rather absurdly, was Perseus Corbett, and his being there at all requires a little explanation.

His mother, Antigone Brown, was the daughter of a classics instructor at an obscure college in Wales. She had married below her station to a would-be inventor named Kenneth Corbett whose subsequent failures to revolutionize the world eventually left him working in a London garage. Their only child was sickly from infancy, suffering a chronic cough and shortness of breath, the care of which served as a continual drain on the little family’s scanty resources. By the time he turned twelve, his condition was indisputably growing worse and it was plain that new measures were needed if he were to survive.

Kenneth Corbett had originally come from Kent, where his brother Roger was head gardener at Sangral, the country seat of the illustrious Darrow family. Hoping that the country air would work the boy’s cure, Kenneth wrote to his brother to beg him to take the him on for a time to see if his health improved. Having obtained permission from the family, Roger agreed, and so little Perseus was packed off out of London for the first time in his life.

The journey was a wonder to him. The green, rolling hills, the open places, and trees! More trees than he had ever thought possible! And flowers, horses, cattle, all whirling by the train windows like flashing picture cards.

More wondrous still was the noble brick and stone edifice of Sangral itself. It stood back all by itself, nestled among the hills, with great old trees standing about it like attendants upon some venerable king. It was a very ancient house and had been added to and pulled about many, many times over the centuries. The east wing drove out before the front entrance like a defensive arm, ending in a conical tower, while the west wing retreated back, as though seeking the quiet shelter of the trees. It was a house with character, a house that one remembered, and which might have been (and indeed had been) the inspiration for many a romance, many a history, many a ghost story. Its somber brown bricks rested upon one another as sturdily today as when the first of them had been laid back in the fifteenth century, and its many windows flared like bonfires in the evening sun.

The plan was that Perseus should earn his keep by working as an apprentice undergardener, and so the next morning he was set to weed the flowerbeds along the mansion’s western front (this being a job it was judged he would have a great deal of trouble messing up). It was hard work, and his back ached, but the sight of the great house, not to mention the beautiful, fragrant flowers made it impossible to care much. His greatest difficulty was the temptation to stop work and simply gaze at the great house, lost in a daydream. He felt almost like he were back in the middle ages, or the time of the cavaliers; some dutiful servant laboring on behalf of a noble knight, or some great lady. Sangral House was just shy of a castle, after all, he thought. All it needed was a princess.

Then, while hard at work in between these reveries, something fell out of the sky and landed with a soft thud in the dirt beside him, making him jump. The thing had come within a foot or so of landing on his head. It was, he saw upon examination, a round silver medal, with the image of a man’s head on one side and an oak tree on the other.

“You there! Boy!”

Perseus looked up to see a girl’s head with a lot of tangled red hair sticking out of an upstairs window.

“I’ve dropped my medal. Will you bring it back up to me please?”

“What’d you want to drop it for?”

“I didn’t do it on purpose!” she answered. “Could you just bring up, please?”

He felt the sudden thrill of exultation, as boys do feel when they’re asked to do something important. His imagination, already travelling along such lines, conjured images of himself as a knight errant, retrieving the princess’s lost treasure.

“All right, then!” he called back, which was not a very knightly thing to say, but it was his first attempt. Forgetting all about his work, he got up, dusted himself off a bit, and ran for the kitchen door, which was nearest. It seemed very dim after the bright sunlight outside, and he had a fleeting impression of a large, smoky kind of room full of delightful smells and a lot of activity. He darted through before anyone had time to realize he wasn’t supposed to be there and hurtled up the servants’ stairs.

“Here now!” said a commanding voice that caused him to stop. A tall, stern-looking butler stood before him, glaring down on him like an imperious judge.

“What do you think you’re doing in here?” he said.

“The girl upstairs dropped this out the window,” said Perseus, holding up the medal. “She asked me to bring it up to her.”

The butler grunted, as though to say that he was not surprised.

“Very well,” he said. “I shall take it from here.”

He held out a hand for it. He was such a commanding presence that Perseus, who had always been used to obeying his elders anyway, nearly handed it over without thinking. But the fantasy that had taken root in his mind was strong, and he hesitated.

“No,” he said. “She asked me to do it.”

“That is no part of your duties,” he said. “Now hand it over.”

Perseus hesitated a moment later, then borne by a sudden reckless courage that came from he knew not where, he darted past the butler, ducking under his arm, and raced up the stairs two at a time while the old man shouted after him.

He reached the third floor landing and burst out into the corridor. The girl was standing by a bannister overlooking the main staircase, but she turned a smiling face on him as he ran down the hall toward her. Now that he saw her up close, he found that she was about his own age (though being a girl she of course conveyed the impression of being older). She was tall and lanky, with a good-natured, freckled face that had clearly seen a lot of sun, and bright hazel-green eyes. There was something of the air of a young colt about her, in her long, bony limbs and the restless, rather awkward energy of her movements.

“Here…it is…” he gasped, holding the medal out to her. His bad lungs were rebelling against the sudden burst of energy he had demanded of them.

“Thank you so much,” she said, taking it. “But are you all right?”

He nodded, still breathing hard. Meanwhile the butler appeared behind him in an icy rage.

“My apologies, Lady Elizabeth,” he said. “He has no business here…”

“It’s alright, Tredwell,” she said. “I asked him to bring my medal back up. I dropped it, you see.”

Tredwell’s stern face grew a trifle sterner.

“He has no business forcing his way up here,” he said.

“Oh, never mind that now,” she said. “Look, boy, are you sure you’re all right? Here, you must sit down.”

There was a large bay window with a velvet covered seat nearby and she urged Perseus to sit down and catch his breath. Tredwell frowned upon them.

“Could you get him a glass of water, Tredwell?” she asked.

“Very well, your ladyship,” he said with a stiff bow that spoke volumes of what he thought of the arrangement. He retreated, and Peseus slowly got his breath back.

“You’re not very strong for a gardener,” she said after he had his drink and Tredwell ahd been sent about his duties.

“I’m strong enough,” he said defensively. “It’s only that my lungs aren’t quite right. That’s why I’m here with Uncle Roger; they say the country air will make me better.”

“Oh, I see; that explains it. What’s your name, boy?”

“Perseus Corbett.”

“I say, what a funny name!” she said, laughing.

“It is not! It’s the name of a great hero who chopped a gorgon’s head off and used it to kill a sea monster and save a princess.”

“I know all that, but I’ve never met a ‘Perseus’ before,” she said. “Have you killed any sea monsters lately?”

“No,” he admitted grudgingly. “Has anyone chained you to a rock lately?”

“I’d like to see them try!” she answered, throwing her head back and laughing with the careless ease of one who was used to being able to have her own way.

“What’s important about that medal, anyway?” he asked, feeling he ought to take the offensive.

“What’s important about it?” she exclaimed. “It’s only from King Charles the First is all. He made a collection of these during the Civil War and handed them out as gifts to people who’d done him particular service, like my great-great-great…oh, I forget how many greats grandfather, Lord John Darrow.”

“You’re joking!” said Perseus, suddenly interested. He knew a bit of history, and the idea that he had been carrying something that once belonged to the unhappy king filled him with awe. “Shouldn’t that be in a museum, then?”

“No, because it’s mine,” she said. “My grandfather gave it to me personally.”

“So why did you drop it out the window?”

“I told you, that was an accident! I was just leaning out the window, looking at it and thinking about those days and it just slipped.”

“I’ve never met anyone related to a real-life cavalier,” he said.

“Oh, yes; we’re a very old family, didn’t you know? Lords and ladies all the way down. If you like that, we’ve got plenty more like it. I’ll show you them, if you like.”

That, however, had to wait, for at that point Uncle Roger, no doubt alerted by Tredwell, came to demand that he return to work.

“Later, then,” she said. “And don’t you dare be hard on him, Roger,” she added. “It’s my fault.”

Her orders commuted his sentence for a whipping to a stern talking to before he returned to his duties. But punishment or no, it hardly mattered compared with the fact that he had become friends with the young lady of the manor.

From then on, whenever Perseus wasn’t working (and sometimes when he ought to have been), he and Elizabeth would be off exploring the grounds in fine weather and the house in bad. She showed him all the treasures of her ancestral home, telling him what she knew of their history. He saw the portraits of her ancestors and heard what each one had done. He saw the landscapes and miniatures painted by famous artists, the furniture that had been in use for longer than the oldest servant had been alive. He saw the secret passages and the marks on the wall showing where some long-dead relative had thrown something in a fit of temper. He saw the woods and ponds that had been cultivated by generations of gardeners. He saw the stables with their fine horses, the kennels with their barking dogs, the pseudo-Greek folly down by the pond that Elizabeth’s grandfather had built.

Most importantly, the very day after their chance meeting, he saw the library, with its hundreds upon hundreds of books gathered across many generations; books of the kind the creaked when you opened them and breathed forth a wonderfully musty smell, so that even if you didn’t read them, you like to pull them down and page through them anyway. He had loved to read at home; being a sickly child with a mother both anxious and well-educated, it had been the chief source of amusement open to him, and the sight of this infinitude of words filled him with the same feeling as if he had found Aladdin’s cave.

Elizabeth, he found, was not a great reader. Or rather, she was not at all fond of being made to read. She had shown him the library mostly on account of some suits of armor that stood by the library fireplace and the portrait of an ancestor who had been a famous poet in his day. Perseus’s accounts of The Jungle Book, Treasure Island, and The Count of Monte Cristo, however, could not fail to pique her interest, and after they had explored the house from top to bottom and back again, their favorite pastime became finding a book to share. They would then race about the park, imagining themselves as part of the stories, or making plans for going on their own adventures; of voyaging in the West Indes like Robinson Crusoe, or trekking in darkest Africa like Allan Quatermain, or travelling in India like Mr. Kipling.

And so two years passed away at Sangral House. Perseus’s lungs recovered and his body grew strong under the stern direction of his uncle. He learned to ride, to fish, to shoot, and to climb trees. He learned more about history, about art, about music. Two years of almost unmitigated happiness and wonder, broken only by occasional visits home, where the dust and grime and squalor of the London neighborhood – so different from the romantic images of the city that he found in his books – seemed almost like a bad dream. Or, what is worse, like the coming from a good dream into a sad awakening.

The only other check to his happiness was Lady Darrow, Elizabeth’s mother. At first she paid little heed to the friendship between her daughter and the gardener’s nephew. They were children, and children would have their escapades. She didn’t much care for her daughter’s climbing trees or catching snakes, but Elizabeth had been doing those sorts of things long before Perseus showed up, and at least now she was reading more. But as time went on, Lady Darrow began to disrupt their escapades more and more. They would be having a great game in the conservatory and she would look in to say, “It is time for your music lessons, Elizabeth,” or they would be sitting reading together on the hillside and she would send to say he was wanted in the garden. More and more it seemed their time together was being curtailed, and there was nothing they could do but make the best of it.

Then came the end of it, the final awakening. A letter arrived from home to inform him that, as his health had so clearly improved, his mother wanted him to come home to stay. It was, she said, unthinkable that a son should remain so far from his family without due cause. Moreover, his father had found him a job, and a good one too, at a shop in London, which would bring in twice what he was making as an apprentice undergardener, money the family sorely needed.

Perseus was prepared to argue the matter out, that though the money was not very good, he was on his way to having a perfectly suitable job right here. He would be a full undergardener before long, and had a chance of being head gardener in the end. But then Uncle Roger put the final stop to his wishes.

“Fact is,” he said. “I think Lady Darrow had a hand in asking your mother to have you home. She’s not too keen on the way you and Lady Elizabeth are so familiar, as I’ve warned you time and time again.”

So it was settled. He would be going home to London for good. Home, where there would be no armor, no paintings, no old books, no secret passages, no ponies, no lake, and no woods.

Worst of all, there would be no Elizabeth.

Shortly after the summons home had arrived, Elizabeth learned that her parents were making plans to go on holiday to America, an extended stay of some months’ duration at least. That meant that on top of everything else, they would now be separated by a whole ocean.

The decision was made, the bags were packed, and the tickets purchased. All that now remained were the last few precious hours at Sangral Manor. Lady Darrow, though she did not approve of their friendship, was at least softhearted enough to allow them to spend those last hours in uninterrupted company.

Perseus and Elizabeth sat side by side on the hill, overlooking the house and grounds. They had spent many a happy hour there over the years, reading or dreaming or playing. But now there didn’t seem anything to be done except to be together while they could.

Elizabeth sat with her knees drawn up, resting her chin upon them, idly watching a rabbit grazing by its burrow.

“It’s not fair,” she grumbled. “Why couldn’t you have come with us to America?”

“Just be sure to watch out for sea monsters,” he said, making an effort to be cheerful. “I’d hate for you to be gobbled up while I’m not around.”

“That’s sweet of you,” she answered, smiling at what had become a long-running joke between them. “But I keep telling you I’m not going to need it; no one’s chaining me to a rock!”

They laughed, but not as wholeheartedly as they were used to. It was a faint flicker of something that was dying.

“You’re not going to forget about me, are you?” she asked after a pause.

“Of course not!” he said. “I’m going to be working in a bloody shop; thinking about you and Sangral is probably going to be the only thing that’ll make it tolerable. You’re the one who’s going to be having parties and meeting interesting people and having adventures and all that.”

“Well, just to make sure you don’t, I got you a present,” she said, reaching into the pocket of her frock and handing him a small box.

He opened it, and to his astonishment found the Charles the First medal that he had retrieved for her when they first met.

“You can’t give me this!” he said. “It was your grandfather’s! It’s a historical treasure.”

“Yes, and now it’s mine and I can do what I like with it,” she said. “Since I know you like it so much, I thought I should give it to you. Besides, you earned it; heroically risking the wrath of Tredwell to bring it to me, when any sensible boy would have just given it to him. I thought if I gave it to you, then you’d stay gallant and delightfully silly even working in some dreary old shop.”

Hesitantly, he put the medal about his neck.

“Thanks so much,” he said, fingering the ancient silver with affection and awe. “I’ll never, never take it off.”

“Don’t never take it off; you’ll spoil the silver. Just take good care of it; I don’t want to have to explain to either grandfather or Lord John that I gave their medal to someone who went and lost it.”

Perseus laughed, but again it soon faded, like a small fire in a cold stove. Their time was almost up.

“I didn’t even think to get you anything,” he said. “And you’re by far the more likely to forget about me.”

He didn’t add that he wouldn’t have known what to get her, even if he had.

“Oh, I don’t think that’s likely,” she said.

“Still, I should give you something. Something important. But I don’t have anything like that.”

Elizabeth thought a moment.

“Well,” she said slowly, looking away as though embarrassed. “There is something you could give me.”

“What?” he asked eagerly.

“It’s not really much, of course,” she said. “Though I think it is important. And I don’t know if I really ought to ask, but since you’re so eager…”

“Well? What is it?”

She swallowed and fixed her eyes on a bit of grass by his feet. Her face was as red as her hair.

“A kiss.”

Perseus felt as though the bottom had dropped out of his stomach.

“A what?”

“My first kiss,” she said, playing with the grass. “It’s a special thing. Ought to be, at least, I think. Something I can always take with me. That way I’d be sure never to forget you.”

Perseus felt himself going red as well. He had never yet seriously thought of kissing anyone; it was the sort of thing one read about in books and imagined doing, but which existed totally apart from the real world. It was as if she had told him that there was a dragon that needed slaying or pirate treasure to be dug up.

Yet, he certainly didn’t dislike the idea.

“I suppose so,” he said.

Judging by the way they focused on it, one would have thought that there was something infinitely fascinating about the grass about their feet.

“So…will you?” she asked after a moment.

He forced himself to look at her, and she forced herself to look at him, and he nodded. He had no real idea what he was doing, and it seemed far more complicated in real life that it had sounded in books. But there wasn’t anything for it but to simply try their best. Elizabeth shut her eyes tight and learned forward a little. Perseus thrust his face forward and their lips met.

It was wetter than he had expected. But really, quite nice.

They broke apart, both breathing rather fast. Then they both began to giggle uncontrollably.

A moment later, Uncle Roger came stumping up the hill to tell them it was time, and they walked back down together. At the gate, the moment of parting came. They shook hands and said their goodbyes.

“Have a good time in America,” he said.

“Have a good time in London,” she answered. “Or at least, not too frightful of one.”

He smiled, and just like that, they parted, him walking away beside his uncle to the train station for the last time.

“I’ll send for you if that sea monster shows up!” she called after him as a parting shot.

“See that you do!” he called back.

As the train rode away back to London, Perseus found his mind kept going back to that kiss. That first and only kiss. He felt different for it; stronger, bolder, more sure of himself. And all at once, he seemed to see his path clear before him.

In that moment, Perseus Corbett made a vow. He had no idea how he would do it, but he swore he would or die trying. He swore to himself that, some day, he would become a gentleman. He would have a house like that, beautiful grounds, horses, servants, fine old objects, all of it.

Most of all, he would marry Elizabeth Darrow.