Chapter 20: The Land of Canaan

Morgo the Mighty by Sean O’Larkin was originally serialized in The Popular Magazine in 1930. I’m serializing it again here. Except for correcting the odd typo, I’m reproducing the text as printed in the original publication.

My friend’s behavior amazed me. He was hardly the lost man suddenly come upon by his friends. His body trembled and his nostrils were dilated in answer.

Nurri Kala and I greeted him. We told him how glad were to find him whole and alive. Separately, we told him what befell us when the great light blinded us and we dropped into the white treetops.

Morgo, silent and morose, nodded and slipped his knife back into his belt.

“What is wrong, Morgo?” I asked. “You look as though you’ve seen a ghost!”

“I have,” he replied tersely. Then, relaxing his tensed body, he dropped down beside the girl and tried to smile. “I came upon you in the dark – and took you for enemies. There are Silurians in the forests. I heard them when I was hiding in the jungle during the day.”

His words were not convincing. Nurri Kala and I hardly looked like the scale-skinned creatures in any light. And Morgo possessed sharp, shrewd eyes, trained in the hunt for food. He must have recognized us. Had he seen me kissing Nurri Kala? Was that what troubled him?

It dawned upon me in that moment. I had not given the fact any thought earlier, but as I recalled little scenes in which the three of us participated back in Kahli, I suddenly understood.

Morgo was in love with Nurri Kala, too.

And so was I!

Here in a strange, cruel jungle, we three were faced with the eternal triangle. I, alone, knew of the great harm that it could do. I came from the outer world where such relationships were common knowledge. My friendship with Morgo was at stake. And my love for the golden beauty of Nurri Kala, too.

I did not mean to lose the girl.

In that moment, the primitive being inside me cried down the civilized man. I was ready to fight Morgo for the love of Nurri Kala.

Possible sensing the electric charges of our emotions – mine and Morgo’s – the girl stepped into the breach.

“What shall we do, Morgo?” she asked him. “We are lost. The Bakketes have disappeared. We must find some safe shelter on foot.”

The problem she presented appealed to Morgo. He seemed to forget the common thought we two shared.

“I know,” he said. “The great light will soon return. We cannot face it. While it is still dark, we must find another cave – one where The Shaft does not give its full light.”

I subscribed to this, and Morgo, leaving us, went to a tall tree and nimbly scaled its leafy height. From his high perch, he gazed over the snowy forest, seeking a path that would lead us to a haven of some security.

Presently he descended from the tree. He inquired if we were strong enough to walk several miles and we told him that we were.

“I think I have seen a darker spot,” he explained. “It may mean a tunnel to another cave. Let us try to reach it before the great light shines upon us – trying to blind us again.”

We were enthusiastic, and set off behind Morgo, on whose instinctive sense of direction I faithfully relied. Coursing through the underbrush, penetrating the thickest jungle glades, we plunged through the glowing white night in Morgo’s wake. Before us, trudging with a steady, even pace, he loomed like a Greek god delivering us from inevitable doom.

How long it took us to reach the spot selected by Morgo, I cannot guess. It was probably three or four hours. The girl and I were weary and footsore, spoiled by the flying Bakketes for such close grips with nature and our own physical endurance. Morgo was not a bit tired.

The dark spot in the wall of the cave, which threw up sheer white cliffs beyond our range of vision, proved to be a tunnel. We climbed to its door and started in.

I was surprised to find the narrow corridor filled with thin, fragile trees that cracked and fell over as soon as we pushed them aside. Leaves, soft and cool, showered down upon us like a gentle rain.

We had walked for about a mile without coming out the other end of the tunnel. I said it might be wiser for us to stop for the remainder of the night and get a bit of sleep. But Morgo pointed out the danger of bivouacking in a connecting corridor. Animals often preyed in one cave and slept in another. If we slept in the tunnel, we might be set upon in the morning when the day’s migration began, and that would be fatal.

So we pressed on, beating the trees away from our faces, and shielding our eyes with cupped hands from the snapping, whipping twigs and branches.

There was a flutter of wings and the brushing of wings on the leaves overhead.

Morgo grunted painfully.

I could hear his arms thrashing about over his head, beating against the tree limbs, cracking them and increasing the deluge of thin leaves upon us.

Nurri Kala screamed that something had scratched her.

And I felt sharp little claws digging into the back of my neck. I caught at the creature and my hand fell over a feathery bird, flinging it roughly to the ground. It chirped loudly and scurried into the underbrush.

In another moment, we were in a maelstrom of flying, clawing birds. We ran forward, and the flock seem to grow thicker. Eight, ten, twelve little birds clung to my body with hundreds of claws that bit into my flesh and I could only run, protecting my eyes and face with my hands. The sharp little bills pecked and dug into my flesh. The pain was excruciating.

“Roll on the ground!” Morgo bellowed back at us. “Crush them from you and then run!”

This expedient was temporarily effective. I flung myself on my sides and rolled as far the narrow tunnel would permit. The frightened birds jumped from me and winged their way to higher perches. But as we ran, they attacked us again.

It was the clearing of the cave into which we ran that saved us from a slow, tortured death. The birds did not pursue us into the open.

“What were they?” I asked Morgo as I regained my breath. My  flesh was horribly lacerated with a thousand tiny scratches and wounds from the which the blood flowed freely.

“I do not know,” Morgo said. “but look upon your coat. One is caught there.”

I reached down and found a feathered bird, dead, caught by its claws in the leather of my windbreaker. It was the size of a small eagle, and the edges of its wings were lined with long cutting claws. What strange creature was this? Then I recalled pictures I had seen in the study of bird life at the flying school years before. This denizen of the tunnel was not unlike the Hoatzin of South America. That claw-winged bird was a descendant of the reptilian Archaeopteryx of the Jurassic Period – one of the first reptiles to rise above the ground in the quest for food.

Forthwith, I named the tunnel birds Hoatzins because of their resemblance to their prehistoric ancestors; because, like them, they were meat eaters.

Morgo and Nurri Kala, wearing scanter clothing than myself, were more badly injured. Their backs, legs and arms were a welter of crisscrossing lacerations. The girls moaned in her pain and Morgo offered to carry her. She wanted to refuse but she was forced by her wounds to give in.

As we penetrated the forests of this new cave, climbing to an eminence that Morgo had spied, I smelled sweeter air. There were fragrant flowers in this cave, and I longed to behold its beauty in the morning light. I could even see that the tree leaves were deep greens and yellows and that the trunks were browns and blues.

We reached a clearing on high ground as the dawn light spread over the cave. But we were too sleepy to wait for the full light.

When we woke up a few hours later, Morgo was cutting open a bees’ nest with his bowie. He had gone into the forest for food and found it. The hive was thick with sweet-smelling, yellow honey and we consumed it ravenously with our fingers.

The cave was the most beautiful in all the world I had seen beneath the Himalayas. Its jungle was a flaming mass of red and orange flowers, cascading over the tops of majestic green-leaved trees, mingled with blue and purple flowers, none of which I could possibly describe or name. They were weirdly gorgeous, something that one might see in pagan ritual – but never in the outer world.

Bees and other insects buzzed from flower to flower, drinking deeply of the nectar hidden in them. We were assured of honey as long as we stayed in this cave and fought free of the bees’ lancets.

“If we could only find a cow in here,” I said, “this would be the land of milk and honey – the promised land of Canaan.”

Morgo and Nurri Kala glanced up sharply at me.

“The Land of Canaan?” they whispered as one person and then stared at each other.

Morgo rubbed his brow in pensive reflection. “I have heard of that land before. My mother used to read to me about it from a big black book.”

“Yes,” the girl cried, “I remember the book, too. All our names were written in it.”

“Yes,” Morgo added, “my name was in it, too. My mother showed it to me. The names of all my people were written in it.”

I knew that the veils of amnesia were lifting slowly in the minds of these cave children. My chance reference to the Land of Canaan of Biblical origin had proved a key to unlock new memories in them. It is customary in many families to keep a history of relationships – of births and deaths – in the family Bible. Morgo and Nurri Kala had seen just such books in the hands of their parents.

And then I remembered Zorimi’s boast. He said he held the secret of their identities. Had he come upon the Bibles of these cave children? Did he find them in the possession of their parents? It was not an impossibility.

Whatever the fate of the parents was, I had a hunch that the Bibles had been among their effects. And Zorimi had found the books when he found the children. I explained my suspicions to the man and girl, and they were elated.

Nurri Kala caught my wrist. A flash of remembrance illuminated her eyes. “Derro, I remember something. Zorimi has books in his cave. I did not see them for so long, I forgot them. But when I was younger, I remember being in a room where there were books – and a black book like my mother and father used to read from. I wanted to open it to look at the pictures, but Zorimi put it on a high shelf and forbade me to enter the room again.”

“Where is this room?” Morgo demanded excitedly.

“In the plateau of The Flame,” she said.

Morgo shook his head sadly. The plateau in Shamman was far away – hundreds of miles. We could never reach it without the Bakketes. And they were lost.

Morgo went into the jungle again soon to return with an armful of juicy leaves. He explained that he had recognized them – for the same leaves were in Kahli. They had healing properties. Squeezing the juice from them onto Nurri Kala and his wounds, he allayed the smarting pain cause by the Hoatzin’s claw wings.

I sensed that two was company and three a crowd. Willing to bide my time in speaking again for Nurri Kala’s love, I left the pair alone. My footsteps carried me toward the tunnel by which we entered this veritable Land of Canaan. Somehow, I felt secure. I could not imagine the red-tongued chameleons living in so heavenly a world. They belonged to the great white places where the heat was more tropical.

My eyes, seeking a path free of entangling jade vines, fell upon the pebbles beneath. These little stones winked at me and blazed as the light caressed them.

I scooped up a handful and held my breath.

The floor of the Land of Canaan was paved with diamonds.

I trod upon wealth that would ransom all the world’s wealth. My feet crushed diamonds that would buy my heart’s desire – with the possible exception of Nurri Kala. For her, I must fight and hurt my friend to whom I owed so much. Diamonds meant nothing to a girl who flowered to womanhood amid the savagery of the caverns. They could neither buy nor offer her anything.

I suspected then that poor Jim Craig knew what he was talking about that night he was murdered by the dacoit in Darjeeling.  She of the Three Heads – Zorimi’s Shining Stone – was the key to this cave of diamonds. And The Shaft – the source of light – was the mountain of diamond about which Craig had spoken in his cups!

No wonder we had been blinded when we suddenly darted out of the gloom of the other tunnel in the heart of Zaan. We had flown full into the light reflected by the wall of diamond.

But what source fed that great stone with light? Internal fires – or the sun of my world through a cleft in the skin of the Himalayas? I inclined to the latter view as I reasoned out this strange light phenomenon of the caves.

The peculiar properties of the great diamond mountain – which I meant to see one day – fed by the light of the sun itself, diffused its rays throughout all the caves. And the farther away a cave was, the poorer and weaker was its light. I remembered that inside the Door of Surrilana which we penetrated in the Junkers G-38, there was darkness. Next was the grayness of Shamman. In Kahli, nearer the source, the glow was yellow by day. The Land of the Cicernas had a bright white light and, in the Caves of Zaan, the light was truly diamond-bright.

Unconsciously, I began to plot and plan. With this wealth underfoot, and willing fates, I might get back to civilization. If I could persuade Nurri Kala to accept my love, I would make her a queen of women. Lord knows, she was already that in her perfection of beauty – but in the outer world, other values needs must contribute to queenliness. With her beauty, and the diamond wealth of Zaan, I could be the happiest and proudest of men.

Morgo I refused to admit into my thoughts. Him I must fight. My hunches, which were usually pretty good, told me that such was inevitable. And I did not shrink from the thought.

Nurri Kala said that it was to Zaan that Zorimi came to gather the shining stones. And I suspected Jesperson, the jeweler, who eloped with my De Haviland, or Lacrosse, the naturalist, of being the man who masqueraded as Zorimi and took the wealth of Zaan into the outer world, transmuting it into the power of money.

I was no longer interested in Zorimi, not in his identity. I wanted to know the path to freedom from the caves. I had every reason to seek it, and the life of my own world. Zaan had shown me riches greater than Monte Cristo ever dreamed of. Once more, my mind, easily adaptable to cave life, switched back to the dictates of the civilization in which I was bred.

I had to escape from the caves to enjoy this wealth – to give Nurri Kala her due in a world that would appreciate her.

A low mound of diamond pebbles attracted my eye and I ran toward it, feasting my ambitions on its flashing, dazzling majesty. Kneeling beside it, I scooped up the stones and let them pour through my fingers. I had no thought of filling my pockets. The plentifulness of the rare white stones in Zaan gave me the bounty of the spendthrift.

My fingers touched upon something soft – beneath the surface of hard, bright pebbles. I brushed the diamonds away.

A face with staring eyes challenged my curiosity. Instead of recoiling in horror, I peered closer.

I knew that face. It was a familiar one. The stubble of beard did not deceive me.

It was the death mask of Lacrosse that I beheld.

Lacrosse beneath a mantle of a kingly treasure! How ironical of Death! To take his life in the midst of splendor and wealth!

Uncovering the body, I sought the manner of his death. The pallid skin bore the clawings of the Hoatzins, the bruising and lacerations of excessive hardships, the tusk marks of a Mannizan on a leg. The body was wasted and emaciated, yet I could find no sign of a mortal wound. My companion in the Junkers had apparently died of natural causes and the soft breezes had buried him in diamond chips.

Yet how had he reached Zaan from the Cavern of Shamman? He was still wearing his flying togs, now ragged and moldy. Had he come under the wings of a bat man? I considered this: there was but one other white man that I knew of who used the bats for aerial transport.

His name was Zorimi.

Was this decaying corpse that of the magician?

To Be Continued!