Back to the Index Page

 
 
 

The Cave of the Splurgles by Edward Page Mitchell

 

One October afternoon, as I was scrambling through the woods on my way to the best of the trout brooks that abound in the neighborhood of Canaan, Vermont, I nearly broke my left leg in a deep hole in the ground.

The first thought was for my rod, which had become involved in certain complications with the underbrush; the second was for my left leg, which, fortunately, had sustained no serious damage; and the third for the pitfall into which I had stumbled. The hole was directly under the branches of a big red oak that grew on the slope of a hill, or ledge, of metamorphic limestone. Juniper bushes and brambles almost hid the orifice. Pulling these aside, I got on all fours and peered down into the black hole, for what purpose I do not know. My left leg was no longer there, and I certainly had no interest in the inhabitants of the burrow, whatever they might be--undoubtedly either snakes, woodchucks, or skunks, with the weight of probability in favor of the last-mentioned species. So I did not crawl in to explore the cavity, although by a tight squeeze I could have done so, but pursued my way across Rodney Prince's pasture to Rodney Prince's brook, and brought home at sundown a string which weighed so many pounds that, out of consideration for Rodney Prince's feelings, I shall say nothing about it. The hospitable Granger had assured me with friendly earnestness the evening before that there had never been any trout in his brook, that the boys had long since fished them out, and that if there were anything there now they were miserable little finger-long specimens, unworthy of the attention of a city man with a fifteen-dollar rod and a book full of flies.

After supper I joined as usual the small circle of choice spirits who gather every evening in the back part of Deacon Plympton's grocery to smoke their pipes and to profit by the oracular wisdom of the proprietor of the store. In a humble attempt to contribute to the conversational interest of the occasion, I casually remarked that I had stepped into a deep hole that afternoon while going a fishing. I was flattered to find that my insignificant adventure was treated with respect by the company, and that even the taciturn deacon, from his seat on the pork barrel, condescended to lend an attentive ear.

"Sho!" said he. "In Rodney's palter?"

"Yes."

"Under red oak?"

"Yes."

"Humph!" he grunted, blowing out a cloud of smoke, "narrer escape."

"Why?" I asked, resolved to be no less laconic than he. "Skunks?"

"No--Splurgles!"

And Andrew Hinckley, from a barrel of the deacon's highest-priced flour, whispered "Splurgles." And his brother John, from a box of washing soap, echoed the mysterious word. And Squire Trull on the platform scales, and old Orrison Ripley on a barrel of the sweetened bar, which the honest deacon sold as powdered sugar at a shilling the pound, took up the refrain, and solemnly remarked in concert, "Yes, the Splurgles!"

I knew that to ask a question would be to put myself at a disadvantage with these worthy citizens, so I merely said, "Ah, Splurgles," and nodded my head, as if to escape the Splurgles were a matter of common experience with me.

"It's providence," said Squire Trull, after a few moments' silence, "that they didn't pull ye in."

"Ain't ben no closer shave sence Fuller stumbled in when he was drunk and had the boot thawed clean off his fut. Has there, Deacon?"

The deacon, thus appealed to, descended from the pork barrel, walked to the other end of the store, returned with a sulphur match in his hand, relit his pipe, and gravely shook his head.

From the rambling conversation which ensued and lasted till the nine o'clock bell inspired the deacon to take in his designatory hams and put up shutters, I gathered the following facts and allegations:

For many years, indeed ever since the infancy of the venerable Orrison Ripley, the people of Canaan had regarded the hole in the side of the hill under the red oak tree with superstitious awe. There were few who would venture near the spot in broad daylight; none after dark. The popular opinion of the hole seemed to be well grounded. Sounds as of demoniac laughter were frequently heard issuing from the cavern--indescribable sounds, guttural and gurgling. As far as I could learn, this circumstance was the only explanation of the etymology of the name Splurgles, applied by tradition and usage to the inhabitants of the cave. These supernatural beings were believed to be malevolent, not only from the peculiar harshness of their laughter, which had been heard by many at different times during the last half century, but also on the testimony of a few who claimed to have seen diabolical heads protruding from the hole as if demons had come up from below to get a breath of fresh air. Moreover, there was the horrible fate of Jeremiah Stackpole, a reckless, atheistical young man, who, on the twenty-first of October 1858, had boasted of his intention to gather acorns under the red oak by the bill, and whose hat, discovered afterward beside the hole, was the only trace of him that could ever be found. There was also the experience of Jack Fuller, the brother of the town clerk. Fuller, in a maudlin condition, had wandered into Rodney Prince's pasture about four years ago, and had come home perfectly sobered and minus one boot. He declared that while rambling about in search of boxberry plums, he had stumbled into the Splurgle hole. His leg had been grasped from below by fiery hands--fingers that burned his foot through leather and woolen--and it was only by an almost superhuman effort on his part that he escaped being pulled bodily into the hole. Fortunately, being afflicted with corns, he wore very loose boots, and to this circumstance he owed his deliverance from the awful grip of the Splurgles. Fuller solemnly affirmed that long after he had pulled out his stocking foot and fled to a place of safety, he felt the burning reminder of the red-hot fingers and thumb that had clasped his instep.

The laconic deacon's summing up of the various stories about the Splurgle hole with which I had been regaled, was concise, comprehensive, and startling. "It's the back door of hell," he said.

"Fuller," said I the next day to the hero of the demon-snatched boot, "how much rum would it take to work up your courage to the point of visiting the Splurgle hole with me this afternoon?"

"Nigh onto a quart, I guess," replied Fuller, after an inspection of my features had satisfied him that I was not quizzing. "Best to be on the safe side and call it a full quart. I calculate I should have to be pooty drunk."

"Will you go with me first," I then inquired, "and take the quart of rum afterward, and a five-dollar bill into the bargain?"

Fuller balanced the risk against the gain. You could almost watch through his skin the temptation wrestling with the fear. Rum conquered, as it will. At three o'clock, Mr. Fuller, carrying a rope, a dark lantern, and a perfectly sober head, accompanied me across Rodney Prince's pasture to the red oak on the side of the hill.

A close examination of the hole convinced me that it was not the burrow of any animal, Exploring it with a long stick, I found that beyond the dirt lining, near the orifice, its walls were of solid rock. It was, in fact, a tunnel into the ledge--a natural tunnel, old as the hills of Vermont, and therefore, dating back to the Lower Bilurian period. Beyond the mouth of the tunnel, where the debris and soil from the surface had partially choked it up, the passage was as large as a Croton main. For about ten feet the shaft trended downward at an angle of sixty or seventy degrees. Thence its course, as far as I could determine with my pole, was nearly horizontal, and directly toward the heart of the hill.

I stepped down and shouted into the mouth of the cave. There came back the confused and rambling echoes of my voice and then, when they had ceased, I distinctly heard a low, strange laugh, intelligent, yet not human, close to my ear and yet of another and unknown world.

Fuller heard it too. He turned pale and ran a rod or two away. I called to him sharply, and he came back trembling.

"That laugh we heard," said I, "is half in the peculiar echoes of the hole and half in our imaginations. I am going to crawl in."

By Fuller's earnest advice, I decided to enter the cave backward, so that, in an emergency, I might scramble out with the more expedition. I lit the dark lantern and tied one end of our rope under my arms. The other end I gave to Fuller. "If I call out," I said, "pull with all your might, and if necessary take a double turn around the oak." Then I backed slowly and cautiously down into the cave of the Splurgles.

Before my head and shoulders had left the daylight I felt both ankles grasped from below with a powerful grip, and knew that I was being drawn with superhuman strength down into the bowels of the hill. I shouted to Fuller in desperation, but my cry was almost drowned by a ringing peal of terrible, triumphant laughter. I saw my companion jump toward the trunk of a big tree. He did his best to save me, but his foot caught in the juniper bushes, and he fell to the ground, the rope slipping from his fear-benumbed fingers. My own fingers caught in vain at the loose dirt at the mouth of the hole. The power that dragged me downward was irresistible. My eyes met his, and his were full of horror. "Cod help you!" he cried, as the darkness closed around me.

As I was pulled down and down with constantly increasing speed, I lost my terror in the strange exhilaration of the motion. I fancied that I was a flying express train tearing through the night. I knew not, cared not whither. There I was, a light boat towed in the hissing wake of a swift steamer. The roar of the water took the rhythm of the singing, rushing sensation that precedes a swoon, and consciousness left me.

The first of my senses to return, after an indefinite lapse of time, was that of taste. The taste was that of incomparably good brandy.

"He is reviving. You need attend no longer," said a voice, harsh, yet not unkind.

I opened my eyes and looked around me. I lay in a small apartment upon a comfortable couch. On every side heavy curtains limited the field of vision. The one striking peculiarity of the place is difficult to describe, for it involves a quality which has no exact equivalent in any of the languages which men speak. Every object was self-luminous, radiating light, so to speak, instead of reflecting it. The crimson drapery shone with a crimson glow, and yet it was opaque--not even translucent. A couch was apparently wrought in copper, and yet the copper glowed as if copper were a source of light. The tall person who stood over me, looking down into my face with friendly and compassionate regard, was also self-luminous. His features radiated light; even his boots, which bore an immaculate polish, shone with an indescribable sort of radiant blackness. I believed that I could have read a newspaper by the light of his boots alone.

The effect of this singular phenomenon was so grotesque that I was impolite enough to laugh aloud.

"Pardon me," I said, "but you look so deucedly like a Chinese lantern that I can't help it."

"I see nothing to excite mirth," he gravely replied. "Do you refer to my luster?"

His sublime unconsciousness set me off again. Afterward, when I had become accustomed to the phenomenon of universally diffused light, each luminous color seemed perfectly natural, and I saw no more reason for mirth than he did.

"My friend," I remarked, to turn the conversation, seeing that he was a little piqued, "that was admirable brandy you were kind enough to give me just now. Perhaps you have no objection to telling me where I am."

"I can assure you that you are among those who are well disposed toward you, notwithstanding your sinful follies and weaknesses. We shall try to make you cease to regret the frivolous world which you have left forever."

"You are altogether too hospitable," I said. "I shall get back to Canaan as soon as possible."

"You will never get back to Canaan. The road by which you came is traveled in one direction only."

"And you intend to keep me here in this infernal cave?" "For your own good."

"It strikes me," I rejoined, with some heat, "that you are too much interested in my moral welfare."

It must have been for full a week--although I had no means of measuring time, my watch obstinately refusing to go--that I was kept a close prisoner inside the luminous curtains. At regular intervals my jack-o'-lantern guardian visited me, bringing food which shone as if it were phosphorescent, but which, nevertheless, I ate with infinite relish, finding it very good. He seemed disinclined to converse, but always kind and courteous, and invariably greeted and left me with a calm, superior smile that came to be at last in the highest degree exasperating.

"Look here," I said one day, finally losing all patience, "you know very well that I don't lack the disposition to strangle you and kick my way out of this place back to honest daylight. Still, I am weak and human enough to say that you will oblige me exceedingly by stating who you are, why you always smile on me in that superior manner, and what you propose to do with me. Who the devil are you, anyway?"

"All that you will speedily learn," he replied with unlimited politeness, "for I am directed to conduct you at once to my lord." "The lord of the Splurgles?"

"Splurgles, if you choose. I believe that that is the name given us in the wretched world which you are fortunate enough to have escaped. Accompany me, if you please, to the audience chamber of my lord."

The lord of the Splurgles was a personage of severe gravity of countenance. Like my guardian and the counselors and courtiers (with one exception) who surrounded him in the comfortably appointed apartment, he was self-luminous. The exception was an individual who seemed to be present in a menial capacity. This person, apparently a human being like myself, had done his best to remedy his natural deficiency in this respect. He had rubbed his face, his hands, and his habiliments with phosphorus, and shone artificially with a poor imitation of the genuine illuminating principle of the Splurgle world. That this imitation was in his case the sincerest form of flattery was evident from his actions and looks. His bearing toward the Splurgles was subservient in the extreme. He ran at their beck and call, rejoiced under their approving notice, and seemed to swell with conscious importance whenever the lord of these strange beings deigned to give him a patronizing word or look.

"Worm of the earth!" said the principal Splurgle. "Are you disposed to embrace a great opportunity?"

"I am disposed," I replied, "to crawl back to my groveling life at the first chance."

"Poor fool," said the lord Splurgle, without the least sign of impatience.

"Thank you," I replied, with a bow that was intended to be ironical, "and what shall I call your lordship?"

"Oh, I am Ahriman," he returned, "the great Ahriman, the powerful devil Ahriman. Mortals tremble at the thought of me, and my name they dare not speak. I ruled over a vast empire of Devs and Archdevs in my time, and wrought a great deal of mischief in Persia and thereabouts. I am a tremendous fiend, I assure you. I inspire much terror."

"Pardon me, Uncle Ahriman," I remarked, "but are you sure you are quite as terrible as you used to be?"

An expression of mortified vanity stole over his countenance. "Perhaps," he answered, hesitating a little, "perhaps I am a little out of practice. Years and circumstances have limited my field of action. But I am still very terrible. Beelzebub, am I not very terrible?"

"My lord Ahriman," said a familiar voice behind me, "you are inexpressibly terrible." I looked around and saw that this opinion proceeded from my old acquaintance and custodian.

"You hear Beelzebub," continued Ahriman; "he says that I am inexpressibly terrible. You may believe Beelzebub, he is one of the most truthful and conscientious devils in our community. He takes rather a low view of human nature, but in matters like this his opinion is as good as anybody's. Yes, I'm undeniably awful. Isn't that so, Stackpole?"

The fellow whom I had previously noted as a mortal like myself, and a base truckler withal to the ways and whims of the Splurgles, stepped forward from the throng, raised his eyes from the ground until they met those of Ahriman, and forthwith began to shake and shiver as if stricken speechless with terror. I believed at the time that the rascal simulated it all. I even thought he gave me a sly wink as he retired when he had got through trembling.

"You see," said Ahriman, turning proudly to me, "what a marked effect my presence has on our worthy friend Jeremiah Stackpole, though he has been accustomed to the sight of me for nearly twenty years."

This mortal, then, was the atheistical young man of Canaan, of whose mysterious disappearance in 1858 I had been informed in Deacon Plympton's grocery. I afterward learned that the manner of his introduction to the cave of the Splurgles was identical with my own. Unlike me, he had speedily become reconciled to the situation. The society of the retired devils in the bowels of the earth exactly suited his tastes. Assured of a comfortable subsistence as long as he lived, he made no attempt to escape from the cave and found it to his interest to earn the good will of his captors by toadying to their harmless vanity.

"Now, mortal," resumed Ahriman with a lofty air, "you may think it strange that evil spirits, so powerful and terrible as we are, should contemplate any other disposition of your worthless body and totally depraved nature than to wipe you out of existence altogether. To tell the truth, however, we find it convenient to have a mortal or two on hand to do the hard work of the community--to assist in the development of the immense natural resources of the cave. Not that we are lazy," he added, "but in our honorable retirement we are perhaps less active and energetic than we used to be. It is for this reason that you are offered the opportunity to enjoy the remarkable advantages of perpetual companionship with beings so great as we are. Dear, dear," continued this awe-inspiring demon, fanning himself with a barbed tail, which I had not previously noticed, "it is rather warm! Moloch, take this mortal away. I find it very fatiguing to talk so much."

I confess that I felt a trifle uneasy at the mention of a name which had been awful to the ears of men for centuries. There was something ghoulish in the idea of being turned over to the cruel and bloodthirsty Moloch, at whose red altars thousands of human lives had been sacrificed. The appearance of my new custodian, however, was reassuring. Moloch came up with a friendly smile, patted me on the head, and offered to show me over the cave. He was a fat demon, good-natured, and apparently lazy, with a grotesque face and a merry twinkle in his eyes. I liked Moloch from the first.

"I'll tell you a good one," he whispered in my ear. "What were the silliest nations that ever lived on the face of the earth? Ha, ha! It's a good one, I assure you."

"I give it up," I said.

"Why," he said, beginning to shake like a jellyfish with suppressed mirth, "the silliest nations were the Ass-yrians and the Ninny-vites and the Babble-onians. D'ye see?" And Moloch went off into a convulsion of merriment.

I laughed heartily, and he seemed to be much gratified at my appreciation of his humor. "I'll tell you a better one than that," he said confidentially, "as soon as I think of the answer. I've quite forgotten how the answer comes in. It's something about a frisky rogue and a risky frog--no, I'm not certain that's just it. But it's one of the best jokes you've ever heard when it's put properly.

"Those devils over there," said Moloch, as we walked out of the audience chamber into a field, under the overhanging roof of the cave, where sundry rather innocuous-looking demons were hoeing corn, "are the asuras and goblin Pretas and terrible rakshashas of the Hindoca. They used to range the earth with bloody tongues and ogre teeth and cannibal appetites. Now they are strictly graminivorous devils. Oh, I tell you there has been a vast improvement in our race since we retired from active business. You might call it the march of civilization," he added, with violent symptoms of inward laughter.

We came upon a gigantic demon sitting unsteadily on a rock, his huge right fist clasping a wicker flask. "It's Typhon," whispered Moloch, "the Set of the ancient Egyptians. Set used to breathe smoke and pelt his enemies with red-hot boulders. He frightened all the gods once, if you remember, and drove them out of the country. He won't hurt you. He's very peaceable now, even when he's fuddled. Set has a great gullet for liquor and he is the worse for it now, as you observe. Set has declined, you see," added Moloch chuckling, "Set, sat, sot."

"You are a mad wag, Moloch," said I.

"It's only my joking way," he replied. "I do enjoy a good joke. Sometimes they get me up by the Canaan outlet and set me laughing to scare the countrymen outside. Do you notice my peculiarly merry eyes?"

In the course of my walk with Moloch through the Splurgle community I came to understand how harmless and even simpleminded these ancient bugaboos really were. If they were ever malevolent, they had discarded their malevolence when superstition discarded them. Like decayed gentlemen in other branches of industry, some of them retained a certain pride in their whilom fiendishness, but the shadow was ludicrously unlike the substance. One by one, as the friendly Moloch told me with many brilliant jeux d'esprit, which I regret that I am unable to remember, the devils of antiquity, superseded in dogma and creed by newer and more fashionable devils, had withdrawn from the face of the earth and gone into retirement in this cavern under the roots of the three-pronged mountain. Here the played-out fiends of forty centuries had gradually rusted into the condition in which I found them when dragged by the heels into their community.

"Ahriman has kept his head better than the rest of us," explained my guide, the cheerful Moloch, "and therefore he bosses us, but privately, between you and me, I don't believe he is more formidable or devilish than any man of the lot."

I saw and talked with Baal. He seemed a little weak in his head, and was employed in the kitchen of the establishment, dealing out rations of phosphorescent soup. "Your soup shines today," I remarked, for the want of anything better to say.

"Yes, it shines, it shines," replied the superannuated fiend, apparently struck with the force of my remark. Then he paused, as if unable to grasp the immensity of the idea, and put his ladle hand to his forehead, spilling a stream of soup down over his clothes. "It shines, it shines," he repeated, not noticing his mishap, "and there's something in my head that buzzes and buzzes." Then he went on ladling out soup and muttering to himself the feeble analogy, "It shines, it shines; it buzzes, it buzzes."

"Some of us are farther gone than Baal is," said Moloch. "There is a houseful of 'em in the institution over there poor devils who sit and moon and hardly know enough to eat and drink. You ought to see Abaddon. He's a sad sight. So far gone that he can't appreciate a good conundrum."

Afterward I had the honor of an introduction to Lilith, the mistress of Adam, and by him the mother of a pernicious brood of devils. She was a sweet-tempered, grandmotherly old lady, and, when I saw her, was knitting a pair of warm woolen socks for Belial, a shiftless ne'er-do-well sort of fiend. I saw Asmodeus; he was reading, with evident enjoyment, Timothy Titcomb's Letters to Young Men. I met Leviathan, Nergal, and Belphegor; they would have cowed and trembled had I said a harsh word. I talked with Rimnon, Dagon, Kohai, Behemoth, and Antichrist; they were as staid and respectable as the honest citizens who met nightly in Deacon Plympton's grocery.

During a residence of several weeks with the Splurgles, I was somewhat mortified to find that their moral standards put to shame the common practices of mankind. Harmless fellows, vain of their reputation for diabolical malignity, their private lives were above reproach. They neither lied nor stole. They held every trust to be sacred. Of their hospitality, I bear willing testimony. The only form of vice which I discovered among them was drunkenness, and that was confined to Typhon and one or two others. Yet, while I credit them with virtues unfortunately rare on earth, candor compels me to add that the Splurgles were rather tedious companions, and I was glad when, having learned the secret of the outlet through the good nature of my friend Moloch, I stood once more under the red oak in Rodney Prince's pasture.

Black and dead as every color looked after the self-luminous hues of the Splurgle cave, the contrast was not so great as that which oppressed me when I began to associate again with mankind. The venality of trade, the petty malice of society, the degradation of humanity, assumed a new and repulsive aspect. I shared the pity of Beelzebub for mortal imperfection.

End.

 
 
 

Back to the Index Page