A MAN OF EARTH
JOHN ERDLIEB used to tell this story—occasionally and with reluctance. It had to be dragged out of him. He seemed to feel it was telling something against himself, but that was because he didn't believe in "the kind of thing," and felt that he did himself a wrong and strained the credence of his listeners as well. Hence, probably, the strange impressiveness of the quaint recital; it had indubitably happened to him.
Though of German origin, he was English, stolid, steady, inarticulate English, and a rare good fellow, whose character emerged strongly in those difficult circumstances known as "tight places." He was a mining engineer by profession; he loved the earth and anything to do with the earth, from a garden he played with half tenderly, to a mountain he attacked half savagely for tunnelling or blasting purposes. He never left the earth if he could help it; both feet and mind were always planted firmly upon terra firma; figuratively or actually, he never flew. And his physical appearance expressed his wholesome, earthly type—the rumbling, subterranean bass voice, the tangled undergrowth of beard that hid his necktie, the slow, stately walk as of a small hill advancing. Moreover, you might dig in him and find pure gold—the mass of him covered the heart of a simple, tender child, honest and loving as the day. A child of earth, in the literal sense he was, if ever such existed.
"The first time," he said moving his words laboriously, as though they weighed, "was a June evening in Surrey, when I was going along a lane to catch a train to London. I was carrying a bag. It was a quarter-past ten, the train was 10.30, and I had a mile to go. I had come down in the afternoon to advise a friend about the laying of his tennis court—not professionally," he explained, with a booming laugh, "but because I knew he was going the wrong way about it—and he had persuaded me to stay to dinner. He had seen me to the gate and given me directions about short cuts. It was near the longest day, and there was light still hanging from the sky, but the lanes and paths ran along deep gullies in the sandstone, which the trees and bushes turned into tunnels of black. It was very warm and without a breath of air. Rain in the afternoon had left the atmosphere heavy, thick, and steamy. I perspired awfully, my wrist began to ache with carrying the bag, and half-way down one of the deep sandy lanes I stopped a moment to rest. I put the bag down, and struck a match to see my watch. There were seven minutes left to do a long half-mile." He paused a moment, and we concluded from that pause that he would miss his train.
"Now, I'm not the sort of man," he continued simply, "that a tramp would be likely to attack. I don't look opulent, and I'm big. Until I struck that match I hadn't passed a living soul. But my friend's wife had told me the tramps were thick about the roads this summer, and had been pretty bold as well. I'd quite forgotten all this; it wasn't in my mind. So when the glare of the match showed me a man standing close in front of me—so close I could have touched him—I got a start. He saw my watch, of course. But I saw his face. And he was looking straight into my eyes, just as though he had been staring at me in the dark before. The light, I mean, caught him in the act. There was no surprise in his face. Now I must tell you another thing as well: his face was smeared with earth." He laughed again as he said it. "The fellow looked as if he had been buried and just crawled out. It was a big bearded face, and the eyes were like an animal's—quite frank. But what struck me at the moment—I'm telling this badly, I'm afraid—was that, just as I stopped to strike that match, I noticed a strong smell of earth, of soil and mould I mean. If you've ever turned up real virgin soil you'd know exactly what it was like—same sort of smell you get when digging up a wet bit of field, only ten times stronger. A good smell; I love it.
"Well, the match went out, and the blackness after it was like a wall. I just thought I'd be getting on as quick as I could or I'd miss the train—no feeling at all that the fellow meant me any harm, you see—when I heard him say, 'I'll carry it for you. Come up this way. It's the best.' And before I could answer or object—do anything at all, in fact—the fellow had snatched my bag and made off with it. I suppose he had been waiting just at this darkest part of the lane on purpose. He went up hill, and I after him, striking angrily with my stick in the hope of tripping him up. But he had the start, and I was winded already, and uphill I'm not as quick as I used to be ten years ago. I heard his running tread along the sandy ground, light as a child; and, while I stumbled in the darkness among the loose stones and ruts, two other things flashed into my mind. I can't say what made me think of them. But it seemed to me that the fellow was very short and had been standing on tiptoe when he stared into my face; and the other thing was this: that in this sandy soil—it's mostly sand and heather and pine trees in that part—it was curious that the smell of earth should have been so strong. For it was rich, black earth I smelt."
John Erdlieb stopped again. He had reached a difficult place, we felt, a place where he wanted help. We gave what help we could, urging him to tell the rest, whether it seemed credible to him or not.
"He kept just ahead of me," he continued, in his growling tones that were like the deep string on a double bass, "and didn't seem a bit anxious to escape from me.. He could easily—he ran so lightly—have nipped up the banks and disappeared, and I could never in this world have caught him. But he kept ten yards in front. In the patches where the trees were thinner I saw his outline plainly; he'd run a bit, then pause, then start again just when I got too close. I shouted and cursed him, but he said no word. And at length—oh, we'd been running four or five minutes, I should think—he stopped dead, and waited. It was an open space, where the banks on both sides were clear of trees or bushes, and the light from the sky, as well as the sort of radiance that sand gives out—you know—showed him distinctly, crouching in the path, the bag beside him. I came up with a rush, my stick raised to clout him on the head, when—of course, you can't believe it—he simply wasn't there. I heard his voice, but—well, I can only tell you how it seemed to me—I heard it underground. It was muffled and smothered, as though it came through earth." Erdlieb said this very low; he almost growled it; he was ashamed to tell it. "You want to know what it was he said? I'll tell you in three words: 'Now you're safe.' That was what I heard, and I heard it as distinctly as I hear my own voice now. The fellow had disappeared, as if the thing had been a dream, and I'd just wakened up." He shut his mouth with a snap, as though there was no more to tell.
A lot of questions were discharged at him, of course, but chief among them, or first, at any rate, "And did you catch your train?" He had made such a point of catching that particular train.
"Luckily," he said, "I missed it by three minutes. Yes, I did say 'luckily.' In the tunnel that begins a mile beyond the station there was a bad cave-in—it had been an exceptionally wet summer, and the first three coaches, the only first-class coaches on the train, had every occupant killed. Yes, it's a fad of mine," he answered a final question. "I always go first-class."
He gave the second incident as well. He was very shy about it; but for the dusk on the verandah, where he told it, one could have seen him blush.
"It was last year, when I was in the Caucasus—the Lesser Caucasus, some 50 miles south-east of Batoum, where there are copper mines, first worked by the Phœnicians ages ago, but covered now by a forest of rhododendrons and azaleas. The ore is visible to the eye, and they get it out with pickaxes. It's a marvellous country, wild as ever it can be, and the men wilder still, a difficult crew to manage, Georgians, Persians, Tartars, all Mohammedans, and all free with knife and pistol. We were 5000 feet above sea-level. You could see Ararat in the distance, a pyramid of snow, and even Elbruz and Kasbek to the north, when the air was clear.
"One of my younger engineers was an American, capable as they make 'em, but with one curious drawback—he spouted Shakespeare and saw visions! A poetical sort of chap, but sober, reliable, and awfully good at his work. I think, you know, the power of the place got into him a bit—you can believe anything," he explained apologetically, "in the Caucasus—and just across the next ridge was a settlement of Ossetines. The Ossetines are said to be older than the Egyptians, and no one knows exactly where they come from; they worship the soil, pray to heaps of earth, with the idea that it expresses deity or something, offer salt and milk to open places in the ground, and all that kind of thing. They're a wild lot, too. But they didn't bother us much, although some of our workmen were afraid of them. The idea was, you see, that they resented our cutting holes in the body of their deity.
"Apart from stories, that grew big unless stopped instantly"—he said this significantly—"I had no trouble with the men at all, and the Ossetines I only saw—er—this once. My American engineer was the bother, with his imaginative talk of nature-spirits, his seeing things about the mountains, and all the rest. The Caucasus just there is not exactly the place to talk that kind of stuff. It's marvellous enough—without additions!
"Well, one afternoon this chap and I were out prospecting together—his geology was splendid, a sort of instinct in him—prospecting for new veins and outcrop and what not, and in the most gorgeously savage scenery you can possibly imagine. The mountain side was smothered with azalea bushes, all in bloom, every shade of colour, and the smell of them was almost more than I could stand. Azalea honey, you know, has a kind of intoxicating effect, like a drug, and the natives use it for that purpose, and, perhaps, the smell of these miles of blossom, taken in such enormous doses, affects the nerves a bit. I can't say about that, but anyhow, Edgar began talking his nonsense about it in his peculiar way—clear-headed enough at the same time to trace his strata with amazing accuracy and judgment—and saying that his eyes were opened, and he could see down into the ground, and talking about the Ossetines and the Powers of the Place, and all mixed up with quotations from his Shakespeare and the rest. Well, it was no business of mine to stop him. He did his work all right. I let him go on fifteen to the dozen until at last it got on my nerves, and I told him to quit it. He didn't mind a bit; just looked at me, and said, 'I've had my eyes opened by the place; I can't help it. Why, I can see your glassy essence. You're an earth-person. You ought to feel what I feel. I think you do!' That 'glassy essence,' you know, is in Measure for Measure, only I forget the whole quotation. And then he said excitedly, 'The worship of these Ossetines up here has done it. The place is all stirred up. I shouldn't be a bit surprised if we saw—'
"I interrupted him and told him to stow all that. The Ossetines, I told him—taking it that he referred to them and not to—er—other things—were over the next ridge, anyhow, five hours' climbing away—when just at that very minute he came at me like a football player on the charge. He caught my shoulders and stared at me with terror in his face. 'They're coming!' he cried out. 'Can't you hear them? They're coming!'
"And there was a curious, deep, roaring sound up in the mountains to the north, a tremendous sound. It was like thunder. Yet it was a sunny, windless day without a cloud; there was not even falling water near us. I couldn't believe my ears. And I turned and saw what at first I thought were sliding masses of earth and stones moving down towards us from the heights a mile away. There were boulders, rolling and dancing down ahead of the general mass, only they moved so slowly and with such an extraordinary kind of motion altogether that I stood and stared in complete amazement. It all bewildered me. The sound was appalling somehow. It was like an upheaval of the earth. Then Edgar shouted, 'Run, man, run for your life. They're out!' and started off downhill like a frightened deer.
"It takes a good deal to move me, however"—he smiled at us through the dusk so that his teeth were visible—"and I stood still a minute longer, watching the strangest thing I'd ever seen. For those stones and rolling boulders were not rock, but people. It was a crowd of people. Not Ossetines, though. I could see that. They were small and stunted. Even at that distance I could swear they were very small. They were like dwarfs. They were dwarfs. It took my breath away; but, I swear to you, they were just like that tramp who snatched my bag in the Surrey lane five years before, and they made the same strange impression upon me of being—er—out of the ordinary." He paused a moment, wondering most likely how much more cared to tell. "I picked up our instruments and ran downhill after Edgar," he told us simply, "ran as hard as I could pelt. You can judge the pace when I tell you I caught him up in something under ten minutes, too." That didn't impress us much, perhaps, because we had never seen the other man, but it meant a lot to Erdlieb apparently. Edgar, of course, was a younger man. "And then we ran on together side by side, not looking back, but feeling exactly as if the mountain-side was at our heels. The roaring sound had stopped. Once within sight of the Works we stopped, too. Nothing unusual was anywhere to be seen. The heights stood out clear and sharp against the brilliant sky. Nothing moved. Not a living soul was visible in any direction upon the enormous slopes. Edgar, however, was white as a ghost, scared stiff, as he phrased it himself. He declared he had seen
'A shadow, like an angel with bright hair
Dabbled in blood.'
"I was in no mood for quotations. I could have knocked him down on the spot.
"That night, an hour after sunset, when the stars were out, and all the mountains peaceful, no wind, no noise of any kind, no hint of warning either, the landslide came. You know about it because I've already described it to you at dinner. It's why I'm in England now instead of superintending the copper mines out there in the Caucasus. The Works were smothered, the loss of life appalling. I told you how we escaped, Edgar and I, by the skin of our teeth and—er—luck. The spot among the azaleas where we first heard the noise in the afternoon—several hours before a single pound of earth had begun to shift—by eight o'clock lay under several hundred feet of fallen mountain, still slowly sliding. I doubt if the Works will ever be dug out. It would cost a fortune. I have advised against it."