The Nethermost Caverns
(From the Files of Titus Crow)
Blowne House Leonard's Walk Heath London 18th May 196-
Ref: - 53/196- G.K. Lapham & Co Head Office, GKL Cuttings 117 Martin Fludd St. Nottingham, Notts.
Dear Mr. Lapham,
Please alter my order as it stands to cover only the most outstanding cases, on which your continued cooperation would be appreciated as ever. This action not to be misconstrued as being all but a cancellation of my custom, on the contrary, but for the time being I would rather you concentrate your efforts on my behalf to full coverage of one special line. I require all cuttings, one copy of each, from all forty-three dailies normally covered, of current occurrences involving earthquakes, tremors, subsidences, and like phenomena (and backdated to cover the last three years where at all possible), to continue until further notice. Thank you for your prompt attention.
Yrs. faithfully, T. Crow
Blowne House 19th May
Ref: - 55/196- Edgar Harvey, Esq. Harvey, Johnson & Harvey, Solicitors 164-7 Mylor Rd. Radcar, Yorks.
Dear Mr. Harvey,
I am given to understand that you were the literary agent of Paul Wendy-Smith, the young writer of tales of romantic and/or macabre fiction, and that following his mysterious disappearance in 1933 you became executor to the estate. I was only a very young man at that time, but I seem to remember that because of certain special circumstances publication of the writer's last story (showing, I believe, strange connections with the disappearances of both the author and his uncle, the explorer-archaeologist Sir Amery Wendy-Smith) was held in abeyance. My query is simply this: has the work since seen publication, and if so where may I obtain a copy?
I am, sir, hopefully expectant of an early answer, Yrs. sincerely, T. Crow
Harvey, Johnson & Harvey Mylor Rd. Radcar, Yorks. 22nd May
Dear Mr. Crow,
Regarding your inquiry (your reference -55/196- of 19th May), you are correct, I was the executor to the estate of Paul Wendy-Smith--and yes, there was a tale held in abeyance for a number of years until the Wendy-Smiths were both officially pronounced "missing or dead" in 1937. The story, despite being a very slight piece, has seen publicationmore recently in an excellently presented and major macabre collection. I enclose proofs of the story, and, should you require the book itself, the publisher's card.
Hoping that this covers your inquiry to your complete satisfaction, I am, Sir,
Yours sincerely, Edgar Harvey
Blowne House 25th May
Ref: -58/196- Features Reporter Coalville Recorder 77 Leatham St. Coalville, Leics.
My dear Mr. Plant,
Having all my life been interested in seismological phenomena, I was profoundly interested in your article in the issue of the Recorder for 18th May. I know your coverage was as complete as any man-in-the-street could possibly wish, but wonder if perhaps you could help me in my own rather more specialized inquiry? Tremors of the type you described so well are particularly interesting to me, but there are further details for which, if it is at all possible you can supply them, I would be extremely grateful. Calculations I have made suggest (however inaccurately) that the Coalville shocks were of a linear rather than a general nature; that is, that they occurred on a line almost directly south to north and in that chronological order--the most southerly occurring first. This, at least, is my guess, and I would be grateful if you could corroborate, or (as no doubt the case will be) deny my suspicion; to which end I enclose a stamped, addressed envelope.
Sincerely and appreciatively Yrs., I am, sir, Titus Crow
Blowne House 25th May
Ref: -57/196- Raymond Bentham, Esq. 3 Easton Crescent Alston, Cumberland
My dear sir,
Having read a cutting from a copy of the Northern Daily Mail for 18th May, I would like to say how vastly interested I was in that article which contained certain parts of your report on the condition of the west sections of Harden Mine's old workings, and feel it a great pity that Sir David Betteridge, scientific advisor to the Northeast Coal-Board, has chosen to look at your report in so unenlightened and frivolous a manner.
To me, while admittedly knowing little of yourself or your job, it would seem rather irresponsible on the part of so large and well-founded an industrial board to employ for twenty years an Inspector of Mines without, during that time, discovering that his "faculties are not all that they should be"!
Now, I am not a young man myself, indeed we are contemporaries, but I have complete faith in my faculties--and, since reading certain of the things in your report which I can (in a rather peculiar way) corroborate, I am sure that you were quite correct in the observations you made in the complex of the discontinued Harden workings. Just how I can be so sure must, unfortunately, remain my secret--like most men I am averse to derision, a point I am sure you will appreciate--but I hope to offer you at least some proof of my sincerity in writing this letter.
Thus, to reassure you beyond any doubt that I am not simply "pulling your leg," or in any way trying to add my own sarcastic comment to what has already been made of your report, I return your attention to the following:
Other than mentioning briefly certain outlines which you say you found etched in the walls of those new and inexplicable tunnels which you discovered down there cut (or rather "burned," as you had it) through the rock a mile below the surface, you seem reluctant to describe in detail the content or actual forms of those outlines. Might I suggest that this is because you did not wish to be further ridiculed,which you feared might well be the case should you actually describe the etchings? And might I further tell you what you saw on those unknown tunnel walls; that those oddly dimensioned designs depicted living creatures of sorts--like elongated octopuses or squids but without recognizable heads or eyes--tentacled worms in fact but of gigantic size?
Dare I lay my cards on the table yet more fully and mention the noises you say you heard down there in the depths of the Earth; sounds which were not in any way the normal stress noises of a pit, even given that the mine in question had not been worked for five years and was in poor repair? You said chanting, Mr. Bentham, but quickly retracted your statement when a certain reporter became unnecessarily facetious. Nonetheless, I take you at your original word: you said chanting, and I am sure you meant what you said! How do I know? Again, I am not at liberty to disclose my sources; however, I would be obliged for your reaction to the following:
Ce'haiie ep-ngh fl'hur G'harne fhtagn, Ce'haiie fhtagn ngh Shudde-M'ell. Hai G'harne orr'e ep fl'hur, Shudde-M'ell ican-icanicas fl'hur orr'e G'harne.
Restricted as I am at this time regarding further illuminating my interest in the case, or even explaining the origin of my knowledge of it, but still in the hope of an early answer and perhaps a more detailed account of what you encountered underground, I am, Sir,
Yrs. sincerely, Titus Crow
Coalville Recorder Coalville, Leics. 28th May
Dear Mr. Crow,
In answer to your -58/196-, of the 25th:
The tremors that shook Coalville, Leics., on the afternoon of the17th, were, as you correctly deduced, of a linear nature. (And yes, they did occur south heading north; have in fact continued, or so I believe, farther up-country.) As you are no doubt aware, Coalville is central in an area of expanding mining operations, and doubtless the collapse of old diggings was responsible, in this area at least, for the peculiar shocks. They lasted from 4:30 until 8:00 P.M., but were not particularly severe--though, I am told, they had a very bad effect on certain of the inmates of the local Thornelee Sanatorium.
There were, too, other slight surface subsidences, not nearly so bad, almost a year ago. At about that time also, five miners were lost in the collapse of a very narrow and unproductive seam which they were working. The twin brother of one of these men was in a different part of the mine at the time, and much sensational publicity was given his subsequent condition. I did not cover his case, though it was done up pretty distastefully in a hack contemporary of the Recorder under the heading: "Siamese Mining Horror!" Apparently the living twin went stark staring mad at the very instant his brother and the other four men were killed!
You should be interested in a series of articles which I am at present planning for the Recorder, "A History of the Midland Pits," to be published later this year, and I would be pleased to send you the various chapters as they appear if you so desire.
Yours Faithfully, William Plant
Alston, Cumberland 28th May
Dear Mr. Crow,
I got your letter yesterday afternoon, and not being much of a writing man, I'm not sure how to answer it, or even if I can find the right words.
First off, let me say you are quite right about the pictures on the tunnel walls--and also about the chanting. How you could know about these things I can't possibly imagine! So far as I know, I'm the only one to have been down that shaft since they closed the pit, andI'm damned if I can think of any other spot on or under the earth where you might have heard sounds like those I heard, or seen drawings the like of them on the tunnel walls. But you obviously have! Those crazy words you wrote down were just like what I heard ... .
Of course, I should have gone down there with a mate, but my No. 2 was off sick at the time and I thought it was going to be just another routine job. Well, as you know, it wasn't!
The reason they asked me to go down and check the old pit out was twofold--I'd worked the seams, all of them, as a youngster and knew my way about, and of course (to hell with what Betteridge says) I am an experienced inspector--but mainly someone had to do the job to see if the empty seams could be propped up or filled in. I imagine that the many subsidences and cave-ins round Ilden and Blackhill have been giving the Coal-Board a bit of a headache of late.
Anyhow, you asked for a more detailed account of what I came up against underground, and I'll try to tell it as it happened. But can I take it that everything I say will be in confidence? See, I have a good pension coming from the Coal-Board in a few years' time, and naturally they don't much care for adverse stuff in the press, particularly stuff to worry local landowners and builders. People don't buy property that's not safe, or ground that's liable to subsidence! And since I've already had one ticking off as it is, well, I don't want to jeopardize my pension, that's all ... .
I think what really annoyed the bosses was when I went on about those tunnels I found down there--not old, timbered seams, mind you, but tunnels--round and pretty smoothly finished and certainly artificial. And not just one, as they said in the Mail, but half a dozen! A proper maze, it was. Yes, I said those tunnel walls were burned rather than cut, and so they were. At least, that's how they looked, as though they'd somehow been coated on the inside with lava and then allowed to cool!
But there I go running ahead of myself. Better start at the beginning ... .
I went down the main shaft at Harden, using the old emergency lift-cage which they hadn't yet dismantled. There was a gang of lads at the top just in case the old machinery should go on the blink. I wasn't a bit worried, you understand; it's been my job for a long time now and I know all the dangers and what to look for.
I took a budgie down with me in a little cage. I could hang thecage up to the roof timbers while I looked about. There are some of the old-fashioned methods you still can't beat, I reckon. The old-timers used canaries--I took a budgie. That was so I'd know if there was any firedamp down there (methane to you). A heavy gas knocks a bird out in a wink, which lets you know it's time to get out! I wore protective gear and high boots in case of water--Hardens not all that far from the sea, and it's one of the deepest pits in the country. Funny thing, but I expected water, yet as it happened I was quite wrong; it was dry as a bone down there. I had a modern lamp on my helmet with a good, powerful beam, and I carried a map of the galleries and seams--standard procedure but hardly necessary in my case.
Well, anyway, I got down the shaft all right and gave the old handset at the bottom a twirl to let the boys on top know that everything was well, and then I set out along the horizontal connecting-shaft to the west-side galleries and coal-seams. Now, you have to understand, Mr. Crow, that the main passages are often pretty big things. Some of them are almost as large as any single tube-tunnel in London. I mention this to show that I wasn't shut in, like, or suffering from claustrophobia or anything like that, and it wasn't as if I hadn't been down a pit before--but there was, well, something!
It's hard for me to explain on paper like this, but--oh, I don't know--I had this feeling that--it was as if--well, did you ever play hide-and-seek as a child and go into a room where someone was hiding? You can't see him, it's dark, and he's quiet as a mouse, but you know he's in there all the same! That's what it was like down there in that deserted mine. And yet it was truly deserted--at that time anyway ... .
Well, I shook this feeling off and went on until I reached the west-side network. This is almost two horizontal miles from the main shaft. Along the way I had seen evidence of deterioration in the timbers, but not enough to explain away the subsidences on the surface. So far as I could see, there had been no actual cave-ins. The place did stink, though, like nothing I'd ever smelled before, but it wasn't any sort of gas to affect the budgie or me. Just a very unpleasant smell. Right at the end of the connecting-shaft, at a spot almost directly under Blackhill, I came across the first of the new tunnels. It entered into the shaft from the side away from the sea, and frankly it stopped me dead! I mean, what would you have made of it?
It was a hole, horizontal and with hard, regular walls, but it was cutthrough solid rock and not coal! Now, I like to keep slap up-to-date on mining methods, but I was pretty sure right from the start that this tunnel wasn't dug using any system of machinery I knew of. And yet it seemed I must have missed something somewhere. The thing wasn't shown on my map, though, so in the end I told myself that some new machinery must have been tested down there before they'd closed the mine. I was damned annoyed, I'll tell you--nobody had told me to expect this!
The mouth of the tunnel was about eight feet in diameter, and although the roof wasn't propped up or timbered in any way the bore looked safe-as-houses, solid somehow. I decided to go on down it to see how far it went. It was all of half a mile long, that shaft, Mr. Crow; none of it timbered, straight as a die, and the neatest bit of tunneling work I've seen underground in twenty-five years. Every two hundred yards or so similar tunnels would come in from the sides at right angles, and at three of these junctions there had been heavy falls of rock. This warned me to be careful. Obviously these holes weren't as solid as they looked!
I don't know where the thought came from, but suddenly I found myself thinking of giant moles! I once saw one of these sensational film things about just such animals. Anyway, I'd no sooner had this thought than I came to a spot where yet another tunnel joined the main one--but this one came down at an angle from above!
There was a hole opening into the ceiling, with the edges rounded off and smoothed in some way I don't understand, as if by heat like I said before. Well, I went dead slow from then on, but soon I came out of the tunnel into a big cave. At least, I took it to be a cave, but when I looked closer at the walls I saw that it wasn't! It was simply a junction of a dozen or so of the tunnels. Pillars like stalagmites held up the ceiling. This was where I saw the carvings, those pictures of octopus-things etched in the walls, and I don't think I need add how much that put the wind up me!
I didn't hang about there much longer (apart from anything else the stench was terrible), but long enough to check that the place was all of fifty feet across and that the walls were coated or smoothed over with that same sort of lava-stuff. The floor was flat enough but crumbly, almost earthy, and right in the middle of the place I found four great cave-pearls. At least, I think they're cave-pearls. They're about four inches across, these things, very hard, heavy, and glossy.Don't ask my how they got down there, I don't know, and I can't see how they might have been formed naturally, like other cave-pearls I remember seeing when I was a kid. Anyway, I put them into a bag I carried and then went back the way I'd come to the terminal of the west-side workings. By then I'd been down there about an hour and a half.
I didn't get far into the actual coal-seams. The first half dozen were down. They had collapsed. But I soon enough found out what had brought them down! In and out of the old workings, lacing them like holes in Gorgonzola, those damned smooth-lined tunnels came and went, literally honey-combing the coal and rock alike! Then, in one of the few remaining old seams that still stood and where some poor-grade coal still remained, I came across yet another funny thing. A tunnel, one of the new ones, had been cut right along the original seam, and I noticed that here the walls weren't of that lava substance but a pitchy, hard tar, exactly the kind of deposit you find bubbling out of hot coal in the coke-ovens, only set as hard as rock ... !
That was it. I'd had enough, and I set off back toward the main shaft and the lift-cage. It was then I thought I heard the chanting. Thought?--like hell I thought--I did hear it; and it was just as you wrote it down! It was distant, seeming to come from a very long way away, like listening to the sea in a shell or hearing a tune you remember in your head ... . But I knew I should never have been hearing things like that down there at all, and I took off for the lift-cage as fast as I could go.
Well, I'll keep the rest of it short, Mr. Crow. I've probably said too much already as it is, and I just hope to God that you're not one of those reporter fellows. Still, I wanted to get it off my chest, so what the hell care I?
I finally arrived at the shaft bottom, by which time the chanting had died away, and I gave the lads on top a tinkle on the old handset to haul me up. At the top I made out my report, but not as fully as I've done here, and then I went home ... . I kept the cave-pearls, as mementos if you like, and said nothing about them in my report. I don't see what good they'd be to anyone, anyway. Still, it does seem a bit like stealing. I mean, whatever the things really are--well, they're not mine, are they? I might just send them off anonymously to the museum at Sunderland or Radcar. I suppose the museum people will know what they are ... .
The next morning the reporters came around from the Daily Mail. They'd heard I had a bit of a story to tell and pumped me for all I was worth. I had the idea they were laughing at me, though, so I didn't tell them a deal. They must have gone to see old Betteridge when finally they left me--and, well, you know the rest.
And that's it, Mr. Crow. If there's something else you'd like to know just drop me another line. Myself, I'd be interested to learn how you come to know so much about it all, and why you want to know more ... .
Yrs. sincerely, R. Bentham
Maybe you heard how they were planning to send two more inspectors down to do the job I'd "messed up"? Well, they couldn't. Just a few days ago the whole lot fell in! The road between Harden and Blackhill sank ten feet in places, and a couple of brick barns were brought down at Castle-Ilden. There's had to be work done on the walls of the Red Cow Inn in Harden, too, and there have been slight tremors all over the area since. Like I said, the mine was rotten with those tunnels down there. I'm only surprised (and thankful!) it held up so long. Oh, and one other thing. I think that the smell I mentioned must, after all, have been produced by a gas of some sort. Certainly my head's been fuzzy ever since. Weak as a kitten, I've been, and damned if I don't seem to keep hearing that awful, droning, chanting sound! All my imagination, of course, for you can take it from me that old Betteridge wasn't even partly right in what he said about me ... .
Blowne House 30th May
To: Raymond Bentham, Esq.
Dear Mr. Bentham,
I thank you for your prompt reply to my queries of the 25th, and would be obliged if you would give similar keen attention to this furtherletter. I must of necessity make my note brief (I have many important things to do), but I beg you to have the utmost faith in my directions, strange as they may seem to you, and to carry them out without delay!
You have seen, Mr. Bentham, how accurately I described the pictures on the walls of that great unnatural cave in the earth, and how I was able to duplicate on paper the weird chant you heard underground. My dearest wish now is that you remember these previous deductions of mine, and believe me when I tell you that you have placed yourself in extreme and hideous danger in removing the cave-pearls from the Harden tunnel-complex! In fact, it is my sincere belief that you are in a constantly increasing peril every moment you keep those things!
I ask you to send them to me; I might know what to do with them. I repeat, Mr. Bentham, do not delay but send me the cave-pearls at once; or, should you decide against it, then for God's sake at least remove them from your house and person! A good suggestion would be for you to drop them back into the shaft at the mine, if that is at all possible; but whichever method you choose in getting rid of them, do it with dispatch! They may rightly be regarded as being infinitely more dangerous than ten times their own weight in nitroglycerin!
Yrs. v. truly, Titus Crow
Blowne House 5 P.M., 30th May
To: Mr. Henri-Laurent de Marigny
I've tried to get you on the telephone twice today, only to discover at this late hour that you're in Paris at a sale of antiques! Your housekeeper tells me she doesn't know when you'll be back. I hope it's soon. I may very well need your help! This note will be waiting for you when you get back. Waste no time, de Marigny, but get round here as soon as you're able!