When I returned to the plateau
from my investigation of the crater, I realized that I had descended the
grassy pit as far as any human being could descend. No living creature
could pass that barrier of flame and vapour. Of that I was convinced.
Now, not only the crater but its steaming effluvia was utterly unlike anything
I had ever before beheld. There was no trace of lava to be seen,
or of pumice, ashes, or of volcanic rejecta in any form whatever.
There were no sulphuric odours, no pungent fumes, nothing to teach the
olfactory nerves what might be the nature of the silvery steam rising from
the crater incessantly in a vast circle, ringing its circumference halfway
down the slope.
Under this thin curtain of steam a ring of pale yellow flames played and
sparkled, completely encircling the slope.
The crater was about half a mile deep; the sides sloped gently to the bottom.
But the odd feature of the entire phenomenon was this: the bottom of the
crater seemed to be entirely free from fire and vapour. It was disk-shaped,
sandy, and flat, about a quarter of a mile in diameter. Through my
field-glasses I could see patches of grass and wild flowers growing in
the sand here and there, and the sparkle of water, and a crow or two, feeding
and walking about. I looked at the girl who was standing beside me,
then cast a glance around at the very unusual landscape.
We were standing on the summit of a mountain some two thousand feet high,
looking into a cup-shaped depression or crater, on the edges of which we
This low, flat-topped mountain, as I say, was grassy and quite treeless,
although it rose like a truncated sugar-cone out of a wilderness of trees
which stretched for miles below us, north, south, east, and west, bordered
on the horizon by towering blue mountains, their distant ranges enclosing
the forests as in a vast amphitheatre.
From the centre of this enormous green floor of foliage rose our grassy
hill, and it appeared to be the only irregularity which broke the level
wilderness as far as the base of the dim blue ranges encircling the horizon.
Except for the log bungalow of Mr. Blythe on the eastern edge of
this grassy plateau, there was not a human habitation in sight, nor a trace
of man’s devastating presence in the wilderness around us.
Again I looked questioningly at the girl beside me and she looked back
at me rather seriously.
“Shall we seat ourselves here in the sun?” she asked.
Very gravely we settled down side by side on the thick green grass.
“Now,” she said, “I shall tell you why I wrote you to come out here.
“By all means, Miss Blythe.”
Sitting cross-legged, she gathered her ankles into her hands, settling
herself as snugly on the grass as a bird settles on its nest.
“The phenomena of nature,” she said, “have always interested me intensely,
not only from the artistic angle but from the scientific point of view.
“It is different with father. He is a painter; he cares only for
the artistic aspects of nature. Phenomena of a scientific nature
bore him. Also, you may have noticed that he is of a—a slightly impatient
I had noticed it. He had been anything but civil to me when I arrived
the night before, after a five-hundred mile trip on a mule, from the nearest
railroad— a journey performed entirely alone and by compass, there being
no trail after the first fifty miles.
To characterize Blythe as slightly impatient was letting him down easy.
He was a selfish, bad-tempered old pig.
“Yes,” I said, answering her, “I did notice a negligible trace of impatience
about your father.”
“You see I did not inform my father that I had written to you. He
doesn’t like strangers; he doesn’t like scientists. I did not dare
tell him that I had asked you to come out here. It was entirely my
own idea. I felt that I must write you because I am positive that
what is happening in this wilderness is of vital scientific importance.”
“How did you get a letter out of this distant and desolate place?” I asked.
“Every two months the storekeeper at Windflower Station sends in a man
and a string of mules with staples for us. The man takes our further
orders and our letters back to civilization.”
“He took my letter to you—among one or two others I sent—”
A charming colour came into her cheeks. She was really extremely
pretty. I liked that girl. When a girl blushes when she
speaks to a man he immediately accepts her heightened colour as a personal
tribute. This is not vanity: it is merely a proper sense of personal
She said thoughtfully:
“The mail bag which that man brought to us last week contained a letter
which, had I received it earlier, would have made my invitation to you
unnecessary. I’m sorry I disturbed you.”
“I am not,” said I, looking into her beautiful eyes.
I twisted my mustache into two attractive points, shot my cuffs, and glanced
at her again, receptively.
She had a far-away expression in her eyes. I straightened my necktie.
A man, without being vain, ought to be conscious of his own worth.
“And now,” she continued, “I am going to tell you the various reasons why
I asked so celebrated a scientist as yourself to come here.”
I thanked her for her encomium.
“Ever since my father retired from Boston to purchase this hill and the
wilderness surrounding it,” she went on, “ever since he came here to live
a hermit’s life—a life devoted solely to painting landscapes—I also have
lived here all alone with him.
“That is three years, now. And from the very beginning—from the very
first day of our arrival, somehow or other I was conscious that there was
something abnormal about this corner of the world.”
She bent forward, lowering her voice a trifle:
“Have you noticed,” she asked, “that so many things seem to be circular
“Circular?” I repeated, surprised.
“Yes. That crater is circular; so is the bottom of it; so is this
plateau, and the hill; and the forests surrounding us; and the mountain
ranges on the horizon.” “But all
this is natural.”
“Perhaps. But in those woods, down there, there are, here and there,
great circles of crumbling soil— perfect circles a mile in diameter.”
“Mounds built by prehistoric man, no doubt.”
She shook her head:
“These are not prehistoric mounds.”
“Because they have been freshly made.”
“How do you know ?”
“The earth is freshly upheaved; great trees, partly uprooted, slant at
every angle from the sides of the enormous piles of newly upturned earth;
sand and stones are still
sliding from the raw ridges.”
She leaned nearer and dropped her voice still lower:
“More than that,” she said, “my father and I both have seen one of these
huge circles in the making!”
“What!” I exclaimed, incredulously.
“It is true. We have seen several. And it enrages father.”
“Yes, because it upsets the trees where he is painting landscapes, and
tilts them in every direction. Which, of course, ruins his picture;
and he is obliged to start
another, which vexes him dreadfully.”
I think I must have gaped at her in sheer astonishment.
“But there is something more singular than that for you to investigate,”
she said calmly. “Look down at that circle of steam which makes a
perfect ring around the bowl of the crater, halfway down. Do you
see the flicker of fire under the vapour?”
She leaned so near and spoke in such a low voice that her fragrant breath
fell upon my cheek:
“In the fire, under the vapours, there are little animals.”
“Little beasts live in the fire—slim, furry creatures, smaller than a weasel.
I’ve seen them peep out of the fire and scurry back into it.... Now
are you sorry that I wrote you to come? And will you forgive me for bringing
you out here?”
An indescribable excitement seized me, endowing me with a fluency and eloquence
“I thank you from the bottom of my heart!” I cried; “—from the depths of
a heart the emotions of which are entirely and exclusively of scientific
In the impulse of the moment I held out my hand; she laid hers in it with
“Yours is the discovery,” I said. “Yours shall be the glory.
Fame shall crown you; and perhaps if there remains any reflected light
in the form of a by-product, some modest and negligible little ray may
chance to illuminate me.”
Surprised and deeply moved by my eloquence, I bent over her hand and saluted
it with my lips.
She thanked me. Her pretty face was rosy.
It appeared that she had three cows to milk, new-laid eggs to gather, and
the construction of some fresh butter to be accomplished.
At the bars of the grassy pasture slope she dropped me a curtsey, declining
very shyly to let me carry her lacteal paraphernalia.
So I continued on to the bungalow garden, where Blythe sat on a camp stool
under a green umbrella, painting a picture of something or other.
“Mr. Blythe!” I cried, striving to subdue my enthusiasm. “The
eyes of the scientific world are now open upon this house! The searchlight
of Fame is about to be turned upon you—”
“I prefer privacy,” he interrupted. “That’s why I came here.
I’ll be obliged if you’ll turn off that searchlight.”
“But, my dear Mr. Blythe—”
“I want to be let alone,” he repeated irritably. “I came out here
to paint and to enjoy privately my own paintings.”
If what stood on his easel was a sample of his pictures, nobody was likely
to share his enjoyment.
“Your work,” said I, politely, “is—is—”
“Is what!” he snapped. “What is it—if you think you know?”
“It is entirely, so to speak, per se—by itself “
“What the devil do you mean by that?”
I looked at his picture, appalled. The entire canvas was one monotonous
vermillion conflagration. I examined it with my head on one side,
then on the other side; I made a funnel with both hands and peered intently
through it at the picture. A menacing murmuring sound came from him.
“Satisfying—exquisitely satisfying,” I concluded. “I have often seen
“I mean such prairie fires—”
“Damnation!” he exclaimed. “I’m painting a bowl of nasturtiums!”
“I was speaking purely in metaphor,” said I with a sickly smile.
“To me a nasturtium by the river brink is more than a simple flower.
It is a broader, grander, more
magnificent, more stupendous symbol.
It may mean anything, everything—such as sunsets and conflagrations and
Götterdämmerungs! Or—” and my voice was subtly modulated to an
appealing and persuasive softness— “it may mean nothing at all—chaos, void,
vacuum, negation, the exquisite annihilation of what has never even existed.”
He glared at me over his shoulder. If he was infected by Cubist tendencies
he evidently had not understood what I said.
“If you won’t talk about my pictures I don’t mind your investigating this
district,” he grunted, dabbing at his palette and plastering a wad of vermilion
upon his canvas; “but I object to any public invasion of my artistic privacy
until I am ready for it.”
“When will that be?”
He pointed with one vermilion-soaked brush toward a long, low, log building.
“In that structure,” he said, “are packed one thousand and ninety-five
paintings— all signed by me. I have executed one or two every day
since I came here. When I have painted exactly ten thousand pictures,
no more, no less, I shall erect here a gallery large enough to contain
“Only real lovers of art will ever come here to study them. It is
five hundred miles from the railroad. Therefore, I shall never have
to endure the praises of the dilettante, the patronage of the idler, the
vapid rhapsodies of the vulgar. Only those who understand will care
to make the pilgrimage.”
He waved his brushes at me:
“The conservation of national resources is all well enough—the setting
aside of timber reserves, game preserves, bird refuges, all these projects
are very good in a way. But I have dedicated this wilderness as a
last and only refuge in all the world for true Art! Because true Art, except
for my pictures, is, I believe, now practically extinct!... You’re
in my way. Would you mind getting out?”
I had sidled around between him and his bowl of nasturtiums, and I hastily
stepped aside. He squinted at the flowers, mixed up a flamboyant
mess of colour on his palette, and daubed away with unfeigned satisfaction,
no longer noticing me until I started to go. Then:
“What is it you’re here for, anyway?” he demanded abruptly. I said
“I am here to investigate those huge rings of earth thrown up in the forest
as by a gigantic mole.” He continued to paint for a few moments:
“Well, go and investigate ‘em,” he snapped. “I’m not infatuated with
“What do you think they are?” I asked, mildly ignoring his wretched manners.
“I don’t know and I don’t care, except, that sometimes when I begin to
paint several trees, the very trees I’m painting are suddenly heaved up
and tilted in every direction, and all my work goes for nothing.
That makes me mad! Otherwise, the matter has no interest for me.”
“But what in the world could cause—”
“I don’t know and I don’t care!” he shouted, waving palette and brushes
angrily. “Maybe it’s an army of moles working all together under
the ground; maybe it’s some species of circular earthquake. I don’t
know! I don’t care! But it annoys me. And if you can devise any scientific
means to stop it, I’ll be much obliged to you. Otherwise, to be perfectly
frank, you bore me.”
“The mission of Science,” said I solemnly, “is to alleviate the inconveniences
of mundane existence. Science, therefore, shall extend a helping
hand to her frailer sister, Art—”
“Science can’t patronize Art while I’m around!” he retorted. “I won’t
have it!” “But, my dear Mr. Blythe—”
“I won’t dispute with you, either! I don’t like to dispute!” he shouted.
“Don’t try to make me. Don’t attempt to inveigle me into discussion!
I know all I want to know. I don’t want to know anything you want
me to know, either!”
I looked at the old pig in haughty silence, nauseated by his conceit.
After he had plastered a few more tubes of vermilion over his canvas he
quieted down, and presently gave me an oblique glance over his shoulder.
“Well,” he said, “what else are you intending to investigate?”
“Those little animals that live in the crater fires,” I said bluntly.
“Yes,” he nodded, indifferently, “there are creatures which live somewhere
in the fires of that crater.”
“Do you realize what an astounding statement you are making?” I asked.
“It doesn’t astound me. What do I care whether it astounds you or
anybody else? Nothing interests me except Art.”
“I tell you nothing interests me except Art!” he yelled. “Don’t dispute
it! Don’t answer me! Don’t irritate me! I don’t care whether anything lives
in the fire or not! Let it live there!”
“But have you actually seen live creatures in the flames?”
“Plenty! Plenty! What of it? What about it? Let ‘em live there, for all
I care. I’ve painted pictures of ‘em, too. That’s all that
“What do they look like, Mr. Blythe?”
“Look like? I don’t know! They look like weasels or rats or bats or cats
or— stop asking me questions! It irritates me! It depresses me! Don’t ask
any more! Why don’t you go in to lunch? And—tell my daughter to bring me
a bowl of salad out here. I’ve no time to stuff myself. Some
people have. I haven’t. You’d better go in to lunch....
And tell my daughter to bring me seven tubes of Chinese vermilion with
“You don’t mean to mix—” I began, then checked myself before his fury.
“I’d rather eat vermilion paint on my salad than sit here talking to you!”
I cast a pitying glance at this impossible man, and went into the house.
After all, he was her father. I had to endure him.
After Miss Blythe had carried to her father a large bucket of lettuce leaves,
she returned to the veranda of the bungalow.
A delightful luncheon awaited us; I seated her, then took the chair opposite.
A delicious omelette, fresh biscuit, salad, and strawberry preserves, and
a tall tumbler of iced tea imbued me with a sort of mild exhilaration.
Out of the corner of my eye I could see Blythe down in the garden, munching
his lettuce leaves like an ill-tempered rabbit, and daubing away at his
picture while he munched.
“Your father,” said I politely, “is something of a genius.”
“I am so glad you think so,” she said gratefully. “But don’t tell
him so. He has been surfeited with praise in Boston. That is
why we came out here.”
“Art,” said I, “is like science, or tobacco, or tooth-wash. Every
man to his own brand. Personally, I don’t care for his kind.
But who can say which is the best kind of anything? Only the consumer.
Your father is his own consumer. He is the best judge of what he
likes. And that is the only true test of art, or anything else.”
“How delightfully you reason!” she said. “How logically, how generously!”
“Reason is the handmaid of Science, Miss Blythe.”
She seemed to understand me. Her quick intelligence surprised me,
because I myself was not perfectly sure whether I had emitted piffie or
As we ate our strawberry preserves we discussed ways and means of capturing
a specimen of the little fire creatures which, as she explained, so frequently
peeped out at her from the crater fires, and, at her slightest movement,
scurried back again into the flames. Of course I believed that this
was only her imagination. Yet, for years I had entertained a theory
that fire supported certain unknown forms of life.
“I have long believed,” said I, “that fire is inhabited by living organisms
which require the elements and temperature of active combustion for their
existence— microorganisms, but not,” I added smilingly, “any higher type
“In the fireplace,” she ventured diffidently, “I sometimes see curious
things— dragons and snakes and creatures of grotesque and peculiar shapes.”
I smiled indulgently, charmed by this innocently offered contribution to
science. Then she rose, and I rose and took her hand in mine, and
we wandered over the grass toward the crater, while I explained to her
the difference between what we imagine we see in the glowing coals of a
grate fire and my own theory that fire is the abode of living animalculae.
On the grassy edge of the crater we paused and looked down the slope, where
the circle of steam rose, partly veiling the pale flash of fire underneath.
“How near can we go?” I inquired.
“Quite near. Come; I’ll guide you.”
Leading me by the hand, she stepped over the brink and we began to descend
the easy grass slope together.
There was no difficulty about it at all. Down we went, nearer and
nearer to the wall of steam, until at last, when but fifteen feet away
from it, I felt the heat from the flames which sparkled below the wall
Here we seated ourselves upon the grass, and I knitted my brows and fixed
my eyes upon this curious phenomenon, striving to discover some reason
for it. Except for the vapour and the fires, there was nothing whatever
volcanic about this spectacle, or in the surroundings.
From where I sat I could see that the bed of fire which encircled the crater,
and the wall of vapour which crowned the flames, were about three hundred
feet wide. Of course this barrier was absolutely impassable.
There was no way of getting through it into the bottom of the crater.
A slight pressure from Miss Blythe’s fingers engaged my attention; I turned
toward her, and she said:
“There is one more thing about which I have not told you. I feel
a little guilty, because that is the real reason I asked you to come here.”
“What is it?”
“I think there are emeralds on the floor of that crater.”
End of PART ONE..... GO TO PART