Sunday, February 06, 2011

Land to the North -- Chapter One

(Blogger’s Note: This whole book is being uploaded one chapter at a time and will therefore be in reverse order when completed. For those who have not yet read it, the Prologue follows this. I leave it that way so that those loyal readers who have been following the story won’t have to scroll down to find the newest chapter... Yes, it might be a pain, but that’s just the way it is.)
My name is David Morgan Stone and until recently, I was an officer in the United States Army Expeditionary Force to France. A German artillery shell, directed at the trenches behind my command post fell short and the shrapnel killed both my aide and my first sergeant. I was wounded and by the time I was healed, the Great War was over and I wasn’t needed in Europe.

On the ship coming home, I met a man named Eric Jansen who claimed that his father had once visited a strange land that no one living on the Earth had ever seen. Now, traveling on a steamship loaded with soldiers returning from war is a fairly boring proposition. The government didn’t waste money on frills and the library of the ship, such as it was, consisted mainly of navigation texts and seafaring stories. In other words, Jansen’s stories were about the only form of entertainment available and he wasn’t shy about spinning these wonderful, if unbelievable tales. I found myself looking forward to our long afternoon chats.

There was a wardroom on the ship, used for the meals for the officers, but normally vacant during the middle of the afternoon. Jansen and I took to meeting there after the noon meal, sipping coffee from heavy mugs provided by the ship’s steward. I found myself drawn into the stories that Jansen claimed were all true.

"After we get home," he told me one day, "I would like to prove to you that my father was right and certainly wasn’t crazy."
I really cared, at that point, but there was, literally, nothing else to do.

"If I can get a university... or anyone else... to finance an expedition, I’m going to look for that underground land."

It was at that moment I realized that Jansen had shared his stories with me because he was looking for someone to go with him. I was the first step of the journey and if I ignored his invitation, then he would probably never have the courage to pursue it. At least that’s what I thought then. I had no way of knowing that his motivation for searching for this unknown land went further than a desire to prove his father right.

But, having spent several months in the trenches on the front lines and then more months in the hospital recovering, I knew how important dreams could become. They were a way of bridging the time between the arrival at the front and the time for going home. It was a way to keep sane in an insane place and a way to stay alive when there were so many ways to get killed. Many of the dreams became obsessions and once the man returned to his real world and normal life, the obsession faded away and was forgotten. Or so I thought.

I smiled and leaned back. I said, "Well, if you get your expedition together, give me a call. I’d like to go along with you."

"You mean that?" asked Jansen, his eyes sparkling.

"Of course," I said, believing it at the moment, but I also thought that once we reached port, he would forget about it and that would be it.

Two days later we left the ship to a cheering crowd on the pier. A band played and flags flapped in the stiff, cold breeze. As I came down the gangplank, I saw Sara standing behind a makeshift barricade, waving a white handkerchief and shouting my name.

As I started toward her, my heart filled with pleasure at seeing her again, I glanced to the rear. Eric Jansen was slipping off the ship, his duffel bag over his shoulder. No one rushed forward to meet him and a second later, Sara had wrapped her arms around me, kissing me with a passion that drove all thoughts of Jansen and his stories from my mind.

We pushed our way through the cheering throng on the dock, the band playing Sousa marches with great enthusiasm and little else and found a taxi. We leaped into the rear and told the driver to take us to the nearest hotel where we spent a week learning about each other all over again.

My mustering out pay that included a couple of bonuses, not to mention some savings, was more than enough to keep me happy for a year or more. Without the pressure of having to find employment immediately, Sara and I took a leisurely trip across the eastern United States. We stopped in Niagra but the falls didn’t inspire us to marry then and there. We planned to wait, and stuck to that plan.

We ended our journey in Kansas City where Sara had a job as a typist. I found a room where I planned to write my memoirs about the war. I had kept a diary but it had vanished in the explosion that had killed my friends and wounded me.

I spent much of my time in the library, reading the newspaper accounts of the war, surprised at how they differed from my memories. Mostly it was a description of the mud and the cold and the wet of the trenches that smelled like freshly dug graves. Water that stood in permanent pools in the bottom, rotting boots off the feet before attacking the flesh. It was a miserable existence that had to be chronicled because the people who sent their boys off to fight should know what it was like. Not a glorious adventure by any means.

During those tours in the library, I came across the story of Marshall Gardner, a fellow Midwesterner who claimed that the Earth was hollow. It was a fascinating account of life in the center of the planet. He talked about openings at the poles that led to a tropical paradise inside the Earth. Admiral Perry had found evidence of this during his attempts to reach the poles but had never tried to explore it.

I found myself swept up in the accounts of the Inner Earth. Garner described the trunks of unknown trees found drifting in the Arctic Oceans. He wrote about the flora and fauna that obviously belonged to a warmer climate, but which had been found in the frozen snows of the arctic tundra. Facts that seemed to contradict each other.

But Garner wasn’t the only man who believed that there was something hidden in the center of the Earth. Jules Verne wrote about an imagined trip through the caves of Iceland that took the explorers deep into the bowels of our planet. I began to suspect that Verne’s story wasn’t the fiction so many believed.

Sara found my intense fascination with the Hollow Earth annoying. She refused to listen to me when I came from the library loaded down with fresh facts. She forbid me to speak about it in her presence, even when she saw I was bursting to tell her of some new discovery.

On a bleak day, the sky a gun metal gray that threatened snow at any moment, I uncovered the account of Captain David Robson who claimed to have found a cloud enshrouded island where there should have been no land. Robson dropped anchor and a landing party rowed to the steaming, shell-studded beach. Fish, some of them still alive, were strewn across the muddy flats. Others, rotting in the steaming heat of the island, were beginning to turn.

Robson’s men worked their way inland, through a misty forest that was dripping salt water and draped with Spanish moss. They found a city of broken buildings, the stone walls slimed with moss. Scattered around them were the artifacts of a lost civilization. Bronze swords, iron-tipped arrows, metal pots, jeweled goblets and dozens of things that the sailors didn’t recognize.

They spent the morning exploring the island. They found no animals, other than the fish, living on it. There were no bones of the people who had built the city. No evidence that anyone still lived there until they discovered a large stone box. Several of them dragged it to the beach and wrestled it into a long boat to be taken to their ship.

On the deck of the HMS Jesmond, they opened it expecting treasure but found, instead, the mummified body of a large man. Captain Robson suggested that the man might have been an Egyptian. Others thought he might have once been a resident of Atlantis.

All this interested me greatly. Each article or book I found made me search harder for more information. I was rewarded daily. And then I came across the story of the Smokey God and I felt my stomach turn over and the blood drain from my face.

An old Norwegian, Olaf Jansen, told of sailing north until he came to a warm land of tropical plants, sandy beaches kissed by the sun, and plentiful fruits. He was captured by the kindly men who lived there and was taken to their city. The tall, statuesque people showed him their country, their cities and their farms. He toured their powerplants and schools. After several months in the Inner Earth, Olaf Jansen was allowed to board his ship and sail for home.

I sat for a long time, staring at the people hurrying along the sidewalk outside the library. The women held their hats on with their gloved hands as the cold wind whipped at the hems of their skirts. The men, bundled in long coats and bent forward, rushed about their business.

Around me I heard almost nothing. A cough that was quickly stifled. A feminine laugh. A book dropped to the hardwood floor. I ignored it all, glancing occasionally at the story of Olaf Jansen and thought about the stories told to me by Eric Jansen. Maybe Eric did have something to go on. I wished that I had paid more attention to him, or had written some of it down because I found myself wishing that I could get in touch with him.

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