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Title: The Thing On the Roof
Author: Robert E. Howard
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 0608011.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: October 2006
Date most recently updated: October 2006

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The Thing On the Roof
Robert E. Howard



_They lumber through the night_
_With their elephantine tread;_
_I shudder in affright_
_As I cower in my bed._
_They lift colossal wings_
_On the high gable roofs_
_Which tremble to the trample_
_Of their mastodonic hoofs._
  --Justin Geoffrey: _Out of the Old Land._


Let me begin by saying that I was surprized when Tussmann called
on me. We had never been close friends; the man's mercenary instincts
repelled me; and since our bitter controversy of three years before,
when he attempted to discredit my _Evidences of Nahua Culture in
Yucatan_, which was the result of years of careful research, our
relations had been anything but cordial. However, I received him and
found his manner hasty and abrupt, but rather abstracted, as if his
dislike for me had been thrust aside in some driving passion that had
hold of him.

His errand was quickly stated. He wished my aid in obtaining a
volume in the first edition of Von Junzt's _Nameless Cults_--the
edition known as the Black Book, not from its color, but because of
its dark contents. He might almost as well have asked me for the
original Greek translation of the _Necronomicon_. Though since my
return from Yucatan I had devoted practically all my time to my
avocation of book collecting, I had not stumbled onto any hint that
the book in the Dusseldorf edition was still in existence.

A word as to this rare work. Its extreme ambiguity in spots,
coupled with its incredible subject matter, has caused it long to be
regarded as the ravings of a maniac and the author was damned with the
brand of insanity. But the fact remains that much of his assertions
are unanswerable, and that he spent the full forty-five years of his
life prying into strange places and discovering secret and abysmal
things. Not a great many volumes were printed in the first edition and
many of these were burned by their frightened owners when Von Junzt
was found strangled in a mysterious manner, in his barred and bolted
chamber one night in 1840, six months after he had returned from a
mysterious journey to Mongolia.

Five years later a London printer, one Bridewall, pirated the
work, and issued a cheap translation for sensational effect, full of
grotesque woodcuts, and riddled with misspellings, faulty translations
and the usual errors of a cheap and unscholarly printing. This still
further discredited the original work, and publishers and public
forgot about the book until 1909 when the Golden Goblin Press of New
York brought out an edition.

Their production was so carefully expurgated that fully a fourth
of the original matter was cut out; the book was handsomely bound and
decorated with the exquisite and weirdly imaginative illustrations of
Diego Vasquez. The edition was intended for popular consumption but
the artistic instinct of the publishers defeated that end, since the
cost of issuing the book was so great that they were forced to cite it
at a prohibitive price.

I was explaining all this to Tussmann when he interrupted
brusquely to say that he was not utterly ignorant in such matters. One
of the Golden Goblin books ornamented his library, he said, and it was
in it that he found a certain line which aroused his interest. If I
could procure him a copy of the original 1839 edition, he would make
it worth my while; knowing, he added, that it would be useless to
offer me money, he would, instead, in return for my trouble on his
behalf, make a full retraction of his former accusations in regard to
my Yucatan researches, and offer a complete apology in _The Scientific
News_.

I will admit that I was astounded at this, and realized that if
the matter meant so much to Tussmann that he was willing to make such
concessions, it must indeed be of the utmost importance. I answered
that I considered that I had sufficiently refuted his charges in the
eyes of the world and had no desire to put him in a humiliating
position, but that I would make the utmost efforts to procure him what
he wanted.

He thanked me abruptly and took his leave, saying rather vaguely
that he hoped to find a complete exposition of something in the Black
Book which had evidently been slighted in the later edition.

I set to work, writing letters to friends, colleagues and book
dealers all over the world, and soon discovered that I had assumed a
task of no small magnitude. Three months elapsed before my efforts
were crowned with success, but at last, through the aid of Professor
James Clement of Richmond, Virginia, I was able to obtain what I
wished.

I notified Tussmann and he came to London by the next train. His
eyes burned avidly as he gazed at the thick, dusty volume with its
heavy leather covers and rusty iron hasps, and his fingers quivered
with eagerness as he thumbed the time-yellowed pages.

And when he cried out fiercely and smashed his clenched fist down
on the table I knew that he had found what he hunted.

"Listen!" he commanded, and he read to me a passage that spoke of
an old, old temple in a Honduras jungle where a strange god was
worshipped by an ancient tribe which became extinct before the coming
of the Spaniards. And Tussmann read aloud of the mummy that had been,
in life, the last high priest of that vanished people, and which now
lay in a chamber hewn in the solid rock of the cliff against which the
temple was built. About that mummy's withered neck was a copper chain,
and on that chain a great red jewel carved in the form of a toad. This
jewel was a key, Von Junzt went on to say, to the treasure of the
temple which lay hidden in a subterranean crypt far below the temple's
altar.

Tussmann's eyes blazed.

"I have seen that temple! I have stood before the altar. I have
seen the sealed-up entrance of the chamber in which, the natives say,
lies the mummy of the priest. It is a very curious temple, no more
like the ruins of the prehistoric Indians than it is like the
buildings of the modern Latin-Americans. The Indians in the vicinity
disclaim any former connection with the place; they say that the
people who built that temple were a different race from themselves,
and were there when their own ancestors came into the country. I
believe it to be a remnant of some long-vanished civilization which
began to decay thousands of years before the Spaniards came.

"I would have liked to have broken into the sealed-up chamber, but
I had neither the time nor the tools for the task. I was hurrying to
the coast, having been wounded by an accidental gunshot in the foot,
and I stumbled onto the place purely by chance.

"I have been planning to have another look at it, but
circumstances have prevented--now I intend to let nothing stand in my
way! By chance I came upon a passage in the Golden Goblin edition of
this book, describing the temple. But that was all; the mummy was only
briefly mentioned. Interested, I obtained one of Bridewall's
translations but ran up against a blank wall of baffling blunders. By
some irritating mischance the translator had even mistaken the
location of the Temple of the Toad, as Von Junzt calls it, and has it
in Guatemala instead of Honduras. The general description is faulty,
the jewel is mentioned and the fact that it is a 'key.' But a key to
what, Bridewall's book does not state. I now felt that I was on the
track of a real discovery, unless Von Junzt was, as many maintain, a
madman. But that the man was actually in Honduras at one time is well
attested, and no one could so vividly describe the temple--as he does
in the Black Book--unless he had seen it himself. How he learned of
the jewel is more than I can say. The Indians who told me of the mummy
said nothing of any jewel. I can only believe that Von Junzt found his
way into the sealed crypt somehow--the man had uncanny ways of
learning hidden things.

"To the best of my knowledge only one other white man has seen the
Temple of the Toad besides Von Junzt and myself--the Spanish traveler
Juan Gonzales, who made a partial exploration of that country in 1793.
He mentioned, briefly, a curious fane that differed from most Indian
ruins, and spoke skeptically of a legend current among the natives
that there was 'something unusual' hidden under the temple. I feel
certain that he was referring to the Temple of the Toad.

"Tomorrow I sail for Central America. Keep the book; I have no
more use for it. This time I am going fully prepared and I intend to
find what is hidden in that temple, if I have to demolish it. It can
be nothing less than a great store of gold! The Spaniards missed it,
somehow; when they arrived in Central America, the Temple of the Toad
was deserted; they were searching for living Indians from whom torture
could wring gold; not for mummies of lost peoples. But I mean to have
that treasure."

So saying Tussman took his departure. I sat down and opened the
book at the place where he had left off reading, and I sat until
midnight, wrapt in Von Junzt's curious, wild and at times utterly
vague expoundings. And I found pertaining to the Temple of the Toad
certain things which disquieted me so much that the next morning I
attempted to get in touch with Tussmann, only to find that he had
already sailed.

Several months passed and then I received a letter from Tussmann,
asking me to come and spend a few days with him at his estate in
Sussex; he also requested me to bring the Black Book with me.

I arrived at Tussmann's rather isolated estate just after
nightfall. He lived in almost feudal state, his great ivy-grown house
and broad lawns surrounded by high stone walls. As I went up the
hedge-bordered way from the gate to the house, I noted that the place
had not been well kept in its master's absence. Weeds grew rank among
the trees, almost choking out the grass. Among some unkempt bushes
over against the outer wall, I heard what appeared to be a horse or an
ox blundering and lumbering about. I distinctly heard the clink of its
hoof on a stone.

A servant who eyed me suspiciously admitted me and I found
Tussmann pacing to and fro in his study like a caged lion. His giant
frame was leaner, harder than when I had last seen him; his face was
bronzed by a tropic sun. There were more and harsher lines in his
strong face and his eyes burned more intensely than ever. A
smoldering, baffled anger seemed to underlie his manner.

"Well, Tussmann," I greeted him, "what success? Did you find the
gold?"

"I found not an ounce of gold," he growled. "The whole thing was a
hoax--well, not all of it. I broke into the sealed chamber and found
the mummy--"

"And the jewel?" I exclaimed.

He drew something from his pocket and handed it to me.

I gazed curiously at the thing I held. It was a great jewel, clear
and transparent as crystal, but of a sinister crimson, carved, as Von
Junzt had declared, in the shape of a toad. I shuddered involuntarily;
the image was peculiarly repulsive. I turned my attention to the heavy
and curiously wrought copper chain which supported it.

"What are these characters carved on the chain?" I asked
curiously.

"I can not say," Tussmann replied. "I had thought perhaps you
might know. I find a faint resemblance between them and certain partly
defaced hieroglyphics on a monolith known as the Black Stone in the
mountains of Hungary. I have been unable to decipher them."

"Tell me of your trip," I urged, and over our whiskey-and-sodas he
began, as if with a strange reluctance.

"I found the temple again with no great difficulty, though it lies
in a lonely and little-frequented region. The temple is built against
a sheer stone cliff in a deserted valley unknown to maps and
explorers. I would not endeavor to make an estimate of its antiquity,
but it is built of a sort of unusually hard basalt, such as I have
never seen anywhere else, and its extreme weathering suggests
incredible age.

"Most of the columns which form its facade are in ruins, thrusting
up shattered stumps from worn bases, like the scattered and broken
teeth of some grinning hag. The outer walls are crumbling, but the
inner walls and the columns which support such of the roof as remains
intact, seem good for another thousand years, as well as the walls of
the inner chamber.

"The main chamber is a large circular affair with a floor composed
of great squares of stone. In the center stands the altar, merely a
huge, round, curiously carved block of the same material. Directly
behind the altar, in the solid stone cliff which forms the rear wall
of the chamber, is the sealed and hewn-out chamber wherein lay the
mummy of the temple's last priest.

"I broke into the crypt with not too much difficulty and found the
mummy exactly as is stated in the Black Book. Though it was in a
remarkable state of preservation, I was unable to classify it. The
withered features and general contour of the skull suggested certain
degraded and mongrel peoples of Lower Egypt, and I feel certain that
the priest was a member of a race more akin to the Caucasian than the
Indian. Beyond this, I can not make any positive statement.

"But the jewel was there, the chain looped about the dried-up
neck."

From this point Tussmann's narrative became so vague that I had
some difficulty in following him and wondered if the tropic sun had
affected his mind. He had opened a hidden door in the altar somehow
with the jewel--just how, he did not plainly say, and it struck me
that he did not clearly understand himself the action of the jewel-
key. But the opening of the secret door had had a bad effect on the
hardy rogues in his employ. They had refused point-blank to follow him
through that gaping black opening which had appeared so mysteriously
when the gem was touched to the altar.

Tussmann entered alone with his pistol and electric torch, finding
a narrow stone stair that wound down into the bowels of the earth,
apparently. He followed this and presently came into a broad corridor,
in the blackness of which his tiny beam of light was almost engulfed.
As he told this he spoke with strange annoyance of a toad which hopped
ahead of him, just beyond the circle of light, all the time he was
below ground.

Making his way along dank tunnels and stairways that were wells of
solid blackness, he at last came to a heavy door fantastically carved,
which he felt must be the crypt wherein was secreted the gold of the
ancient worshippers. He pressed the toad-jewel against it at several
places and finally the door gaped wide.

"And the treasure?" I broke in eagerly.

He laughed in savage self-mockery.

"There was no gold there, no precious gems--nothing"--he
hesitated--"nothing that I could bring away."

Again his tale lapsed into vagueness. I gathered that he had left
the temple rather hurriedly without searching any further for the
supposed treasure. He had intended bringing the mummy away with him,
he said, to present to some museum, but when he came up out of the
pits, it could not be found and he believed that his men, in
superstitious aversion to having such a companion on their road to the
coast, had thrown it into some well or cavern.

"And so," he concluded, "I am in England again no richer than when
I left."

"You have the jewel," I reminded him. "Surely it is valuable."

He eyed it without favor, but with a sort of fierce avidness
almost obsessional.

"Would you say that it is a ruby?" he asked.

I shook my head. "I am unable to classify it."

"And I. But let me see the book."

He slowly turned the heavy pages, his lips moving as he read.
Sometimes he shook his head as if puzzled, and I noticed him dwell
long over a certain line.

"This man dipped so deeply into forbidden things," said he, "I can
not wonder that his fate was so strange and mysterious. He must have
had some foreboding of his end--here he warns men not to disturb
sleeping things."

Tussmann seemed lost in thought for some moments.

"Aye, sleeping things," he muttered, "that seem dead, but only lie
waiting for some blind fool to awake them--I should have read further
in the Black Book--and I should have shut the door when I left the
crypt--but I have the key and I'll keep it in spite of Hell."

He roused himself from his reveries and was about to speak when he
stopped short. From somewhere upstairs had come a peculiar sound.

"What was that?" he glared at me. I shook my head and he ran to
the door and shouted for a servant. The man entered a few moments
later and he was rather pale.

"You were upstairs?" growled Tussmann.

"Yes, sir."

"Did you hear anything?" asked Tussmann harshly and in a manner
almost threatening and accusing.

"I did, sir," the man answered with a puzzled look on his face.

"What did you hear?" The question was fairly snarled.

"Well, sir," the man laughed apologetically, "you'll say I'm a bit
off, I fear, but to tell you the truth, sir, it sounded like a horse
stamping around on the roof!"

A blaze of absolute madness leaped into Tussmann's eyes.

"You fool!" he screamed. "Get out of here!" The man shrank back in
amazement and Tussmann snatched up the gleaming toad-carved jewel.

"I've been a fool!" he raved. "I didn't read far enough--and I
should have shut the door--but by heaven, the key is mine and I'll
keep it in spite of man or devil."

And with these strange words he turned and fled upstairs. A moment
later his door slammed heavily and a servant, knocking timidly,
brought forth only a blasphemous order to retire and a luridly worded
threat to shoot anyone who tried to obtain entrance into the room.

Had it not been so late I would have left the house, for I was
certain that Tussmann was stark mad. As it was, I retired to the room
a frightened servant showed me, but I did not go to bed. I opened the
pages of the Black Book at the place where Tussmann had been reading.

This much was evident, unless the man was utterly insane: he had
stumbled upon something unexpected in the Temple of the Toad.
Something unnatural about the opening of the altar door had frightened
his men, and in the subterraneous crypt Tussmann had found _something_
that he had not thought to find. And I believed that he had been
followed from Central America, and that the reason for his persecution
was the jewel he called the Key.

Seeking some clue in Von Junzt's volume, I read again of the
Temple of the Toad, of the strange pre-Indian people who worshipped
there, and of the huge, tittering, tentacled, hoofed monstrosity that
they worshipped.

Tussmann had said that he had not read far enough when he had
first seen the book. Puzzling over this cryptic phrase I came upon the
line he had pored over--marked by his thumb nail. It seemed to me to
be another of Von Junzt's many ambiguities, for it merely stated that
a temple's god was the temple's treasure. Then the dark implication of
the hint struck me and cold sweat beaded my forehead.

The Key to the Treasure! And the temple's treasure was the
temple's god! And sleeping Things might awaken on the opening of their
prison door! I sprang up, unnerved by the intolerable suggestion, and
at that moment something crashed in the stillness and the death-scream
of a human being burst upon my ears.

In an instant I was out of the room, and as I dashed up the stairs
I heard sounds that have made me doubt my sanity ever since. At
Tussmann's door I halted, essaying with shaking hand to turn the knob.
The door was locked, and as I hesitated I heard from within a hideous
high-pitched tittering and then the disgusting squashy sound as if a
great, jelly-like bulk was being forced through the window. The sound
ceased and I could have sworn I heard a faint swish of gigantic wings.
Then silence.

Gathering my shattered nerves, I broke down the door. A foul and
overpowering stench billowed out like a yellow mist. Gasping in nausea
I entered. The room was in ruins, but nothing was missing except that
crimson toad-carved jewel Tussmann called the Key, and that was never
found. A foul, unspeakable slime smeared the windowsill, and in the
center of the room lay Tussmann, his head crushed and flattened; and
on the red ruin of skull and face, the plain print of an enormous
hoof.



THE END



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