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Title: The Bat King
Author: James Hilton
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Language: English
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The Bat King

by

James Hilton

Cover Image

The strange story of a monarch's escape—and return—to the weirdest kingdom the earth has ever seen.

First published in Collier's Weekly, July 4, 1937



Illustration

Can't you see anything?" I asked. "Can't you see the light in the distance?"



I SUPPOSE the Carlsbad Caverns, in New Mexico, are the most interesting of their kind in the world. I had made the tour of them before and remembered the way the guide insisted on the party keeping together, and also the way we were all carefully counted before going down the elevator. The authorities took no chances, and you can't blame them, because apart from the caverns that they show you there are miles and miles of side galleries, many of them still unexplored.

There was a local cowboy named Jim White who let himself down into these caverns thirty-six years ago by a lasso rope. You can say, in a sense, that he discovered them. He ventured a few miles with a lantern, unwinding cord as he went along, so that he shouldn't get lost on the way back. Today Jim White stands behind a counter in the main cavern selling his own book about them, and I dare say he sometimes feels it was more fun swinging down on a lasso rope than watching dollars click into a cash register.

Anyhow, I was in Carlsbad again with nothing much to do and I thought I'd pay a second visit. But one thing I did see for the first time—and that was the evening flight of the bats. Toward dusk in summertime there's a sound like the drone of airplanes at the cavern mouth, and suddenly the bats appear—millions of them, it seems—wheeling around in blind circles and suddenly streaming across the sky like a smoke cloud. They fly for miles in search of food, and return to the caverns by dawn.

That was worth seeing; but, after all, lots of people have seen it, which to a journalist lowers the temperature. You have to be pretty smart to concoct anything readable out of something that's been guide-booked and picture- postcarded to the nth degree; which is why, when I paid my two dollars at the top of the elevator shaft, I carried in my pocket a flashlight and four balls of cord. I figured that if I could slip out of the way of the touring party I might have some fun on my own.

They take you through very slowly, making a two-hour job of it, because some of the old folks get tired; and as you plod along an official switches on the lights ahead and another official switches them off behind you when you've passed by. It wasn't difficult to hang back to the rear of the party, but it was taking a chance to hide behind a big rock and trust that the rear guard wouldn't stop me. However, he didn't; and presently he switched the lights off and I could see nothing but the distant glow where the party was entering the next section. Rather an eerie feeling, to be left alone while the lights and the voices disappeared. I waited about ten minutes, till there was silence and complete darkness; then I switched on my flashlight and pulled out the first ball of cord.

You understand that I just wanted a thrill, that's all. I wanted to feel, in a counterfeit, second-hand sort of way, something of what Jim White felt thirty-seven years ago. And I reckoned I had more than an hour to explore in before anyone would find I was missing. I didn't want that to happen. The cavern people looked the kind that wouldn't sympathize.

I tied the end of the cord to a jutting rock and began clambering over rough surfaces toward an opening that looked to be a promising lead into a side gallery. It also looked as if I'd reach it in a couple of minutes, but you can't judge either distance or difficulties in a cavern. Actually it took me a quarter of an hour and one and a half balls of cord to get to that opening; but when at last I did I found I was lucky; the flashlight revealed a staggeringly beautiful vault tapering in the distance toward further enticements.


Illustration

The flashlight revealed a staggeringly beautiful vault
tapering in the distance toward further enticements.


I walked on, using up two more balls of cord, hoisting myself over sharp rocks and touching the cool stalagmites as I went by. (That was one of the things the guide had warned us against—we mustn't touch the stalagmites. But I guess Jim White had touched them.)

You can't describe the loveliness of those fluted walls and roofs, glimpsed in the fugitive rays of a flashlamp. I shan't try to, but the thrill was there, all right. Then all at once, through gazing up at them, I stumbled and fell; my right arm grazed a rock; there was a little tinkle of glass—and darkness. Too bad—and I hadn't even a box of matches. Well, there was the cord, anyhow; I had only to rewind it and I'd be back on the main track of the tourists. Not so bad, maybe. But without a light I knew I should have to hurry.


I TELL you, it's pretty difficult to find your way over the rough floor of an unknown cavern in pitch darkness and with no guide but a trail of string. I reckon it took me a minute at least to walk a dozen steps, because I had to feel every step in advance, not only with feet but with hands as well, for some of those jutting stalagmites and stalactites would hurt you pretty badly if you ran against them. And I was, honestly, a little bit scared. I got hot and breathless, and once, when the cord wouldn't wind up, I had a second of real panic. But it was only caught round an edge of rock.

Maybe it was half an hour I walked; but I still hadn't come to the knot where I'd joined the last two lengths of cord. I kept feeling for that knot, and when I didn't feel it I kept getting hotter and hotter and a bit more scared. Surely I couldn't have passed it without noticing? My hands grew clammy, and somehow the steps I was making didn't seem over the same ground that I'd passed on the way—which was absurd, because the cord couldn't lead me astray. But still, I wasn't enjoying myself so much, and then, as I stopped to get my breath, something happened that made me lose it, so to speak, before I could get it. That cord in my hand suddenly pulled tight and gave a twitch.

I think I just stood still for a whole minute, wondering if I could possibly have been mistaken. Then I felt sweat pouring down my face. Steady, steady, I told myself, actually speaking the words aloud, I think. I took a few cautious steps forward, trying to believe that nothing had really happened; but then two things happened simultaneously: my fingers came to the knot in the cord, and the cord twitched again.

So I was there where I was, a couple of thousand feet from the tourist track, half a mile or so of difficult walking in between, and also—perhaps—someone or something else in between. Probably one of the cavern officials, I reassured myself with ghastly self-control; somebody must have seen the end of the cord and begun to follow it along. But in that case, reason suggested, why wasn't he flashing a light to look for me? Surely a cavern official wouldn't grope about in the dark? And the answer was, it couldn't be a cavern official.


YOU think at first it's hard to meet danger; but when you know or think it's coming at you, it's really easier to meet it than to stand still and wait for it. Maybe that's why, when I heard a faint sound echoing from the vault ahead—a whisper of a few stones disturbed as by some stealthy footfall—I hurried ahead, winding the cord as fast as I could and giving it a few twitches myself. Let the other fellow have a fright, too, I thought.

We approached each other—myself and who or whatever it was that was coming; I half decided to shout, but somehow the words wouldn't come. I certainly was—why not admit it?—as terrified as I have ever been in my life. I'd have climbed to one side and hidden myself but for the fear of losing the cord. That was the dreadful thing about it. I had to hold on to that cord, and it was that cord which was leading me direct to—what?

I walked on farther, my right hand ready for emergencies while I held the cord in my left. Every few seconds I stopped, wound in the slack length, and listened to those footfalls creeping nearer. At last I judged them only a few yards away and I couldn't hang to myself any more—I rushed ahead and collided with something soft and squashy.

Queer what imagination will do, and how subservient it makes our senses. I couldn't see what it was I had run into; I could only feel it, and fear so dominated my sense of touch that it lost all power to recognize and identify. Not till I heard a voice did I cease to shudder. The voice said, "Well, who are you?"—and in a mad kind of way I thought to myself: Goodness, I know that voice. I've heard it somewhere before. I must recollect—I must—I must… And then, with the almighty effort that one can sometimes command in a crisis, the answer came: Why, it sounds like old Glasier, who used to lecture on Constitutional History at Yale...

"I'm a tourist," I said, as calmly as I could. "I wandered off from the main party and here I am. I had a flash but I broke it. You don't have to be afraid of me. Who are you?"

"My name is Glasier," came the answer, surprisingly and yet not surprisingly; and then I suddenly remembered the way I had shuddered, that sense of contact with something soft and squashy.

"That's all right," I said, quite cheerfully now. "I thought I recognized your voice—I used to attend your lectures... But why the devil haven't you got any clothes on?"


A FEW minutes later we were resting for a moment on a ledge of rock. "I thought there might have been a small paragraph in the papers about it," he was saying, in the same half-apologetic manner he had always had.

"Maybe there was," I answered, "but I didn't see it. Or if I did I don't remember. After all, if it's as long ago as you say—"

I said that to humor him and he sensed it. "You don't believe me, do you?" he queried.

"Whether I believe you or not, I'll get you out all right," I said. "All we've got to do is wind up this cord for half a mile or so. No need to worry."

"It's funny to think I've been so near—all the time."

"You might have been nearer still and not found a way out of these caverns. They're honeycombed with passages and in pitch darkness like this..." I wanted to put him at ease. I thought he'd been lost for perhaps a few days and had taken his clothes off because he'd gone a bit nutty. After all, it wouldn't be surprising.

Then he said: "Since you are kind enough to suggest helping me, might I first of all gather a few of my personal possessions together? They're only a few steps away. You see, I put them down in case you were going to attack me."

"That's how I felt about you," I replied, laughing, and added: "Yes, of course; pick up your things, and put your clothes on, too, while you're about it."

"I haven't any clothes," he answered. "Only shoes. Everything else wore out, and as it's quite warm down here... But there's my spectacles and pipe and money and a book and one or two other little things I brought with me..."

"All right," I said, and then it occurred to me that I couldn't very well join the crowd arm in arm with a naked man. "Look here," I said, "you'd better put on this raincoat I'm wearing—button it up at the neck and maybe we'll get through the cordon all right. Fortunately tourists rig themselves out in such weird costumes nowadays that we've got an outside chance." I wanted to get through because I realized I had a front-page story if only I could park the fellow in some hotel and give him time to come to his senses.

He put on my raincoat and we began to move along. He held on to me and I held on to the cord. I must say, though I judged him to be pretty well off his head, he behaved calmly and talked quite naturally about things. (Maybe that proved he was off his head.) "The first thing I must do," he said, "is to telegraph my wife in New Haven. She must have given me up for dead."

"Sure," I answered, "we'll wire her tonight... And I've got to get you some clothes, too—and I dare say you'll feel like a bite to eat..."

"No," he answered. "I'm not very hungry. I had my usual meal."

"What d'you mean—your usual meal?"

"Oh, insects, you know—various kinds of insects. The bats bring them to me—every morning."

Of course I realized then that he was completely nuts. But nuttiness is a bit fascinating, in a way—you can't help encouraging people, somehow, to show how nutty they are. So I went on, pretending to take it all in: "The bats are friends of yours, are they?"

He replied, with a curious sort of dignity:

"They are my friends, yes. You have no idea how kind those little creatures are. They will miss me. They haven't intelligence enough to understand why I have gone, but they will miss me, I know. I've trained them to do my bidding—we've all got on so well together these past eight years. This is their kingdom, you see, and I—though it may seem a strange thing for a Yale professor to be proud of—I am the King of the Bats."

"I guess you are," I said, under my breath.

I let him talk on while I wound the cord up to the rock it was tied to; then I found the main track and we began the fairly easy walk to the crowd. It was still quite dark, but I knew I should soon be seeing the glow of light from the main cavern ahead, and I was eager to have my first look at Glasier. I was afraid if he looked as loony as he talked there'd be no getting him through the crowd. Presently we came to a spot where a faint dimness showed in the distance, and in that gray light I found—to my relief—that things weren't quite so bad as they might have been. The professor looked much the same as when I had known him ten years before—a little older, perhaps a little fatter; he had also grown a beard. He had never been exactly handsome, but there had been and still seemed to be a sort of nondescript benignity about him. Suddenly, however, as I began to take stock of him I noticed a strange thing: his eyes were staring into mine without meaning or life. "Can't you see anything?" I asked, as he clung to my arm. "Can't you see the light in the distance?"

He shook his head. "I thought as much," he replied, calmly. "I'm blind. After all that time in darkness I expected it."

Autosuggestion, I told myself, and added, without arguing: "Things are bound to be strange at first—just hold onto me and don't worry." We reached the crowd in the main cavern, and though a few people stared at us, I guess we only looked the kind of freaks you see in most places where there are guides and turnstiles. The elevator man stared at us pretty closely too, and at first I thought he'd spotted us from the count. But, no—it seemed that the cavern people were satisfied if as many people came up as went down. One extra they didn't expect and consequently weren't looking for.

But it was in the elevator I got my second big shock. I noticed that the professor was carrying under his arm a book and a newspaper. The book was Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and the newspaper, yellow and beginning to crumble at the edges, bore a name and a date that I could read by stooping—it was the New York Times for May 17, 1929.


ALL that evening in the hotel we sat talking things over, and the first result was that I begged him not to telegraph his wife. It would be too much of a shock, I said; he had better let someone break the news gently—perhaps I could do it myself. He agreed that that was a good idea.

His story hung together pretty well, though it was still, in any ordinary sense, incredible. In that spring of 1929, he said, he had been tramping alone in the Guadalupe Mountains, fussing about in some vaguely archeological way. He had wandered into one of the caves that belonged to the vast underground system of which the Carlsbad group is just a section. Lost, without food or light, he would have faced death from starvation—but for those bats. Somehow I couldn't believe in that item of the story, though if it weren't to be believed, how else? "And they didn't help everybody like that," he said, "because one day I found a skeleton—the skeleton of a child."

"Did you?" I said, thinking to myself that his story didn't really need the skeleton of a child added to it.

"Well," I replied, "that's that. And we leave for New York tomorrow, so you'll soon be all right."

I had already decided not to break the story yet, partly because I wanted to verify it before making a possible fool of myself, and partly because if Glasier's mind were unhinged as I judged it to be, I thought he had a better chance of recovery without a horde of newspapermen worrying him. He was my own discovery, just as the caverns themselves had been Jim White's, and I intended to look after him with a nicely blended mixture of self-interest and altruism.

All the way to New York he talked quite sanely about his former life at Yale, his job, his wife, and so on. He seemed very fond of his wife. "She'll be overjoyed," he said. "We simply lived for each other—she must have been dreadfully lonely without me all these years."

He still couldn't see a thing, and I had to guide him in and out of trains. At Chicago we heard a public radio giving out stock-market figures. "Good heavens," Glasier exclaimed, "is Steel Common down to a hundred?"

"That's how you look at it," I answered. "To me it's up to a hundred."

"Tell me," he said, later on, "how is the cause of world disarmament prospering? I devoted a great deal of my time to it before I—er—disappeared."

What I told him didn't give him much comfort. "Every nation," I said, "is arming to the teeth—arming for peace, so they say, but that's what they said before 1914."

By the time we reached New York he was obviously ill; he was breathing asthmatically; the novelty of the overground atmosphere evidently didn't agree with him. I took him to a hotel adjoining the station, engaged an apartment for the two of us, and made him as comfortable as I could. "And tomorrow," I said, "I'll run up to New Haven, find your wife, and bring her back with me. Meanwhile you stay here and look forward to seeing us." He agreed to the arrangement without argument.


BEFORE taking the train I went to the library and searched the files of the Times. Sure enough, it was there—in the issue of May 20, 1929—a short paragraph headed: "Yale Professor Disappears." Similar paragraphs continued for about a fortnight, petering out into a final sentence: "All hope has now been abandoned in the search for Professor Glasier, of Yale University, believed to have lost his life while climbing in the lonely mountains of New Mexico."

It was noon when I reached the trim little house in New Haven. A rather nice, elderly woman opened the door to me herself. "Does Mrs. Glasier live here?" I asked.

She seemed startled. "I used to be Mrs. Glasier," she answered. "Now I am Mrs. Strong. My husband is Professor Strong."


SO THAT was that. I didn't know what to say. Just then a heavily built man came out of an adjoining room into the hallway, evidently having heard the question and answer. He advanced toward me menacingly, motioning the woman away. "What is it you want?"

I took one look at him and replied: "Pardon me, sir, but I thought I could perhaps interest your wife in the latest and most economical type of electric refrigerator—"

"You can't," he snapped. "And if you had any sense you'd get your names and addresses out of a modern directory."

"Thank you, Professor Strong," I said, as he banged the door in my face.

I thought before leaving the town I'd call on a friend I knew there, a lawyer closely connected with the staff of the university, who might tell me something about the Glasier situation without my having to tell him much that I knew about it. I paid him what was apparently a casual call and artfully drew the talk in the right direction. "Oh, yes," he said, reminiscently. "It was very tragic. Poor Glasier." When people call you poor after you're dead it means they either think you were a fool or else they liked you or both.

"Yes," I agreed; and then it occurred to me that Glasier's money, if he had left any, had now passed under the control of Professor Strong; and somehow that seemed a pity. But the reply was, in that sense if no other, reassuring. "Poor Glasier—all he left was a lot of stocks carried on margin, and you know what happened to them in the fall of #'twenty-nine. He'd bought Steels at two hundred and Montgomery Wards at a hundred and fifty—that sort of thing—what idiots college professors can be in finance! A good thing he'd put the house in his wife's name or she'd have been properly cleaned up—I know, because I handled the estate... Anyhow, she married again, so that was all right. Strong's a shrewd fellow—much better head for money than Glasier had." I could believe that.

So I went back to New York in a rather troubled mood. Somehow, though it would be a front-page scoop, I hadn't the heart to let loose the story while Glasier looked so tired and weary of things. We went out to dinner, but he was too ill to enjoy anything; the change of diet didn't suit him, he said, and I left it at that. Then we went back to the hotel. "Tell me why you didn't come back with my wife," he asked, and I told him why, because, after all, he had to know sooner or later. He took it very well. "I think she did a very sensible thing," he said.

We talked for a while about various aspects of his situation, and I told him that in my opinion the best thing he could do would be to let me splash the story in the papers for all it was worth and live as long as he could on the proceeds. "It'll be a hell of a story," I said. "That is—if you go easy on the bats. I don't see how anyone's going to believe much in them... You ought to rake in a few thousand dollars, one way and another—I'll handle the whole thing for you if you'll let me. Then when the story's cold you can settle down in some quiet little place..."

"Yes," he said at length, "I suppose that's all I can do."


WE WENT to our rooms, but the next morning, when I got up to wake him, I found his bed empty. They told me at the desk that he had checked out very early, having asked a porter to help him.

It was easy enough to trace him. At the ticket office they told me where he had booked to, and when, three days later, I got there myself, I found that several people remembered his fumbling along the street late at night.

I guessed he might have gone to one or other of the chief hotels of the place, and at the second I tried the manager took me aside into his private office.

"It may have been your friend who arrived here yesterday," he said quietly. "But I'm afraid, if so, I have bad news for you. He was found dead in bed this morning. The doctor thinks it was heart failure, but of course he can't be sure. Perhaps you can help us with the identification?"

We climbed to the third floor, and there, lying fully clothed on a bed in the kind of room that hotels always have, lay the body of the professor. Poor little man—there he was; and at last, at last he looked happy.

"Yes," I said, "that's my friend."

The manager eyed me curiously.

"A rather peculiar thing," he muttered, as if wondering whether he ought to tell me or not. "When we broke into his room, we found it full of bats. Flying about all over the place—he must have opened the windows and let up the screens... Horrible creatures, bats. We had an awful job driving them out. They come from the caverns—you know the caverns near here? Several people say they saw a whole pack of them round the hotel last night—thousands and thousands. It's a very peculiar thing—please don't talk about it outside—it might do harm to my business: people are so superstitious. I only told you because I thought—well, do you think it possible that the bats scared him, or anything like that?"

I looked down at the tranquil, half-smiling face again and shook my head. No, they hadn't scared him. Far from it. He hadn't even seen them, but he had heard their wings—welcoming him home.


THE END

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