Emilio salgari banner

The Valley of Eyes Unseen


THE TALE BEGINS IN MY rooms in Peking, in the north of China, one bitter morning many years ago. The scene is stamped ineffaceably on my recollection, so that even without the help of certain confirmatory details, such as the overturning of the coffee pot. I am able to say with certainty that the hour of day was breakfast time. The breakfast table was the central point of a triangle formed by the blazing fire in the grate and two ponderous oil stoves farther out in the room: for this was in the punishing old days before that gift of the gods, the steam-heated radiator, came to soften the arctic rigours typical of a North China winter.

My number-one house boy had brought in the morning paper and laid it on my table, but it was without any lively anticipation of delight that I picked up the straw-blemished, hazily printed sheet. The local press of the time was not of enthralling interest; and what news of the outer world filtered through to our buried corner of Asia in erratic dribbles was apt to be still further marred by the bold but not always illuminating innovations of the Chinese compositors in setting English type. I was idly turning over the spavined issue of this morning when something caught my eye in the middle column of the middle page. A moment later the sheet was fluttering to the floor, and a river of boiling coffee sluiced out over the cloth of the breakfast table.

I picked up the fallen newspaper and began to read. The age-yellowed sheet lies before me as I write, and the following, save for numerous typographical errors which I have not copied, is an exact transcript of the report that had given me this sudden start:



Our Shanghai correspondent writes: “Mr. Ronald Mirlees, the well-known author, was discovered dead in the Marco Polo Hotel of this city, this morning about eight o’clock, under circumstances of considerable mystery. The deceased was well known to the management and staff, having frequently stayed at Marco Polo before, in the intervals between his journeys to other localities of China on research work. It is believed he had just returned from one such expedition three months back, when he took possession of the two first-story rooms he was occupying at the time of his death.

“Mr. Mirlees lived apparently much alone, hotel servants state, remaining busy at work in his apartment all day and barely desisting from his labours to take meals which were brought up to him; indeed house boy whose duty it was to attend to Mr. Mirlees alleges that more than once he found the scholar at work in the early morning, his bed not slept in; from which it is assumed at the hotel that Mirlees was for some reason or other working against time to complete one of those contributions to oriental research with which his name has become associated.

“When house boy entered Mr. Mirlees’ apartment this morning he found deceased at his writing desk apparently deep in composition. Deceased’s back was turned to the door, and not until the servant had asked Mr. Mirlees what time to serve breakfast and received no reply that he suspected anything was untoward. Then he approached and saw. The boy becoming terror-stricken screamed for help, and other servants rushed in followed by Mr. Alexis Delabre (Manager, Marco Polo Hotel), who overheard the boy’s cries. Medical aid was at once summoned, but quite unavailing, death having apparently supervened several hours before as muscles of deceased were already set fast in rigor mortis.

“Witnesses one and all lay especial emphasis on gruesome nature of the discovery. The body, they allege, was placed in so natural and lifelike an attitude that until spectators had come right across the apartment and looked from that side they were unable to credit they were looking upon a corpse. Expression on features of dead man is stated to have been one of extreme horror, not pain—witnesses are unanimous upon that point—but sheer and unmistakable horror. Mr. Mirlees held a pen in one hand and there, were sheets of paper before him, but no mark upon them.

“There, in fact, lies another mysterious feature of the case. No trace can be found of the voluminous writings upon which Mr. Mirlees is lately known to have been engaged. Only possible explanation would appear to be that prior to his decease he had forwarded his manuscripts elsewhere, and that he was meditating composition of another when death overtook him. Medical evidence, however, places hour of decease about two a.m., and why the defunct man should remain at his desk far into the night without putting pen to paper is another point which remains shrouded in obscurity.

“No cause so far has been assigned for Mr. Mirlees’ sudden end, and the, strange and tragic affair will of course necessitate coroner’s inquest. Mr. Mirlees was thought to be enjoying good health, though his manner had been observed to be moody and distraught for some time, as if he were prey to some severe mental stress. This, however, is alleged by those who knew deceased orientalist best to have been a not uncommon mood with him.

“Mr. Ronald Mirlees was a widower, having lost his wife in Shanghai some years back, and so far as is known leaves no relatives to mourn his loss. His death will be keenly felt among scholarly circles of the Far East, however, and indeed of the East generally, to whose researches in oriental art and archaeology he contributed matter of recognized value, though not a few of our prominent sinologues were disposed to regard Mr. Mirlees’ essays as more brilliant and imaginative than sound.

“His best known and most characteristic work was the volume entitled ‘Treasure of Asia,’ which appeared only last year, and, as is no doubt still fresh in the minds of our readers, aroused a storm of controversy not only on this side of the world, but also among the learned societies of Europe and America.

At the risk of repeating facts already known, we will here state that Mr. Mirlees’ work embodies much original matter of deep interest concerning the Buddhist faith and Buddhist temples of China, dealing more particularly, as the title indicates, with instances of treasure buried in and around the ancient shrines.

“The deceased author’s critics, and there were many, challenged his statements on grounds of fact, alleging that no authentic evidence of these supposed hoards exists, and especially on the score of propriety, as they feared that Mr. Mirlees’ allegations would have the unfortunate effect of attracting to this country an undesirable class of treasure-hunters who would desecrate the religious sites in the mere hope of gain.

“We are happy to record that this fear has not been realized. Such excavations as have been made have been carried out under the auspices of duly authorized oriental societies, and though the finds so far brought to light have not been extensive, they have afforded considerable proof of the shrewdness, and accuracy of Mr. Mirlees’ speculations.

“It is admitted at least that the deceased scholar had opened up a branch of study of peculiar fascination: a line of research which, if not absolutely new, has so far never been sufficiently explored; and there seems reason to anticipate that later excavations will still further vindicate his arresting and outspoken views.

“Mr. Mirlees had something of the scholarly recluse in his disposition, and was personally, known to but few residents in this country; he was, nevertheless, well liked and admired by such as were privileged to enjoy his friendship and his death while still in the prime of life—he was in his thirty-seventh year—will be universally deplored.”

The foregoing item of news came to me with a peculiar poignancy and shock. I was one of those few persons quoted in the report as having enjoyed the privilege of Mirlees’ friendship. I had not known him intimately, it is true, or for any great stretch of time, but there are circumstances which cement friendship more swiftly by far than mere knowledge of a man’s history and companionship with him in the common workaday run of the world. If to have shared a strange and perilous adventure and to have escaped with him a horrible death by violence be title to friendship, I was indeed the friend of Ronald Mirlees. The details of this affair I have recorded elsewhere, and need not recount at any length here.

It is enough to say that after making Mirlees’ acquaintance in the queerest and most unconventional way, I accompanied him on an expedition to an ancient Buddhist temple some forty miles out from the city of Peking, where, by deciphering the inscription carved on the inner surface of the great temple bell, Mirlees hoped to locate a rich hoard of buried gems, an offering to the shrine by some pious donor of the remote past. How we were received by the last surviving priest of the sect, how he most subtly and devilishly plotted to murder us both, how he lost his own-life in the attempt and was even instrumental in directing us straight to the cache, and how we took possession and escaped with our bare lives, pursued by a band of the local peasantry out to kill—these matters, as I say, have been chronicled in another place.

After that episode Mirlees returned to Shanghai, which he was wont to make his headquarters, and I heard no more of him until the publication of that remarkable book entitled “Treasure of Asia” sent his name whooping round the erudite world. Our North China adventure was not specifically recorded in that work—I imagine that Mirlees judged the affair too recent to be safely alluded to, fearing lest our ownership of the treasure trove be disputed. But it unquestionably afforded to himself, if he needed such, a crowning proof of the soundness of his views, to say nothing of ample funds wherewith to meet the expense of publication.

The report of the inquest came a few days after the news of Mirlees’ death. Nothing had been found to account satisfactorily for this, and the medicos were obliged to wrap their ignorance in a few foggy generalities regarding obscure affections of the heart. The finding would have far from satisfied public opinion at Home. It left me distinctly sceptical even in so raw and haphazard a region as the Far East. There was something hidden, some mystery left unravelled. Mirlees’ age had been correctly stated in the newspaper report as only thirty-six years; he was, moreover, of that “hard-bitten” type which, if it dies young, does so only by a violent or unnatural death.

I was still pondering the melancholy problem a week later when I received from a firm of solicitors in Shanghai a letter stating that in pursuance of the request made to them some days before by their client, the late Ronald Mirlees, they were forwarding to me, separately, a parcel which he had left in their charge. The lawyers added that while respecting the promise Mirlees had extracted from them not to reveal this matter to any third party, they relied on my honour to make public any evidence the parcel might contain which would help the authorities to arrive at some conclusion regarding Mr. Mirlees’ mysterious death. Of the contents of the package they themselves were totally ignorant.

A day after that the parcel arrived. I tore off the outer covering and found inside it a bundle wrapped in stout oilskin, sealed at every point and so enmeshed in cords that I could scarcely read the legend on the two labels. They were addressed to me in a curiously scrawled writing, and when I had taken off this cover, there dropped out a small fat envelope in the same hand, but more recognizable to my eye. It was, so far as I could remember, the writing of Ronald Mirlees. It ran as follows:

Dear Hugh Jevons: It becomes necessary that you should step in to help me a second time—and a last time—in my life. I have not forgotten how you helped me before. You were a solid man to me then, and it is proof enough I believe you a solid man still that I have picked upon you to be custodian of my confidences now that I can no longer hold them myself. You will understand what I mean, as you read on.

In the first place, my number is up. I see death approaching as clearly as you look to the rise of tomorrow’s sun. But I do not intend that my secret shall die with me. Some other human being must carry on the knowledge I have gained during the past year, for I feel there is more in my experience than mere marvel and mystery and adventure. I feel, I know, that there is a great purpose behind it all; that the Great Artificer who planted us, bickering insects, upon this planet never willed that such truths as I have unearthed should sink back into oblivion after a man of the real, outer world has penetrated to them—and sacrificed his life in the doing. It wouldn’t square with my idea of the Great Artificer.

Not for your scholarship or your knowledge of the East have I chosen you to be legatee of my secrets—you would hardly flatter yourself that far. I was under no illusion as to your qualifications for partnering me before—but you partnered me handsomely, for all that.

You were ready to listen to my theories at a time when men with far bigger pretensions pooh-poohed them; you were intelligent enough to let my brains do duty for the pair of us.

The orthodox oriental societies were not always that intelligent. For them, those pretty stones we picked out from under the ruin of Lao Tien Ssu would be there now, and the book which is my chief claim to be remembered would languish still in manuscript. I must have told you that was how I utilized the bulk of my share in the loot? Anyway, it was. You helped me to the ownerless gems, comrade. You had a hand in financing “Treasure of Asia.’’ You, therefore, have assisted materially in throwing light on this dim-lit quarter of the globe. I’ve known respected God-fearing professional orientalists who couldn’t say as much—without a lie.

Now I claim a bigger service of you. I’ve instructed my lawyers to send you this packet only after my death. It was a pretty blistering oath I collected from the senior partner of the firm, and I think he’ll respect it. What I want done with the manuscript is another story. I will be perfectly frank with you. I consider it to be a dangerous thing—unless rightfully used. You wouldn’t carry fulminate of mercury about in your pocket, would you? Well, I regard this manuscript as more deadly than fulminate of mercury. I solemnly assure you that I believe death began to close in upon me from the moment I resolved to make a record of the events with which this manuscript deals. It sounds fantastic, does it not? Perhaps you will alter your opinion as you read on.

But, you may ask, since I am convinced I am to die in any event, why do I not publish the manuscript now? I answer that it is in the nature of an act of submission. I swore to keep these matters secret from the world. In intention, I broke my oath. The punishment at once gathered over my head. I acquiesce in the justice of it. It is the difference between the criminal who confesses on the scaffold and the coward who professes innocence to the end, between dying contrite and dying in revolt. I have chosen the former course. It still sounds wild and incredible? That view, too, I think you will come to abandon.

But, you say again, was it a comradely act to pass the narrative on to you? I reply, not uncomradely. The detonator is harmless enough in a situation where it cannot be touched off. So with this manuscript. I am convinced, nay, certain, that no danger threatens you so long as you hold the secret close in your own bosom. It is no blind unreasoning malignance we have to deal with, but a sentient power, and as I now see, a just one, meting out punishment only where there is guilt. I have been guilty: therefore I am doomed.

You, so, long as you keep the secret, are guiltless: you will be unharmed. Why, then, have I not destroyed the manuscript and with it the risk of betrayal? Because, as I have written before, I do not believe it was intended that the secret should perish utterly for the outer world. Perhaps, in years to come, the powers which forbade me to reveal these matters will lift the veto. Should that occur, have no doubt that they will find means to convey their will to you, they, who have found no difficulty in making known to me, over a distance of untold miles, that I must die.

Till then, comrade, lock this secret in the innermost recesses of your soul. Hold the manuscript safe. Leave nothing to chance. Deposit it under the seal with your bankers or your lawyers, with instructions that nothing is to be done with it without your express command, and that should you die without giving that command, the package is to be destroyed unopened. For I say again that there is doom in it, a doom which I now see approach me as clearly as I see from the window of this hotel the big, butt-ended freighters swinging on the tide of Whangpu River.

As to the manuscript, every word in it is as true as our finite human brains can know aught to be true. Nothing is written but what I have seen with my own eyes or heard with my own ears. The narrative wall amaze you, doubtless, but I give you credit for the intelligence not to meet it with a stupid unreasoning denial. Let me appeal to you to put aside all your preconceived notions as to what is and what is not in this queer, half-known quarter of the earth. Above all, banish from your mind the least shadow of suspicion that I am either mad or insincere. I am as sane as you are, and in dead earnest.

Consider the probabilities. Is it for one instant to be supposed that I, who see death hard upon me, should write a monstrous hoax? That I, who came East when I was little more than a boy and have given my whole working life to the search for hard facts regarding the East, should now fritter my last hours on mere romance of the imagination? That I, who have boldly stated the truth as I found it, even though this often exposed me to hostility and derision from the orthodox, timid-minded scholars of this land, should abandon truth for falsehood at a moment when I am due to appear before a Higher Tribunal which knows nothing but eternal truth?

I take my leave of you with every warm wish for your happiness. I am, I may say, without kin of my own and at about the time this package arrives you will receive from the same firm of lawyers a notification that I have named you my heir to such small parcels of this world’s goods as I possess. The property consists almost wholly of personal effects, trophies, curios—some of them valuable, by the way—and the copyright of my published works. The more precious part of my belongings goes with this letter.

I offer it to you not as proof of the truth of my narrative, but as a gift made in good fellowship to a comrade who risked his life with me in a quest few men in the world would have taken on. But there is a condition attaching to the legacy. I charge you that if at any future date it becomes possible, in the manner I have hinted, for you to publish this manuscript, you should do so, using what may be necessary of the proceeds from sale of the contents of the accompanying box. Even should you print the narrative on gold leaf and bind it in choicest silk, there will still be left money enough to maintain you in luxury to the end of your days.


Ronald Mirlees. known as Ran Mirlees, Master of Arts in the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and now resident in the Marco Polo Hotel. Shanghai, China, this first day of January in the year of Our Lord 19—.

Enclosed in the package was a heavy skin box about eight inches square by four high. I opened this with a small key hanging by silk thread from the lid, and at once sat back in my chair gasping and blinking with astonishment. The casket was full to the brim with large uncut diamonds, not one of them smaller than a marble and all apparently of very fine quality. My skill in gems was not professional, but I could see at a glance that these stones must be worth many thousands of pounds sterling: and if I had been curious to read Mirlees’ manuscript before, now my eagerness was whipped to the point of fever. I tore off the wrappings from the close-written quarto sheets and began to peruse them.

The house boy came in with a note from Randegger (my partner at the office) inquiring rather acidly if I was ill. I looked up at the clock. It was two in the afternoon. I then remembered that the boy had entered the room some time before but that I had ordered him out without hearing what he had to say. That must have been at tiffin time: I had been reading for four hours solid, lost to all else in the world. I sent a note to Randegger pleading urgent private affairs, and resumed the reading of Mirlees’ narrative. It was dark before I had finished, for the manuscript, though not of an inordinate length, was written, till quite near the end in Mirlees’ crabbed, scholarly, meticulously fashioned hand, and did not admit of a rapid perusal. Nor was the subject matter of a sort to encourage skipping. As I worked from phase to phase of the amazing story it seemed to me that never before in the history of written words could so strange, so incredible, yet withal so convincing a record of events nave been placed on paper.

Time after time I flung down the manuscript almost in anger—only to pick it up a moment later and find the precise spot where I had left off. Now I felt that I was in the grip of a tale of such force as only the hallmark of truth can give, now I seemed to be listening to the ingenious but wild fancies of a madman. Here was human experience set at naught, the history which has passed as certainty for two thousand years brusquely picked up and thrown down gutted like cod under the fishmonger’s knife—and on what evidence? The statements of one man, unsupported by a single witness. It was monstrous, unthinkable!

No sane person could have offered such testimony. It is a commonplace saying that genius may come near to insanity. Mirlees possessed the brilliant, bold, penetrating type of intellect which we are in the habit of calling genius—that I had felt during my previous encounter with him. Surely towards these his last days his brain had given way, and this screed I was now perusing was the reflection not of his observations and experience but of the fancies of an unbalanced mind?

I came to the end of the manuscript and laid it down with a great wave of pity for the dead man. As I did so, once more there caught my eye the box of uncut diamonds, their brilliancy darting irrepressibly through the crust of impurities that overlaid them. At least the writer had vouchsafed some solid support for his statements, though he had appealed to me not to regard the gems as such, or even to require proof beyond his own written words.

Of the circumstances under which this amazing record is now laid before the world I have written later. Of the truth and sanity, or otherwise, of Mirlees’ assertions, it shall be left to the reader to judge.

Here, then, follows the narrative of Ronald Mirlees, exactly transcribed from his own manuscript which I received from the dead man’s lawyers more than thirteen years ago.